The Woman Behind: Djali Brown-Cepeda, Founder of Nuevayorkinos

"I’d love for this project to serve as a reminder for all the Latinxs that have existed — we have contributed to the social fabric of this city and nation."
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Hard-working, passionate, and resilient are words that come to mind as one scrolls through the Instagram feed for Nuevayorkinos, a digital archive of the New York City Latinx experience. Old family photos tell stories of immigration, struggle, and success, with captions in English, Spanish, and Portuguese. A black and white photo of an abuela, a snapshot of a papi at his first job in the United States, a family portrait at a graduation for a first-generation American; the pre-Instagram images of old school NYC are rife with nostalgia and heart.

The fierce woman behind the popular account and website is Djali Brown-Cepeda, a New York City native who saw the need for preservation of the East Coast Latinx experience. Her devotion to her community and its people is apparent in her careful curation and thoughtful replies to comments. Nuevayorkinos is an honest portrayal of the various journeys Latinx families take to both get to this country and how they flourish afterward, even as the population is demonized and dehumanized by some.

Brown-Cepeda provides a space to display the stories of a vibrant culture that has so much to give and, more than anything, Nuevayorkinos is a love letter to the Latinx community and New York City. It is difficult to look at the images and words and not be encouraged that a better future is possible. The archive provides more than just hope — it gives the energy to keep pushing forward. It does what the best love letters do, they make your heart swell and they inspire. Read on for wisdom, inspiration and encouragement from this storyteller about creating a community to feel seen and heard.

Tell us about yourself and what you do.

I’m Djali and I’m a Ñew York City native. I currently work in film production and am the founder and curator of Nuevayorkinos, a digital visual archive dedicated to documenting and preserving old school New York City.

How did the idea for Nuevayorkinos come about? Did anything about your own background inspire you?

The idea for Nuevayorkinos was born this past February when I was visiting family in the Dominican Republic. One night as I scrolled through Instagram, I had one of those cliche “aha” moments. There are so many awesome accounts and projects dedicated to African art, photography, the 1970s, interior design, hair, but there’s a void in the Latinx/Latine online presence in the archival sense. An account I’ve come across a few times that I really enjoy is Veteranas and Rucas, which is dedicated to the West Coast Chicanx experience. While I can connect to a certain degree and find the project aesthetically pleasing, my connection can only be so strong as an Afrolatina from the Big Manzana. So, I decided to do something about it. The issue was clear, but so was the solution — that night, February 14, 2019, sprawled out on a small couch by el Malecon in Santo Domingo, Nuevayorkinos was born.

The New York City Latinx experience is so incredibly unique, and while all of our stories of immigration, assimilation, and of neither feeling Latinx or American enough are personal, they are just as universal. I wanted to create a community where we could all share our stories, support one another, be seen, heard, and feel like we matter.

In my own life, I’m fortunate enough to come from a family that has always instilled the importance of history. My mother has traced her ancestry and wrote a book about her own Latinidad, Bird of Paradise: How I Became Latina. She’s taught me the name of our ancestors and has always reminded me that if it weren’t for them, I wouldn’t be. That’s something I’ve always taken with me, and is an idea that drives every bit of work I do. I am, because of them. Even my name, Djali, is historical. Coming from the Malian Empire, djali or djeli means griot, a person who is entrusted with passing down their village’s history and culture through oral tradition. On the other hand, my grandmother was a librarian and archivist in her own ways, documenting, reading about, and preserving our Indigenous lineage and history. So while I grew up heavily immersed in Dominican culture, I also travelled to powwows with my grandmother, danced traditional Indigenous dances in regalia, sang songs, and ate fry bread.

As an archival historical project, Nuevayorkinos is a way to pay homage to my ancestors known and unknown and to live up to my name. And as an Afrolatina, being in a position to preserve our histories is a political act.

The digital archive exists on its own website, Instagram feed, and Twitter. Where do you find the most engagement comes from?

Since so much time is spent on our phones, most Nuevayorkinos engagement comes from Instagram.

What has the reaction to Nuevayorkinos been? Are you surprised by anything?

The reaction to Nuevayorkinos has been everything that I had hoped for and more. Many have expressed how happy they are that a space like this finally exists: One that is by us, for us, and unapologetically about us. Too often POC stories (and the stories of all marginalized peoples in general) are regulated by or told from the point of view of someone on the outside. This week I held a pop-up installation at El Museo del Barrio in honor of their 50th Anniversary — I created an old school Latinx living room birthday party set-up. Since Nuevayorkinos is a virtual time capsule, I was excited to bring the project to life and create a tangible interactive space. Abuelas were reminded of their youth by the records laid out in the installation, people took photos playing instruments, kids wore birthday party hats.

How do you deal with negative interactions?

For me, one of the most surprising things that I’m experiencing with this project is the level of community it’s fostering. One of the many toxic byproducts of colonialism that still plagues communities of Color is the “crabs in a barrel” mentality. In the face of opportunity or upward mobility, we quickly tear one another down to reach the top. Yet, that’s been the polar opposite of anything I’ve experienced with Nuevayorkinos. 

While I do face criticism here and there — usually due to someone disagreeing with a photo or it’s content — I ignore it. Recently, I’ve received extremely racist hate mail. In a time of revamped xenophobia and nationalism, I expected it to happen. Because racism and colorism are issues within the Latinx community, I shared the comments on the Nuevayorkinos page. A few people were uncomfortable and wanted me to delete the post, but the majority appreciated and supported my decision to publicize it. While Instagram ultimately deleted the post, the message was received.

What do you wish for viewers of Nuevayorkinos to gain by interacting with your community — both your Latinx audience and non-Latinx audience?

I’d love for this project to serve as a reminder for all the Latinxs that have existed — we have contributed to the social fabric of this city and nation. Although we’re being displaced within our city and cities across the country, we ourselves must never forget that we have existed. I’d like for viewers to take away that although the city looks different than it did even five years ago, we deserve to be heard and seen. Gentrification is neocolonialism, and one way to push back is by taking up space, even if that space exists in the virtual realm. I also want this project to serve as an antidote to the negativity in the media surrounding Latinx populations. As we are victimized by revamped nationalism and xenophobic sentiments and demonized on news outlets, this project aims to show our faces and tell our stories. For real. From the source. When thinking about Latinx (and all immigrant, marginalized) communities, rather than using stereotypical viewing practices, I want people to see perseverance, resiliency, and strength.

Along with the importance of documenting our culture and amplifying our voices, I also hoped the project would serve as a political statement in two distinct ways. First, by making this a pan-Latinx project and not Hispanic-oriented, I sought to show the many faces and variations of Latinidad within the Latin American and Caribbean Diaspora. While Latinx media representation — from magazines to news anchors and novelas — generally paints one image of what Latinx looks like, I wanted to show that while we are from the same region and share commonalities, we are not monolithic. 

Moreover, as communities of Color in the city are being rapidly gentrified, I wanted Nuevayorkinos to serve as a love letter to our disintegrating barrios. Our barrios contribute to New York City as a whole and are where our complex identities were constructed. It’s on the streets of the El Barrio and Los Sures that we became Nuyorican. It’s on the corners of Quisequeya Heights and Sunset Park that we became Dominiyorkian. As mom-and-pop shops close and rising rent prices displace existing members of the community, Nuevayorkinos reminds newcomers that we have existed.

What is your long-term goal for the archive?

I have a few creative projects in mind, but I’d like to continue documenting and preserving the culture in different media forms and bring the project on the road.

Is there a common thread in how you approach your various practices as a digital curator, film producer, doula-trainee, yogi, and activist?

I think a common thread in everything I do is that it’s political. The films I’ve had the pleasure of working on are equally politically charged and entertaining. Moreover, as the Founder and Curator of Nuevayorkinos, being able to curate media representation as a Black, Latinx, Indigenous, second-generation Woman of Color is a feat in itself. I’m also on the road to becoming a doula. As a doula-trainee, I plan on working specifically with young Latinx and African American folks who aren’t given proper knowledge on their reproductive rights and pregnancy, who are made to feel ostracized because of their age, sexuality, ethnicity, immigration status, and/or race, and who are lacking systems of support. All of this — Nuevayorkinos, doula-training, film producing — is activism in action.

What keeps you energized?

I remain energized by exercising! I love dancing and take African and African Diasporic dance classes throughout the week. 

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