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How Can DC Reverse and Prevent Cultural Displacement of Black Latines?

Racist policies and practices have facilitated gentrification and displacement, which have disproportionately harmed Black and Latine (a gender-inclusive identifier for Latinos/as) communities for decades. Cultural displacement, or the practice of making communities feel unwelcome and alienated in their own neighborhoods, often precedes and perpetuates physical displacement. When residents don’t feel a sense of belonging and attachment, a city government is less likely to invest in that community and more likely to perpetuate exclusive public spaces.

In Washington, DC, the Afro-Latine community has acutely experienced both physical and cultural displacement. Afro-Latines, who identify as both racially Black and ethnically Latine, make up 25 percent of the Latine population but are often left out of public policy conversations, including discussions of cultural displacement.

DC Afro-Latino Caucus chair, documentary filmmaker, and oral historian Manuel Mendez, identifies community strategies to counter the cultural displacement of Afro-Latines in DC. Mendez believes that to address this community’s challenges, understanding their experiences is crucial. “The new generation needs to hear about the history of the Afro-Latine community, how old the concept of Afro-descendancy is, and how the struggle for acknowledgement is not new,” he said.

The legacy of Black Latines in DC

Latines first began arriving in DC as servants, nannies, staff, and other low-wage workers for Latin American embassies the early 20th century. Through the 1950s and ’60s, a series of political events accelerated migration from Argentina, Chile, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico. Another wave of migration peaked in the ’80s when Salvadorian asylum seekers arrived.

By the 1990s, the Latine population in Ward 1 had more than doubled (PDF). This growth was not matched by neighborhood mobility or increased wages. Many Latines did not move out of Wards 1 and 4, and in the early 2000s, an estimated 16 percent of Latinos in DC (PDF) lived below the federal poverty level, compared with 8 percent of non-Latine white people.

Many immigrants who moved to Adams Morgan and Columbia Heights were Black Latines who had joined with Black families living in formerly segregated areas. Black Latines contributed to the culture of the African American community by participating in the local music scene on U Street and Black Broadway; jazz legend Duke Ellington had Afro-Latines in his band.  

Black Latines also contributed to the mass increase of Latine social service organizations in Ward 1 to meet new Latine community needs. Organizations such as the Latin American Youth Center (founded in the 1960s) and the Vida Senior Centers (founded in 1969), as well as the Fiesta-DC festival demonstrate how local groups fought against pervasive gaps in affordable housing availability and for immigration assistance, economic empowerment, and cultural preservation. These efforts highlight key contributions by Afro-Latines, such as housing rights organizer Casilda Luna (PDF), public servant Roland Roebuck (PDF), and youth advocate Arturo Griffiths.

What can DC stakeholders do to prevent the exclusion of Black Latines?

Evidence and Mendez’s own experiences suggest that preventing cultural displacement and the exclusion of Black Latines in DC and beyond is possible and necessary to build thriving communities where people want to live and work. Here are a few policy recommendations that can serve as starting points.

  1. Promote community participation in building inclusive public spaces

    Public space plays a critical role in creating inclusive and welcoming communities, and culturally representative and responsive art can be crucial to signal belonging. COVID-19 has made the importance of open-air public areas like sidewalks, parks, and plazas even more obvious. But low-income households and Black residents are less likely to have access to and are more likely to feel unsafe in public areas as they exist today.

    To combat this, city officials and urban planners could work to build more inclusive public space to highlight the DC Afro-Latine community’s history and advance social justice. They could collaborate with Afro-Latine residents and community organizations on community engagement practices to ensure they have a voice in the decision-making process of future developments in Columbia Heights and Adams Morgan.

    They could also promote visible expressions of community building, such as public art. Murals and other art forms help preserve collective memory and acknowledge past harms. For example, the Currulao y Desplazamiento mural on U Street, funded by the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities, celebrates Afro-Colombian culture in DC and brings awareness to human rights violations in that country. It was designed with the input of local Afro-Colombians. Similarly, conversations about the displacement of Afro-Latines out of DC might include how effective public art initiatives could bring attention to their community contributions and the ways gentrification has disproportionately affected them.
  2. Expand support for public storytelling exhibits

    Communities use storytelling to communicate history, experiences, and aspirations in their neighborhoods. Projects such as the Anacostia Community Museum’s Black Mosaic exhibition, the Latin American Youth Center’s Latino Youth Community History Project, the “Afro Latinos; The Washington, DC Experience” documentary, and Mendez’s Caras Lindas podcast are examples of projects that help reclaim space for displaced Black Latine residents. For Black Latines in DC, storytelling can cultivate community resilience and hope for future Afro-Latines. As such, local organizations and policymakers could inform cultural equity initiatives in collaboration with similar projects.
  3. Center the voices of advocates working in their own communities

    DC Afro-Latines have been fighting for recognition and inclusion in the built environment for a long time. A campaign aims to ceremonially rename the 2700 block of Quarry Road in Adams Morgan after Casilda Luna. Advocates believe Casilda’s life-long commitment to public service and her community should allow her to be honored while she is alive.

Cultural displacement is a core way histories and legacies get physically erased from their communities. Conversations about expanding public space during COVID-19 recovery present an opportunity for local policymakers and organizations to commemorate and celebrate past and current Afro-Latine residents. Community-led efforts like these can be combined with structural policy changes to ensure historically marginalized voices are not further stifled by increasing displacement.

This post was originally published on Urban–Greater DC, an initiative of the Urban Institute

Photo by mimagephotography/Shutterstock