'Blaxicans' photos explore Angelenos straddling two worlds

Story highlights

  • The "Duality: Blaxicans of L.A." photo exhibit ends Saturday
  • It chronicles the mingling of African-American and Latino people in Los Angeles
  • The exhibit has drawn record numbers to the small gallery where it's showing

Los Angeles (CNN)As the biggest names in entertainment converged Sunday on the Oscars red carpet at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, about 10 miles to the east, artists, academics and community leaders gathered in Los Angeles' historically Chicano community for a different sort of cultural event.

"Duality: Blaxicans of L.A." is a photo exhibit that explores multiracial identity among the city's two largest minority groups. The show is a Humans of New York-esque portrait series of Angelenos of African and Latino backgrounds accompanied by captions detailing family history, experiences with colorism and self-identity.
    The exhibit grew from an Instagram account of the same name started by Walter Thompson-Hernandez, who has a Mexican mother and an African-American father. He launched Blaxicans of L.A. while researching the topic as a graduate student at Stanford University's Center for Latin American Studies in response to what he saw as a gap in multiracial studies.
    "Most multiracial scholarship has been on the black and white binary. I felt it didn't cover the range of ways that multiracial people identify," he said.
    The exhibit, which runs through Saturday, has exceeded expectations for Avenue 50 Studio, the small community-based nonprofit hosting the show. Organizers say its popularity reflects growing acceptance of multiracial identity as more people of mixed backgrounds reject the idea that they have to choose a side.
    In response to community interest in the show, the gallery hosted a panel discussion on Sunday called "Community Conversation: Blaxicans & Afro-Latinos in LA." For two hours, participants engaged in a wide-ranging discussion about identity politics, cultural pride and the peculiar notion that checking a box defines you.

    Pride in both sides

    "Blaxicans of L.A." was one of several Black History Month celebrations in Los Angeles to probe fluid definitions of blackness as more people identify as multiracial on both sides of the border.
    Multiracial Americans account for 6.9% of adults, and that group is growing three times as fast as the population as a whole, according to a 2015 Pew report. South of the border, in 2015, Mexico's census bureau gave people the option of identifying as "Afro-Mexican" or "Afro-descendant" for the first time. The survey found that approximately 1.4 million citizens, or 1.2% of the population, identified as such.
    In other words, marriage among blacks and Latinos is nothing new, especially in border cities and states; what's changing is that more people are choosing to embrace both heritages as a point of pride, as Blaxicans of L.A. shows.
    As one of the people featured on Blaxicans of L.A. says, "The biggest challenge is that people want you to gravitate towards one or the other and not let you be proud of being both. I think thats my biggest challenge is convincing people that I don't have to. That I can be what I want to be and that's a Blaxican."

    Straddling two worlds

    Like many of the people in his photos, Thompson-Hernandez grew up straddling two worlds. Because of his light skin tone, he said, people see him as Mexican; consequently, he has gone through life having to prove his "blackness."
    As a researcher, he was interested in the factors that lead people to identify one way or another.
    "There's tremendous nuance in how blacks and Mexicans identify, and I want to understand the motivations that guide lives of Blaxicans and how they construct identity," he said.
    It's a question he's still trying to answer through the project, he said. Though he hopes to expand it beyond Los Angeles, his hometown has been the ideal starting point, given its long history as a shared space for blacks and Latinos.
    "The experiences of Blaxicans are representative of the story of race in L.A.," he said. "Blacks and Mexicans have been in L.A. since the city was founded; their experiences are a reflection of the city's history."

    'It took a long time to love who I was'

    Tickets for Sunday's panel discussion sold out in two hours, Avenue 50 director Kathleen Gallegos said. The response was unsurprising given the attention the show has received since it opened in early February but was unprecedented for the small multipurpose community space in a residential area of Highland Park, where 72% of the population is Latino.
    Thirty portraits fill the front room of the nonprofit's headquarters, which flanks the light rail tracks for the Metro Gold Line.
    Captions tell stories of people such as Memo. He grew up with his Mexican aunt in Compton and had a stronger connection to his Latino heritage until he finally started taking to black classmates on the school bus.
    "If there was a race riot when I was younger, I would go to the Mexican side," he said. "Now, I'm the most balanced Blaxican I know. I'm dead in the middle. Dead bolt. I'm so down with both of my people, it's ridiculous. I would die for either of them. And it took a long time to love who I was -- to love who I was, the whole me."

    Reflecting a moment

    More than 500 people showed up for the opening reception February 3, pouring onto the sidewalk and staying long after food and drinks ran out.
    A typical show at Avenue 50 brings in five or six visitors a day because of its location and niche focus on Latino culture, Gallegos said. Since "Blaxicans of L.A." opened, the gallery has been averaging about 50 visitors a day, making it the most popular show in the nonprofit's 16-year history.
    Amid negative and one-dimensional portrayals of Latinos and African-Americans in the media and pop culture, Gallegos and others say, "Blaxicans of L.A." is a welcome change in the narrative.
    "This is a feel-good show that honors a very underserved group of people and shows their humanity, that not all blacks and Latinos are drug dealers and gangsters, despite what some presidential candidates might say," Gallegos said.
    It also reflects a moment in which blacks and Latinos are starting to find more common ground despite a history at odds, said Peter Woods, assistant director of Avenue 50 Studios. The rise of Black Lives Matter and the issues protesters are fighting for mirror the hardships of Mexicans and Latinos, he said.
    "The routine police violence against Latino, indigenous and African-American men highlight how state officials treat 'black' and 'brown' bodies under the law and has created collaboration between the Black Lives Matter movement and the burgeoning Brown Lives Matter movement," he said. "I think these issues have created a watershed moment that dissolves the long-running tension between blacks and Mexicans -- especially in Los Angeles -- who both have to deal with police brutality, poverty, a rampant housing deficit and unemployment."
    What resonates most are the images and the stories behind them, said guest curator Nathalie Sanchez, who worked with Thompson-Hernandez to bring the project to Avenue 50. Like the story of Maria, whose father, a bus driver, picked up Spanish phrases to court her Mexican mother, a frequent passenger on his route. Or Daisha, who was raised by her Mexican father, who always told her she was beautiful.

    "I'm an Afro-Mexicana." 📷: @mychivas

    A photo posted by Blaxicans of Los Angeles (@blaxicansofla) on

    Sanchez believes it's the first project of its kind to use interviews and photo portraiture to focus on people who identify as Latino and black. Utilizing social media that speaks to a younger generation not only makes the work accessible, it builds a sense of solidarity to a global audience.
    "I think this project reminds us of the complexities of identity and diversity, whether ethnically and or culturally, each of embodies," Sanchez said. "The popularity of this exhibition is only a testament for the need to continue this cross-cultural and intergenerational conversation."