The Valentine museum's exhibit, Nuestras Historias: Latinos in Richmond, highlights the diverse identities, cultures and contributions of immigrants in the city. The project includes photographs, personal objects and audio recordings of dozens of residents about their journeys, their passions and their experiences in the Richmond. WCVE’s Catherine Komp has more for Virginia Currents.
Exhibit audio used in this story was recorded and edited by artist, sound designer and educator Vaughn Garland, Ph.D.
The exhibit Nuestras Historias: Latinos in Richmond was over a year in the making. Curator Wanda Hernandez began by introducing herself at businesses on Midlothian Turnpike and Hull Street.
Wanda Hernandez: Door to door knocking really, I didn’t do houses because I didn’t know who was Latino but I assumed that if the bakery’s name was La Sabrosita, there had to be a Latino person in there. So that’s how we found people and then the word just got around.
Conversations with about 65 Richmonders led Hernandez to build the exhibit around a number of themes.
Hernandez: We talk about immigration, so giving context to why Latinos are here, and how Latinos are here; Identity, where do we fit in what is traditionally a black and white story? How we’ve created community in neighborhoods, businesses, churches etcetera and roots, how we stay connected to our cultural heritage; and lastly political engagement, because we be doing injustice if we don't recognize all the contributions Latinos have made to our US political system.
Objects in the exhibit might look ordinary, like a pair of brown leather shoes from the late ‘60s. But Humberto Macaiza saved them for a reason. He was wearing them when he first stepped on US soil. Another item is the Guatemalan ID card for Federico Xol.
Federico Xol: I am from Guatemala. I belong to an indigenous community of Mayan descent. During the 36-year civil war, we were the ones who suffered the most. We were exploited, extrajudicially executed—many of our ancestors. Sadly, I did not meet my homeland because my parents took us out of there, fleeing for the north of the country.
A portrait shows Xol in Richmond, standing by a metal guard rail, framed by the green and white signs for 1-95, Route 1 and Chippenham Parkway. It’s where he was reunited with his brother after the long and dangerous journey from Guatemala.
The exhibit highlights the late Yvonne Benner, who launched El Sol in 1992, Virginia’s first Spanish-language newspaper and another community leader, father Ricardo Seidel.
Hernandez: He came up non-stop in our interviews, Padre Ricardo this, Padre Ricardo that...
A native of Peru, Seidel came to the city in 1974 through the Richmond Diocese. He organized a monthly Spanish-language mass.
Hernandez: As a population grew it started becoming once a week like regular masses, so much so that he led the initiative to that have an official Spanish mass at a church, Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Manchester and Saint Augustine in Southside Richmond. Unfortunately he died a month later, he died in August of ‘99 and the first official Spanish mass was held in July of ‘99.
While doing her research, Hernandez found something special.
(Voicemail recording left by Ricardo Seidel) Hi Michael, Carmen, Isabelle, children, your mom also...
Hernandez: So we have this beautiful voicemail recording of him when he was still in the hospital, thanking the family for their blessings, wishing them well and that he thinks he's going to get better, but he doesn't know when he'll be released. And he died that evening.
(Voicemail recording left by Ricardo Seidel) Thank you so much for your friendship and your concern and your prayers. God bless you all, I love you all, very very much. Take good care.
Hernandez: As it was in the beginning when they formed in the 1990s, they have Chilenos, they have Puerto Ricans, they have white Americans, they have people of all the different backgrounds that come together with this interest in salsa music. And still Ray Alvarez who was one of the co-founders and the lead singer, he still finds a way to incorporate his Richmond heritage as you can see through the cover art, but also his Puerto Rican. So in every single album you see the vejigante which is a folkloric character in Puerto Rico that is noted by the the many horns that he has on his head and the outward teeth. So I think Bio Ritmo is very much Richmond as it is Puerto Rican and as it is American really.
Hernandez also wanted to shine a light on Latino youth, who have overcome language, cultural and economic barriers yet face fear and uncertainty following the Trump administration’s end of DACA or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. Many are the first in their families to earn diplomas. Hernandez symbolized those accomplishments with a brightly colored graduation stole and a poem from VCU’s first Latina/Latino graduation ceremony
(Poem) We are born under the light of a split sun.
The duality of which will never let us sleep undone.
Children of the strength of our parents backs, but heirs to their cultivated might.
We stand before oppression, unbroken, unfaltering, behold our true birthright.
You must understand we stand today taller than trees bigger than mountains for we are not of natural creation.
Our hybrid souls can only live in the stone temples we built to honor our struggle, our history, this thing called immigration.
Little did they know that with each word we wrote, each truth we discovered, we defied these fronteras.
So we armed ourselves with knowledge and perseverance.
We sought out unchartered territory, the college experience.
And just like that we left our homes with hope and notebooks in hand.
We took her our abuelas blessings and made a new life, in noman's land.
Hernandez: It really instills a sense of pride. So we think often think about community being where you live, where are you go to school but it's really mostly about the people that you connect with and so that's what a lot of these Latinos that are going to school confronting these obstacles are finding a community within themselves. And what their parents and grandparents also found in creating organizations like the Cuban American Club of Richmond or the Columbian American Club of Richmond back when they first immigrated to the area.
Hernandez says they’re hoping teachers bring their classes to the exhibit as a tool to increase tolerance and so Spanish-speaking students can see themselves represented as integral part of the community. For Virginia Currents, I'm Catherine Komp, WCVE News.