Text: Julie Schwietert Collazo
Photos: Francisco Collazo
I may be wrong, but I’m willing to bet that most visitors to Washington, D.C. don’t make it across the river to Anacostia.
Though it’s designated as an historic neighborhood, Anacostia is down on its heels. As we were driving through, Francisco said, “No way! That guy’s selling crack in broad daylight!” And then, just up the hill, “That guy’s carrying a gun! I just saw him wrap it up in a plastic bag.”
Anacostia’s difficulties are well-documented. The neighborhood has been described as one of the “most impoverished and polluted neighborhoods in America,” and as you look at debris that blackens the shore of the Anacostia River, you’re not inclined to dispute that claim.
But like any place, if you’re willing to look hard enough, you’ll find something to counteract the narrative of devastation and destitution.
In Anacostia, that something is Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum. It may seem an unlikely place for a museum, just a few paces up the hill from a community recreation center, its parking lot marked with the sign “Park Here At Your Own Risk.” We wouldn’t have known about it had I not read about the museum in Smithsonian Magazine.
The reason we detoured through Anacostia on our recent drive from South Carolina to New York was because we wanted to see the exhibit “The African Presence in Mexico: From Yanga to the Present.” Francisco and I have long nurtured our mutual interest in all things Afro-Latin, and were excited to see a US museum take a similar interest.
We were full of ourselves when we arrived, fairly certain we knew a great deal of what there is to know about the African diaspora in Mexico, sure, at least, that this general interest exhibit wouldn’t be likely to teach us much new.
We were wrong.
The exhibit, in both English and Spanish, is exceptional, simultaneously ambitious in what it wants to convey and concisely curated in order to deliver maximum impact. Whether you know a lot about the subject or nothing at all, the exhibit is presented in such a way that both types of visitors will be deeply satisfied.
Highlights included large-format photographs by Agustin Casasola, with this photo of a female Afro-Mexican soldier from the Revolutionary Period so compelling that I would have bought it on complete impulse had it been at a gallery (and had I had the money).
*The Underground Railroad actually had at least one stop in Mexico. The first “freedom station” on the Underground Railroad that has been identified outside the US is that of Mazamitla in the state of Jalisco. Slaves who escaped and fled to Mexico were given citizenship by the Mexican government and were granted land rights in Coahuila, where a significant Afro-Mexican community remains today.
*The Mexican Postal Service issued a stamp honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. a full 10 years before the US postal service did so.
*Langston Hughes wrote his first piece of published prose in Mexico- Mexico Games. But damned if I can find it in print anywhere.
The exhibit runs through July 4, 2010, which somehow seems fitting. Entry is free and the museum is open 7 days a week.