Overlooked Places in Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian’s Anacostia Museum

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).

Other take-aways?

*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.

“When I was 31, it was a very good year…”

Text: Julie Schwietert Collazo
Photos: Francisco Collazo & Julie Schwietert Collazo

As the last two weeks of 2008 spin towards history, I find myself in bitingly cold New York City, where I’m wrapped in at least two layers of clothes by day and sleeping under two comforters at night.

New York has been my home since I moved here in 1999 after graduating from college, accepting an internship, and deciding to stay. It’s a city I love for a thousand reasons at least.

But in 2008, I didn’t spend a lot of time here. It was a very good year for travel–the best yet–and now that I’m finally settling down at home for a period of more than a week, I’m sorting through the year’s (and a 250 GB hard drive’s) photos, stories, and memories.

Here are a few I wanted to share with you….

JANUARY, Cuba/South Carolina, Mexico City, Cuernavaca, Puebla, Tijuana, San Diego, Pacific Coast Highway, and San Francisco:
Francisco and I started the new year apart, he with family in Cuba and I with family in South Carolina.

We met up at our part-time home in Mexico City, made quick trips to Cuernavaca and Puebla, crossed the border, and then drove the Pacific Coast Highway before…

We practiced settling for a while in this city where we met each other and where we both feel at home. We saw a Gonzalo Rubalcaba concert, watched old buildings be demolished and observed the new contour of this city begin to take shape.

MARCH, Mexico City & New York:
A split month, half in el DF and half in New York. In DF, I’m working on an assignment. In NYC, I’m a passionate observer of my own neighborhood.

APRIL, New York, Washington, D.C.:

It’s spring in the city, one of the very best times of year for a New Yorker. But I’m getting restless. I organize a trip to Washington, D.C. for my mom’s birthday.

Francisco and I also meet fellow Matador editor and the amazingly talented photographer, Lola Akinmade. Still, there are stories all around, as there always are, no matter where we are.

MAY, Cuba:

I visit Cuba for the first time since Fidel handed power over to his brother, Raul. Of seven or so visits to Cuba since 2005, this is the most special one, filled with incredible moments.

I interview Chinese Cubans, spend hours with a Cuban musicologist, & work on a documentary about Juan Antonio Picasso.

Francisco’s son and I go to Mariel, where Francisco set off from Cuba in 1980. We visit Cojimar and Hemingway’s home. And I celebrate Mother’s Day with Francisco’s mom and the mother of his son.

JUNE, New Orleans:

Francisco and I meet up in New Orleans to volunteer with the Culinary Corps and write about New Orleans. Seeing the state of New Orleans three years after Hurricane Katrina reminds me why traveling and stories are important & why I believe so passionately in both.

JULY, Colombia:

A full month in Colombia, with the bulk of our time spent in Mompox, where we meet the coolest kids in the world and begin making plans for an after-school program for them.

We also visit Cartagena, Santa Marta, Taganga, and Barranquilla.

AUGUST, Guadalajara, Mexico:
Back home in Mexico, we also visit Guadalajara on assignment. Not only does Sally Rangel and the staff of Villa Ganz set a totally new standard for service and hospitality, we discover that Guadalajara is quite possibly the only city where we’ve enjoyed every single meal we’ve eaten in restaurants. We were also fortunate to participate in and interview others who attended the Iluminemos Mexico march for peace.

SEPTEMBER, Perote and Veracruz, Mexico:

Perote: The town that tourism forgot. Not for long, if we have anything to do with it. Along with our friend, Carmen, we toured the San Carlos prison, visited an ostrich and orchid farm, dreamed about opening a bed and breakfast in an abandoned hacienda in the middle of a corn field at the base of some mountains, and found ancient pottery sherds just littering the side of the road as we drove up into the mountains. We also happened upon a local boxing match.

We drank strong coffee and had my palm read in Veracruz.

OCTOBER, Mexico City & Oaxaca, Mexico; Guantanamo Bay, Cuba:

October was all about connection.

We met Matador member Teresita and her husband, Ibis, at our home in Mexico City, reconnected with my old friend, Arely, and her husband Ivan at an airport restaurant, and visited with weavers at their home and interviewed protesters in Oaxaca.

I also traveled to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba to report about the military detention facility there.

I could have spent weeks there. In any event, I have a notebook full of stories that I’d like to write.

NOVEMBER, NYC, Washington, D.C., Chile:

NYC: To vote. Of course.

Washington, D.C.: To blog live from NPR on election night.

Chile: The press trip of a lifetime: 7 days. Santiago, Valparaiso, Punta Arenas, Torres del Paine. Cordero (lamb). But most of all… incredible people: Roberto, Francisco, Andres, Paloma, Carolina… que buenos son!

DECEMBER, Puerto Rico:
Francisco and I moved to Puerto Rico (shuttling back and forth between the island and NYC) in 2005 and left for good last December. While we had no active plans to return for a visit, our friends Wally and Marina asked us if we wanted to take care of their dogs for a couple weeks while they went on a much-needed and deserved vacation.

It was nice to see the sun every morning, to feel it on my skin, to watch as it penetrated just-rained skies and made light shows with rainbows, and to collect the grapefruit it ripened and scattered the ground with.

As visitors, we also went to places we’d never visited as residents, including the small island of Culebra and the town of Guanica, where the US invaded Puerto Rico during the Spanish-American War 210 years ago.


As I write this, I begin to realize that everything important is left out. It’s the people and the stories, and there’s a hundred folks at least. And for every person, a hundred stories.

I haven’t forgotten a single one of them. The stories are on the way….