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Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Encountering Migration Dynamics in the Archives

Over the summer, I was fortunate to be in residence at the Anacostia Community Museum as a Visiting Student Fellow, where I conducted independent research on Latino migrant suburbanization and participation in urban planning for my master’s thesis in human geography. While growing up in D.C. in the 1990s and 2000s, I observed the region’s expansion and rapid demographic transition. Among the more noticeable transformations in that era was the suburbanization and regional dispersion of migrant groups that had historically resided in city neighborhoods. For instance, while centrally-located Mount Pleasant, Adams Morgan, and Columbia Heights maintain contemporary significance as community hubs for Latinos in the D.C. area, the majority of Latinos in the region resided in the suburbs (Price and Singer 2009).

Although I spent much of the summer conducting ethnographic research in Manassas, Virginia, an exurban city with a large and growing Latino population, researching in the Anacostia Community Museum’s archives enabled me to answer questions of how, where, when, and why Latinos have migrated to and through greater Washington. The Black Mosaic Exhibition Records, compiled in anticipation of the museum’s groundbreaking 1994 exhibit that explored the transnational diversity among D.C.’s black population, offered rich insights into these dynamics of migration. The exhibit was organized at a pivotal moment; in 1990, foreign-born people comprised nearly 10% of the city’s population, more than double the number counted just twenty years earlier (U.S. Census, 1970, 1990). The exhibit captured a watershed moment as the D.C. area transitioned into an international region, home to communities with ties all over the globe. I sought out records in the collection that could shed light on people’s migratory experiences, and was particularly interested to discover when migrants began moving to D.C.’s suburbs, rather than living in classic urban enclaves, and how suburbanization impacted everyday life.

El Gavilan Spanish Food was one of the earliest grocers in the District of Columbia catering to a growing Latino population.  Photo by Harold Dorwin, Anacostia Community Museum Archives, Smithsonian Institution.
Some early photographs surprised me. One set in particular featured a Brazilian backyard party in Woodbridge, VA, a community close to Manassas. The photographs were taken in the early 1990s, suggesting that Latinos were present in D.C.’s exurbs far earlier than I had anticipated. Photographs from the collection also reflect the longevity of diversity among D.C.’s migrant residents. Shops like El Gavilan, pictured above, catered to local Latino customers but also carried products to serve the city’s growing African and Caribbean populations. Festival photographs from the 1970s through the present also capture the hyperdiversity of Latinos in the D.C. area, with parade participants representing numerous Caribbean, Central American, and South American nations over the years.

Though my research focused on the experiences of Latino migrants, looking beyond that confine revealed the dynamic socio-cultural landscape of transnational migration in D.C. in the 1980s and 1990s. Abraham Joseph migrated from Haiti to the U.S., and listening to his oral narrative revealed crucial spatial and social dynamics of migrants’ experiences in that era. Upon arriving in D.C. in 1980, Joseph worked as a taxi driver in the city. Yet after several years, Joseph had bought a house in a Maryland suburb of D.C. He had also transitioned from driving taxis to giving driving lessons, and had learned Spanish to teach his new clients. Why? By the mid-1980s, there was already a sizeable Latino population residing in Maryland’s inner suburbs; while migrant hubs emerged around communities served by the Red Line stations on the Metro, like Silver Spring, Wheaton, and Rockville, the regional interconnectedness of everyday life made learning how to drive a priority among migrants in suburbs. There were enough Spanish-speakers in Joseph’s new suburban community to prompt him to learn a new language and make a viable career change.
El Gavilan Spanish Food remains a fixture in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of DC. Photo by Susana Raab. Anacostia Community Museum Archives, Smithsonian Institution.
Conducting archival research at the Anacostia Community Museum grounded my ethnographic research and offered numerous critical insights into understanding migrant suburbanization. The archival records revealed various ways in which migrants drew from the region’s hallmark hyperdiversity to create community in urban and suburban environments, and they expanded my understanding of early migrant suburbanization.

Black Mosaic Exhibition Records (early 1990s). Binder 12, Parts 1 and 2. Photographs of the Brazilian Party in Woodbridge, VA.

Black Mosaic Exhibition Records (1994). Oral History Interview with Joseph Abraham. Cassette tape. AV00728.

Dorwin, Harold (1995). Photograph of El Gavilan. ACMA S000014.

Price, Marie and Audrey Singer (2009). “Edge Gateways: Immigrants, Suburbs, and the Politics of Reception in Metropolitan Washington,” in A. Singer, S. Hardwick, and S. Brettell (eds), Twenty-first Century Gateways: Immigrant Incorporation in Suburban America. Washington, D.C.: Brookings, 137-170.

Raab, Susanna (2016). Photograph of El Gavilan. Unconventional Gateways_DC-240.

U.S. Census Bureau (1970, 1990). Census profile. Accessed online: Accessed December 10 2015.

Hilary Malson, Research Assistant
Anacostia Community Museum

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