Photographs Exploring What It Means to Be Black in Puerto Rico

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Adriana Parrilla series Puerto Rico Latin American Foto Fest
© Adriana Parrilla

The Bronx Documentary Center’s 3rd annual Latin American Foto Festival includes Puerto Rican photographer Adriana Parrilla’s series on the island’s locals with African roots, including herself

When Puerto Rican photographer Adriana Parrilla made her way to the island’s northeastern city Loíza in 2018, she immediately had a deeper understanding of her own African roots. “I had been to that town many times in my life but once I started learning more about our socio-cultural and political history and engaging more with the community, I realised that I had been detached from my identity,” she remembers. Parrilla, who has been living in Paris for over a decade, had previously visited the coastal town, but it was that time with her camera when she was able to connect with its community, which is predominantly Black. “I wanted to know what image I had of the Afro-Puerto Ricans as a Black person myself,” she explains. “I wanted to understand the social context in which I grew up, and that played a fundamental role in the development of my racial identity, and the narratives of my surroundings that formed a preconceived stereotypical notion of the Black community.” Through her lens, she was a young girl revisiting her own childhood, or exploring her current life in Europe, where her Afro-Puerto Rican identity is a complexity.

A selection of photographs from Parrilla’s ongoing series Don’t call me Trigueña; I’m Black is currently on display as part of the Bronx Documentary Center’s 3rd annual Latin American Foto Festival. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, this year’s edition, organised by Michael Kamber and Cynthia Rivera, takes art outside and exhibits works in the form of banners and projection across the borough’s Melrose Avenue. “All art should be outside,” the artist says from San Juan, where she has been located since October, initially to shoot a photography project which was later halted by the global pandemic.

In the Bronx, where many of the residents hold Hispanic roots, photographs of two Afro-Latinx girls hugging one another or young parents with their newborn permeate the urban texture. An avid museum-goer or a jogging local – any passerby – is faced with images of people who, Parrilla notes, “are overlooked on their own land”. Debuting the photographs in the borough in fact contributes to artist’s intention to bring visibility to a community which she slowly grasped her own relationship with. Puerto Rico is a US territory where Blackness is, in Parrilla’s firsthand experience, a taboo, and back on the mainland, where her photographs dot the Bronx streets, the island is the real home for many and “the other” for the rest. “In Puerto Rico, 75.8 per cent of the population identifies as white (per the last US Census of 2010), while Blackness is avoided as much as it is sugarcoated,” the artist explains about the series’ title. Trigueña refers to someone with mixed skin colour, and can be a term of endearment or an insult depending on the context.

Parrilla had photographed girls transitioning from adolescence to womanhood in Paris for her graduation project at Spéos Photographic Institute but she never turned her camera to the City of Lights again. “I don’t feel connected to Paris in that way yet.” Her time in Puerto Rico during Hurricane Maria was formative for understanding the power of photography; she captured the devastation, foremost as a local and then a documentarian. “Everything was its own task – today you’d wait in line for water, next day for gas to your car.” If patience is fundamental for a photographer, she learned it firsthand in ballet – diagnosed with ADD during her childhood, and started ballet to learn bodily structure and channel her energy. Photography gradually replaced dance, but Parrilla’s sense of surrounding remained the same. “Dance is about expression, but as an introvert, I could hide behind my gestures – similarly, I can now have my images do the talking.”

The Latin American Foto Festival is in the Bronx, New York until August 9, 2020, when it will move online.