From Boyle Heights to Washington Heights: Preserving La Cultura Through Streetwear

michellssBy Michelle Salinas|Dec. 4,2016

Tony Peralta is an artist born, raised and based in Washington Heights, New York.

 Not only is his brand, Peralta Project, a fusion between Latino and U.S. culture with a Dominican twist--it is also a form of resistance against gentrification.

Peralta was born as first generation in Washington Heights to a Dominican mother who migrated from the island and recreated it in their apartment.

“So when I was at home it was like being in the Dominican Republic," says Peralta. "Eating plátanos...and when I stepped outside, it was New York City 1980s. So it was hip hop, it was b-boying.”

Peralta may have grown up en la isla while in his apartment with his mother, but Washington Heights was home to a sancocho of immigrants.

“I grew up across the street from a Jewish University," he says. " There was Greek people, there was Cubans. There was Puerto Ricans. There was people from Honduras that I grew up with. My friend was Jamaican from across the street.”

He notes that as time passed, more and more people moved out and more Dominicans continued to move in, turning Washington Heights into the biggest Dominican community in the United States.

We design, burn the screen and print our stuff here in Boyle Heights. #boyleheights #espacio1839 #shoplocal

A photo posted by Espacio 1839 (@espacio1839) on

Meanwhile on the West Coast,  Nico Avina, a homegrown artist in Boyle Heights, Los Angeles, manifests his neighborhood and culture onto his creations--not just for representation but to actively fight gentrification. He's also the co-owner of Espacio 1839, a boutique and gallery space in the Heights for Latinx creatives.

Avina was also born as first generation into a Mexican mixed status family. He expands on how growing up in Boyle Heights has shaped him: “I kind of feel like I’m a product of my environment," he says. "I grew up in what you can consider a broken home. But right after high school, I read up and dove into indigenous philosophies, trying to see how I can break that cycle.”

Indigenous philosophies are a major foundation for many Boyle Heights community members and activists, especially for those who were around when the Zapatista movement publicly broke out in 1994-- an armed struggle led by indigenous communities in the southern state of Chiapas declaring autonomy from the Mexican government.

Avina further explains, “Early on, we got inspired by the Zapatista movement  and the philosophy they were bringing out because we were already diving into trying to find the indigenous practice put forward. And I feel like the Zapatistas were that. They sort of became somebody that you could look at and say, this is a good reference point, this is someone we want to learn from.”

True Uptowners get the reference. Dropping Soon! #peraltaproject #trojans #knights #uptownrivals

A photo posted by M.Tony Peralta (@peraltaprjct) on

Both communities are connected by much more than the “Heights.”  Like Washington Heights, Boyle Heights was not always a predominantly Latinx community. Jewish, Polish, and Italian immigrants, in addition to African American migrants, comprised the bulk of the population. The shift, according to professor George J. Sanchez of USC, wasn’t until the 1960s, when more Mexican immigrants moved in while others moved out to the suburbs and Boyle Heights became a “classic barrio.” Before that, the Federal Housing Authority even gave the neighborhood the lowest livibility possible score due to its ethnic diversity and assumed bad risk.

Today, some people attempt to frame and justify gentrification within this history, arguing that demographical changes are inevitable, but this process goes beyond that. Gentrification in communities like Washington and Boyle Heights looks like rent increase, housing displacement, brick and mortars going out of business--the list goes on. However, artists like Peralta and Avina continue to shine light on the complexities.

“I do not agree with people being pushed out,” Peralta explained. “We’re being priced out. And this is happening worldwide. So they’re f-ing up our home countries and they’re fucking up our neighborhoods. I don’t know where they expect us to go.”

But, “the mere fact that we exist is already an act of resistance,” Avina affirms. “What’s inspiring to me is seeing how our community strives to build when we have nothing at all. To see people out in the corners hustling tamales, champurrado in the mornings. Seeing that, knowing all that struggling keeps you on your toes too.”

So whether it’s a Dominicano repping Washington Heights on his hoodie or a Chicana repping Boyle Heights on her snapback hat, both represent not only their homes but also two artists who are using their craft to defend the communities they grew up in--because it’s more than just apparel. It’s the continued clamation of our homes.

Exhibit C #fall2015 #peraltaproject #comingsoon

A photo posted by M.Tony Peralta (@peraltaprjct) on

Nico Avina’s social media

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