Rarely seen snapshots of Latino Boston
By Omar Vega Globe Staff, Updated September 15, 2022, 3:00 a.m.
Whether they are family photo albums or institutional records, photographic archives bring alive moments in time — individuals, families, and communities captured in joy, fellowship, daily life. Many of these repositories represent people at risk of being erased from history or inaccurately portrayed. Where the collective memory falters, photographs remind us.
That’s one of the pleasures of Boston’s Latinx Community History online archive. It contains more than 41,000 digital images that Northeastern University has made freely available as a resource to the community, students, and scholars. The items were drawn from two local organizations that donated their records to Northeastern, Inquilinos Boricuas en Acción and La Alianza Hispana.
I wanted to look into the history of Latino and Hispanic photographers in Boston after reading “Latinx Photography in the United States — A Visual History,” a 2021 book by Elizabeth Ferrer. That book explores the civil rights struggles and daily life in the Chicano communities of Los Angeles and the Nuyorican and Boricua communities of New York City and Chicago during the 1960s and ’70s. Most of the photos in Ferrer’s book had not appeared in histories of photography in the United States.
A lot of the images were published in Spanish-language newspapers coming up at that time — especially in social justice papers such as La Raza and Palante. The Latino community of Boston was not as sizable as those in LA and New York, but still I wondered: Was something comparable happening in Boston back then?
I spent hours at the Boston Public Library straining my eyes, looking through poorly scanned microfilm of La Semana and El Planeta, Spanish-language newspapers in Boston that got their start in the 1970s, but not much came from it.When I made some more inquiries at the library and the Museum of Fine Arts, though, I heard about the Northeastern archives.
At first I was mostly focused on finding the names of photographers active in Hispanic communities in Boston during the ’60s and ’70s. But as I looked at the photos themselves, I started to see parts of the city coming to life. It was a visual diary of Christmas pageants, Puerto Rican festivals, and community outreach programs — including a successful grassroots effort to help save a Puerto Rican South End community from gentrification.
I’m not from this city, but in these images of strangers from decades ago I imagined my teenage mom with friends on a trip to the lake, a sassy glance at the camera that recalled my dear friend Natalie, and a babe in arms who could have been my cousin Dre. I saw myself in these photos too.
After more than eight years living here, I looked at these photographs and truly felt like a Bostonian.