Activating Alternative Historical Narratives: The Black Arts Collective of Philadelphia Visits South El Monte

SEMAP Interview from Henry Pacheco on Vimeo.

For Activate Vacant, the South El Monte Arts Posse invited artists to transgress space by creating installations in abandoned, un-used, and, often, fenced of lots. Carribean Fragoza’s two word self-titled poem installation/billboard “ay corazon,” made entirely of white plastic grocery bags, interrupted the monotonous landscape and functioned as an emotional holograph for El Monte’s commuters. Christopher Anthony Velasco’s “Let It Sparkle,” invited bus riders and the SEMAP team to cover the adjacent abandoned car garage and parking lot with yarn. Lastly, Jennifer Renteria’s rendering “The Uncultivated Park,” allowed residents to contemplate South El Monte’s natural history and the possibility of creating an “urban nature” in a vacant lot. We concluded our Activate Vacant series by inviting James T. Roane and Huewayne Watson, of the Black Arts Collective of Philadelphia, to live and work in South El Monte/El Monte for two weeks in hopes of thinking about space comparatively.

"Let It Sparkle"
“Let It Sparkle”

As trained historians (Huewayne received his MA in African American Studies from Columbia and JT is completing his doctorate), their work is theoretically sophisticated, grounded in the lived realities of youth, and concerned with interdisciplinary and innovative pedagogy. Their project, Where Are The Bodies? focused on the history of migration, community formation, and disappearance of bodies in both Philadelphia and South El Monte/El Monte.

Their first photo series developed unexpectedly out of a trip they took to one of the Posse’s house. Alice, one of South El Monte’s few remaining white residents, shared her beautiful backyard, including persimmons from her tree. When Alice invited them to collect oranges in the yard of the unoccupied house directly next door to hers, they discovered three altars left by the woman who had gone to live in a nursing home. They returned at night, equipped with candles and a camera. The shoot quickly became a somewhat spiritual encounter because, without uttering a word, they all recognized that these altars might easily become rubble in the hands of the new owner. In this fifteen minute shoot, the Posse and the Black Arts Collective properly initiated the residency, encapsulating what would become one of the defining features of their various collective projects: a commitment to engaging questions about space, history, and memory through the arts.


Moving out from this experience, they worked with over 100 youth at South El Monte High School. Drawing lessons from their first shoot, they focused on the power of recalling alternative histories of place. This frame proved to be particularly apropos, given that the city of El Monte was at the time preparing for its “100th Anniversary,” exclusively framing the history of place around Anglo settlement. Huewayne shared images from his MA thesis work at Institute for Research in African American Studies that recalled the drawing book Aponte was convicted of using to organize the 1812 Aponte Rebellions in Cuba. In so doing, he introduced students to the language of cimarrones and maroons to help them develop a critical vocabulary from which to conceptualize alternative histories in alternative spaces. Carribean Fragoza, who was once a student at the same high school, then led the students to explore their own memories of South El Monte. Students shared a number of stories relayed from grandparents, parents, and neighbors about all pasts that would likely never find home in an academic textbook for high school students. JT and Huewayne used these stories to construct and tell a counter history of the place from the perspectives of students of color who live in El Monte and South El Monte, one that differs significantly from El Monte’s official museum which suggests that the place should be narrated exclusively in the voice of “pioneers” and their descendants.  The following day they invited the same high school students to participate in an after school photo shoot/ dance party/ hike in a river bed that is part of the waterways where legendary Mexican “bandito” Joaquin Murrieta is believed to have hidden from white vigilantes. Thirty or more odd students joined, talking, partying, have their photographs snapped, and snapping their own photos. Together with the students and teachers, they organized a learning experience that materialized history in real space and time.

In this video interview, JT and Huewayne speak about their experience and work in South El Monte. [Shot and Edited by Henry Pacheco]