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UMBC students archive Highlandtown’s Latino immigration history and food culture

Thirteen students from University of Maryland, Baltimore County, are working to fill a gap in history with the Highlandtown Immigration and Food Project. Through archival research and panel discussions with nonprofit groups’ leaders and business owners, the students created a timeline of Latino politics, history and food culture in Southeast Baltimore neighborhood from the 1980s to the 1990s.

European immigrants — mainly from Poland, Italy and Germany — settled in Highlandtown in the 1880s. Over the last two decades, the neighborhood has become the beating heart of Baltimore’s Latino culture, with many immigrant-owned and family-run businesses, such as Corazón Helado, Franchesca’s Empanadas Café, and the Cinco de Mayo grocery store.

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Yesenia Mejía, Artesanas Mexicanas coordinator, in the parking lot on East Avenue across from the Creative Alliance.
Yesenia Mejía, Artesanas Mexicanas coordinator, in the parking lot on East Avenue across from the Creative Alliance. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun)

“Highlandtown has changed and diversified so much, and I have seen it because when I moved in back in 2000, I lived in Highlandtown on Robinson Street; we were probably the first Latinos that were living on that street, because we weren’t very welcomed,” said Rosalyn Vera, restaurant owner of Corazón Helado in Highlandtown and Cocina Luchadoras in Fells Point.

Vera recalls a neighbor leaving letters in her mailbox, telling the family “to go back to wherever we were from.

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Vera spoke at a virtual workshop for the project in December, along with Andy Dahl from the Baltimore nonprofit organization Southeast CDC and Yesenia Mejía, coordinator of the Highlandtown-based arts collective of Latinas called Artesanas Mexicanas. The panelists spoke of the neighborhood’s history of immigration and food culture over the past 40 years.

Research for the project in the special collections at UMBC and The Baltimore Sun archives produced limited results.

“It’s not a shocker — in a country that is closely intertwined with white supremacy — that it is literally difficult to find resources and scholarly information about Highlandtown, specifically the Black and Latino community there,” said Ruby Millen, a designer and presenter of the project. Millen is studying anthropology at UMBC.

“It’s not a perfect process, because we don’t really have the same volume of information that we have for immigrants that are white, like Greek and Italian people,” Millen said. “We would have to use these strange, uncomfortable buzzwords that like we’re not really used to using in scholarly discourse now. ‘Ethnic’ and ’melting pot’ were important search terms that we ended up using with this project, and it would be kind of disheartening.”

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Millen, along with fellow first-year students on the project, took a humanities seminar this fall, co-taught by Sarah Fouts and Tania Lizarazo and titled “Food, People, and Place in The Americas.”

“This project is an initial stage of a much larger community engagement project about Highlandtown, centering the Latinx community, as a counternarrative to well-known, Eurocentric narratives of the neighborhood,” said Lizarazo, associate professor of modern languages, linguistics and intercultural communication at UMBC.

“This implies thinking about a more recent historical period, which was the 1980s and 1990s, where we think Latinx presence in Highlandtown has been more documented.”

The students uncovered notable events like the opening of Baltimore City’s first Latino community center, Centro de la Comunidad, in 1994. Community advocates estimate that more than 25,000 Latinos resided in East Baltimore at the time.

The project is a collaboration with the Baltimore Field School in Hollins Market, an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation-funded program that builds public humanities projects developed with community partners. Its projects in Baltimore have included a digital archive on community activism following the death of Freddie Gray and podcasts on the redevelopment of the city’s public markets.

“It’s an ethic we are trying to institutionalize at UMBC with our fellows and an effort to move away from extractive research methods that plague the city of Baltimore and other cities like it,” said Fouts, assistant professor of American studies and director of the university’s program for students working on a minor in public humanities.

Baltimore Field School hosted two workshops this year on how journalists and scholars can build more equitable and ethical methods in humanities research and resist exploitive and tokenistic practices toward marginalized people.

The work continues, and Fouts is eager to “explore other rich archives that exist on the topic.” The plan is to have a more developed archival project and potentially a public launch of their findings in April.

“There’s still lots left to be done, which we hope will include oral histories and other kind of products with restaurant tours, food vendors, as well as community members and journalists who have long been part of this history,” Lizarazo said.

This article is part of our Newsmaker series that profiles notable people in the Baltimore region who are having an impact in our diverse communities. If you’d like to suggest someone who should be profiled, please send their name and a short description of what they are doing to make a difference to: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Editor Kamau High at khigh@baltsun.com.

Stephanie García is a 2020-21 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project, a national service program that places emerging journalists in local newsrooms. She covers issues relevant to Latino communities. Follow her @HagiaStephia

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