How Djali Brown-Cepeda Does Both
A filmmaker on how she balances her day job and Nuevayorkinos, a project dedicated to preserving New York City’s Latino and Caribbean culture.
My Secret Job is a column that features individuals who skillfully clock into their day-to-day jobs while juggling their secret or not-so-secret endeavors.
Djali Brown-Cepeda is an archivist and filmmaker of Afro-Indigenous Dominican descent with roots in Upper Manhattan and the Bronx. Her side project which turned into NuevaYorkinos, is a digital platform that highlights, celebrates, and functions as a form of anthropological documentation for New York’s Latino and Caribbean demographic.
Those who have come across Nuevayorkinos’ socials are called in to share their family photos and stories (pre-2010 submissions) that range from tales of resilience to relatable humorous recollections– with each image and story cementing a digital and multimedia archive of Latinx lives that otherwise may have been overlooked.
By holding exhibitions at institutions like MoMA PS1 and curating numerous inclusive events, it’s safe to say that Brown-Cepeda emerges as one of the leading voices in our generation who is actively preserving and fostering cultural spaces for today and tomorrow.
Shanna: Can you explain what your typical 9-5 work day consists of?
Djali: I’m a freelance filmmaker, working primarily as a producer. When I’m working on a project (or multiple at once, as freelancers do!), a day can either be 5 or 15 hours long, depending on what stage of the film I’m in. Every day consists of answering and sending emails, prepping for an upcoming shoot, and making sure I’m being the most helpful as I can to my team members.
Shanna: An overview of what your “Secret Job” entails?
Djali: I am the Founder and Curator of Nuevayorkinos, a digital archive, multimedia project, and party series dedicated to preserving New York City’s Latino and Caribbean culture and history. My partner [Ricardo Castañeda] and I run the project together; he’s the Artistic Director. Nuevayorkinos is a passion project that we’ve been working on quite literally every single day since February 2019. To date, we’ve documented upwards of 1,000 Latino and Caribbean New Yorker stories and have held various parties and community events.
Shanna: What specific event or catalyst sparked the inception of Nuevayorkinos?
Djali: It [Nuevayorkinos] was sparked by a combination of the frustration at the lack of representation we have as Latino and Caribbean diasporas in the digital space and in visual media and museum spaces (currently and historically), a deep sadness at the cultural erasure [on] Black, Brown, and Immigrant neighborhoods across New York City––and many major cities across the nation––have been experiencing at an alarming rate due to gentrification, and an unbridled love we have for this city as life-long New Yorkers. I thought that a great way to document our people and our barrios would be through providing a platform where nosotros, la gente [we, the people] could tell our own stories. Stories for us, by us. Stories that center on love, migration, family, tragedy, joy, and the experiences of being part of New York City’s immigrant community. So, it’s been an archival, oral history project since its inception in 2019. Over the years, my partner [Castañeda] and I have been able to see this project grow into what it is today.
Shanna: Where do you see your day job and creative work intersecting most time?
Djali: I think, first and foremost, documentary filmmaking has taught me a lot about community and the importance of standing up for and being able to amplify the voices of the People [emphasis added]. Most of what I work on centers Black, Brown, and Immigrant communities & stories, ranging from those in the continental U.S. and on the islands. Filmmaking also teaches community because every film that’s ever been made has come to fruition due to the brilliance of the community that worked on it. Moreover, since I work predominantly in the freelance documentary film/tv space (behind the scenes), I’m able to transfer those skills into the [Nuevayorkinos] archival curation, installation art, and party series.
Working in film is always a balancing act, as it’s a profession that challenges you to work on and keep track of multiple moving parts at once. You have to be organized, where you’re in charge of releases or planning shoot dates. So, that’s helped me organize and keep track of who submits what and when, and those day-in-day-out details. When it comes to our parties, I think coordinating events is extremely similar to planning shoots, so that helps a lot. At the same time, my partner brings his expertise as someone who works in nightlife, so we're constantly working with one another and bouncing ideas off each other.
Shanna: Something that is breeding inspiration for you right now?
Djali: The laughter emanating from a barbecue on the block, seeing community gardens in full bloom, el sonido del piragüero [the sound of the snow cone seller] scraping ice, and music bumping from folks driving by, windows and top down.
Shanna: Thoughts on imposter syndrome and overcoming it?
Djali: I think we put too much pressure on ourselves, whether through our own doing or by allowing others’ perceptions/expectations to affect us to such a degree. It sounds corny, but there really is no other you but you. No one else can bring what you bring to all that you do. Whenever I’ve had moments where I’ve dealt with imposter syndrome, I’ve been able to take a step back and meditate on the above. And when you do take that time to step back, I’ve always realized that the pressure I’m putting on myself at that moment isn’t that serious. Most things aren’t as deep as we make them.
Shanna: A proud moment that occurred which solidified your work with Nuevayorkinos?
Djali: We’ve had several incredible moments: people introducing themselves to us at our smaller events and telling us about how [the events] have brought their families together, the joy we feel at our Latin Night parties when we’re all singing and dancing together, and then the exhibits we’ve done. Our upcoming show as part of the LMCC’s River to River Festival at South Street Seaport; the Fall 2021 show at MoMA PS1 was also something incredible, as was our exhibit at The Sampler Bushwick Bar. Every moment has solidified what we do because no matter the manifestation of the art, it’s been received by the community. And that’s the most important. Everything we do is for the community.
Shanna: If you were to compare the relationship between the jobs that serve to “pay the bills” and creative pursuits to a dance, which dance would you choose to represent this dynamic and why?
Djali: I’d say salsa. Depending on the time of the year and our workloads from the “pay the bills” jobs, things can be seamless, like when you’re having a moment where you’re feeling yourself when dancing to a Fania song. But then, sometimes the song gets from under your feet, and you can’t keep up with the Ray Baretto [percussionist] solo. That’s when the “pay the bills” jobs and the creative pursuits are at odds with one another for whatever reason. But that moment doesn’t always last for long. When you see that happening, you pause, catch your breath, and start dancing at your own pace again.
Shanna: A saying or quote you often revisit:
Djali: “It’s not that deep” is my all-time favorite. Sometimes, you just need to relax, drink some water, and get some fresh air. Whether it’s your side hustle or your “pay the bills” job(s), it’s important we don’t allow work to rule us.