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Valerie Moreno on Diversity, Justice, & "Afros in San Juan"

Valerie Moreno will be the first one to tell you she’s not a native Puerto Rican, nor an Afro Latino. That hasn’t stopped her, however, from diving deep into the heritage of her adopted island home, with a decidedly diverse and curly photo project: “Afros in San Juan”. At once joyful and righteously representative of Puerto Rico‘s diverse population, “Afros in San Juan” has quickly caught fire, and taken the internet by storm.

What follows? For Moreno, the sky’s the limit. As a creative bent on diversifying the definition of “beauty“, we’ve got all our eyes and ears on her next move. And though there’s no telling what the future holds, one thing’s certain: if it’s half as good as “Afros in San Juan”, we’re in for a treat. For now, check Moreno’s latest series for the project, shot exclusively for Milk above, and peep our full interview with the artist below.

What first inspired you to start the “Afros in San Juan” project?

The short answer: curls and justice inspired me. I started this project as a space for me to create while showcasing the beauty that exists in Puerto Rico. The culture, colored walls, and obviously the people through my own lens. The other side of that story is that before I moved to Puerto Rico I didn’t know there were as many black Puerto Ricans and as much diversity as there is. Why? Maybe because of my ignorance, but also because every Puerto Rican I saw in movies and pop culture looked very much like J-Lo; culturally homogeneous. After moving here I would rave about the beauty of the black Latinos I was encountering and as a creative, I’d think of ways I could capture and showcase their beauty. In a very small way, I wanted to show people outside of Puerto Rico what I see when I walk on the streets of San Juan. Basically, by doing what I do best, capture images, I hoped to contribute in a some way to all the already existing movements who devote themselves to doing just that.

Why do you think it’s so necessary to document the women of San Juan and their hair/style?

Because it’s a way is to train the eye and the heart of others to see beauty outside of the limited range of beauty standards that we are almost force-fed.

Another way to answer this question is to think of the effect of not documenting (using all forms of art) a specific group in society. It’s as if they are not there or do not exist in that point in time. It has an erasing effect and it keeps from providing a reference point for other generations to see themselves reflected in history and in mainstream media. It’s a way of encapsulating beauty in history from a different point of view.

That being said, I personally see my project as a small contribution to an already existing movement of activism here in Puerto Rico and an overall desire to see Afro Puerto Rican’s represented in the media. My lens is a window for people to see the diversity that truly exists here.

What has been the most interesting or touching story you’ve heard so far?

So many to choose from! At times I thought that maybe I should stop taking pictures because (as some people have accurately pointed out) I am not Afro Latina and not even Puerto Rican. But from day one, I’ve received countless testimonials of women of all ages saying how glad they feel to see not only themselves represented in my project but also a diverse group of women that look just like everyone in their family reunions. Many have opened their hearts to me and I feel so honored to hear their hair journey that as I’ve learned from them, goes deeper then just curls. Mostly, the stories deal with the power of acceptance and finding self-love and value in a world that sometimes tells them (completely erroneously) that the way they came into this world, needs to be fixed and “tamed.”

What is your goal or vision longterm with this project?

I would like to create a coffee table book and maybe take this project to a point in which it can contribute with more than just pictures to other projects dedicated to tell the story of Afro Puerto Ricans in history.

What has been the most eye-opening thing you’ve learned while photographing for “Afros in San Juan”?

That images truly matter. That they have the power to shape narratives. That I can and should use whatever influence and talent I may have to benefit the people I document.

Images courtesy of Valerie Moreno; model: Mairaly

Stay tuned to Milk for more photographers who slay.

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