Back when Walter Thompson-Hernandez was in graduate school, his friends and family would give him blank stares as he explained what he was studying.
Finally, in an effort to make his work more accessible, he started an Instagram account dedicated to his research: @BlaxicansOfLA.
Thompson-Hernandez, who grew up in Los Angeles, identifies as Blaxican—his mother is Mexican, and his father is black.
“The term Blaxican is really is an example of the reinvention of language that exist in the U.S,” said Thompson-Hernandez, now a researcher at the University of Southern California who studies the impacts of interracial mixing between African Americans and Latinos in South Los Angeles.
For four months, Walter Thompson-Hernandez has been posting portraits on Instagram highlighting the city’s rich Blaxican community and exploring what happens when there’s a fusion of racial and ethnic groups.
The 20-some square miles that make up South Los Angeles are commonly recognized as the black part of the city. The nation has become familiar with the historically black region through songs, TV shows, and films like Boyz n the Hood and this year’s Straight Outta Compton.
But an important story of South L.A. that we haven’t seen in popular media is the exodus of black residents.
A growing number of Mexicans and Central Americans have been moving into the homes and apartments that at one time housed black residents. South L.A. was about 80% black in 1970. Today, the latest Census data show Latinos make up 74% of South L.A. residents and blacks make up 25% of the population.
There are 80,000 fewer blacks in the area than there were in 1990, a 2012 New York Times analysis found. South L.A. stretches from the Santa Monica Freeway south of downtown to the Century Freeway and as far west as Inglewood, near the L.A. airport.
Those are the numbers. The other part of the story is about love. What happens when these groups come together? What happens when they have children together?
“The account is called Blaxicans of L.A. because that’s what it’s about, it’s the story of how Blaxicans experience society in Los Angeles,” Thompson-Hernandez told Fusion.
His subjects are engaging and complex, just like the history of Blaxicans in L.A.
Some speak about how they take pride in their mixed heritage. Others talk about the difficulty of not entirely being accepted by both sides of the family.
“I tend to self-identify as Black because I often felt ostracized by my Mexican side because I didn't speak Spanish growing up. The linguistic barrier was a big thing,” read the profile of one man, who said his black family was more accepting. One commenter replied, “Wow this is like reading something I wrote myself.”
Thompson-Hernandez says Blaxicans in South of LA are more likely see life through a more politicized lens.
“I have always said that identifying as a Blaxican is a political and revolutionary act,” Thompson-Hernandez wrote in his own profile.
“Being a Blaxican means that you can be affected by the senseless killings of black men on the street and also have relatives on the verge of being deported,” said Thompson-Hernandez.
He says Blaxicans can bring both sides together.
“Blaxicans can act as a bridge to understanding black and Latino needs and challenges because at times [the issues they face are] similar,” said Thompson-Hernandez.
The Instagram account currently has 76 photos, mostly portraits of men and women who identity as Blaxican. The subjects appear to range in age, mostly in their 20s and 30s. Others are babies.
Thompson-Hernandez asks his subjects to pick a location where they would like to be photographed. He takes their portraits with a Nikon D600.
“I’m always trying to capture street corners or homes or places in L.A. that really speak to the their identity,” said Thompson-Hernandez, who prefers shooting with a 35mm lens.
The Blaxicans of LA Instagram photo series is similar to the wildly successful Humans of New York portrait series on Facebook that has more than 15 million followers.
The Blaxicans of LA Instagram account has some 2,500 loyal followers who regularly tag their friends in pictures urging them to be part of the series. And the platform is relevant: Black and Latino internet users are more likely to use Instagram than whites, according to a 2013 study by the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project.
Stories about about blacks and Latinos seen on the pages of local newspapers in Los Angeles usually focus on how they’re getting along or how they’re not getting along. But Thompson-Hernandez says it’s a much more complex story, one that has a history. And perhaps more importantly, a story that offers a glimpse into the future.
The city of Los Angeles was founded by 44 Mexicans in 1781 who came from the present-day Sonora and Sinaloa regions of Mexico; 26 of the original founders were of African descent, according to Dr. William D. Estrada, Ph.D, chair of the history department at the Los Angeles Natural History Museum.
Los Angeles County has by far the largest Hispanic population in the country, according to Pew Research Center—Hispanics of Mexican origin are the dominant group in Los Angeles-Long Beach area, making up 78% of the area’s Latinos.
The demographic shifts that occurred in Los Angeles decades ago is now happening in much of the southern states. Arkansas, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee saw very fast Latino population growth between 1990 and 2000. By 2040, Latinos will make up roughly 24% of the population.
Thompson-Hernandez said this is all leading to the country becoming more multicultural, more multilingual and more multiracial by the day.
The Census estimates whites in the U.S. will become a minority in 2043.
“Understanding how Blaxicans live in South L.A. can really tell us about the trajectory of our society,” said Thompson-Hernandez.