Earlier this year, the world watched on as playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda conveniently forgot to cast Afro-Latinx people in his blockbuster depiction of New York City. As an Afro-Latinx person, I took this personally. Of the eight years I lived in Harlem in the 2000s, I spent two in Washington Heights. Suffice it to say that I felt the absence was deliberate. While recent data from the Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy shows that the demographics of New York City neighborhoods have changed considerably between the 2000 to 2010 Census, the fact still remains that it is hard to walk a mile in any direction between 155th Street and Fort Tryon Park without passing a botanica, seeing a Dominican doobie shop, or hearing bachata on blast. The Heights is not only the epicenter of Dominican culture in America, but it is also the heart of Afro-Latinx communities, which extend into the Bronx and East Harlem. While the City is known to have many Black Puerto Ricans, Cubans, and Garifuna (among others), Dominicans are said to number nearly 1 million and their presence controls the contemporary narrative on being both Black and Hispanic in New York, America’s cultural and financial capital.
Within the landscape of the city, Dominican Americans have made a name for themselves. Examples include the bachata star Prince Royce of the Bronx, the major league baseball third baseman A-Rod of Washington Heights, and even actress Zoe Saldana of nearby New Jersey. Meanwhile, a stealthy pop artist has been creeping up on the New York City art scene, making a name for himself as the Andy Warhol of Dominicanidad. M. Tony Peralta has created a lifestyle brand around Latinx pop art and quotidian urban culture. His visibility has grown with greater acceptance of Afro-Latinx representation in mainstream imagery. His iconic works include colorful posters of Latinas like La Lupe, Frida Kahlo, and Celia Cruz wearing hair rollers, plus an unforgettably stylized version of the Bustelo instant coffee can. In this way, he blends the boundaries between Dominican culture and an intersectional Black and Latin American identity in the U.S., while sharing intimate slices of “behind-the-scenes” life of underrepresented groups.
Born in Washington Heights/Inwood, Peralta launched the Peralta Project, a mixed-media series of art and design works that includes apparel, posters, and homeware. When asked in a recent interview if his work was an extension of activism, he replied “it’s more about just proper representation… It’s seeing people that look like me. It’s being responsible and making sure that the spectrum of Latinos are represented.” He shared that New York functions like two cities: New York and Nueva York, each with its own character and economy. His Uptown Manhattan taller, the Spanish word for ‘workshop’ or ‘studio,’ honors this reality, as well as his working-class upbringing as the son of hardworking Dominican immigrants. His mother, who passed away in 2015, worked in factories and his dad owned a bodega. Together, they instilled a sense of pride and work ethic that he says has benefited his creative production to this day.
A clear nod to hip-hop culture is evident in Peralta’s aesthetic. Some of his more recent works include door knocker earrings and gold plated chains that reference LL Cool J’s early music videos in Queens and Dookie Rope necklaces from the era of Run DMC. In this way, he earns a lot of respect within New York’s art and music scene. Swizz Beats, Alicia Keys, and even Lin-Manuel Miranda himself are said to own Peralta’s work. His online store and expansion to art sites like Twyla have made it even easier to buy into his brand. National and international buyers can now get signed prints and mass-produced posters that were uniquely designed by Peralta himself.
It is hard to predict style icons but, if I were a betting woman, I’d keep an eye on Peralta’s continued rise. Calls for the inclusion of dark-skinned Latinxs in mainstream entertainment and culture are not likely to quiet anytime soon. And there are few established artists working on this space in the United State. Peralta’s culture, while so common in New York City, is rather niche in the art world. Other visual artists like the Hawaiian-born, Mexico-City based Clotilde Jimenez and New York-based Yelaine Rodriguez have taken to fine art galleries and exhibitions. Their success is best democratized through social media, but the limited access to owning their work will make it hard to dislodge Peralta as the heartbeat of Blatinx iconography. There’s something about both his street cred and cultural accuracy, during a time of gentrification and cultural appropriation, that I predict will eventually make Tony Peralta a household name for Black American art, much like Basquiat and Bearden before him.