This piece exists as the introductory point to my conversations with creatives, queer and otherwise, who push the boundaries through unconventional means.
From the Bottom of my Big Heart
I first met Yajaíra in high school, and I worked with them on a community event they organized with @youth4blacklives. The event focused on providing school supplies and education on music production to young children and brought out folks from all corners of Chicago’s Southside neighborhoods. So, my introduction to Yajaíra shaped my understanding of their spirit through their determination to show up for their community. It also helped that they wore a flyass outfit consisting of cut-off jean shorts, buzzed hair, and a bike lock wrapped around their torso.
Throughout the years, they consistently created more community initiatives and, if not the creator; they always provided support. From fashion shows to picnics to dance parties and fundraisers, Yajaíra continued to execute creative experiences for folks across the country, specifically Black and Brown Queer and Trans People of Color. After moving back and forth from Chicago, New York, and D.C., surviving a pandemic, and graduating college, I caught up with them to discuss more of their work, their dreams, and their future as a creative.
A spirit, first and foremost, Yajaíra, has been utilizing their many naturally-derived and hard-won skills to put money back into their community. From successfully training themselves as a grant writer and offering previously free services to local organizations, Yajaíra has earned their multi-hyphenate status through their creative endeavors.
When we got on the call, we immediately started talking about coming up in Chicago and how the art scene always provided a space for young Black people to connect on their own and wear the clothes, they picked since most kids, like Yajaíra, had a uniform at school. But, even though they were in the entertainment industry at a young age (yes, that was little Yajaíra in ‘Of Boys and Men’ with Angela Bassett!) and won the best-dressed award in fourth grade, they still felt highly constricted by their environment.
“I wasn’t allowed to do a lot growing up, and I couldn’t always put on what I wanted. I could always go to my cousins’ school events, but I could never go to mine, so anytime I could go out, I would plan on popping out in the clothes I wanted to wear,” they said.
This was back when getting your outfits at the thrift store was not a trend, but a necessity for poor kids, but many, like Yajaíra, utilized the thrift as an avenue to express themselves. But it wasn’t until high school, when the hashtag #blackoutday was trending on social media platforms like Twitter and Tumblr, that they felt empowered to truly celebrate the richness of their Liberian and Puerto-Rican background.
After a transition from Chicago to Providence, Rhode Island, Yajaíra became acquainted with our ancestors' hunter and gathering practices that provided them with the inherited expertise to acquire their own clothes free of charge (as the good Lord intended). Next, they posted their clothing on the app Phhhoto (RIP) and started garnering a lot of attention for how they put their outfits together. Then, transitioning back to Chicago, they secured a job at Akira, a local chain of fashion stores, and became a stylist at the shop.
“I learned that Akira wanted me to dress like the store, but I didn’t have to buy anything. So I would have a good time putting together outfits. And sometimes, whenever I would want to go out, I would tell my mom that I was staying late at the store doing inventory and just go out instead.”
Not only was attending parties formative for them, but Yajaíra said they even began to throw a few with their friends.
“Airbnb came out, and suddenly we could have all these parties in the city. I remember hosting one with my friend for prom, and we rented out a mansion in the Gold Coast. I don’t even remember how we had the funds to do it, but people popped out for it. We were charging $20 at the door, and we made all the money back and then some.”
After realizing that they loved hosting and bringing people together, they began coordinating more events centered on providing resources back into the community, which is how I met them at Blackstone Bicycle Works in 2018. They’ve since branched out into coordinating fashion shows, with their first production happening in the summer of 2021. This was their first event as a solo creative, and they partnered with the #BreathingRoom space, an arts, healing, & organizing hub within the #LetUsBreathe collective on Chicago’s South Side. The event was terrific, which Yajaíra attributed to the potency of “good and intentional energy” around the show’s execution.
Images from @yariyogini
Creative Direction/MUA/Photography: @maxxisdigital
We also touched base about their platform, Afriqueña, which began as a creative outlet and a point of reclamation for Yajaíra.
“A white Latino had been stealing a bunch of my work, biting my poetry or essays to use for taglines in publications, as though I wouldn’t know or figure it out. So I posted an article I had written about that, and how white Latinoes intentionally hide their whiteness.”
But what had initially started as a smaller platform, they eventually stepped away from became a cultural force for communities in Chicago and beyond because Yajaíra grew Afriqueña into a larger platform that developed from its original use as a personal blog into a showcase of their modeling, creative direction, and writing expertise.
Afriqueña also served as a formal launchpad for mutual aid fundraising. They wrote an article called ‘Redistribute when Able,’ which got a lot of traction online, empowering their understanding of their role in the mutual aid and community organizing space. However, they want to ensure they can aid their communities in Chicago as thoroughly as those in New York City and are currently enrolled in school to achieve those aspirations further.
However, yesterday’s price is not today’s price, and Yajaíra wants folks to know that, while they are focused on providing for the Black and Brown communities and have done so many times over for free, white people need to put their money where their mouth is and start financially supporting their work.
“My idea of a perfect career is no career, but until I can do that, I offer services as a grant writer, stylist, photographer, installation artist, creative director, graphic designer, and social media coordinator, just to name a few.”
Thanks for reading, from the bottom of my big heart.