“It just came to me one day: Instead of waiting for someone else to make this happen, we have to make it happen ourselves,” she said.
Melendez, 30, founded the zine in 2017 with Kimberly Benavides, 29, whom she met in art school at the Corcoran College of Art and Design. It was launched about the time the Trump administration announced the end of a program that granted Central American minors temporary legal residence in the United States.
More recently, the administration announced plans to send a large number of asylum seekers from Honduras and El Salvador to Guatemala, instead of processing their claims in overwhelmed U.S. immigration courts. The publication focuses on the art of those nations that have some of the highest rates of citizens traveling north to seek asylum — and to show their experiences south of the border aren’t the same.
La Horchata got its name from the sweet, milky drink found in Latin America — and in Mount Pleasant, for that matter — but made with different ingredients in each nation.
“It’s a good metaphor,” Melendez said. “It binds us all, but the recipe is what makes it different.”
Melendez and Benavides, who grew up in suburban Maryland but have family roots in El Salvador and Guatemala, created the publication to amplify Central American voices. The artists say the Central American diaspora in the United States risks being ignored or lumped in with other Spanish-speaking countries.
“There was never anything for Central Americans,” Benavides said. “Because we grew up around here, we knew how big of a community it was. . . . How do we not know more people — immigrants or children of immigrants — making artwork informed by migration?”
The pages of La Horchata reflect that experience. The first issue, from October 2017, features the work of Elizabeth Fernanda Rodriguez, an Arlington artist who transfers old family photographs to cloth, then embroiders them. “I am thankful but I miss my country,” one caption reads. Another reads: “It was hard to learn to love your brownness in North Arlington.”
Rodriguez, who grew up in Arlington after her mother fled El Salvador’s civil war, said the work attempts to crystallize the “small memories” her family shares about their migration. She said she wants her audience to understand that leaving one’s homeland is not an easy decision.
“It’s emotional, and it’s a lot of work,” she said. “I think it’s important for people to see those stories.”
La Horchata, released three or four times a year, offers more than what Melendez and Benavides call “trauma porn.” The zine can be as playful as it is hard-hitting. An issue planned for release this month will print work by a Baltimore painter alongside a Salvadoran journalist’s tweets and a QR code to guide readers to an electropop song by a Brooklyn artist.
The print experiments nod at the Internet, but La Horchata’s creators are committed to putting out their product on old-fashioned paper. Even as La Horchata lives on Instagram, Melendez and Benavides want to honor the physical object, they say, while acknowledging it is expensive to create.
They print up to 700 copies of each issue, selling at venues such as D.C. Zinefest and to institutions that have zine libraries, then put profits back into the business. The target audience is not only the District, but also the Central American community worldwide.
Benavides calls the publication “a tiny chunk of beauty.”
“We have such a love and appreciation for the book in its physical format,” she said. “There is something special about holding something like that in your hand.”
To fill La Horchata’s pages, Melendez and Benavides have recruited collaborators from around the country. The zine’s inaugural issue featured work by Galileo Gonzalez, a California-born artist with Salvadoran roots who paints scenes from the civil war in the nation his parents fled decades ago.
“I see that’s where my history started,” said Gonzalez, 30. “If not for that war, I wouldn’t have been born here in the United States.”
Gonzalez’s sketches in the zine, called “Vivir Eso Es Una Angustia” — “to live is anguish” — feature macabre figures fleeing, carrying flags and wielding AK-47s. Though he never thought of submitting work to a printed publication, he reached out to La Horchata after hearing about it from his girlfriend.
Where communities were once destroyed, he said a new one is being forged.
“I thought La Horchata was perfect,” Gonzalez said. “I think now we’re at an age where a lot of the children born in the U.S. from parents who fled war in their 20s and 30s — we have a voice.”
Jenna Freedman, the zine librarian at New York’s Barnard College, oversees an 11,000-volume collection she says is “predominantly women, default queer and intentionally of-color.” She said physical publications, produced in small runs and informally distributed, remain relevant because “Instagram doesn’t give you quite the same room to tell a story.”
“People who write zines are a different set of people than the people who write books and novels. They’re not the same people who get published,” she said. “These are self-publishers. They may have radical viewpoints. They may not have access.”
Bending over the scraps of paper that will become La Horchata’s next issue, Melendez said it is important for Central American artists to take their physical place on gallery walls and library shelves — not just in bits and bytes.
“We are doing a form of activism just by existing,” she said. “It is important for us to make space for ourselves.”