Brown student teams up with Providence Public Library to present food and culture exhibition

As part of his senior thesis, Aaron Castillo partnered with PPL to present an exhibition that delves into the food cultures of Providence communities displaced by redevelopment and gentrification.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Rhode Island is renowned for its seafood, yet the annals of history have devoted scarcely three sentences to the story of what may be the state’s first oyster house.

Emmanuel Burnoon, once an enslaved cook in Providence, was freed in 1736 and opened his oyster restaurant soon afterward. Burnoon’s business was so successful that when he died in 1769, he left behind a house, a large lot of land and more than 500 pounds, or about $20,000 in today’s currency.

“It was upsetting to me that in a state that’s so famous for its seafood, I’d never heard of Emmanuel Burnoon,” said Aaron Castillo, a senior at Brown University. “I thought about how food can provide a way of remembering the diverse people who shaped life in Providence in the past, even if they have since been displaced, and even if history books have skipped over their legacies.”

Castillo wondered: What other stories has Providence forgotten? He took a deep dive into historical records — and then an exhibition was born.

As part of his senior thesis, Castillo has partnered with the Providence Public Library to present the resulting exhibition, titled “Who Has a Seat at the Table?” Curated by Castillo and featuring two local artists of color, the exhibition delves into the food cultures of Providence communities that were displaced by redevelopment and gentrification. It opens on Monday, May 1, at the library.

Drawing on more than a year of deep research conducted in partnership with PPL and academic libraries across the Ocean State, Castillo’s exhibition explores past neighborhoods such as Lippitt Hill — an African American neighborhood on the east side of Providence that was razed in the 1960s to make way for the University Heights apartment and shopping complex — and Chinatown — located on the west side of downtown Providence around the turn of the 20th century, until much of its infrastructure was demolished to make room for a wider Empire Street.

“When these neighborhoods were razed, it wasn’t just a matter of buildings being torn down; it was a matter of people’s lives being upended,” Castillo said. “That building was a home where families gathered to eat and celebrate, and where kids grew up. I just think those communities’ stories deserve to be told just as much as Roger Williams’ story, and food is a great way to remember communities we can’t physically visit anymore.”

Connecting food, culture and place

Castillo said that even though his formal research process, funded by a Royce Fellowship, began in June 2022, he has always been interested in the connections between food, community and history. Growing up at the very southern tip of Texas, Castillo remembers celebrating holidays and birthdays with dishes that reflected his Mexican heritage. When he moved to Providence to attend Brown, he saw that many of the city’s Central American, Azorean and Cape Verdean families placed a similar emphasis on keeping their cultures alive through food.

Castillo chose to design an independent concentration in food and identity — giving him room to sample Brown courses across the humanities and sciences to investigate how food can communicate someone’s heritage, feelings of affection and more. He’ll dive even deeper into the subject after graduation, when he travels to France to earn a master’s degree in food psychology. Then it’s back to Brown for medical school, after which Castillo plans to settle in Providence as a psychiatrist focused on helping people find more balanced mindsets around eating.

Because Castillo is enrolled in Brown’s eight-year Program in Liberal Medical Education, he knew he’d be in Providence for a long time. That’s why, as a first-year student, he joined the Bonner Community Fellowship program at Brown’s Swearer Center, which embedded him deeply in the local community. 

“I wanted to make sure that I didn’t feel removed from the rest of Providence,” Castillo said. “It was important to me to feel like part of this community that is so much like the one I grew up in.”

When it came time to start research for his thesis, Castillo said, working with staff members at the Providence Public Library — such as Kate Wells, curator of the library’s Rhode Island Collection — became crucial to his success.

“Kate Wells said, ‘You’ve picked a project that’s hard because you’re looking at holes in history, and those holes are there for a reason,’” he said. “These were communities that leaders in Providence didn’t like or think about in that time period. I had to piece together incomplete information from multiple sources, like census documents and cemetery records. There was a lot of cold-calling of people whose ancestors lived in these communities. I couldn’t have done it without the incredible knowledge the people at PPL shared with me.”

Partnering with community artists

In the midst of his research, Castillo forged close connections with two community artists who contributed to the exhibition, Dana Heng and Nafis M. White. 

White — best known for her three-dimensional art made with quotidian objects that relate to Black culture — has contributed pieces to display cases focused on Providence’s displaced Black and Indigenous communities.

Heng, born to Cambodian immigrants who once owned an Asian grocery store on Elmwood Avenue, filled a display case with cooking and serving implements often found in Asian American restaurants and households, such as a crinkle cutter for carrots, a spider strainer for noodles and styrofoam webbing used to protect imported fruits.

“Food was so central to everything we did,” Heng said. “Two of my uncles and their wives also have grocery stores in Providence, and one of them was the launching pad for my family’s life in the U.S. I’ve been thinking a lot about how food is a way to bring a little bit of where you’re coming from into your new city.”

I wanted to make sure that I didn’t feel removed from the rest of Providence... It was important to me to feel like part of this community that is so much like the one I grew up in.

Aaron Castillo Class of 2023
Aaron Castillo smiling and laughing

Castillo said the exhibition’s purpose isn’t just to draw attention to the little-understood historical communities whose descendants have moved on to places such as Olneyville and Central Falls. He also hopes the exhibition uplifts some of the city’s historically marginalized communities.

“I want a child who has never felt represented in Providence history to come into PPL and feel represented in this exhibition,” Castillo said. “There’s something powerful about walking into this grand, immaculate public space and seeing your ancestors featured here.”

“Who Has a Seat at the Table?” opens Monday, May 1, in the Providence Public Library’s Rhode Island Room. The exhibition is free and open to the public, and it runs through Wednesday, May 31. A free, public opening reception on Wednesday, May 3, at 5 p.m., catered by Asia Grille in Cranston, will be held in the exhibition space; members of the public can register for the event on PPL’s website.