Philadelphia-based artist and activist Michelle Angela Ortiz worked with local youth to bring a “transnational art project” to an All-American city. The results are pretty stunning. Here’s some background to the mural project and the mission behind her grassroots approach to art.
In 2009 and 2010, I traveled to Juarez and Chihuahua City, Mexico to conduct artist residencies focused on recovery of spaces, social change and building community leaders. The residencies were supported by the United States Embassy and the activities were held in the heart of the communities in each city.
During my time there, I trained local artists in intensive mural techniques as well as combining their skills in street/ graffiti art. The residencies resulted in the creation of two murals- 17″x180′ mural in Juarez (See short video here of the project ) and 20′ x 210′ mural in Chihuahua City. Each mural conveyed the messages from the community that continues to struggle with drug wars, violence and lack of economic and educational resources.
It is in places like Juarez and Chihuahua City– places that are at high risk– that I meet the most dedicated and committed artists that want to make a difference. It is in these places that I met David Flores, Juan Carlos Reyes, Antonio Leal and Oscar Gallegos, four artists that struggle but still create art because they have something to say as individuals and as community leaders. In the midst of struggle, they are the catalysts for change in their communities, they are the ones that will respond when others are afraid to, and they are the ones that encourage others to speak up too.
The idea of the “Aqui y Alla” Transnational Project emerged from these various interactions with the community and the projects I was leading both in Philadelphia and Mexico. I created this project to explore the impact of immigration in the lives of Mexican immigrant youth in South Philadelphia in connection with youth in Chihuahua, Mexico.
The youth in both communities- here and there- are impacted by the effects of immigration. In Juarez and Chihuahua City, the borders are not only territorial but social and economic. A significant number of students in the schools involved in this project are discriminated against because of their ethnicity & socioeconomic status. The vast majority of these students come from families with an average of five members of whom live in poverty because they have migrated from the southern states of Mexico seeking to cross into the United States and end up “stuck” there.
Young people living in the border suffer conditions of vulnerability and have few opportunities to exercise their rights. They are not fully integrated in the surrounding community and lack the support of government programs focused on social and human development such as social security, educational, health, food or employment. As a result, the inhabitants in Juarez and Chihuahua travel long distances find work in the maquiladora industry that offers them a minimum salary, too little to support their family.
Their experience is connected to the Mexican immigrant youth in South Philadelphia. This neighborhood was predominately Italian. As the Mexican community grows, ignorance and racism is growing also. The families of these teens immigrated in search of opportunity, economic progress, and improvement of their social conditions for themselves and their families in Mexico. Immigration impacts the family dynamic creating a division with their children that are emotionally and physically disconnected with the land, culture and traditions of their parents.
The immigrant teens in Philadelphia were born and raised in Mexico by their grandparents. Most of them were left behind as their parents left to cross over to the United States. The family dynamic shifts when the parents become providers and strangers to their own children left in Mexico. Now 16, 17, 18 years old, the youth in Philadelphia had a safe place to speak freely and express (some for the first time) about how it felt to leave Mexico at ages 8, 9, 10. How it felt for them to leave their grandparents and feel powerless to follow a decision made by their parents to leave.
Immigration impacts not just those that have decided to leave but also those that are left behind. For that reason, the project worked simultaneously on both sides of the border, Chihuahua and Philadelphia….
Guided by the artists, transportable mural panels were created by the youth in Philadelphia and Chihuahua, Mexico and were permanently installed in a 30′ high by 67′ long mural located on 1515 South 6th Street (6th and Dickinson Streets) in South Philadelphia.
The mural combines these two worlds that are interconnected. Through this project, I provided the youth (here and there) the opportunity to create awareness of the social conditions that exist in their communities. They discovered that they are not alone and that others also suffer from the impact of immigration. The “Aqui y Alla” project empowered the youth through this exchange and creative process so they can find a common bond and have their voices resonate in the artwork we created together.
To learn more about Ortiz’s work, go to michelleangela.com.