San Diego to Tucson to Santa Fe in Six Days

Now that we’ve left the country, we are having a hard time remembering all that we are thankful for in our last three US stops–we did so much! We visited San Diego, Tucson, and Santa Fe in six days, which was quite a bit of driving and quite a bit of seeing in a short amount of time. As we got closer to the physical border dividing the US and Mexico, we took note of the many ways that the cultures on either side come together to create food, architecture, art, and language that display the richness of synthesis.

In San Diego, the main event was Chicano Park, which we would recommend to anyone visiting the city. A deep sense of community ownership and pride pervades the space, and the art takes on gentrification, displacement, climate change, and so many more social justice issues, connecting the struggles a community has faced in the past forty years with the power that has sustained Chicano culture for the past thousands. We also visited Tourmaline Beach (so many surfers) and La Jolla Beach for some reading and some processing time, and had a fabulous meal at Yakatori Taisho. We stayed in BTR Cohort 9 member BLee’s apartment, though ironically he was in Boston at the time, and the spirit of creativity, teaching, and joy that he brings to his classroom was ever-present in our San Diego learning.

Six hours in our car (dubbed Dusty Rose after so reliably driving through so much desert) and two blog posts later, we arrived in Tucson. The main event was a meeting with Dr. Curtis Acosta, which cannot be described in a single blog post, though we tried valiantly. The ideas that came up in our conversation continue to germinate as we see more and more in our travels. We also saw several murals in Tucson, the most striking of which was Joe Pagac’s mural on the side of the Epic Rides building in downtown Tucson. The mural has so much movement, as if the five characters are going to cycle right off of the wall and burst into the city itself. We also had a delicious dinner with Alice’s Aunt Mary, a long-time Tucson resident and hilarious conversationalist. After our meet up with Dr. Acosta, she added a resident’s perspective on the political climate and happenings, especially around immigration, in Tucson.

Our final US city was Santa Fe. It took us about eight hours to get there, and during our trip, we crossed borders in and out of Native territories. For the last hour or so of our drive and the first evening spent in Santa Fe, it poured. We had dinner at Izanami, and then headed to bed. We started our first full day with a green chile and bacon breakfast burrito at El Chile Toreado, which we ate on the way to hike El Diablo Canyon. The four-mile out-and-back hike took us to the edge of the Rio Grande. While hiking out, we crossed under a green fence with a sign that said “Property of the United States: All persons are prohibited under penalty of the Law from committing damage.” The signs did not tell us to keep out so we kept on the hiking trail, but all the while we wondered whether we were under surveillance of some kind.

The next day we went to Tent Rocks before our visit to the International Folk Art Festival, a three day gathering of more than 150 artists from 53 countries. Not only is the Festival a space in which artists can make money to take home to their communities, but the mission of the festival is one of economic opportunity and social change. Artists who come to the market often go home to “build schools, bridges, wells, and community centers, purchase milking cows and medical supplies, and fight political dislocation, gender inequity, and other forms of social and economic oppression.” Besides the economic benefits of the Festival, its spirit is one of celebration as so many join together to display the most beautiful pieces from their homelands, made with care and tradition. At the festival, the feelings of fellowship, curiosity, and creation surround the crowd, making crossing borders–negotiating language, asking about method, and discovering newness–possible.

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Now, off to enjoy the rest of our time in Mexico City!

In Solidarity,
Kat + Alice

Thank Yous:

To BLee (and Kiana!!), for the generous use of their apartment and the great San Diego recommendations; to Dr. Acosta, for his time,  his wisdom, and his willingness to share–we are keeping track of what is happening to MAS from the road; to Aunt Mary, for the dinner recommendation and the conversation; to Sam Keamy-Minor, for directions to breakfast burritos; and to Luke, our fabulous Air BnB host in Santa Fe.

A Space of Love and Liberation

In our teacher training programs (Donovan Urban Teaching Scholars at Boston College and The Boston Teacher Residency through UMass Boston), we both watched the documentary Precious Knowledge for the first time. We say the first time because, since then, we have each watched the film several more times, sharing it with colleagues, students, family, and friends. The film contains powerful messages about rehumanizing educational spaces for students, teachers, and families, about collaborative and culturally relevant pedagogy, and about the courage to teach emancipatory curricula in a country that fails to legitimize Chicano culture, to accurately and completely share Chicano history.

Precious Knowledge, a Dos Vatos film made by Ari Luis Palos and Eren Isabel McGinnis in 2012, chronicles the experiences of Tucson High School students taking La Raza Studies (also called Mexican American Studies or MAS) classes as the State Superintendent Tom Horne and other conservative lawmakers in Arizona attack the MAS program. These lawmakers claimed that the MAS curricula promoted the overthrowing of the US government and advocated ethnic solidarity rather than treating students as individuals. As HB2281 threatened the future of this innovative social justice program, which yielded gains in student graduation rates, test scores, college matriculation, and student engagement, students, teachers, and community members organized to educate lawmakers and the public about the content of the program’s classes and the value it brought to the Tucson High School community. The legal battle over the ban of the Mexican American Studies program continues today. The case is currently being heard for a second time by U.S. Circuit Judge A. Wallace Tashima in the U.S. District Court in Tucson.

We initially added Tucson to our trip because we hoped to meet with Dr. Curtis Acosta, one of the Mexican American Studies teachers profiled in the film. At the time we were planning our trip, we had no idea that our stop in Tucson would take place during the trial. We were honored that he made time to connect with us and answer our questions about his work.

IMG_4740We scheduled our sit-down for a Wednesday morning and, as the time approached, the two of us talked through all the things that we wanted to learn about Dr. Acosta’s classroom and his experiences agitating across the country. We organized our questions into three categories: background on the documentary and the ongoing legal battle, the pedagogy and curriculum shared by the teachers in the Mexican American Studies program, and resources for our identity and mural unit. We were excited and nervous to meet with someone whose story plays such a big role in our commitment to the work we do as social justice educators.

Dr. Acosta, who resigned his post at Tucson High School after the Mexican American Studies program was banned and is currently an educational consultant with Acosta Latino Learning Partnership, an assistant professor at University of Arizona South, and constantly traveling to organize and attend conferences and meetings that promote socially just classrooms and rehumanizing education systems, has a spirit that fills up the room. Watching Precious Knowledge, it is clear how captivating Dr. Acosta is as a teacher, and at a picnic table outside Exo Coffee, he is just as magnetic. While he could not discuss the details of the ongoing case, his body language and tone of voice made clear how deeply personal the fight is.

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The picnic table where we sat with Curtis Acosta and heard the beginning of his story.

While telling Dr. Acosta about our project and goals, we explained that part of our initial grant proposal acknowledged that for students to thrive, they must see reflections of themselves in our classroom spaces, pedagogy, and curriculum. While the murals that we’ve seen along the way are artifacts that we will use to dig into themes of borders and walls with our students, this meeting with Dr. Acosta was a chance to plant our planning and pedagogy for the unit (and the year) in the culturally-rooted practices that made the Mexican American Studies program so engaging and empowering for Tucson High students.

We talked for two hours and, after hugging Dr. Acosta good-bye, we were consumed by the enormity of his stories and the work that looms ahead of educators and communities across the country. This conversation will continue to inform the way we consume art and artifacts on the rest of our trip, the planning for our Identity and Borders Unit, and the way we build classroom culture in our schools next year and beyond. With one day’s processing time, though, a few themes of our conversation have surfaced and are resonating with us in this moment.

The last question we asked was “What knowledge do you wish students came to you with? What do you wish they had read or interacted with before coming into your classroom?” He gave his answer in three parts.

First, he said, he wants students to come with a sense of self. He elaborated that he hopes that students have previous experience seeing themselves both culturally and ethnically in the curriculum before high school. For example, a queer Chican@ student reading about a queer Chican@ character affirms that such an identity is real, it has history valuable enough to be taught. Second, he wants students to understand that the classroom space is their space, and that their voices are necessary to co-construct the learning environment. Acosta likened himself to Tim Gunn from Project Runaway; his goal is not to tell students exactly how to design, but rather to ask questions that guide students to showcase their knowledge courageously and authentically. Third, he described how students need to feel well-loved and cared for as intellectuals and as community. The more classrooms that nurture young people as intellectuals, the more easily young people can take academic and personal risks and aim for higher academic targets.

While none of these concepts were new, the fierceness with which Dr. Acosta articulated them as foundational to student experience affirmed them all over again. They are indispensable [classroom] environmental factors that produce the deep learning that propels life-long civic engagement and intellectual pursuit. Beyond the Identity and Borders Unit that we are creating, these principles have to live in our Boston classrooms to allow equitable access to content for students of color, and all students.

We also asked about what the collaborative process was like for the MAS teachers as a group. Dr. Acosta used Ludwik Fleck’s concept of a “thought collective” to explain their work. He likened it to having many cooks working on a recipe, each person bringing their own skill set to the table and the end product reflecting all of the talent and perspective of the individual chefs. Every teacher has an individual style and can “nerd out” about content, yet they join in “a space of love and liberation” to learn together. For us, the most striking part of Dr. Acosta’s narrative was his description and examples of the deep trust and personal relationships that still exist within this community of teachers. To sustain this level of dedication to “true north,” their collegial community held them accountable and empowered them to be their best teacher-selves and to maintain the moral high ground when the political environment became toxic.

The most acutely honest part of our whole conversation, the one that got us both in the gut and the heart, was Dr. Acosta’s description of the fear that motivates teachers. He explained that it’s not enough to love and respect the young people in a classroom, that the driving force of effective teaching is the panic over what will happen if a student does not get where s/he needs to be academically. It is that particular fear that keeps us awake at night, that pushes us to continue to learn, and that motivates trips like this one–we make ourselves better so that more and more students get where they deserve to be.

In Solidarity,

Kat + Alice

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“Reading” Murals

As a part of taking this project back to our Humanities classrooms in Boston, we are always thinking about how stories, quotations, and language arts connect to the imagery and symbolism in the murals we see. In Chicano Park especially, we noticed the use of single words, short quotations, slogans, and longer poems/pieces of writing on the pylons. Reading these words directs a viewer’s seeing of the mural, both narrowing and widening what can be seen, providing a focus through which to view. Below are some examples of how words are used by Chicano Park muralists in their designs.

A portion of the identity unit that we are designing based on our travels and learnings this summer will include reading mentor texts on the theme of borders and walls, followed by students writing their own personal memoirs rooted in this theme. Inspired by the murals in the photos above, one strategy we plan to use with our students is to ask them to choose the words and phrases in those mentor texts and the narratives they themselves (and their peers) create to bring to life in mural form, to be displayed on walls in our Boston communities.

In Solidarity,

Kat + Alice

 

Quetzalcoatl in Chicano Park

We pulled into the parking lot of Chicano Park in San Diego’s Barrio Logan, situated under the elevated on-ramps of the San Diego-Coronado Bridge. Immediately, there was so much to see. We got out of the car and began taking photographs, talking about the murals on the pylons closest to us, their intricacies, symbols and colors. After just a few minutes, it became apparent that if we tried to analyze the 50+ murals in the park in that way, we would never leave San Diego. So, we put our cameras in our pockets and walked the circumference of the park, looking for the through-lines that connect the murals to each other and to the Barrio Logan community.

The history of this park is one of community action. Mexican-Americans began to settle in this specific area of San Diego in the 1890s, and at one point Barrio Logan was home to the second largest Chicano Barrio population on the West Coast. However, a series of government projects began to invade the neighborhood’s physical space. The US Navy and defense industry took over the shoreline that once was part of Barrio Logan. A re-zoning law (residential to industrial) allowed mostly Anglo-owned auto junkyards to move into the community. The I-5 was built, bisecting the community, and on-ramps for the San Diego-Coronado Bridge were planted in the middle of the community. Each of these actions took land from homeowners, local businesses, and public spaces at the heart of Barrio Logan, and by 1979 the population of the neighborhood decreased from 20,000 residents to approximately 5,000.

The government did not consult with the community before enacting these projects with such high stakes for Barrio Logan residents. In 1967, community leaders stood up and asked the city for the land underneath the Coronado Bridge on-ramps for a park. Two years later, the state of California agreed to lease the land to the City of San Diego for a community park and the residents of Barrio Logan were ready to begin transforming the space. Soon after that announcement, the Highway Patrol began construction of Patrol Station on the land designated for the park. Citizens were outraged and protested, surrounding the bulldozers so that construction would have to halt and occupying the park space until the City agreed to renegotiate the use of space. Barrio Logan residents have time and time again stood to defend the space that this now Chicano Park and the murals within it. Knowing the history of the park enabled us to better see themes and connections as we walked among the pylons and concrete walls. (Almost all of the historical knowledge came from the two webpages linked above. Thank you to the Chicano Park Historical Documentation Project for compiling all of this history for visitors like us.)

The strength of ancestral knowledge was prominently displayed in so many murals. We saw figures such as Cuauhtli, Coatl, Xochitl, and Itzcuintli (as well as many others, some of which we recognize and some of which we definitely missed) across the park. They tower over passersby, a symbol of the power that Chicano history (narrative, knowledge, and figures that lie outside the bounds of what is most taught in public schools) holds in Barrio Logan, magnificent and enduring. The imagery is deeply rooted in the land itself. Throughout Chicano Park, there are references and maps to Aztlan, which means “the land to the North, the land from which we, the Aztecs, came.” Maps in the Park show the fifty states with Colorado, California, Arizona, Texas, Utah, New Mexico, Oregon, and parts of Washington marked with red to indicate the ancestral land of the Aztec people. Just as many of the murals in the park tell the story of claiming the space under the pylons, Aztlan calls attention to reclaiming Chicano ancestral land. This is one example of how murals can capture and tell histories that lie outside the lines of the dominant historical narrative.

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The Chicano activist legacy and its leaders occupy many of the pylons as well. There are numerous visual references to Cesar Chavez, the United Farm Workers, Che Guevara, the Mexican Revolution, Frida Kahlo, and many others who fought for Chicano rights. These murals serve as a tribute to the hard work and progress made possible by those who came before.

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And then there are the murals that memorialize and celebrate the community effort that created Chicano Park itself. These murals reference the Navy Yard, the highways, the pollution, the park’s earliest muralists and defenders (Salvador Torres, Victor Ochoa, and Jose Montoya), and much more more. They celebrate the victories, including several that reference “Varrio Logan,” the victories of Barrio Logan. Many of these murals also call attention to the ongoing action needed to protect Chicano Park and Barrio Logan’s residents from government and capitalist encroachment. Around the edges of the park are luxury apartments and new storefronts, ominous signs of gentrification and a warning that this community is under siege.

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Chicano Park, full of art and Mexican-American pride (evidenced by red, white, and green benches, play structures, and decorative rocks), is a place where the community continues to gather. On October 15, 2016, a car drove off of the Coronado bridge and killed four Barrio Logan residents. There is an ongoing vigil in the park in front of one of the pylon murals, and the morning that we were there, a memorial service was held for the victims of this tragedy. A mural was also put up in their memory. One reflection of the strength of a community is its public space, and Chicano Park exemplifies the power deeply rooted in Barrio Logan.

In Solidarity,

Kat + Alice

***We tried diligently to collect the names of artists and activist organizations involved in the creation of the murals pictured above. Documenting it all was impossible, however, due to worn paint, unsigned works, and sometimes the inability to connect a signature to a work of art (the pylons had many sides, and, when they were signed, it was not always obvious which piece the signed artist had worked on). To this end, the Chicano Park Historical Documentation Project Library, Walter Otto Koenig’s documentation, and this San Diego Reader Article about original artists restoring the murals.

Thank You, L.A.

Los Angeles, CA was a natural second stop for our journey for our project and, luckily for us, it also meant extending our time with family and friends. Our exploration of the murals along Mural Mile on Van Nuys Boulevard in Pacoima, CA was starkly different than the time we spent on Balmy Alley and the surrounding alleys in San Francisco’s Mission District. We applied many of the tools we learned about looking at murals from our Precita Eyes tour with muralist Carla Wojczuk since we had a limited amount of information about what exactly we were looking at (for some murals, a title or a historical reference. For others, no information at all.). In some ways, the role Pacoima murals play in the community differs greatly from that of the murals in The Mission. In other ways, the roles are eerily similar. See our last post for more analysis on this comparison.

 

In addition to further developing our understanding of murals and how to look at them, we spent some time feeding our teacher souls. Ample amounts of sun at the pool and beach, delicious meals in Kat’s Aunt Sharyn and Uncle Richard’s kitchen table, Sunny Spot in Venice, and Kat’s cousin Brett’s restaurant Killer Shrimp on the water in Marina Del Rey, and warm hospitality of the Hillyer Chans continue to revive us and make us feel so full. Just like our students need processing time to fully absorb what they learn in our classrooms, the processing time we had in LA allowed us to more fully understand and appreciate all that we’ve seen thus far.

In Solidarity,

Kat + Alice

Thank Yous:

To Aunt Sharyn and [trippy] Uncle Richard, thank you for opening your home to us, including us in your social events, and supplying us with everything an LA visitor needs from fans to home cooked meals; to Aunt Judy and Zoe, for dinner conversation and the unforgettable candied cayenne bacon; to Kendrick and Mara (and Tony the birthday boy), for including us in your celebration; to Brett and Lisa, for the Killer Shrimp.

Los Angeles Mural Mile: A Pacoima Arts Revolution

We turned onto Van Nuys Boulevard, home to Los Angeles’s Mural Mile, and parked right in front of Pacoima City Hall. Before starting our trek down Van Nuys to see the murals, we stopped into the local post office for some postcard stamps. We asked the postal worker who sold us the stamps whether he knew which murals we should be sure to see. “I don’t really know about that,” he said. “I’m not sure.” This response was similar to those we got from our L.A. hosts, Aunt Sharyn and Uncle Richard, when we told them where we were headed and what we planned to see there. (They also loaned us MUCH needed handheld fans for our walk.) In contrast to the murals in The Mission in San Francisco, people did not seem to know much at all about the Pacoima murals.

IMG_4517Stamps in hand, we left the post office determined to find as many murals as we could. The first mural we wanted to see was behind City Hall itself, but, as it was Saturday, the building was closed and fences kept us from getting close enough to really see the work. We used the Mural Mile Map–super difficult to read on an iPhone–determined about where we were in relation to the highway, and set off down Van Nuys toward the mountains.

The murals were not obvious at all, and, since the map was hard to read, we found ourselves peeking around every corner. Every once in awhile, we would find the large, bright images we were searching for. Mostly, though, we just craned our necks to find the same concrete we’d seen before. The first mural we found was on the back of the Entrepreneur Center. We would have missed it, had it not been for a few wisps of paint on the corner of the building, leading us around it to find a 30-foot piece filled with dynamic colors depicting allusions to Mexican Culture. It was painted in 2015 by Jaime “GERMS” Zachariah and Gil Ortiz.

Heat radiated from the sidewalk as we continued down Van Nuys Blvd, and we began to notice a trend in the murals we saw. Many of them were credited to Levi Ponce, or Levi Ponce and a partner, with a list of names of people who helped put the mural on the wall. We also noticed that the dates on the murals were pretty recent, mostly between 2011-2015. In 2002, Los Angeles instituted a ban on public art because the city was worried about possible corporate messaging embedded within. This ban kept mural artists from creating in the city that was once called the Mural Capital of the World. L.A. lifted the ban in 2013, but the city still has a lot of work to make the process of creating mural art artist-friendly.

Meanwhile, in Pacoima, Levi Ponce declared the beginning of an arts revolution. His first mural captures Danny Trejo from the shoulders up, staring out from the side of El Indio restaurant. Trejo, an actor with roots in Pacoima and the San Fernando Valley, shifted from a life of drugs and stealing to a life of acting and activism. Trejo is a symbol of growth and positivity rooted in the Pacoima community. Ponce’s use of color in this mural evokes Van Nuys Blvd at twilight, and his use of the poles and signs in El Indio parking lot is striking.

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Because Ponce’s mission is based in the community, he begins his design process by asking the community what they would like to see. He wants the artwork to reflect the multi-faceted neighborhood he grew up in. Community members strike up conversations when they walk past Ponce, hard at work, and then inevitably they pick up a paintbrush and add color to the wall. Our walk down Van Nuys Blvd, looking closely at the 20 +names painted in one corner or another, revealed Ponce’s zeal for collaboration.

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Mural Mile also hosts murals by artists such as Kristy Sandoval, a graduate of Academy of Art University in San Francisco, who is part of a collaboration of six to eight female artists dubbed H.O.O.D. Sisters. Their mission is to empower young women to see themselves as capable artists. Artists like Rah Azul and Manny Valesquez also feed the collective spirit of creation on Mural Mile in Pacoima. Many of these murals are shown in the slideshow above.

As we walked back toward our car (making a aqua fresca stop in an air-conditioned Myke’s–2.4 miles in 104 degree heat is hard work!), we talked about how the art we saw on Van Nuys was part of the infrastructure of the community. We found murals in the parking lots of autobody shops, behind chain link fences, and around corners. Sometimes, we had to stop and decide whether what we were looking at was indeed part of Mural Mile or instead a clever, intricately painted sign for a local vendor.Valley feed The paint on the walls of Pacoima businesses and buildings begins to seep so deeply into the city, adding a texture of power, culture, and pride that radiates from the streets

We Left our Hearts in San Francisco

San Francisco was the perfect place to start our trip. Not only is it the home of Kat’s warm, generous, wonderful family, but it is a city that puts on display the juxtaposition at the root of our project, the conflict that results when walls are erected to separate and the artistic response to the division. Due to the tech industry boom, the shadow of overinflated cost-of-living spreads farther and farther across the Bay, displacing community members from their homes, from the neighborhoods in which they built their lives for decades and, for some families, centuries. As we walked down the mural-filled alleys, it was clear what has already been lost, and what is at stake if the fight does not continue.

But the murals are a part of the fight. They put on display experiences that exhibit strength in the face of oppression, and generate conversations and questions we must ask as the crisis of gentrification and eviction pervade the Bay Area and cities in the US. Organizations like the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, a data-visualization, data mapping, and story-telling collective documenting the dispossession and resistance of SF Bay Area Residents, Precita Eyes Mural Center, Causa Justa Just Cause, and Urban Displacement Project amplify the voices of community members and support organization of communities for justice. (Shout out to Liz, Kat’s sister, who begins her organizing job on Monday!) We are excited and honored to plant the energy that organizations and individuals who give all they have and more to the fight for housing justice in the Bay back to our Boston classrooms.

Besides working on our project, we had so much fun eating, drinking, hiking, and laughing in Oakland and the Bay. We enjoyed a delicious breakfast at Brown Sugar Kitchen, a vibrant hike in Tennessee Valley down to the beach, where we saw a whale about 15 yards from shore, dinner at locally-sourced restaurant Gather, and the world premiere of the musical production of Monsoon Wedding at Berkeley Rep. We are so thankful for the people who thought with us on this first leg of our journey, and the laughter and learning we did in the Bay have prepared us well for the next leg of our trip!

 

In Solidarity,

Kat + Alice

Thank Yous and Shout Outs:

First, foremost, and most foundational to our trip, to the A-P Family (Wendy, Phil, and Liz), for their warmth, generosity, and laughter throughout our time in the Bay–the trip would not have been the same without your self-less dedication of time and love to our project; to Tracy, for organizing a festive, raucous dinner and theater experience; to the Rettig-Zucchi family (Mary Ann, Ron, Claire, and Hannah) for a home-cooked meal and reminiscing, to Kevin, for foresaking his Fourth of July barbecue to hang out with an old friend, to Precita Eyes for the knowledge and context they provided us and others; and to David and Margaret, for the most reliable airport taxi-service a girl could ask for.

***As we were leaving the Bay, we had to wait an extra hour plus for our rental car because there had been a fire earlier that morning, covering all the cars in the lot with ash. Though the cause of this fire is unknown, in the last two years the fires in at least two buildings have been ruled arson, a reaction to new housing units going up in Oakland. An ABC news article from July 7 reminds us that “The Bay Area has some of the highest housing costs in the nation, contributing to a 39 percent rise in homelessness in the past two years in Alameda County…Nearly half of those newly homeless are African-American.”