Choosing Texts that Build Understanding and Classroom Community

Reflecting on the curricula we taught last year, we determined that the texts our students read did not provide enough opportunities for students to seem themselves in the literature. As documented in previous posts, we spent a month traveling last summer specifically to learn about resistance murals and the role that these murals played and continue to play in their communities. When we returned from our travels at the end of July, we spent August designing the unit that would launch our 2017-2018 school year. Both of our schools use a backwards planning template, and we combine the two, pulling the best from each, to scaffold our thinking.

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One of the most daunting parts of planning any new unit is finding good mentor texts that are at appropriate reading levels for students, are about the content you want students to learn about, and use the writing skills you want to teach. This deep work was so much easier to do as thought partners. We balanced four different things when we began selecting mentor texts: 1) types of border crossing we wanted our students to be inspired by (physical, cultural, emotional, etc) 2) authors diverse in race, ethnicity, religion, age, gender, and sexual orientation 3) engaging text types (e.g. graphic novels, photographs, short stories, poetry, music and children’s books) and 4) texts that we could deconstruct into the components of memoir writing that we would be teaching in the second part of the unit.

We started with texts that were familiar, and then did research to find texts that filled in the gaps. Besides determining our whole-class texts, we also created a supplementary reading list that we could purchase for our classroom libraries. We both have robust independent reading in our classrooms, and we had intentionally set aside a portion of our Fund for Teachers grant budget to purchase mentor texts for our unit, so we loaded our cart with the books listed below:

Unit Texts:

  • “Names/Nombres,” Julia Alvarez
  • “Exile,” Julia Alvarez
  • “Gate A-4,” Naomi Shihab Nye
  • American Born Chinese, Gene Luen Yang
  • Enrique’s Journey, Sonia Nazario (Chapter: The Dreaded Stop)
  • “Fish Cheeks,” Amy Tan
  • Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Sherman Alexie (Chapter:In Like a Lion)
  • March Volumes 1 and 2, John Lewis

Texts for Children’s book activity:

  • The Name Jar, Yangsook Choi
  • Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, Judith Viorst
  • Come On, Rain, Karen Hesse
  • A Chair for My Mother,  Vera B. Williams
  • Too Many Tamales, Gary Soto
  • Last Stop on Market Street, Matt de la Pena
  • Amazing Grace, Mary Hoffman

Independent Reading Books

  • Over a Thousand Hills I Walk With You, Hanna Jansen
  • Dear Martin, Nic Stone
  • Every Falling Star: The True Story of How I Survived and Escaped North Korea, Sungju Lee
  • I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, Erika L. Sanchez
  • Dare to Disappoint: Growing Up in Turkey, Ozge Samanci
  • Saving Montgomery Sole, Mariko Tamaki
  • Bystander, James Preller
  • The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir, Thi Bui
  • Outcasts United: The Story of a Refugee Soccer Team that Changed a Town, Warren St. John
  • Zahrah the Windseeker, Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu
  • The Silence of Our Friends: The Civil Rights Struggle Was Never Black and White, Mark Long
  • Hidden Figures Young Readers’ Edition, Margot Lee Shetterly
  • One Crazy Summer, Rita Williams-Garcia
  • Good Enough, Paula Yoo
  • A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, Ishmael Beah
  • A Cup of Water Under My Bed: A Memoir, Daisy Hernandez
  • Piecing Me Together, Renee Watson
  • Girl in Translation, Jean Kwok
  • Enrique’s Journey (The Young Adult Adaptation): The True Story of a Boy Determined to Reunite with His Mother, Sonia Nazario
  • Mexican WhiteBoy, Matt de la Pena
  • American Born Chinese, Gene Luen Yang
  • Hidden Girl: The True Story of a Modern-Day Child Slave, Shyima Hall
  • Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out, Susan Kuklin
  • The Distance Between Us: Young Readers’ Edition, Reyna Grande
  • The Great Wall of Lucy Wu, Wendy Wan-Long Shang
  • Tomboy: A Graphic Memoir, Liz Prince
  • I Am Malala: How One Girl Stood Up for Education and Changed the World (Young Readers’ Edition), Malala Yousafzai
  • We Were Here, Matt de la Pena
  • Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass, Meg Medina

It felt like Christmas morning when our big box of books arrived! We each previewed a selection of the texts, pulling chapters or segments that we thought would be most engaging and help us fulfill our learning targets for this unit. We selected 14 mentor texts, including two graphic novels and 5 children’s books. We then turned to asking ourselves: Which text would be the best entryway into our unit for our students? We selected a chapter from Enrique’s Journey by Sonia Nazario because we wanted to ground our students in the concept of border crossing with a literal interpretation. As this was our first unit of the year, we wanted to provide an access point that would help all students feel successful. In hindsight, the excerpt we chose from Enrique’s Journey was long and the vocabulary was challenging. As our unit progressed, we realized that our students had the engagement to tackle the more figurative examples of border crossing. We will likely start with another text–perhaps “Fish Cheeks” by Amy Tan–next year and build towards the stamina necessary to tackle Enrique’s Journey.

Besides our focus on student engagement and diversity of text, we also focused on selecting texts in which the author’s used moves that we planned for our students to master. This way, students would be able to revisit texts in the second portion of the unit that they had already encountered, allowing them to focus more on the writing moves and less on comprehension. We developed a great formatting strategy to facilitate close reading skills that we have carried through the units we’ve taught this year. In this example of Names/Nombres, it is clear how the texts are structured for students to read multiple times for different purposes. It is also clear how we differentiated texts for our different levels of readers. Students saved all of the texts that they read and annotated in the first portion of the unit (the reading portion) and returned to them in the second portion of the unit (the writing portion) to identify writers’ moves that helped the author effectively convey a story.

After completing the reading portion of the unit, students took a mid-unit assessment that focused on their ability to read a text, find the gist, and answer text-dependent questions. But more than that, it asked students to communicate their new understanding of borders, why people cross them, and how reading other people’s stories and interpreting their themes and messages builds a richer community.

I AM…YOU: An Interactive Mural on Identity and Ego

**This is the first in a four-part series chronicling how our learning on our Fund for Teachers trip manifested in our classroom instruction.

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In our travels this summer, one of the questions that kept popping into our minds and our conversations was “How can we get 80 kids–40 in my room and 40 in yours–to create one, cohesive mural?” With our first mural, “I AM…YOU,” we played around with several of the answers to that question. Supported by local art non-profit Art Resource Collaborative for Kids, students created a composite mural, each designing a symbol based on an aspect of their individual identities. They then painted their symbols in black over a white background to create the first mural, I AM…YOU.

The creation process took four weeks. In the first week, students learned about symbols and practiced creating their own. We had a discussion about what symbols represent Boston, students’ home countries, students’ interests, etc, and how to combine those symbols that people already recognize to create powerful new symbols that represent complex identities. In the second week, students chose the symbol that they were going to contribute to the mural and re-drew it to make it clearer and more detailed. Our teaching artist, Will, and other team members from the ARCK collaborative took all the symbols with them and collaged them together to create one piece of artwork.

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A small group of students got together between the second and third week to trace the symbols onto giant panels–that is, to scale them. Students projected the image onto the panels and traced them with permanent marker. Some students also primed the panels with whiteboard paint so that, when the symbols and phrases were added in black, the public would be able to interact with the mural by drawing on it in colorful whiteboard markers. Finally, the last two weeks students spent painting symbols onto the panels.

A few weeks later, the mural went up in the City Hall Plaza for Boston’s HUBWeek, a collaboration between The Boston Globe, Harvard University, MIT, and Massachusetts General Hospital that showcases, celebrates and convenes the most inventive minds making an impact in Boston and around the world. Our students took public transportation to downtown Boston to see their creation on display for the city. They were intrigued by all that the public had added with whiteboard marker, and added their own touches before leaving to explore HUBWeek’s other exhibits, which included life-sized board games such as Connect Four, light displays, and one booth where kids got to look at their own cheek cells in a test tube. ARCK’s display included not only our murals, but also interactive fiber artwork. Students had a great time exploring HUBWeek and meeting each other at our picnic lunch in the Christopher Columbus Waterfront Park.

**We the teachers–Kat Atkins-Pattenson and Alice Laramore–could not have possibly done this project with such integrity and skill without the support of ARCK, the Art Resource Collaborative for Kids. The members of the organization were integral to our teaching, and we thank them profusely.

**This blog post was co-written by Kat Atkins-Pattenson and Alice Laramore

Last Day Reflections

Today, the last day of our trip, we are energized by the Borders and Identity Unit that we have built and will use to launch the year with our students. We are flooded with all that we’ve seen in our seven cities. We are entrenched in the creative part of teaching, the part that involves being an interesting, engaged individual to better support the interesting, engaged individuals in our classrooms. The part that means we learn something new in order to teach something new. The experience of being a learner better prepares a teacher to teach, and this summer was an opportunity for us to authentically learn about murals on different borders, to confront not knowing and to investigate, to use art as a lens into community.

This trip made space for us to be learners. After the 12th grade, those opportunities almost always come with one (or many) literal costs. And Fund for Teachers (along with the school year calendar) gave us the time, space, and finances to learn more in a way that will support our students, but also in a way that sustains us as teachers, professionals, and individuals. It made it possible for us to end the trip feeling rejuvenated rather than depleted. There is a constant push for teachers to continue professional development; it is indeed essential. But driving this profession development experience (and literally driving more than 900 miles) meant that we could pace our learning and reflection, and that we could intentionally choose meaningful experiences that hit our “zone of proximal development.”

 

This month, we immersed ourselves in adult project-based learning. We’ve tried lots of new things, from food to cloud-mountain hiking to driving to places we’d never been (while blogging) to talking about art from sunrise to sunset. And we’ve done the whole thing together. Often, in our classrooms, we create groups that we believe will benefit from the individuality of each member. We build in scaffolds meant to allow the group to discover each individual’s strengths and to make empathy a non-negotiable. Though we embarked with empathy and respect already in place, our twenty-six days together have illuminated the strengths and areas of growth (thanks, BPS, for the language) of our partnership. We both value efficiency, and, in the face of less-than-such (e.g., when the internet goes as turtle-pace, when people get motion sick, when you walk up the wrong side of the mountain, etc), we have learned much about each other. That knowledge has made us better collaborators and better friends.

In San Francisco, where we started our trip, we were oriented to the idea of looking. This was not just because there was so much to look at in The Mission, but also because we did our first day with a guide, who was able to re-frame what we had seen and interpreted in the context of history and community. Carla made us cognizant of how much we needed other people’s knowledge and understanding to build our own. The Pacoima (L.A.) murals added a layer of “looking around corners” to that concept. On the hottest day of our trip, we spent the majority of it seeking out art on the walls of automotive dealerships and in the parking lots of community centers. It wasn’t always going to be all in one alley. In San Diego, a park once occupied by people and now occupied by art, had us looking for four hours and not seeing enough. We returned home those nights googling Aztec symbols and stories, trying to learn enough to know something.

Tucson and Dr. Acosta gave us yet another frame through which to experience our learning. Freedom of education does not mean freedom to learn about the American Revolution and the Civil War through a lens of whiteness. Precious Knowledge, to our generation of “urban baby teachers,” is a reflection of our intentions. Though we (the generation of “urban baby teachers”) are in no way united in our vision or our understanding of social justice, the power of conviction in ideas, history, and lifting stories and voices drove us into the work of education. We wonder if he knows how many teachers who are only five or six years in are tracking his legal battle and celebrating his victories.

 

In Santa Fe, we absorbed the International Folk Art Market, how artists envision and reimagine, how tradition can morph modern and can accommodate the present day without reneging its roots. This mirrors the murals we’ve seen and the art of Frida Kahlo, taking symbols from the past and bringing them to life in the now. In Mexico City, we saw so much. Teotihuacan, Frida, Diego, the Anthropology Museum, street art, the culinary art of Pujol, the stained glass and craters of Toluca. With American eyes and feet, we navigated the city, and learned all that we still had to learn.

It is hard to classify this trip, and even harder to know all that it will bring to our classrooms. It falls somewhere in the vicinity of sabbatical–an intentional, purposeful break that brings new insight–but also touches the realm of professional development, continuing education, and creative project. We vision a unit with three parts. First, with our students, we will read several memoirs that broadly address the topic of borders and walls, thinking with our students about potential barriers and how to scale them. Second, we will all generate and share memoirs from our own lives on the same topic. The author of each memoir will formulate his or her own theme about the topic, communicating a piece of knowledge gained from navigating–either adeptly or crudely–a border. Finally, after examining many primary sources collected on our trip and within Boston, students will co-construct a mural combining the themes of their memoirs to create a community creation.

The idea of “insider and outsider” has been, in many ways, the crux of our travels. We asked questions and navigated our identity as visitor, as white visitor, as American visitor. In our classrooms we are often the the outsiders to the communities in which we teach. However our ethnicities and upbringing reflect the dominant histories and tools that are demanded from dominant culture. In this unit, we hope to illuminate these walls, supporting students to name them, scale them, and ultimately paint them. As humanities teachers, we believe that providing students vocabulary and time to think and discuss the world and its issues leads to a brighter, more creative, and smarter future than the two of us can imagine. Solutions lie in the writing, in the art, in the conversations, and in the relationships that students create. Just as we wrote in our FFT proposal, students must see themselves reflected in curriculum, in physical space, and in pedagogy in order to be successful. Because we do not physically reflect our students’ identities, we think constantly about how to make all other facets of our teaching affirming. This unit and this project will be a launching point for discussions about personal identity, community, and what comes next.

In Solidarity,
Kat + Alice

Thank Yous:

To Jenn, for extending opportunities and providing support to those who choose them; to Erica Herman and Pauline Lugira, for being principals who support and encourage teacher learning and leadership; to our families and hosts along the way, thank you for your support, trust, and generosity while we adventured; and to the Writing Is Thinking team, whose Mission, Vision, and Foundational Beliefs propel collaboration and innovative teaching.

Teotihuacan, or What We Don’t Know [Yet]

Our first day in Mexico City was a Monday, which is the day that most museums are closed. We decided to spend that day touring Teotihuacan, ruins located in the Basin of Central Mexico. After visiting Chicano Park and seeing so many symbols for Aztlan and Aztec history that we didn’t have schema for, we knew we had to learn much more. Teotihuacan is one of many places housing the historical knowledge essential to the unit we are planning.

We entered the archeological site of Teotihuacan near the San Juan River and the first thing we saw was a large statue of Chaciuhtlicue, the Aztec water goddess. Our guide explained that the original statue is in the Anthropological Museum, but that this goddess was a foundational part of daily goings-on in Teotihuacan. We started our tour in the Citadel, then walked down to climb the Sun Pyramid, and then climbed half-way up the Moon Pyramid. 

As we went through Teotihuacan (and actually since we left Mexico City at 5:45 that morning), we were led by Gersom, our fearless guide. He led in us English and Spanish, and UDLed his tour, using a whiteboard and marker to draw the concepts he most hoped we would understand. For example, each pyramid is actually five layers of pyramid, one on top of another. He also illustrated for us several of the sacrificial rituals believed to have been a part of the city’s daily routine. One of the principles we were left thinking about, however, was Gersom’s insistence that everything we would read on a sign at Teotihuacan was outdated and false. He told us that, since they had been posted, several large anthropological studies proved the signs inaccurate. He spoke of teams coming in from other countries and excavating, all at once discovering new truths and destroying the site. While it is often true that to gain knowledge, one must destroy a little, it caused us to question how the Mexican government is vetting international exploration, especially that which causes the Moon Pyramid to be so unstable.

To complement our trip to Teotihuacan, we went to the Anthropology Museum in Mexico City. To say that it was informative would be an understatement–there was enough in that museum to occupy two or three days of learning without stop. We spent the majority of time in a few rooms including “Introduccion de la Anthropologia,” “Poblamiento de America,” “Teotihuacan,” “Mexica,” and a few others, doing our best to learn the what and the how of ancient life in the places that eventually gave life to murals we had seen.

While visiting Teotihuacan and in the museum alike, it was clear to us how much we didn’t know. Teachers spend quite a bit of time knowing, being the authority on a subject or a book. Spending this time as learners, we acknowledged just how much we did not know, and how much we wanted to understand but didn’t yet have the tools to get.

In Solidarity,

Kat + Alice

A History in Pictures

One of the types of murals we’ve seen again and again during our travels is a mural that tells a linear history, from left to right, of a culture or civilization. In San Francisco, it was the mural on St. Peter’s Church (described in this blog post). In L.A., we saw a mural chronicling Filipino history beginning with Lapu Lapu who fought Migellan and colonization. Right as one enters Chicano Park, there is a mural beginning with dark tones of colonization and illustrating the changes and triumphs of Aztlan culture. In Albuquerque, a fresco depicting the history of the world (sorry, no photos allowed), is housed in the National Hispanic Cultural Center. In Mexico City, one of the largest collections of Diego Rivera’s murals, found at the Secretaria de Educacion Publica, fill two court yards, three levels high. Along the ground floor, these murals share the plight of the worker.

St. Peter’s Mural

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Gintong Kasaysayan, Gintong Pamana (Filipino History Mural, A Glorious History, A Golden Legacy)

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Chicano Park, Aztlan History Mural

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Diego Rivera, Secretaria de Educacion Publica

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These murals often begin with the roots of a culture, whether they be figurative or literal. For example, the St. Peter’s mural (which actually reads right to left) shows bodies underneath a field of corn, fertilizing the growth of the culture. In contrast, the murals in L.A. and San Diego begin with more historical representations of figures and events. The middle of the this type of mural usually depicts the battles–literal, civil rights-oriented, social, and otherwise–that the group confronted. In the final panels of these murals are the successes and the community’s visions for the future. In three of the five (L.A., Chicano Park, and San Francisco), the mural also featured little portraits of celebrity community members with little name plates floating underneath.  

When confronted with the Filipino mural in L.A., we were struck by how little we knew about Filipino history and Filipino-Americans today. Besides recognizing one or two figures in the more “present day” section of the mural, we were pretty ignorant of the contributions and impacts that Filipinos and Filipino-Americans have had on the country we live in. For us, it highlighted how much cultural knowledge it takes to read one of these murals. They are so rich, nuanced, and deep; even the two of us, college-educated women with a focus in American Studies/Literature/History, knew only a surface amount of these populations’ historical narratives. We were clearly outsiders entering to examine murals, and the feeling of illiteracy stuck with us (spurring us to check books out of the library and do quite a bit of googling to better understand what we saw, which has yet to be satisfying).

These murals exist in neighborhoods that the people represented in the murals fought to establish and maintain. After seeing these murals in many different neighborhoods, we are left wondering: What role they play in the continued preservation and maintenance of these neighborhoods as the generational gap between those who fought for them and the youth widens? In Filipinotown, as we looked and photographed, there were five young children playing in the park near the mural. Is the mural a talking piece that parents and grandparents use to engage children in stories about their history? Do kids internalize the experience of seeing their culture on the wall in a most familiar space? Are they inspected and seen often, or are they a backdrop as the community works, plays, and lives? Do they play a role in preserving communities that are under threat of gentrification? While we don’t have the answers to these questions (and expect that no one really does), the asking makes us look again and again and again, working to unearth the knowledge “written on the wall.”

In Solidarity,

Kat + Alice

Street + Art (en Roma, Cuidad de Mexico)

What are the differences between murals, street art, and graffiti? And do those differences matter? While walking Mexico City (and we have definitely walked it–the Fitbit tells us we’ve walked 48 miles in the last five days), we’ve seen all kinds of work, from tagging to fully painted blocks of buildings. After our tour in The Mission District, we really recognize the value in having a tour guide when looking at street art in new cities. Our knowledgeable hosts at The Red Tree House directed us toward the organization Street Art Chilango, which did not disappoint. When we met our tour guide Abril Trejo, she started the tour by stating three defining characteristics that separate street art from graffiti.

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Kat and Alice in front of an original Street Art piece by Street Art Chilango Artist in residence Franc Mun (2017) where we met our guide Abril.

The first, she told us, is material. Graffiti artists use only spray paint. Street artists, on the other hand, may use spray paint, paint brushes, markers, and other types of tools to put art on the walls. She mentioned that, though many street artists are former graffiti artists, others come from graphic design, architecture, or even illustrating backgrounds and thus have less experience with spray paint cans. Second, while graffiti is mostly word-based, street art is image-based. The image allows for more interpretation of art, whereas graffiti is literal whether the viewer understands it or not. And third, street art is created legally. Business and property owners in Mexico City often ask street artists to design on the walls of their buildings because otherwise they will be full of tagging. Graffiti artists suppose that, by tagging a space, they are taking what is rightfully theirs. In contrast, street artists make arrangements with owners to legally secure a space to work.

During the tour, our definition of street art expanded as we thought more deeply about the interaction between street and art. We learned from our tour in The Mission in San Francisco that murals are less likely to be defaced or tagged if the community respects the art on the wall. This is also true in Mexico City, but our guide gave us even more to think about. We saw the tension between street and art, in which the art pushes on the street, and, at times, the street pushes back. We saw mutual respect, lack of respect, and one benefitting the other. We learned that street artists in Mexico City are often commissioned to do advertisements or more directed work, which in turn supports their ability to do their own designing and artistry on walls around the city. Another facet of the interaction between street and art is that sometimes art groups encourage taggers to come over to “the good side,” finding them walls to paint themselves rather than tagging over others’ work. However, these invitations are not always accepted.

As Abril led us through the streets of Roma, Mexico City’s hipster neighborhood, every piece we encountered added nuance to our understanding of street art in this city.

Abril explained that when an artist has a wall, it is expected that the artist invite a colleague or two to share the space. In this way, artists get on many more walls. Plus, they work together, styles mixing. One of the first pieces we saw was a collaboration between Martin Ferreyra, an Argentinian artist, and Revost, a Mexican artist whose name is a combination of revel (rebel) and ghost. Revost only paints animals that are or were considered spiritual, and his contribution to this wall is the dragon on the left that wraps around the human-esque figure on the right. This work is a stellar example of artists melding styles to share a wall. It is also when Abril began to tell us about identifiable styles. Since street artists do not always sign their names, tracing their style (material, kinds of images they paint, etc) is a reliable way to identify an artist. It is also a reliable way to recognize taggers or bombers (tagging is usually thin letters noting the tagger’s identity, whereas bombing is much larger, often bubble letters perhaps accompanied by an icon). This piece of artwork has been bombed by a few, but the most notable is the cat-shaped signature in the middle.

In 2014, ten works of street art were painted as part of Roma’s Art Walk. Artists were brought in from other countries, including Aaron Glasson, originally from New Zealand, now living in San Diego. Glasson’s work most broadly addresses his lived experiences, including the pieces that cannot be seen or explained. Abril told us that instead of a heart inside of the horse (titled Ano tel Caballo), he inserted a moon to illustrate the connection between the universe and living things on Earth. She also pointed out the rectangle that is slightly darker near the bottom in the background of the work. The work was tagged previously, and the neighbors decided to restore the background, in effect to remove the tag themselves. This is one example of neighbors defending the beauty of street art.

Another example of street and art interacting to add beauty is a red and pink mural that says “La vida esta completa cuando se comparte”/ “Life is complete when you share.” This work was done as a community project, and it is based on the broken window theory. The theory states that when a place is nice, the community and passersby keep it nice, but when there is already a broken window, litter, crumbling buildings, the community and passersby leave trash and add to the mess. In an effort to make this corner a cleaner space, the community painted the wall. The same group is in the process of putting up two more works in the Roma neighborhood for the same purpose.

Ericailcane, an Italian artist sponsored by Galeria Fifty24, came to Mexico City and painted this work, titled “The Bunny and the Fox.” With the help of one assistant, it took him one week to complete. The artist did not volunteer the meaning of the work to the community, so, like much street art, it is up to the community to interpret what they see as they walk by. Our guide’s interpretation, based on her understanding of Ericailcane’s previous work and politics, was that the bunny represents small business, and the fox represents large banks. The fox is pleading with the bunny to let it go, making promises of kindness. However, it is in the fox’s nature to eat the bunny. The viewer watches the interaction between the bunny and the fox literally unravel, as the bunny eats the ropes that bind the fox, anticipating the harm that will befall the bunny once its work is done.

Street art also provokes a sense of nostalgia from the community. These two pieces, painted side-by-side by the same artist, Noble, evoke memories. Looking closely at the woman wrapped in the blanket, we could see that the blanket has fifty white stars set on blue, just like the American flag. Instead of red and white stripes, however, the blanket is a Mexican print. Designed by Nacho Becerra, this flag and the street art resulting from it, are reminiscent of a time in which US-MX relations were better. (Note how the caption reads Estamos Unidos Mexicanos, just one letter off from Estados Unidos Mexicanos.) Next to the woman wrapped in the blanket is a separate work by the same artist depicting the green taxis that used to flood the streets of Mexico City before they were deemed unsafe and not energy efficient (they had only two doors, and often a whole family would get into a cab, sit the children on the floor, and go to the park on a Sunday afternoon). They have been replaced with pink CDMX cabs. Above the cab is the phrase “I [broken heart] D.F.”, alluding to the moment in January 2016 when the capital city’s name was officially changed from Distrito Federal to Cuidad de Mexico. There is no more DF to love.

BlanketTaxi

Neither the cab nor the woman in the blanket have been tagged at all. When Noble signs his art, he signs “NobleKFC.” KFC stands for Kings Forever Crew, a graffiti crew in Roma so large that other artists do not tag over their work in fear of retribution from one of KFC’s members. Noble’s art is protected by his old graffiti crew, keeping his artwork, for the most part, clean.

Below are several other pieces of art Abril showed us. Many of the artists were brought in by galleries for exhibitions and painted one piece on the street so that the community did not have to pay to benefit from the artist’s presence. Scrolling through, so many artists’ styles are evident.

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Walking the streets of Roma with Abril, we saw more evidence of artists interacting with one another and the community than we ever would have on our own. We now know what to look for–be it the material, the specific tag, or a technique or style of a particular artist–when we come across art on our own. Abril mentioned at the beginning of our tour that graffiti art has an inside crowd. It doesn’t care if other people get it or not. Once doors started opening to allow us to understand the interaction between the art, the street, and the artist, it is impossible not to want to know more.

In Solidarity,
Kat + Alice

P.S. After we left our tour, we went to Holly Waffle, a Belgian Waffle storefront run by Bue the Warrior, one of the street artists whose work we saw with Abril and then several times more on our walk toward breakfast. Abril mentioned jobs of street artists ranging from musician, Coachella poster designer, clothing designer, label-maker for a Mezcal company, and graphic designer. She emphasized that the talent of these artists cannot be confined to street art, but instead enriches the city’s culture in multiple ways. Look out for a new Holly Waffle location in Guadalajara coming soon.

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