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

Take Us Back to Mexico City

When first planning our trip, Mexico City was not on our itinerary at all. However, as we began to plan more in depth, we realized it was a place we had to go. It held too much history, too much wealth about murals and Chicano art. It was and still is home to too many progressive artists, activists, and thinkers who are the roots of this project. We learned so much in our six days there that we will incorporate into our classrooms in September.

While in Mexico City, we walked more than 50 miles with at least two (usually three or five) destinations a day. While most every place we went contributed to our learning, below we want to highlight some of the brightest spots–places we found unexpected friendship or beauty or knowledge–below.

First (and without which many of the stops below could not have happened), The Red Tree House. This bed and breakfast where we stayed for the first four nights was the perfect way to orient ourselves to the city. Besides beautiful rooms, a garden, and cheerful common spaces, the staff, smiling and full of advice, took an interest in our project and in us. They helped us plan outings (such as our private tour with Street Art Chilango, our tickets to Friday Kahlo’s home, transportation to Toluca, and even reservations at Pujol) recommending and prioritizing places we should go. Huge thank yous to Alex, Jose, Victor, Craig, Yaya, and Carlos! In addition to the staff, The Red Tree House hosts breakfast and happy hour, which we attended each day we were able. In those exchanges, we learned from other visitors about where to go, what to see, and shared our days (mistakes and all) with them.

On our first full day in Mexico City, we visited the ancient city of Teotihuacan with a group of people and a guide, Gersom. The name of the city translates to “birthplace of the gods,” and its vast layout, including two pyramids (the Sun Pyramid and the Moon Pyramid), the Temple of the Feathered Serpent, and the Avenue of the Dead, gives credence to such a majestic name. The ruins reach about 8 square miles and archeologists estimate that, at one time, the city was home to 100,000 people. Gersom, our animated guide who described things in Spanish and in English while simultaneously illustrating concepts on a white board (very UDL), told us right at the start not to believe the things we read on signs about Teotihuacan. Recent technology has debunked much of what is written at the historical site. Archeologists are always discovering new things, disproving previous beliefs. Thus, at each sign, he would carefully point out everything that was untrue, righting the wrongs of archeologists past.

Gersom’s sentiment about “righting” historical claims followed us for the rest of our trip, especially to the Anthropology Museum, where we learned more about the ancient peoples who inhabited Mexico. There is a post about Teotihuacan and this museum in the making.

We took a day trip to Toluca. Our original aim was to see Cosmovitral Jardin Botanico, a building that was originally a market, but is now home to a botanical garden. It features 48 stained-glass panels by Tolucan artist Leopoldo Flores. As we have been studying large works of art, this place fit the purpose of our work. Our Red Tree House hosts mentioned that, while in Toluca, we should consider a hike at Nevado de Toluca, a stratovolcano that is either the fourth or fifth highest peak in Mexico City, depending on who you ask. After having hiked Tent Rocks in Santa Fe, we were eager to do more climbing. Little did we know that we would be hiking down (and up and up and up) a virtually unmarked trail in a cloud. We could not see more than a yard in front of us, and on three occasions lost the path. We had to listen for other hikers’ voices to find our way back to the car after making it to the crater lake, and when we got back to the car, we immediately started laughing, mostly out of relief–there were moments we thought we might never see it again. All in all, though, it was an adventure that, with slightly more attention to the weather, we would both attempt again.

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Other points of interest in the Mexico City leg of our trip were: the Museo Frida Kahlo, Secretaria de Educacion Publica, the Diego Rivera Mural Museum (which houses exhibits related to Rivera, but not much of Rivera’s own art), Museo de Bellas Artes, Diego Rivera’s mural at the Olympic Stadium at the University, (there are several other extraordinary murals on campus as well), and several restaurants including Pujol (a restaurant known for its modern interpretations of Mexican dishes with an emphasis on local and indigenous ingredients including chicatana ants and maguey worm salt, as well as its 1334 day-old mole), Rosetta, Alipus, and El Moro, famous for its churros. Plus, lots of el pastor tacos! We are already planning our next trip to MXDC.

In Solidarity,

Kat + Alice

Thank Yous:

To The Red Tree House staff, we would have be lost without you and your suggestions and your maps; to Abril, our knowledgeable and hip Street Art Chilango Guide; to Gersom, our Teotihuacan illustrator and guide; to Ricardo, our driver and guide to Toluca; to Cait, for her suggestions and can’t-miss stops; and to Grant, Viv, their kids, Paulina, Susan, and the other Red Tree House guests–your fellowship is much missed.

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.

Chilango heart
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.

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.

Balmy Alley: The Desire Path

The Mission District, the historic Latinx neighborhood in San Francisco, is home to officially 99 (but arguably many more) murals. Murals are part of the literal and figurative color of The Mission community. Wednesday morning, joined by Kat’s parents, Phil and Wendy, and sister Liz, Oakland natives and our generous hosts, we began our mural learning with a guided tour. Artist Carla Wojczuk, a Precita Eyes muralist, led us down 24th Street to Balmy Alley, which, Carla says “is the grandmother to the mural alleys in the Mission.”

Precita Eyes Shopfront

Precita Eyes Tour SignBalmy Alley Street Sign

 

 

 

 

 

Carla began by pointing out a blank wall and saying that it all began with the children’s mural, which is now hidden under layers of paint. The story goes that the first mural was painted by kids who came to 24th Street Place, a community center for neighborhood children. The mural that they painted has since been painted over, but that mural, that history, still exists under the new layers of paint. The history is part of the art. Carla’s knowledge of the murals in Balmy Alley and the larger neighborhood refined and directed our process of looking for the day, and probably will for the rest of our study.

Mission Makeover Whole.JPG

The looking can be difficult. How far away is the viewer standing? From which direction does she approach? What does he see first? How does her personal experience inform her viewing?

What We Learned About Looking: Where to Start

Enrique's Journey Whole

Some murals unfold their stories from one end to the other. The mural Enrique’s Journey (2009), painted by Josue Rojas who was assisted by Maria E. Garcia, is read from right to left. It depicts the story of a young boy’s journey from Honduras to the US (also chronicled in a biography/memoir of the same name by Sonia Nazario). At the far right, a train–La Bestia–steams downward through the rolling hills. In the foreground on the right, Enrique stretches his arms out as if he is flying toward the US. La Bestia, otherwise known as el tren de la muerte, is infamous for horrors such as robbery, injury, police encounter, and death that migrants experience on their trip northward. On the left is Enrique’s mother, who he imagines will be waiting for him as soon as he arrives, arms wide open. The heart outlined on Enrique’s mother’s chest is echoed by the heart over the Honduran countryside (top right). Between Enrique and his mother are the very real obstacles labeled “ICE,” “La Migra,” “Fear,” and “Unjust Immigration Policies.”

In contrast, some mural themes radiate from the center. Victorion: El Defensor de la Mision (2007), created by Sirron Norris, does just that. The strength of the transformer-esque figure in the foreground draws the eye first. With each step closer, the viewer uncovers new evil that Victorion (composed of Victorian houses historic to the neighborhood) must guard against. For example, the building at the bottom left appears so overcrowded that arms and legs burst from the windows. Meanwhile, the “Organic, Fair-Trade Condos” above do not have the same problem. On the street corner behind the pink bunny are two stores, The Cornerstore Classroom, advertising beer, wine, candy, pain, revista, lotto, and soda, and Hipster Unique Together. In front of the stores are two newspaper holders labeled “Lies” and “More Lies” and a trash can with an arrow pointing towards it indicating “Blanco Basura.” Carla told us that the man on the skateboard holding the dog is the artist himself, a part of the community. His image, in relation to the people at the bus stop, is huge. Carla reminded us that the choices artists make about scale are all intentional, reflecting the message of the overall mural.

Victorian Whole

Zoom in Skateboard VictorionZoom in Victorion

What We Learned About Looking: Seeing the “Trapdoor” Images

Norris’s mural, located toward the start of Balmy Alley, is one example of the ways in which mural artists communicate an obvious message with many subtle secondary messages embedded in the scape. Often, the viewer needs both context and a good eye to notice these embedded symbols and coded messages.

As we continued down the alley, we talked about the details in these murals that connected to our personal experiences and knowledge. In Carla’s introduction to The Mission: Photographs by Dick Evans, they write “Within each mural, there are myriad ‘trapdoor’ images –hidden visual details that lead the viewer down secret pathways of local and ancestral knowledge.” These conversations made us wonder what other viewers notice when they see these murals, and the intentions of the artists. Who are the details for? Are they for the artists themselves? Are they to affirm the experiences and knowledge of the community members? Are they to shock or humor outsiders? These are questions we will continue to explore along our journey.

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Mission Makeover Adam and EveWe found this to be particularly true for a mural located a little further down Balmy Alley called Mission Makeover (2012) by Lucia Ippolito and Tirso Araiza. At first glance, the theme of this mural is gentrification; however, a closer look reveals the specific agents responsible for the forced displacement of this Mission residents. Mission Makeover StarsucksAt the top right, the muralist has included logos of Google and Facebook, and a lightly penciled in Twitter logo on the riot gear of the officers forcing Adam and Eve out of Eden. The tech industry has raised the cost of housing in the Bay Area to a level that squeezes long-time locals out of the city or into homelessness. Featured in the lower right panel are logos such as “Starsucks,” Wealth Foods,” and “Trader Foes,” establishments that pop up as neighborhoods gentrify. A white cop and a well-dressed white woman share a cup of coffee, oblivious to the man sleeping on the sidewalk to their left.

Mission Makeover Top LeftIn contrast to the mainly white figures on the right panel of the mural and the signature businesses of gentrification, the left panel features businesses and landmarks native to The Mission, such as Discolandia, papel picado and a piragua cart. The house behind the bus on the left panel reads “Eviction.” A family exit, holding heavy bags and boxes. Most prominent, police hold two young Latino men in handcuffs in the foreground. The officer’s hat has Mickey Mouse ears on it, signifying “Mickey Mouse Cops,” and his nameplate reads “Rentacop.” The cop’s crossed out eyes and the graffiti on the bus were added by members of the community.  An additional piece of political significance in this mural is the bag of Skittles falling from the jacket of the young man on the bench.  This mural was painted right after Trayvon Martin was murdered and the Skittles are a marker of the danger all young men of color face. These details make a viewer stop to look a 4th, 5th, 12th time.

Misson Makeover Mickey Mouse Cop

 

What We Learned About Looking: Finding the Links

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Near the end of the alley, we spent a long time looking at Culture Contains the Seed of Resistance, Which Blossoms into the Flower of Liberation (1984 and 2014) by Miranda Bergman and O’Brien Thiele. We will discuss this mural more in an upcoming post. However it is an example of the awareness these muralists have about the work surrounding their spaces. Featured prominently on the right panel is a sweeping rainbow connecting the hard-won resources in the woman’s basket to the joyful music of the man’s guitarra. Lu_The WandererThe rainbow extends, appearing in the mural directly to the right, called Lu/The Wanderer (2011) and painted by our guide Carla Wojczuk (!!!!) and Julian Roward. Traces of the rainbow can be seen up and down Balmy Alley. The ways in which artists connect their pieces to those of other artists are subtle, but speak loudly of the respect that the artists hold for one another and the power of many united voices.

As we approached the end of Balmy Alley, we heard a camp counselor shouting “If you need to use the bathroom, use it now,” in the park across the street. Carla told us that in the early 1970’s, when kids were making their way to 24th Street Place from the housing projects behind the park, they were often warned that the alley was unsafe. Despite the warnings, kids continued to take the alley as opposed to longer routes. Carla told us architects refer to this phenomenon as the “desire path,” a path created as a consequence of human foot traffic. As the desire path leads to a more responsive architectural layout, the art in Balmy Alley is about embracing and responding to the beauty that is The Mission.

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A HUGE thank you to our guide, Carla Wojczuk. At the end of our tour, Carla told us that the more a community loves a mural, the more likely it will be protected. After spending time with Carla, we can tell how deeply loved and protected these murals are by Precita Eyes and The Mission community.

In solidarity,

Kat + Alice

Paredes Que Hablan: Language Arts on the Borders

Happy summer, everybody! Our brilliant WritingIsThinking colleague-friend Christina Kostaras once wrote a post about teacher summers and how they are a necessary part of the work we do. We use them to get smarter at our jobs, to make ourselves better for our students in the coming year. Christina says we do this because our students deserve “absolute greatness. Always.” I couldn’t agree more.

FFT-Fellow-PlacardThis summer, my colleague Kat and I received a Fund for Teachers grant for our project Paredes que Hablan. Here are some excerpts from our proposal that explain what we plan to do:

As urban teachers for Boston Public Schools, we work with a diverse student body. Over 80% of our students are classified as high needs, over 60% of our students are English Language Learners, and over 40% of our students have special needs. Our students cross borders every day…Every time these young people change spaces, they must reconcile their identities and pasts with their presents and futures. We know that in order for our students to truly succeed academically, they must see mirrors of themselves in our curricula–art, poetry, and text–and validation of their identities in our classrooms.

…This project seeks to build a robust first unit across two schools in Boston that will provide students opportunities to explore the multitude of ways that activists develop their messages and make themselves seen and heard. Students will begin to understand how the personal is political while exploring multimedia resources, all the while developing visual thinking, close reading, questioning, flexible thinking, executive functioning, understanding of audience, and empathy skills that will serve them as they explore texts for the rest of the school year and the rest of their lives.

Our project proposes, at its culmination, to surface these crossings and to give students critical thinking tools, opportunities, and resources to grapple with the complexity of personal identity in multiple spaces. Through art, poetry, and text, students will have multiple ways to enter this conversation about identity, simultaneously seeing themselves–their ideas, their pasts, their futures–in literature, the school community, and each other.  At the end of this unit, students will create multiple responses to the question “How do we show other people the depth of our past and the strength of our future?” that leverage the knowledge collected during this project. They will write, draw, compose, and record their responses.  They will also design a mural that encapsulates the border crossing they do each day.

To gather resources and knowledge for this project, we propose to spend 22 days exploring “literary arts on the border” with a focus on mural creation, zooming in on the many Latino cultures from which our students are rooted. Our project will take us to California, Arizona, and New Mexico to examine murals and artwork that are products of, and in many case images of, immigrant experiences. Along the way, we aspire to interview artists and collect resources about the artists’ diverse creative processes. During the first two weeks of our project, we will visit San Francisco, Los Angeles, Tucson, and Santa Fe, visiting murals and the artists/artist collectives from which they originated. We will also visit museums that capture different experiences of immigration, as well as centers of immigration in different cities.

The second part of our project will take place on the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, where a mural project was completed in 2014. We will spend a week in Haiti and the DR discovering everyday culture that will allow us to better understand both the artwork created on the bridge between the two countries and the identities of many of the students in our classrooms.

…Walls and borders often give people places to hide. We hope to use this project to reframe the divides that exist in our classrooms, school systems, and cities, so that students can see how sharing identity and stories creates rather than destroys.

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Above is a map of each of our stops, and below is an overview of our itinerary with some of the highlights from each stop. We’ll post in detail about each stop along the way.

Location/Dates Important Stops
San Francisco, CA

July 4th-7th

Precita Eyes Murals

Galeria de La Raza

67 Suenos

The Mexican Museum

Los Angeles, CA

July 7th-9

The Art of Indigenous Resistance Exhibit

Los Angeles Mural Mile

Los Angeles Immigration Center

San Diego, CA

July 9th-11th

Hands of Peace

Chicano Park (and this link, too!)

Galeria de la Raza

Tucson, AZ

July 11th-13th

Meeting with Dr. Curtis Acosta

Tucson Mural Arts Program

Santa Fe, NM

July 14th-16th

Indigenous Arts Festival

Art and Remembrance

Mexico City, MX

July 16th-23rd

Museum with Indigenous Ruins

Teotihuacan Ancient Ruins Day Trip

Toluca Day Trip (50 mins) Stained Glass Murals

Frida Kahlo Museum

Diego Rivera Museum

Puerto Plata, DR

July 23rd-30th

Border of Lights

 

Here’s to a summer of sunshine, new places, and teacher-driven learning,

Alice + Kat