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
Gintong Kasaysayan, Gintong Pamana (Filipino History Mural, A Glorious History, A Golden Legacy)
Chicano Park, Aztlan History Mural
Diego Rivera, Secretaria de Educacion Publica
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.”
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.
Dining Room looking out on the Garden (Red Tree House)
Breakfast at the Red Tree House
Extended Dining Room view (Red Tree House)
Sitting Room (Red Tree House)
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.
The Moon Pyramid, Teotihuacan
Looking down from the top of the Sun Pyramid, Teotihuacan
The Moon Pyramid in the distance, Teotihuacan
The Sun Pyramid, taken from half way up the Mood Pyramid, Teotihuacan
Carving, Anthropology Museum
Beadwork, Anthropology Museum
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.
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.
Kat + Alice
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
They thought I was a Surrealist, but I wasn’t. I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality. -Frida Kahlo
La Casa Azul holds many secretos and juxtapositions, the boldest of which is color. Kahlo’s most famous works, self-portraits such as Autoretrato Las dos Fridas/Selfportrait The two Fridas, Autoretrato Diego y Yo/Selfportrait Diego and I, and Autoretrato Pensando en la Muerte/Selfportrait Thinking about Death, are done in earthy tones, the background often an olive green, steely gray, or rich brown. In contrast, her living space is the brightest blue. Her clothing was reds, yellows, pinks, and greens, leaping from the fabric. She surrounded herself with bold, vibrant color. Kahlo’s extensive biography is available on the web, in books, and in traveling exhibits. Walking through the space that she and Diego created together, however, opens a sensory way of learning about Kahlo’s art, her pain, her relationships, and her eccentricities. Touring La Casa Azul is perhaps the most intimate experience a tourist can have with Frida Kahlo.
Frida Kahlo’s identity is complex. Born to Guillermo Kahlo, of Hungarian-German descent, and Matilde Calderon, of indigenous and Spanish descent, Kahlo’s artwork and fashion show her navigation of two ethnic identities. She also stretched boundaries of gender, sexuality, and ability. When Kahlo was six, she contracted polio which resulted in one of her legs being underdeveloped. She wore three or four socks on that leg, as well as a platform shoe, to even her stance. At eighteen, she was impaled by a railing during a serious bus accident, breaking her spine and resulting in a long hospital stay and a back brace that she wore most of the rest of her life. Her living space, La Casa Azul, illuminates those complexities, celebrating the effects they had and the choices they inspired. As teachers, we want our students to see and understand Kahlo’s ability to negotiate layers of identity and personal relationship through art.
Stepping over the threshold into the four-room art exhibit, a focus on self and individual relationships jumps from the oils and photographs. Kahlo is most famous for self-portraits that exhibit deep pain and reflection, and these first four rooms contain work that is more typical of a Kahlo exhibit, including portraits, self-portraits, and a few stills. These four rooms also contain quotations, photographs, and pages from Kahlo’s diary. The fourth room has a label on each wall, indicating four points of genesis for Kahlo’s creative work: passions, inspirations, family, and photography. (Kahlo’s father was a photographer, and she was surrounded by portrait photography as a young person.)
The fifth room is filled to the edges with Mexican popular and pre-Hispanic glassware and pottery, which Kahlo and Rivera valued for its traditional artistry. The couple loved entertaining, and the volume of dishware proves that they were ready to host tens of guests at a time. This is one of the first rooms where Kahlo’s compartmentalization of her pain is glaring. She jovially hosted artists and political figures including Georgia O’Keefe, Leon Trotsky, Jose Clemente Orozco, and Edward Weston, saving her pain for her art.
After peeking into Diego’s bedroom and the kitchen, we walked up the stairs into Kahlo’s studio. Her wheelchair is parked right in front of the easel, which sits between two work tables. One of the tables holds her paints, brushes, and sparkling stones that she used in her painting. On the other sits the mirror she used when painting her self-portraits. One wall is entirely glass, letting in glorious light and a view of the garden below, while the opposite wall is entirely bookshelf, displaying Kahlo’s collection of books, photographs, and diagrams of the human body used in her work.
Next come Kahlo’s two bedrooms–a day bedroom and a night bedroom. Most obvious in the day bedroom are the mirror affixed to the canopy top that her mother put there after her accident and Kahlo’s death mask. In the night bedroom, affixed above the bed is a panel of butterflies, a gift from an American painter. The room also houses a collection of dolls Kahlo created of herself in different styles including a Chinese doll, a Japanese doll, and a Mexican doll, as well as a pre-Hispanic urn that holds Kahlo’s ashes, which sits on her dressing table. The urn is shaped like a toad, a reference to Diego’s self-assigned nickname, el sapo-rana.
In her private spaces, such as her bedrooms and her studio, we saw evidence of both her physical disability and the mental anguish it caused her. The two beds strongly indicate that Kahlo spent much of her time horizontally, and the wheelchair demonstrates a life-long struggle with mobility. These physical signs of pain are exclusively on the second floor of the house, making them less visible to Kahlo’s friends and guests who frequented La Casa Azul.
After walking through the beautifully curated, lush garden, we arrived at the exhibit behind Kahlo and Rivera’s home, Appearances Can Be Deceiving: Frida Kahlo’s Wardrobe. According to Circe Henestrosa, the exhibition curator, the exhibition “displays these objects for the very first time and is a study of Kahlo’s construction of her own identity. Themed into five rooms, the exhibition focuses on the construction of Kahlo’s style through disability, tradition, fashion and dress, showing the original ensembles and objects drawn from the museum’s collection. It also shows how Kahlo’s personal style remains a source of inspiration for international artists and designers such as Jean Paul Gaultier, Dai Rees, Comme des Garcons, and Riccardo Tisci.”
When we walked into the exhibit, the first things we saw were Kahlo’s crutches and six different forms of back brace, offset by one of the corsets that she decorated. The next two rooms display what Kahlo’s true wardrobe including long skirts that hid her shrunken leg and the blouses of Tehuana style with elaborate embroidery, drawing the viewer’s eye to the top part of her body away from her legs. On the walls in these rooms are photographs that Kahlo altered with scissors and a page from her diary that elaborates on her feelings about her worsening physical condition. Finally, in the last two rooms, stand several examples of avant-garde fashion pieces inspired by Kahlo’s style, including one top and skirt set belonging to Kahlo herself. She painted the top in great detail, the colors beautifully matching the long green skirt.
Kahlo’s ability to take ownership of a challenge and turn it into art is obvious throughout La Casa Azul. The museum beautifully displays Kahlo’s multiple representations of her identity through painting, diary pages, homemade dolls, quotations, fashion choices, and the items she surrounded herself with day and night. We hope that, as our students progress through the Borders and Identity Unit we are currently building, they can learn from these multiple representations of identity, mimicking Kahlo’s genres of expression and finding their own. Just as Kahlo used her clothing as a tool to empower herself through disability and pain, we want our students to see art and literature as tools to navigate identity, borders, and challenges in their own lives.
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.
San Diego Stops
Santa Fe and Albuquerque Stops
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.
Now, off to enjoy the rest of our time in Mexico City!
Kat + Alice
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.
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.
We 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.
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.
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.
But I Am Somebody by Joann Little
Save Chicano Park! Saturday March 23, 1996 2pm
“No More Deaths!” “Love Has No Borders!” “No Border Wall” “No Olvidados”
Dedicated to the People that Died during Operation Gatekeeper
Mirame con los ojos porque te quiero besar la cara. Dime que si con esa mirada porque quisiera que me amaras. (Poem by Louis the Foot)
“La tierra es de quien la trabaja con sus proprias manos.”
“Let me say at the risk of seeming ridiculous that the true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love/Dejeme decirle a riesgo de paracer ridiculo, que el revolucionario verdadero esta guiado por grandes sentimientos de amor.”
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.