Fredy, an undocumented 19-year-old student at Horace Furness High School, 1900 S. Third St., emigrated from Mexico at age 12, leaving his grandmother and his ethnic home behind. After the forced move, he had to adapt to a new language, culture and school, surrounded by individuals who, in some cases, didn’t accept his background.
Keeping his emotions inside for more than seven years, Fredy finally had the opportunity to discuss his immigrant experiences with others as part of Bella Vista artist Michelle Ortiz’s “Aqui y Alla” mural project at 1515 S. Sixth St.
“We started talking about our personal things in life,” Fredy, who resides with his mother at Ninth and Tasker streets, said. “That was the hardest thing because I don’t like to share my thoughts with people. And in [the discussions], there were all these sad stories. … We were saying the truth. One of the things that I talked about was that my grandmother passed away last year and since then, I had been fighting with my mother.”
Ortiz, of 10th Street and Washington Avenue, spent more than a year planning and raising money for “Aqui y Alla,” which translates to “Here and There.” The theme of the mural is immigration through the perspective of young, immigrant — specifically Mexican — teenagers. It incorporates the struggling voices of local children who already have crossed the border, as well as students in Mexico waiting to make the trek.
“These two worlds are still interconnected,” Ortiz said. “And for those that come here, still have nostalgia of being back home and for those that are over there, not all of them, but most of them because of necessity, want to be here. So there is already a communication that is happening on both ends.”
Ortiz’s mural project began after she did two art education residencies in Mexico, specifically in Juarez and Chihuahua, Mexico, through the U.S. Embassy. After drawing connections to the immigrants in the U.S. with the ones in Mexico, Ortiz wanted to find a way to bring ideas from the artists to Philadelphia.
At the same time, Ortiz was planning a documentary about South Philly immigrants telling their stories, and wanted to involve the voices of immigrant teens.
Collaborating with the Mural Arts Program and Philadelphia Academies Inc., raising money herself and receiving grants, Ortiz was able to conduct a mural project that was uniquely her own.
“The reason I wanted it to be my own vision is because I wanted to be able to create a curriculum,” Ortiz said.
She wanted to provide an opportunity for students to talk about struggles in a community — with a growing Mexican population — that often overlooks the conversation.
“I think [this experience] helped me by taking all the sad things I have inside and sharing them with people,” Fredy said. “That was the thing I was not used to doing. I used to stay quiet, get angry by myself, get mad with other people, so I think it helped me a lot. I just talked to my mom. It was not like that before.”
Aside from Fredy, eight other immigrant students, mostly from Furness, worked alongside Ortiz on the Passyunk Square mural from July 2 to Aug. 15. Painting is still being touched up this week, and will be finished for an early-October dedication.
Fourteen indigenous teenagers in Mexico worked with four artists and community leaders whom Ortiz trained in Juarez and Chihuahua City. After seeing images of what the painters in Philadelphia constructed, the youth in Mexico produced transportable murals on fiber cloth panels that are currently being shipped to the U.S. These panels then will be installed onto the mural to create one conversation between the youth.
The left side of the creation depicts Bryant, a young resident from Fifth and Dickinson streets, who represents 7-year-olds forced to come to the U.S. from Puebla, Mexico. It is around Bryant where the panels from Mexico will be incorporated.
Diana, of Sixth and Tasker streets, is painted on the right side of the mural, representing young teens that have crossed the border.
The mural details an immigrant’s story, drawing on issues like economics, struggles and changes. Ortiz also included ethnic symbols — such as Hindu, Celtic and African images — around Diana that different immigrant groups in the neighborhood submitted.
“All of those images are actually incorporated into the mural,” Ortiz said. “We are talking about a story based in Mexico … but having those markers represents the cultural diversity that exists specifically in this neighborhood.”
Born and raised in South Philly by Latino immigrant parents, Ortiz grew up surrounded by people from all different cultures. She first-handedly witnessed the connection her family had with different immigrants — all working toward the “American dream” — but also discovered tensions between different ethnic groups.
“I think that falls into why I would even come up in doing a project like this,” Ortiz said. “It’s because I, like many of the students that were in our program, know what it’s like to speak two different languages, live two different types of cultures, and have another way of looking at things and living life.”
Ortiz wanted the basis of her project to use art as a means to bring people together, giving them a voice and making them visible.
“My role as an artist and my skill as an artist really can help give presence to a community,” Ortiz said. “I don’t think a mural is going to give us world peace, but I do think that a mural becomes a point of encounter.”
Once Jerry Gramaglia, a South Philly native who owns the apartment building on which the mural was painted, learned what Ortiz wanted to do with the wall, he was hooked.
“Being that my parents were Italian immigrants, I had no problem with [Ortiz] doing the mural,” Gramaglia said. “People tend to forget, I think we’re all immigrants. All us Americans are all immigrants at some point down the line.”
A neighbor — a half Italian, half Chinese man — stopped to tell Ortiz how he connected with the artwork, even though it depicts people from a different ethnicity.
“What I realized as we were putting up the mural, whether the neighbors are Mexican or not, they identify with the mural because they know what it’s like to come from a different country and come into a new one and settle your roots in a place that was strange and foreign,” Ortiz said.
Early Friday evening, members of Las Cafeteras – a Son Jarocho-inspired band from Los Angeles – stopped by the mural for a photo and video shoot before their performance at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square.
“Story telling is political because often we’re taught to be silenced, we’re taught that our stories aren’t valuable if we’re not on TV or if we’re not a politician,” Daniel French, who plays the jarana, sings and dances for Las Cafeteras, said. “But, the power of this mural is that it’s letting all of us know that our stories are worth putting on a wall.”
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