Art for the people: Students debut Grandville mural celebrating Latino community, diversity & unity

To create a stunning new mural on Grandville Avenue, high school students spent months exploring race, identity and heritage. After nearly a year of doing everything from holding public forums to putting on skits about racism in Grand Rapids, the teenagers are celebrating their newly-finished piece of public art that is all about uplifting and empowering the area's Latino community.
Art, the students who transformed a giant blank wall into a vibrant community mural on Grandville Avenue explain, should not be relegated to a specific place. Or solely for specific people. It should not be limited to those with means, or hidden from those who don’t frequent Grand Rapids’ downtown. It can be transformative. It can celebrate a neighborhood, diversity, history, unity, and people. It can be driven by, and inspire, discussions of race and identity and heritage. It can make a group of teenagers say, amidst a sea of color: we are a part of this; we are proud pieces of a diverse community of people from places around the globe, from Guatemala and Puerto Rico to Mexico and the Dominican Republic. And our histories and cultures and experiences matter.

These are the messages students and other community leaders emphasize last Thursday evening, when the Hispanic Center of Western Michigan and the Cook Arts Center held a celebration of the recently completed mural titled "Nuestra Historia, Nuestra Voz" ("Our History, Our Voice") at 912 Grandville Avenue. Created by high school students from the Hispanic Center of Western Michigan and Grandville Avenue Arts and Humanities’ Cook Arts Center, who worked with local artists Raquel Silva, David Frison and Ricardo Gonzalez on the massive piece of public art, the mural is the culmination of nine months of intensive collaboration that included everything from art classes to forums, skits and discussions revolving around identity, race and heritage. After countless hours of putting brushes to wall, not to mention gallons of red and yellow and green and blue paint, the final result is a mural that celebrates the cultural heritage and unity of Grandville Avenue.

“The message, to me is personal; it’s about empowerment for the Hispanic community,” Rafael Paz, a 15-year-old City High School student who was one of about 30 teenagers who worked on the mural project, says of the public piece of art that now adorns the towering space that was donated by Javier Olvera, the president and owner of Supermercado Mexico. The mural was funded by Michigan Humanities Council grants given to the Hispanic Center and the Cook Arts Center. Members of the Hispanic Center were responsible for designing and painting the mural, and individuals from the Cook Arts Center painstakingly documented the process, including creating a documentary that aired during last week’s celebration and includes an array of phenomenal footage and interviews, including stunning aerial images taken by a drone. The documentary also received backing from the Grand Rapids Community Media Center’s Elevating Voices project, which gave students access to computers, cameras, software, training, and more.

In a city where the Hispanic population has more than tripled over the past 20 years, increasing from a little less than 10,000 people in 1990 to more than 29,000 in 2010, the last year for which there are U.S. Census Bureau statistics available, this message of empowerment is particularly poignant, and important. While Hispanic residents are becoming increasingly visible everywhere from city government to the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce, they still regularly face disenfranchisement and racism (such as, for example, not being able to access funding for businesses, not being hired or promoted in the workplace, and regularly hearing people shout racist slurs at them), something which was discussed at length during the mural’s planning process.

Emmanuel Zavala, a 14-year-old City High School student who too worked on the mural, notes they held skits about the racism the teens have faced, with the pieces addressing everything from micro-aggressions (often subtle, but offensive, comments or actions that unintentionally or unconsciously reinforce a stereotype) to what it means to be Hispanic and not speak Spanish to being biracial. For example, Zavala says they discussed volunteers coming into the Cook Library Center and coming up to teens to ask them if they need help, when that help hasn’t been solicited and isn’t needed.

“But they see me, and they do that, and that makes me feel mad,” Zavala says. “I work hard, and they assume you don’t know anything.”

As part of the mural, there are depictions of various flags, including those of Puerto Rico, El Salvador, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, and Cuba -- an effort to both symbolize the heritages of those living in the community and a way to celebrate the incredible array of cultures that create a strong, tight-knit neighborhood that deserves to be lifted up as much as, for example, Grand Rapids’ downtown.
“Less than a mile away from somewhere like Founders, where there’s a lot of art, the art really dwindles” when you get into such areas as Grandville Avenue, says Javier Jauregui, a youth advocate at the Hispanic Center. “Art should not be exclusive to one neighborhood.”

This call for the democratization of art in the city is being heard, and the Grandville mural, which is situated about halfway between the Hispanic Center and the Cook Arts Center, will be an ArtPrize venue this year -- something Jauregui notes wouldn’t have happened without the efforts of SiTE:LAB’s Rumsey Street Project, an all-volunteer arts organization’s initiative that uses nearly three acres of Habitat for Humanity’s land in Roosevelt Park. The Rumsey Street property, located not far from the Grandville Avenue mural, has turned a mixture of unoccupied structures and vacant lots into a temporary art center in an effort to expose the public to often overlooked stores and restaurants in the neighborhood. SiTE:LAB will use the space until Habitat launches its redevelopment of the property, which is slated to take place in 2017.

Jauregui also emphasizes that the mural was the product of numerous voices from throughout the community, not solely individuals from the Hispanic Center and Cook Arts Center.

“We held two forums with neighbors, which is where the ideas for the mural came from,” he says. “This was not something that happened behind closed doors or overnight. There were numerous voices involved. To say this is just an Hispanic Center project is an exaggeration; this is a Grandville Avenue project.”

That this incorporated so many different voices from the community, including voices that can often be marginalized, is, the artists and others involved say, emblematic of a changing city that is increasingly realizing that cities, like ecosystems, are far stronger when they are diverse.

“There’s this diversity, and all these different groups, we’re all discriminated against,” says Antonio Jaimes, a 15-year-old City High School student who worked on the mural. “There’s all these different races all over this neighborhood, but we’re all united.”

Steffanie Rosalez, the program director at the Cook Arts Center, too emphasizes this.

“There’s the message of unity, of having pride in your own community,” she says. “It’s about empowering the neighborhood.”

To check out the mural for yourself, you can go to 912 Grandville Ave., or visit the Hispanic Center and Cook Arts Center online for more information.

Anna Gustafson is the managing editor at Rapid Growth. You can reach her by emailing [email protected], or connect with her on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

This article is part of Michigan Nightlight, a series of stories about the programs and people that positively impact the lives of Michigan kids. It is made possible with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Read more in the series here.

Photography by Adam Bird
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