How area Latino teens are finding their voice

When art, media, and Latino heritage collide, you'll find the Hispanic Center of West Michigan and the Grandville Avenue Arts & Humanities working together on a new mural that will let local teens find their voices while creating lasting artwork and impact for their city.
Art, media & heritage: Two youth programs partner on Hispanic mural
Lauren Fay Carlson
The Hispanic population is growing and thriving in Grand Rapids. With an increasing array of hispanic-owned businesses including grocery and convenience stores and restaurants, Grand Rapidians are taking notice of the rich culture of this diverse and vibrant group. The arts are no exception, as artists seek to explore their heritage through culturally themed pieces in a city that continues to prove its artistic merit.
Two groups—the Hispanic Center of West Michigan (HCWM) and the Grandville Avenue Arts & Humanities (GAAH)—are working together to combine culture, art and youth engagement through a mural and media project on Grandville Ave. Nestled in a largely hispanic neighborhood, the partnered projects, both funded by the Michigan Humanities Council, seek to preserve and explore the Latino heritage of the teenagers involved, and create a lasting artwork for the community.
"We always try to incorporate a cultural piece," says Rachel Lopez, director of youth and parent services at HCWM. At the helm of the Supporting our Leaders youth program (SOL), Lopez guides a group of high school students through a large project each year, in addition to offering services such as tutoring, gang prevention and intervention, job readiness training and leadership services. These projects and services are all designed with one goal in mind: to guide students toward high school graduation and prepare them for post-secondary education or the workforce.
This year, Lopez's students decided to embark on an art project—the restoration and redevelopment of a cultural mural on the building at 900 Grandville Ave. Since a majority of her students (80 percent) are of Latin American origin, the mural will explore Latino heritage and the history of the surrounding Latino community. "A lot of the students don't know the history of their families," says Lopez, who encourages her students explore how issues such as immigration, language and cultural identity fit into their own lives. "A lot of our students struggle with identity," she adds, noting that a discovery and pride of one's origin can be beneficial to both her students and the next generation.
Working in tandem with Lopez is Steffanie Rosalez's Team Leaders group at the Cook Arts Center of the GAAH. "We've always looked for different ways to collaborate," says Lopez. With similar goals, Rosalez's students also seek to better themselves and their neighborhoods through after school projects.

"All of our teens want to do things that make a difference in the community," says Rosalez. By working at the arts center, receiving private lessons in various art forms and undertaking community projects, Rosalez's fifteen students work within a youth-driven spaces model that allows them to direct the mission of their own development. "It's very much driven by what the kids want," says Rosalez.
Seeking to specifically restore a neighborhood mural since the program's inception 1.5 years ago, the team leaders ultimately decided to focus on documenting the creation of the mural through film. Receiving training and access to equipment from the Grand Rapids Community Media Center, Rosalez's students seek to create a 20-30 minute documentary that will capture the artistic process, as well as the cultural development of both groups of students. "I think it's extremely beneficial for their own sense of identity," says Rosalez. After completing the film, the group will make it accessible through the Grand Rapids Public Library, which is assisting in the creation of a public Latino archive for the city.
After both groups settled on their location, Lopez, Rosalez and their students were excited to begin talks with the property owner about a project in the heart of the neighborhood. Mid-talks, however, the building changed hands. Luckily, the buyer—local businessman Javier Olvera—had great plans for the property, and was enthusiastic about continuing the mural project.
Olvera, owner of Olvera Enterprises and President of Supermercado Mexico, purchased the property at 900 Grandville in the spring of this year, planning to develop the space for a brand new Hispanic market with a similar design to the Downtown Market. With Hispanic restaurants and services on the first floor and office spaces on the second, Olvera's new market is set to open in spring 2017.
Excited about the mural on his new property, Olvera quickly joined in on the project collaboration, agreeing to allow the space to be utilized for the art project. "As a business owners, we have always looked for ways to help improve our community. I believe the mural will connect us more with our Latino roots and represent who we are in Grand Rapids," says Olvera.
Olvera is also excited about the teens' artistic process. "I believe as the youth create this mural they will be able to identify themselves with the painting, feel pride in their creativity and increase their self-confidence. It will be a reminder of the presence of the young Hispanic population here on the southwest side of our multicultural city," he adds.
As the two teen groups begin working together to develop their vision for the mural, they each seek to better understand their culture, their identity and the community they call home. Coincidentally going in on the site of a new business specifically designed to serve the surrounding Hispanic population, the mural represents not only the youth and their families, but the successful business owners giving back through shared heritage. "I'm really excited that it's finally kicking off," says Lopez.

Lauren Fay Carlson is a freelance writer and editor, Aquinas alumna, and Grand Rapids native. Her work can be found at, and she can be reached at [email protected] for story tips and feedback.

Support for this story about race and cultural identity is provided by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.