The end of the school years means its assessment, reflection and celebration time. I know we did our job when students want to know more about specific techniques and concepts. With few students getting a formal arts education in Tucson many of our participants arrive drawing stick figures and depart wanting to know more about observational drawing, color theory and how the principles of design we use in visual arts can be translated into poetry or dance. School ends in May here, reflecting life in the Sonoran Desert. This year is different; with the summer heats coming late some say it’s more evidence of climate change.
The Tucson Unified School District Board meeting on the evening of May 3, 2011 was sizzling hot. Chaos is how one could best describe the mood as over 100 police officers faced off with less than 300 protestors in and outside the district offices. Legendary Ethnic Studies educator Guadalupe Castillo was arrested and taken away in handcuffs for reading “Letter from Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King.[i] Outside hundreds of protestors linked arms attempting to block the doors. Several weeks later the district agreed to drop charges against the protestors.
In the balance is the fate of the districts controversial Ethnic Studies program that introduces topical social justice themes using popular education techniques. It’s an interdisciplinary program that includes history, arts and social studies. The students that emerge from the program are often engaged in local civic life, critical thinkers and stewards of our community.
Professor Castillo like many of her peers emerged from the civil rights era. She has spent a lifetime teaching about social justice issues impacting southern Arizona neighborhoods.
Many of the old barrios are gone now, but the spirit and sense of community remain. Labeled a “slum” in the late 60’s, eighty acres of beautiful historic buildings, stores and cultural centers were demolished and more than 1200 people displaced. “Children could run playing in the streets, no one locked their doors, and everyone knew each other”.[ii]
This is the world that people like Lupe Castillo, Henry Garcia, Eddie and Angie Flores (pictured below) come from. Eddie Flores serves on the Boards of a several local cultural organizations such as La Pilita and Luc Social Services. He is an outspoken proponent of youth civic engagement and arts based service learning.
“You have to get involved and stay involved because you are our future,” he implored the youth at Howenstine High Magnet Service Learning High School. Over the past year I have been working on the Barrio Centro Neighborhood Mural Project[iii] with a group of high-school students, their teacher Tempest Alabi-Isama, Barrio Cento neighbors and Josh Jacobson the owner of a popular local restaurant, Lucky Wishbone. Barrio Centro started to flourish with the end of World War 2, the development of water pumping technologies and new jobs in the adjacent rail yard. Most of the original homes belonged to rail workers who could walk home, and were awoken by the sound of the rail yard whistle. The neighborhood continues to be inhabited by numerous long time residents who are our living history books.
The mural project was initiated in response to the growing problem of tagging and a desire to beautify the neighborhood. With local cutbacks to youth arts and cultural programming many of Tucson’s most creative and rebellious youth have taken to a new form of art. “What we are doing is responding to a world gone crazy, it’s like, our way of showing everyone something is really wrong” one young artist told me. There may be something to that. One of the neighborhoods we work with has an ongoing rash of tags repeatedly in the same location. At night the sites are tagged, and the next day neighbors come out and paint them over.
During a recent community paint day several of the youth from that neighborhood pulled me aside. “Those neighbors don’t respect us, they shut us down (out) and dis us (ignore our voices).” I asked if they had attended any of the neighborhood meetings, and they said no. Six months earlier that same neighborhood had voiced concern, even fear for personal safety, due to all the graffiti. One woman, a shut in, was absolutely mortified as she spoke of living alone and hearing the rattling of spray cans in the alley at night.
Bringing these voices together has been a challenge, but the conversation has started. The youth in this case are using the arts to organize. When I point out that both groups share at least a desire for a stronger sense of community and self-sufficiency the ice starts to melt. We exchange hugs and phone numbers, in the fall when the desert sun eases below a surface temperature of 106 degrees there will be new mural projects.
Back in the classroom we finish our assessment collages. The students talk about transportation and scheduling of after school activities and what they will be doing over the summer. They are delighted to know our collaboration will continue next year. It’s been a tough year for many Tucson students and teachers. Still it’s good to know that while the powers that be might seek to deny us our cultural and human rights, we will be celebrating the unveiling of the Barrio Centro history mural with food, music, stories and dance.
[ii] Henry Garcia interviews, Miracle Manor Neighborhood History Mural 2009, Tucson Arts Brigade Inc.