Artolution’s Joel Bergner reflects on the recent partnership with Richard Gomez and local immigrant communities in California’s agricultural heartland:
Since the presidential campaign, fear and anxiety have been especially high in the Central Valley of California’s largely immigrant agricultural communities, who are responsible for growing two thirds of the nation’s produce. This diverse region has large numbers of Mexican immigrants and migrant workers as well as Mexican-Americans whose families have been here since California was part of Mexico. There are undocumented and documented, Punjabis and Portuguese, white working class and Hmong refugees from Laos, all striving to succeed and give their children a better life than they had. In other words, this often forgotten but significant region of the country represents what makes America such a unique and dynamic country that has room for everyone and is stronger for it, an ideal that is currently under attack.
I arrived here in late November to facilitate a series of community-based mural projects in partnership with artist Professor Richard Gomez of the University of California, Merced, supported by the university and local public school districts in the towns of Planada and Livingston. Richard and I had been roommates years ago when we lived in San Francisco’s Mission District, but had lost touch once we both moved away, a common phenomenon in those pre-Facebook days. We reconnected after discovering that we were both involved in the world of social and community-based art, leading to this collaborate. For three weeks we led workshops with local youth and worked side-by-side with many incredible community members, students and teachers to design and paint 6 public murals.
Our workshops included discussions about what most concerned community members, including a lack of employment and educational opportunities, gang violence and other social issues. Also, there was a sense that much of the nation had turned against immigrants and Latinos, which was upsetting to many who felt just as American as anyone else and worked hard to contribute to society. These themes informed the designs for the murals, as did that which gave people pride: their identity as agricultural workers, their strong heritage and the individuals and families that made up these tight-knit communities. Together, we brainstormed and created sketches on paper, leading to cohesive designs that included everyone’s ideas. Over three weeks, dozens participated in the painting of these murals, contributing to the cultural fabric of their communities.
In both Planada and Livingston, we had a blast painting together, as people of all ages and walks of life came together to contribute their ideas and creativity. They reflected on their visions for the future, what they love about their communities and what they are striving for. Through this collaborative process, many new connections were formed and residents were pleasantly surprised at what they could accomplish together. Richard and I were received with warm hospitality, and were invited by several local families to dinner in their homes.
There were many incredible people who came together to make this initiative an overwhelming success, and it was beautiful to see everyone unite on a common cause. A huge thank you to everyone who supported this unforgettable process: Alex Garcia, our community project coordinator whose deep roots in the community and relationships with local youth was invaluable; our two awesome project assistants, UC students Clarissa and Perla, who have been learning the ins and outs of community-based public art; Planada Superintendent Jose Gonzalez; local artist Ruben Sanchez; high school student and future art educator Austin Smith; the dynamic duo Alex and Lucy; Tony Garcia and his family; Jose and Maria Morales; “Los Dos Juanes;” Tere; Jacob; Elias; Polino; Planada Principal Mr. Nava and Livingston Principal Mr. Arteaga (Mr. Arte!); Andres Zamora; all the amazing teachers and administrators at Planada and Livingston elementary schools; and, of course, all the hardworking students and community members who contributed their creativity to the artwork! Thanks to our institutional partners, UC Merced and the Planada and Livingston school districts, who made these projects possible. And, last but not least, a giant thank you to Professor Richard Gomez, who was an incredible partner over the course of this experience, and his wife Cely and three adorable kids for their hospitality, as they welcomed me into their home and put up with me for three weeks! Through the non-profit organization I co-direct, Artolution, we are planning further projects in the region with Richard, with the long-term goal of developing ongoing and sustainable community-based public art programming in the Central Valley.