In the past 10 years or so, South Philadelphia has been transformed by Mexican immigrants. They opened stores and restaurants, right next to ones opened by earlier waves of Italian and Irish immigrants. This summer, a group of Mexican immigrant teens has been working on telling their stories of migration and displacement though a mural.
Freddy Argulla, 19, grew up between two cities — Puebla and Philadelphia. He moved here when he was 11 and left behind a grandmother he called “mi mama.” He never saw her again, and he never forgot.
It’s not a story he liked to tell, so he kept quiet. But now it’s there for all to see in a large panel he designed and painted for a mural at Sixth and Dickinson streets.
For Argulla, it all started when he registered in a summer arts program at Furness High School and was asked by artist Michelle Ortiz to bring an object that was important to him.
“That’s only one of the few pictures I have of my grandmother. She was very special to me. I promised her to come back, which I never did. I broke my promise,” said Argulla. Inspired by the photo, he made a painting and included his poem.
“With all the million tears I cried, I could build a stairway to Heaven and bring you back home,” he wrote.
The mural is called “Aqui y Alla” or “Here and There.” With it, Ortiz wanted to give a voice to adolescents from both sides of the border.
Expressions of loss and longing
“The Mexican immigrant teens that work directly with us in this project, immigrated at the ages of 9 and 10 with their parents and family members and some of them on their own.
“For some of them, it is very difficult to talk about that journey and crossing, but also, they find themselves with many family conflicts of the fact that they were left behind by their parents at an early age and then they came to be reunited with their parents here in Philadelphia. There’s a relationship that’s broken,” said Ortiz.
Ortiz is not new to the mural art project system of bringing people together to tell their personal stories. In this case, she also worked with four painters from two Mexican public art collectives from the border cities of Chihuahua and Juarez. She trained them to collect stories and artwork from teens in their cities and invited them to Philadelphia to collaborate with young Mexican immigrants here.
The process was a revelation for street artist David Flores, a member of a graffiti arts collective in Juarez.
“This project was groundbreaking for me as an artist,” said Flores in Spanish, “because Michelle taught us to use a more ambitions approach to street art in terms of size and permanence. We went from fast wall graphic work and gallery painting to doing enormous collective murals.”
After climbing up the three-story scaffolding, Ortiz describes a stylized Aztec calendar that forms one of several large circles in the mural.
“You have these two circles that will represent a young lady who has arrived with a map of South Philadelphia behind her, and then you’re going to have a young boy that actually has a map that represents a mapping of Juarez and Chihuahua along with a specific map from Puebla, which is where most of the Mexican immigrants are coming from to Philadelphia,” explained Ortiz.
‘We see ourselves as artivists’
In between the circles, large rectangles are filled by the teen’s work. Ortiz sees the mural as a visual retelling of a familiar journey with new details. For the Mexican artists, it’s a vehicle for teens to emerge from the anonymity of lives in the shadows.
“We see ourselves as activists or, better yet, artivists,” said street painter and social anthropologist Oscar Gallegos. “We are more accustomed to documenting stories of the terrible violence in Mexico caused by the drug traffic. Also we tend to see immigration only from a border perspective not from what happens after the crossing. We learned a lot with this project.”
Gallegos and the other artists learned, for instance, that for adolescent immigrants who have to navigate the world of family, school, work and language, issues of identity and belonging are even more complicated than for adults.
Freddy Argulla still plans to return to his birthplace, but regrets his grandmother won’t be there when he does.
“I came here to get a better education, better future, like to be someone in life, you know. So when I got back to Mexico I’ll be somebody,” said Argulla.
The “Aqui y Alla” — “Here and There” mural will be completed in October. Then the artists will return to Mexico to work on permanent murals with groups of teens in their border towns.