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Immigrants Teach Children about the Civil Rights Movement through Art and History

April 19, 2013

By Maria Curry

Explorer Charter Elementary school pictured with their teacher Ms Mari Jones and muralist Mario Torero.Photo by June Bayha

Explorer Charter Elementary school pictured with their teacher Ms Mari Jones and muralist Mario Torero.Photo by June Bayha

Two weeks ago, Mari Jones, a fourth grade teacher at Explorer Elementary Charter School in Point Loma, asked me to conduct a tour of Chicano Park and to get in touch with a muralist who could speak to her class. Mario Torero, an internationally recognized artist of several Chicano Park murals, generously responded to the request and invited the children to paint a mural with him in the park. He offered to document this collaborative effort as part of a film he is producing together with Horacio Jones, about the muralists of Chicano Park. An interesting project was created with three immigrants from three different countries teaching San Diegan children about the Civil Rights Movement through art, history, and film.

Mari Jones was born in the Philippines, Mario Torero in Peru and I (Maria Curry) in Mexico. We all have a similar name, share the experience of immigration and a common interest for social issues, which we wanted to transmit to the new generation.

Ms Jones’ class is currently in the middle of a project about California immigration. The children have studied Cal-ifornia’s history through the lens of immigration, focusing on the times in history when big changes occurred in California, accompanied by waves of immigrants.

Jones’ class on immigration has had several guest speakers, including Enrique Morones from Border Angels and Agent Cole Cruz from the Border Patrol. The students are in the process of interviewing 24 first-generation immigrants to California. As Mari explains, her idea is to expose the children to many different perspectives on the topic of immigration, and prepare them to be able to make informed opinions of their own.

Mario Torero is part of the group of mural creators of Chicano Park, which has become a testimony of the Civil Rights Movement of California and the nation. The Park was recently designated a National Historic Site. Mario was born in Lima Peru in 1947. He learned to paint from his Father Guillermo Acevedo who was an accomplished artist in Peru. His family immigrated to the United States when he was twelve years old. In the ‘70s, Mario joined the fight in Logan Heights and the creation of Chicano Park, calling himself an “Artivist.”

In 1976, Mario and his father opened The Acevedo Art Gallery International in Downtown San Diego. It was their first art gallery and became the first multicultural art center, known as the Community Arts Building. On its 4th floor, Mario painted a 15X50 ft iconic mural of the “Eyes of Picasso” which immediately became a point of reference for San Diego, establishing the Downtown’s Art District.

Recently Torero has been co-producing documentary films about his ‘artivism’. One that he did in 2011, commemorating the first mural at UCSD, a 17 x 57 ft glass mosaic installation that has changed the concrete profile of the campus. The film was named after the title of the mural, “Chican@ Legacy, Cuarenta Anos” and won the best documentary award in the first ‘Barrio Film Festival in 2012.

Now he’s finishing his second movie about the original founding artists of Chican@ Park, called “Cycles of Change, The Return of Quetzalcoalt”, which its being publicly previewed this Saturday April 20th in the barrio at Bread & Salt 1955 Julian St 92113, on the evening of the Chicano Park Day celebration.

A week ago, Mario, Mari and I met at the elementary school and Mario Torero presented a trailer of the film “Cycles of Change” to the students. He used it as a tool to explain the history of Chicano Park. Mario told the children that 40 years ago Mexicans, Chicanos, Blacks, and Native Americans were not treated like humans. He mentioned that Barrio Logan had a large population of Mexicans and that before anyone else was there, the Kumiais inhabited the area.

Torero described the April 22, 1970, battle to create the park in opposition to the construction of a highway police station on the site where the park is now. He told them how Salvador Torres, the oldest of all activists’ artists, became their leader and created the idea of painting a mural and how everyone started calling him “Big Cheese.” We saw the images of the 85-year-old Salvador in the trailer as well as Mayor Bob Filner’s saying how the murals contribute to keep memory alive.

Mario explained the meaning of the mural “Varrio Si Jonkes No” from Victor Ochoa, made in response to the proliferation of junkyards in Barrio Logan and how the park was created to promote social change. He said it was an incredible experience how people came together to protest and organize marches under the Coronado bridge in order to stop the construction of the highway patrol station. Mario mentioned that the community, including children, organized and stopped the construction as a human chain. Where the bulldozers were once ready to work, the community started planting a garden.

Mario Torero then invited the children to paint a mural. It was an interesting experience when he asked the children to tell him what the design of the mural should include. The students wanted Mario, to express in this mural some of their ideas: equality, love, a peace sign and people sitting on it. A warrior of freedom, a drawing of a world with no borders, hands of different colors coming together, people not fighting and everyone happy, to mention a few.

Mari Jones, the teacher who invited us, immigrated to the US when she was 5 years old. The family lived in Chicago, Illinois and in San Francisco Bay Area where they owned a small Filipino restaurant. She moved to San Diego to attend UCSD, and participated in the Summer Bridge Program through OASIS, and organization that seeks to support underrepresented/minority students. Mari worked for this organization through college and developed a social consciousness that convinced her to study education at UCSD where she earned a bilingual teaching credential.

For the last ten years, Mari has taught at Explorer Elementary Charter School engaging her students to look at the social issues that affect their world. Her students are examining the historical background as well as present-day situations, and then coming up with possible solutions to these problems. They have come up with service learning projects where they have worked with organizations to contribute in helping people who are homeless with food, clothing, toys, and toiletry drives, and with fundraising for local school for the homeless. Now they are willing to support Mario’s film project and will help in informing more people about the importance of Chi-cano Park for the community and in fundraising efforts.

I was born in Mexico City and came to the US with my four year old daughter to study a PhD in Cornell University on Historic Preservation Planning. I have worked in academia as a researcher and professor in Mexico, and as a professional and a social activist volunteer in urban change and historic preservation issues in the border region. Currently I work for Social Advocates for Youth (SAY) San Diego, as an activity leader in art projects for the before and after school programs.

On Monday, April 15th, we took a field trip to Chicano Park to explain its history and spoke to the children about the different aspects of the murals there. We selected several murals and described the history of Mexico and Chicanos. Then we went to where a mural where Mario had sketched an outline on a pillar, expressing the input given by the students in the class workshop. Mario captured their ideas by drawing faces with tears, children holding hands, hands breaking chains, a peace sign, a heart, a word with no borders inside a yin-yang symbol and a rainbow. Mario told them how to add color to the drawing and all started painting, the enthusiasm grew and mothers joined as well as Mari Jones, the teacher. It was an incredible experience that the children in this Elementary school will never forget.

Through collaboration and a holistic approach, this project proves how community projects are excellent tools for educating children. Having a nationally recognized monument and one of the creators of it, teaching the meaning of Chicano Park, is a unique and priceless opportunity for spreading the knowledge about the history of inequality, racism, immigration and urban change that characterize many neighborhoods in the nation.

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