Roger Montoya, Alejandro López and Renee Villarreal
In 2013, the New Mexico Community Foundation’s Collaborative Leadership Program, in association with international community activist Lily Yeh, launched an arts and culture initiative fueled by highly participatory community building and intercultural collaborations. Ms. Yeh, a petite, humble, 71-year-old Chinese-American, has helped restore broken communities for survivors of the genocidal Rwandan war of 1992, for shunned shantytown dwellers from Korokocho, Kenya, who make their living by salvaging odds and ends from an adjacent dump, and for overlooked residents of blighted US East Coast inner cities. In New Mexico, she worked with community leaders and NMCF partner organizations from various parts of the state during a weeklong series of workshops.
Yeh’s visionary approach is one of a careful, deliberate and joyous application of paint, tile, wood and stone, often through the hands of children, in spaces that were once uncared for and unloved. Drawing on immense compassion for the average person, Yeh awakens the power of youth to re-imagine and re-shape their immediate environment to dramatically enhance the health, beauty and productivity of their communities, homeland, and ultimately, themselves.
Inspired by Yeh, the NMCF grantees and community partners decided to form a Cultura Cura/Culture Cures Collaborative to carry out an ambitious project. After much dialogue and planning, they chose to go to work in the heart of the Española Valley, an area characterized by a mix of ancient Native, Indo-Hispano and other cultures. The valley was known historically as The Breadbasket of El Norte. Due to an intersection of complex economic, political, social and cultural forces, the area currently finds itself in a deep economic and social crisis characterized by disproportionate levels of poverty, unemployment, addiction, substandard housing, poor health, generally low educational attainment and environmental degradation. Yet, in addition to its spectacular natural beauty, the valley possesses immense cultural and historical continuity. Its cultures are known for their industriousness, strong sense of family and spiritual values.
Cultura Cura’s community service-learning project has taken root at the emerging Hunter Arts and Agricultural Center on Española’s Mainstreet. The complex, a former Ford auto center, is owned by the city, but Siete del Norte, a northern New Mexico community-development nonprofit, will soon manage it as the complex is transformed into a community arts and cultural center with classroom, workshop and studio spaces for music, dance, theater and fine arts. It will also provide venues for public exhibitions, performances and gatherings.
In a separate, adjoining space, plans are being developed for a food hub, equipped to receive, process, and make market-ready locally grown produce. This may include a community kitchen, bakery and café, where people will partake in the foodstuffs that the facility produces.
The imagination, energy and sheer determination to get this project moving has been led by La Tierra Montessori School of Alcalde and Moving Arts Española, which quickly subscribed to the idea that the old Hunter Ford building can indeed be used to support community-building and learning, and as a hub to support local food production and distribution. Once dialogue between various potential stakeholders began to take place, it did not take long for NMCF, the city of Española, Siete del Norte, and the Northern Río Grande National Heritage Area to add their support.
The Cultura Cura Collaborative’s role is to facilitate creation of a large-scale mixed-media mural along the lengthy west-facing exterior wall of the compound’s main building. The mural’s theme will highlight the traditional aspects of the valley as the center of a rich agricultural region, and the responsible stewardship of the Earth (Nan in Tewa, Tierra in Spanish), its water, soil, seeds, biodiversity and landforms. The collaborative hopes that this project will benefit young people from local communities through related hands-on projects in which youth concurrently grow the food crops inscribed on the building’s walls (corn, squash, beans, chile and melons, etc.) at their schools, homes and other locations. The collaborative is motivated by its understanding that inspiring young people to tend plants and process their yields would not only add to the local pool of biodiversity and food and seed supplies available to the community; it would also facilitate physical exercise and engender a richness of mental, emotional and sensory stimuli.
As a component of bolstering academic achievement, the project’s service-learning elements involving youth and children will also include journeys into the natural environment to collect items for the mural. The group also hopes to inspire essays, poems, posters, videos, songs and plays.
There has already been a groundswell of interest in the mural project among many local artists, and educational groups such as Ohkay Owingeh Community School and Khapo Kidz of Santa Clara Pueblo. The project’s design, although primarily focused at the Hunter Arts and Agricultural Center, makes provisions for creation of low-cost, modest-scale satellite projects at approximately eight local Española valley school sites and other locations.
For more information on the Hunter Arts and Agricultural Center and Community Mural Project, contact Todd López: 505.579.4217, Todd.Lopez@nmfirm.com
Roger Montoya is a community arts-and-education activist and co-founder/director of La Tierra Montessori Charter School. Alejandro López was a student of Lily Yeh’s for several years, a worker in her inner-city projects and an organizer of her New Mexico workshops. Renee Villarreal is the NMCF’s director of Community Outreach.