By Javier Jauregui

Projects have goals. Plans are made (extremely detailed plans if you happen to be Rachel Lopez, my boss) that indicate each step that will lead to success. Budgets are calculated. Resources diverted. Partnerships become solidified. Funding is accepted. Benchmarks are reached along the way. Things go according to plan. Expectations are met and exceeded. The project is a success.

What often isn’t, and can’t be calculated, are people. In this case, teenagers, most of them Latinos who dance to Tejano music, speak the messy language that is Spanglish, listen to J. Cole, and devour Little Caesar’s pizza. An unspeakable amount of Little Caesar’s pizza. These cumbia-dancing, language-taunting, emotionally-touching-rap-listening, pizza-worshiping students are part of Nuestra Historia, Nuestra Voz (Our History, Our Voice) at The Hispanic Center of Western Michigan.

The Center serves the Grandville neighborhood, located in Grand Rapids, Michigan, known to others as the “hood” or “el barrio.” Prior to earning such a prestigious title, Grandville Avenue housed the African-American community during the late 1800’s and up until the mid-1900’s, Grandville was a quaint neighborhood of Dutch immigrants. The area changed as cultures came and left. I am enchanted by the relics of the past, the abandoned buildings, the forsaken homes, the empty lots once filled with so much promise of something more. Why? Why is this part of Grand Rapids the way it is? Nuestra Historia, Nuestra Voz was designed to provide a platform for our local teens to explore the forces that created the poverty-stricken neighborhood that they call home, a home that has been ignored socially and economically.

The plan was to meet weekly and discuss Latino heritage, identity, and community. Why isn’t our community recognized? Why don’t we have Historical Districts when there are so many in Grand Rapids? Why is it that our brick roads are covered in asphalt? Why does our neighborhood attract gangs? Why do our schools ignore culturally relevant curriculum when an overwhelming amount of students are Latino? Why do we question our identity as Latinos and Americans, while others don’t? How do we bridge these cultures together? Somewhere in my hard drive is a plan, an outline that details each topic we will discuss for the week. I arranged thirty minutes for a group discussion and an hour to express those conversations visually. I wanted to use acrylic paints, water colors, graphite, ink, stencils, spray paints, any medium that could facilitate the emotions and ideas our teens would come across. I made a plan. My curriculum was set. Materials were purchased. This project will be a success.

What I didn’t expect, nor plan for, is how little our students had to say. During the first few weeks, the whispers of the air vents spoke with a greater force than our group of twenty-five high schoolers. They didn’t seem interested in talking about identity, even less regarding their heritage, community, and issues of institutionalized racism in Michigan. To our teens, these topics that affect them daily were like shadows in a dark, empty closet: non-existent; a stark difference from my education growing up in San Diego, California, where heated discussions about current socioeconomic policies, immigration, and the War on Terrorism were a common occurrence.

I persisted and exhausted multiples options to engage the kids. I often thought to myself, “They don’t know how to respond because no one has ever asked them.” While they enjoyed experimenting and exploring different mediums of art, our teens didn’t express the same level of happiness when it came to designing a concept for our future mural. I wanted to showcase how street art is tool of empowerment, but the conversation didn’t happen. I wanted to talk about Latinos. What is a Latino? Who decides? Is it the food? The language? Skin color? It didn’t matter. In an hour and a half, only a handful of students uttered a few words. I wanted to talk about the neighborhood and how the culture has changed in the past century. Dutch immigrants called Grandville Avenue home! Buildings that used to employ hundreds, even thousands, can still be found, their ghosts calling to us! How did a strong, economic powerhouse become the place where “the Mexicans” live!? Not a word. Nothing seemed to work. This year’s cohort became a silent audience, listening to the vents speak of airflow.

I brainstormed over winter break. I processed. I stared at walls. I slept. A universe of ideas would rise and fall. I refused to believe that our teens didn’t care. That didn’t seem possible. It still doesn’t. I’ve gotten to know them over the past few months. I learned about a young man who is a senior at an alternative school, works a part-time job to help pay the bills, and has a father that comes and goes like the smell of autumn. He is charismatic, full of hope, and hungry. He loves to learn, but more importantly, he wants to learn the why. Why do we spend so much time learning about Shakespeare? Algebra II? Osmosis? Why is it important when there are shoes to buy, girls to meet, memories to create? Don’t you know!? There is a world out there to explore.

There are others like him, students with a story. Their narratives full of color, too much at times. I could tell you about another young man with legal status whose father was deported and his mother fears the same can happen to her. I can tell you about a young woman who loves so much, who cares about her family that she will easily accept the abyss of becoming a high school dropout if it means that she can help pay the bills. I can tell you about the pressure of being “the last hope.” The youngest of seven, she seems to be the only one who will attend a four year university, but the pressure of her parents, nieces, and nephews to “succeed” is a heavy burden to bear. There is a senior who failed to apply to her dream college, the University of Michigan, despite the fact that she dedicates her weekends volunteering at the Hispanic Center, her high school, soup kitchens, and churches, has a perfect 4.0 GPA, and completed honors and AP courses. The University of Michigan would be immensely lucky and honored to have her among their alumni, but this individual believed that her undocumented status made her ineligible. Lacking in a social security number, her scarlet letter, made her believe that she couldn’t attend one of the most prestigious universities in the country.

As a reader, a service provider, and community member, it’s easy to become attracted to the story of their struggles. It’s easy to only see the “underdog,” as if these young individuals are strictly defined by their conflict. Their existence merits value, not because they grew up in poverty and need our help, but because these kids are special, they are something. Their voice is in the beautiful, unique, heart-breaking, complex life experiences. They don’t quit. They do far more than I was capable of at their age. I am in awe of their strength. I simply couldn’t quit trying with them, because in their own way –and despite their silence– they haven’t. I doubt they ever will.

I changed the format of our sessions. We divided into small groups, and each one was in charge of a topic that we have discussed the past few months. Our artists took their ideas, and gave them life in the form of quick sketches. During the next session, our teens would discuss how the sketches resembled their ideas, how it made them feel, if it communicated their thoughts in the same way they envisioned, if their story is lining up with the images. Slowly, our program is changing.

It’s still a little early to tell, but they are starting to show they care. They are defending their ideas with a fire I knew they had. Heated debates happen over the concepts, over the ideas that they represent. The high schoolers are laughing, bonding, and creating a piece of art for the neighborhood. This project is falling into place, but it has not been going according to plan, at least, not the way it was originally envisioned. As of now, this project aims to provide a space where the kids can have an opportunity to explore and learn to develop their history, their voice.

I can’t speak for our participants, or our audience. It’s not for me to speak of the changes that may have happened to them, or how they feel about art, Latinos, identity, heritage, discrimination, or community. What I can speak about is the change within me. I have grown to love each student in Nuestra Historia, Nuestra Voz. They deserve every best possible outcome, not because of their background or their “sad story,” but because they are fighters. They want more. It’s in their blood, in the air they breathe, it’s in their soul. These kids just need a chance, someone to believe in them, someone that won’t quit. I’ll believe in them, because, if you haven’t notice, they’ve changed me.

The goal of the Supporting Our Leaders Youth Program is to prepare youth and their families for lifelong success through college preparation, leadership development and workplace readiness activities. This project, Nuestra Historia, Nuestra Voz, is made possible in part by a grant from the Michigan Humanities Council, an affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Javier Jauregui is a Youth Advocate at the Hispanic Center where he leads the SOL Peer Leaders Program and Middle School Summer Learning Academy. Javier is currently obsessing over Deerhoof and Lady Lamb.

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