Restoration of LES Mural Honors the Struggle of Immigrants

The mural, almost finished. (Photo provided to El Diario by the Loisaida Center)

A 2-year-old stamps his colored handprints on the space as a sign of ownership. He is the youngest “artist” in the group and is being helped by his parents. They are joined by other collaborators spanning all ages, ethnic origins and interests, all of whom have a common goal: To achieve a sense of community empowerment through art.

Although from a distance the mural – located in Lower Manhattan’s First Street Green Art Park (33 E 1st St.) – looks like a chromatic explosion with touches of Op art, it is much more than that.

“The children’s reaction is great. Kids have a reaction when they paint. One of them was painting the other day, and the next day he came back and said: ‘It’s still there, it’s still there.’ They felt like they had collaborated, that they had left a mark. [It is] a space through which they walk every day, and they are engaging with what they see around them; not just with publicity and advertisements. It is a feeling of immediacy, of seeing how they can appropriate the space and have others respect it,” said artist Juan B. Climent, 28. He is in charge of the new mural project, a tribute to “La Lucha Continúa” (“The Struggle Continues,” 1985).

You must stop, get closer, find and appropriate yourself. The scenes portrayed in the mural tell the stories of thousands of immigrants who, since before the 1970s, started to turn this city into the cultural mosaic that it is known for in the rest of the world.

Problems such as domestic violence are reflected in the mural. (Photo provided to El Diario by the Loisaida Center)

“In their own rooms, in their own homes, people appropriate their space and put up things that have meaning for them. In small communities, this happens spontaneously. In cities, though, this no longer has a human scale, and individuals become alienated from the space that exists outside. We stop participating in our home, of which the city is also a part. The same way we appropriate our home, we have our city,” adds the teacher of Puerto Rican and Mexican descent about the intended reach of the mural.

The collection of paintings in the mural is a reinterpretation of the battles – some newer than others – that the Lower East Side (LES) and other communities in the big city have faced. Topics such as police brutality, domestic violence and displacement due to gentrification are inevitably present.

The values that characterized that area of Manhattan when, in the early ’80s, 34 artists from Artmakers – some of them Puerto Rican – rescued spaces that violence and drugs had “hijacked,” also make an appearance in the mural.

Back then, the group created 26 political murals on four vacant buildings overlooking the La Plaza Cultural community garden in an attempt to amplify the voices of the community. Only fragments of two of them survive today, but it was enough to spark the interest of new generations to undertake the task.

“LES is the fiber that represents everything New York City is: this enormous and beautiful quilt of a community of cultures,” said Nadia Tykulsker, 29, director of programs for Fourth Arts Block, which developed the project along with Thrive Collective and Loisaida Center.

To Libertad Guerra, director of Loisaida Inc., this initiative is a way to create a “sanctuary” of sorts to highlight the contribution of this community at the time it meets the cultural needs of residents.

“From the beginning, LES Puerto Ricans and the Latino community in general were open to the world, engaged in collaboration and had a variety of influences… That is what we want to recreate here when it comes to the topic of immigration. For instance, the mural explores the connection between the Chinese and the Jews from a synagogue, aiming to shed light on the three representative groups that built this neighborhood, although they are not the only ones. That is what makes this special: You get a sense that this neighborhood does not only focus on your people. The point of keeping history alive is to let other groups be able to learn from it,” said Guerra about the project, which commemorates the 30th anniversary of the mural series.

One of the murals from the original series “La Lucha Continúa / The Struggle Continues” (1985.) (Photo provided to El Diario by the Loisaida Center)

Guerra added that the initiative to paint the mural goes in accordance with the Loisaida Cultural Plan, for which the organization joined the City Council and representatives from a number of sectors to debate the residents’ needs. Over six months, spokespeople for different areas discussed ways to establish pathways and find resources to generate projects such as the mural.

According to data collected for the Create NYC study, 20 percent of all New Yorkers would like to take part in cultural and artistic events and activities more often. Fifty percent believe that cost is an obstacle to participating in the city’s cultural life, and 90 percent consider that having access to affordable housing is important to be able to create art.

Unlike other artistic efforts, the purpose of the ones promoted by Loisaida Inc. is to democratize these processes and make them accessible to all.

Tykulsker – born and raised in Brooklyn of Jewish descent – said: “This project establishes an opening. Regardless of artistic or educational level, anyone can participate.”

Prior to April 30, when the painting of the mural began, guidelines for the project were established at a series of group meetings.

The next step is the possible printing of the design – funded by the city – which will allow the general public to carry it with them.

“I really think that, sometimes, the best way to fight is not to turn your back but to generate these moments of freedom, of spontaneity; to assert that our existence is not subject to their terms. The community was there, they talked about the political issues, but this was also created in a spontaneous manner,” concluded Climent.

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