Arts Program Helps Immigrant Youth Express Themselves

Laurentino Pérez, at the Arts Connection exhibition. (Photo by Ana B. Nieto via El Diario)

“I’m really shy and I have a hard time communicating with words, but with this program I have learned to show how I feel,” said Laurentino Pérez as he showed one of his paintings. It shows a person surrounded by the colors of the LGBT flag.

Pérez, 17, born in the U.S. to a Mexican family, feels at ease communicating through his brushes and canvases, and thanks to the organization Arts Connection he has gained access to the resources needed to be valued as an artist. One of his paintings is framed and hangs on the walls of the Manhattan offices of Centerview Partners, an independent consulting firm and investment bank.

His piece is among 240 works of art that can be seen by employees and visitors at the firm’s meeting rooms, hallways and offices occupying three stories of a Midtown building. All of the paintings are signed by public school students from sixth to 12th grades, and are inspired by what is meant by the word “brave.” The works touch on such issues as affirming cultural and sexual identity, confidence and, very prominently, the hardship of immigration.

Painting by Satuna Mowrin, from Bangladesh. (Photo by Ana B. Nieto via El Diario)

(…) “I want to dedicate my painting to my parents, who have sacrificed everything to bring me here and help me find success, and to ALL immigrants who come to the U.S. with the hope of a better life but have not yet achieved it due to their social status,” are the words accompanying a painting of Bangladeshi artist Satuna Mowrin. Seeing it for the first time as he walks the offices where the works are shown, Pérez is pleased to see the diversity of the immigration experience represented. “We are not all Latinos; there are people from many places.”

Steven Tennen, executive director of Arts Connection, said immigration is an important issue “for all our children,” and it’s understandable. “If you go to a school you see it clearly in the first-generation youths who were born here. There is a lot of fear in the families because of everything that’s going on, and children get that. Teachers and principals tell us that sometimes it’s difficult to get parents to fill out forms, and that sometimes they don’t show up at school.”

Arts Connection works in New York with 120 schools during the school year, and 80 in the summer, which are specifically designed for ESL kids. “It’s a great opportunity for kids to learn vocabulary, and we have a theater and puppet program for the summer,” said Tennen. (…) The organization is financed with both public and private funds.

Pérez, the first of the young artists arriving at the exhibition, said he had never been in a corporate office with big windows and views of skyscrapers.

Talking about his work, he said he has been very motivated by the immigration issue and such movements as Black Lives Matter, but for this exhibition he focused on the LGBT community.

“To be different is to be brave. Not fitting standards is to be brave. While there is something that makes all of us, each one of us is unique, from little things like hair to important things like sexuality,” said Pérez, who was inspired by Frida Kahlo. “She is Mexican but her father was German. She knows what it means to be from here and there. I am from here but I live with the Mexican culture. I found a connection with her. Her life was tragic but she was happy when she was painting.”

A painting by Laurentino Pérez, not at the exhibition. (Courtesy photo via El Diario)

D.V. is a former student of the program and helped hang the pictures. El Diario will reveal only the initials of this Mexican 18-year-old to protect his identity. “Until sixth grade I didn’t know I was different,” said D.V. At the time he tried to get a job and was asked for his social security number, his parents told him he didn’t have one, and that’s when he knew he was undocumented. “I could not apply for DACA,” he said.

Now he is doing an internship with Arts Connection and is helping to set up the exhibition in which he previously participated as an artist. Back then, the theme was barriers and he made a sculpture with two heads separated by a television. “I wanted to represent how the media shows whites and blacks.”


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