Mott Haven mural depicts immigrants’ dream

The mural on East 156th Street.

Residents helped create public art

Last summer, a colorful mural titled “Y yo ya estaba! I was already here!” took shape on the parking lot wall of Iglesia Evangélica Española, the Bronx Spanish Evangelical Church on the block of East 156th Street between Tinton and Union avenues.

Artist Virginia Ayress invited residents and members of the congregation to pick up paint brushes and help create a work she hoped would start conversations about immigrants at a time of heated debate about the nation’s policies toward those who arrive from other countries.

In an interview, Ayress said she wanted to educate the public about the history of immigration, including the violence that accompanied the settling of the nation. “Native Americans were the first ones here, were killed and then other groups came,” she said.

The mural “has a little bit of everyone’s history,” said Judy Williams, a Mott Haven resident who worked on it with her three children.

In the top left corner, four Native Americans look down on a panorama of American history. Below the faces of the Native Americans, an eagle wing and a dream catcher embrace a sailing ship that brought over enslaved Africans. “The eagle wing not only represents all races, but also is protecting people,” explained Juan Kortright, 72, a parishioner in the church.

Ines Contreras, 53, who helps run the church’s social program, offers another interpretation. The wing, she says, “represents the dreams they come with”—dreams that get “trapped here, shown by the dream catcher.” Immigrants, she said, came “here looking for that dream, but exploitation leaves them with nothing in their hand when they go home.”

The mural includes a steamship that carried later generations from Europe to the New World, and a skyline of apartment buildings like those near the church. It shows European immigrants arriving from Ellis Island surrounded by women on a dock where a giant sewing machine symbolizes the work they will do in the city’s garment factories. Men tote heavy loads over large boulders. Gears symbolize the machinery of the modern factory. Railroad tracks, laid by Chinese workers, cross farmland.

African slaves mirror the Native Americans in the top right of the mural. They look down on scenes of struggle—on the broken chains of slavery and on Latino workers demonstrating for immigration reform. The mouths of the slaves and the young workers on the picket line are open, speaking up for their demands.

In the center of the mural, farm workers plant and harvest the bounty of the land. Next to their crop is a beating heart.

Desiree Lugo, 23, who has attended the church all her life, is uneasy about the mural’s political message. She would have preferred something more spiritual, she said, but, nevertheless, she calls the painting “a way to beautify the space” and said the artist tried to give immigrants a voice they haven’t had.

While Lugo wonders whether the mural belongs at the church, 11-year-old Caroline Callo says it shows “how great church and the Lord is.” Caroline was one of a group of young women who said the mural, which was commissioned by the church’s food program, the called “Give Them to Eat Ministries,” offered something meaningful for church-goers to discuss.

The mural was created to show change, agreed Tiana Rodriguez, 13, Katelyn Peralta, 10, Alisa Rodriguez, 11, and Caroline and her 13-year-old sister Annabel. But Tiana, who has been attending services at the church since she was 4, and who was one of the artists who helped paint the wall, took a pessimistic view.

“The only thing that has changed is slavery. Immigration is still the same,” she said.

Still, she and her friends agreed that one of the best things about the mural was that it portrayed so many young people. It shows that “kids have a big voice, speak out, and say what they mean,” declared Katelyn.

A version of this story appeared in the Summer 2010 issue of the Mott Haven Herald.

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