I first came across my free Thursday evening salsa class by chance, as I got off of the train on my way home. The music caught my attention and I stood off to the side to observe the group of people learning a few basic steps inside the train station. Then I slipped into the back row and started to try to follow those steps. As I have continued to go to salsa classes, I see people every week who do the same. Many who are curious enough to watch and a few others who are brave enough to participate. The class creates a beautiful camaraderie, even though very few who participate in the classes know each other.
This past week, I have had the privilege of seeing the power of public art in a different context: for youth in marginalized neighborhoods of Guadalajara, who experience the pressure to join gangs. Yesterday I walked around the neighborhood with a group of high school kids as we looked for walls where they could undertake their next graffiti mural. As they brainstormed ideas for the mural, they expressed frustration with their last project, which they felt wasn’t up to their standards of excellence in art. But one kid piped up and said “But it is ok, the idea is for us to come together and create something positive in the community.”
That, of course, is the whole idea of the initiative that helps coordinate the art projects and funds the supplies. In addition to supporting these urban art projects, they have also had music workshops and supported in recording songs produced by people in the neighborhood.
For some of the returned and deported migrants in these neighborhoods, these projects have helped them use their artistic abilities constructively. Such as one, who is a neighborhood hero for his albums and music videos. Although urban art and music is different between the two countries, it shares many characteristics and can be a safe space in the transition across the border.
Art creates a space. A space to collaborate. A space that can shape people’s understanding of each other. An outlet where identity and self-expression is respected and valued.
Ultimately, the art is important not just for how it is viewed by society, but also for the way that the individual participates in it. When I go to salsa classes, I become a part of creating that which draws people in, either as observers or participants. When youth in the marginalized neighborhoods of Guadalajara paint a mural, they are affecting their surroundings. For a return migrant, participating in art can make the difference between reacting to the realities that they face back in Mexico and creating their own environment and own identity. It can be a way to make a home.