Mural helps devastated school community heal, honor slain student

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Art teachers Cindy Espinosa, left, and Janet Saxon came up with the concept of the Tree of Knowledge mural, but the tiles were created by last school year's fifth-graders at Petroglyph Elementary School on Albuquerque's West Side. The mural is dedicated to Victoria Martens, a Petroglyph student who was slain Aug. 23, 2016. (Courtesy of Janet Saxon)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — She was supposed to graduate with them, transition from fifth grade to sixth, from elementary to middle school. She was supposed to grow up with them.

She never got that chance.

Two years ago Thursday, Victoria Martens was raped and killed while, prosecutors now say, her mother was off with a boyfriend buying marijuana. Soon after, she was mutilated and burned in her apartment.

It was her 10th birthday.

She was a student at Petroglyph Elementary, eternally a fourth-grader now.

Last spring, her classmates helped create a mosaic tile mural as a way to leave their mark on the school before moving on without her. It was their gift, their healing process, their memorial to Victoria.

“The only thing we said to them was, ‘Victoria would have been in fifth grade with all of you and moving on to middle school. Do you guys think it’s appropriate to dedicate it to her?’ ” art teacher Janet Saxon said. “And they were all absolutely behind it.”

The process was new to all of them – neither Saxon nor fellow art teacher Cindy Espinosa had ever made a tile mural.

“We learned as we went along,” Saxon said.

Slabs of clay were used to create the tile pieces for the mural, the children using patterns and cookie cutters to make the shapes.

“Cindy and I both came up with the Tree of Knowledge concept,” Saxon said. “Through several conversations, we came up with the theme, ‘Every Child Deserves.’ Students brainstormed words to stamp on the tree’s leaves that represent what they believe every child deserves.”

They came up with words like “happiness” and “love” and “safety.” Victoria had deserved those.

One leaf they stamped with the words “Dedicated to our friend Victoria Martens.”

In the tree’s branches they placed a large macaw, the school mascot, its wing bearing the words “knowledge is power.” Above the tree they glued two smaller birds carrying a banner that reads “Change the world by being yourself.”

They sprinkled the tree with butterflies, birds, bees, flowers, a squirrel and snowflakes, the latter a reminder of Victoria’s favorite movie, “Frozen.”

She could sing every word of that “Let It Go” song. Now, some of the lyrics have taken on a darker meaning.

“Be the good girl you always have to be

Conceal, don’t feel, don’t let them know

Well, now they know …”

One of the snowflakes is stamped with the word “help.”

A year had already passed by the time the mural was begun last spring. And maybe it’s because the school had been saturated with counselors after Victoria’s death in August 2016. Maybe it’s the passage of time or the resilience of youth. In any case, most of the 125 or so fifth-graders who worked on the mural spoke about Victoria easily, fondly, Saxon said.

She had been a happy, friendly kid with a ready smile, and that is the way they remember her.

The nightmare of what had happened to her was not as easy for the adults to forget.

“We cried together and hugged each other,” Saxon said. “I think we were all glad to be part of a project that brings awareness in a positive way to the many children who suffer from abuse. We want to spread the message that every child deserves to have their basic needs met, to be protected and feel loved. So many people Cindy and I have spoken with about this mural – both in New Mexico and across the country, because they’ve all heard Victoria’s story – feel that it is important. We need to address the issue before it happens by educating parents and families. And we need to send the message to those committing crimes of abuse that we don’t tolerate it.”

Plans are underway to create a different mural, one made of many photos, to honor Victoria and all New Mexico children who have died as a result of abuse, Saxon said. The project is a part of Project S.N.A.P., a national nonprofit organization.

“We are looking for a very visible location in Albuquerque that will be enjoyed by as many people as possible,” she said. “We are also seeking partners to provide funding to help make this mural possible.”

The Petroglyph mural was completed on the last day of school in May, with finishing touches added during the summer.

Today, it adorns the wall in a front breezeway, a welcoming sign to all those who enter the school.

Victoria is not among them anymore. But because of the mural, she is already there.

UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, jkrueger@abqjournal.com or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg.

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