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Art from the heart

“Hushed Suffering” is Isabela Ortega’s final project during her time at the Oxbow School. It uses images of dolls from various ethnicities to reflect childhood trauma caused by racial discrimination. (Courtesy of Ortega family)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — So much went into that piñata. So much time, effort, research, heart.

Isabela Ortega’s piñata was, in fact, a heart, though not a Valentine, not pink and prosaic and easy, but a representation of the savage and sustaining beauty of sacrifice in Aztec culture.

Which is quite the subject matter for a 12-year-old to tackle.

“It’s a reflection of their sacrifice of the human heart as a means of survival, of keeping the sun moving across the sky,” Ortega, now the ripe old age of 17, says as we look at a photo of the piñata, half of it layered with individually printed feathers, the other half skeletal and open and rimmed with zigzag-patterned ribs. Tendrils of untwisted rope dangle from the heart’s bottom like blood vessels, like roots reaching toward the earth.

Isabela Ortega, 17, graduated fourth in her class at Highland High School in May. She excelled in art, music and writing. (Courtesy of Ortega family)

She called the piece “Beautiful Sacrifice,” part of a Working Classroom exhibit of political piñatas.

It’s a Saturday morning, one of the rare downtimes for Ortega, who stays busy even after graduating from Highland High School fourth in her class last month. She’s an apprentice in the Harwood Art Center’s art and social justice program, holds a part-time job at Dion’s and, with the help of a National Merit Scholarship, is preparing to study at the prestigious School of the Art Institute of Chicago this fall.

I wanted to talk to Ortega about her art and her future and how young people like her are surviving in a turbulent world in which even the sun moving across the sky doesn’t seem guaranteed anymore.

“It’s a lot to handle,” she says. “A lot to go through. It’s just very sad sometimes. Pain is a part of living in these times, and there are many my age who feel so resigned to that.”

Art, she says, has been her way of rising above that resignation.

Through the magic of Zoom, she shows me some of her work, a deep dive not into human sacrifice but into the human condition, into social justice and injustice, into loss and strength, much of it derived from her own experience as a young person born in the shadow of grief over 9/11 and graduating in the shadows of a pandemic, economic turmoil and racial unrest.

Her art bears witness to the pain of racial injustice and environmental emergency. It is healing for her and, she hopes, for others.

Self-portrait of Isabela Ortega. The human heart, or corazón, is an image she often uses in her art. (Courtesy of Ortega family)

In August when a gunman fired into the crowds at an El Paso Walmart, killing 23 and wounding nearly two dozen, Ortega grabbed her watercolors to create “La Rosa de El Paso,” which depicts Mexican lotería cards to symbolize the city, the crime, the racial discrimination and the curse of ill will behind the violence. At the forefront of the painting is a large rose, its petals created from pieces of the shooter’s manifesto, the hate of those words turned into beauty and innocence and strength from tragedy.

For her final project at the Oxbow School, a semester program focused on studio arts in Napa, California, she created “Hushed Suffering,” an oil painting reflecting racial trauma in children as symbolized by dolls of different ethnicities that stare down – or up – with hollow, haunting expressions.

“My painting utilizes this emblem of a doll to represent the trauma that often goes unnoticed, untreated and left out of discussion,” she wrote in her artist statement. “Psychological trauma, especially when it is experienced in the first four years of a child’s life, has proven to affect people for the rest of their lives.”

One doll, brown-skinned and with dark almond eyes, she says, represents her younger brother, who she says endured racist epithets hurled at him as a goalie for the Highland soccer team.

“The struggles come from where you grew up,” she says.

Much of that growing up for Ortega and her brother happened in the hardscrabble and culturally diverse International District, where she watched friends struggle with poverty, prejudice, unstable homes, drugs, gangs and violence.

Ortega says she was an introvert whose shyness was exacerbated by the family’s frequent moves. Art, music and writing became her constants.

“I think I was one of those kids who was always drawing,” she says.

And always thinking, always questioning the way of things.

“She was always doing interesting things, drawing thoughtful things that grab on to you and make you think,” said mother, Virginia Perez-Ortega, a community organizer and advocate for women of color who now works with the District Attorney’s Office. “She has such an imagination, such an awareness of the world and such talent. Even at age 2, she was beyond stick figures.”

Her mother worked to find outlets to nurture her daughter’s budding talents. By third grade, she was enrolled in Working Classroom, a nonprofit arts and social justice organization. Last fall, she attended Oxbow School, with the help of scholarships.

Ortega has also helped create several murals in the city and worked as an intern with the special victims unit at the District Attorney’s Office.

Ortega’s mother also proudly says that at Highland she was the student body historian and participated in the student senate, DECA, MECha, the National French Honors Society and Model UN. She played in the concert and marching bands – one of few students who play marimba – and was involved in swimming and tennis.

“I have always known my baby Isabela has some kind of special way to endure difficulties and challenging instances,” Perez-Ortega wrote about her daughter. “During this moment of monumental impact in society, Isabela is gratefully finishing her last senior semester and planning for her next chapter.”

As a member of Working Classroom, Isabela Ortega helped create a mural at Lew Wallace Elementary School. (Courtesy of Ortega family)

Although many of Ortega’s works of art center on darker, headier subjects, they are also imbued with hope for something better. The image of a heart frequently appears in her work, which seems life-sustaining, compassionate and strong. That, it seems, is the message she conveys in art and in her life – bear witness, bring hope, change, love.

One of Ortega’s prints depicts a young woman bearing a sign that says “No te apendejes,” which roughly translates to “Don’t be stupid.” It’s a phrase her mother liked to say to her when she was growing up – and still does.

It’s the way Ortega has tried to lead her young life.

I can’t wait to read her next chapter.

UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Reach Joline at 730-2793,, Facebook or @jolinegkg on Twitter.


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