ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A weed called globe mallow grows in a little patch of dirt between the B. Ruppes store parking lot on Fourth Street and Hazeldine Avenue in Barelas. Herbalists and curanderas use globe mallow to treat skin sores and upset stomachs.
Coincidentally, B. Ruppes, thanks to the expertise of Maclovia Zamora, has been dispensing traditional Mexican and herbal remedies for decades. Zamora’s image gazes at the mallow from the store’s northern wall, painted there by the muralist Nani Chacon in collaboration with Working Classroom and the Barelas Community Coalition.
Barelas is full of beneficial weeds growing in empty lots, yards and between the cracks of sidewalks. Desert primrose treats sore eyes, spider bites, boils and toothache. Nightshade is for snakebite. Dandelion, when mixed with other plants, helps liver function.
Chacon says she began to think of the weeds as a symbol of Barelas when she got to know Zamora. The community began as a collection of farms along the Rio Grande, became a home for men working in the rail yards, faced hard times when railroad work dried up, was flooded repeatedly, paved over, torn up, paved again. A huge portion of the southern Barelas neighborhood was razed to make room for industry. Barelas has struggled with both gang violence and gentrification.
Barelas abides. Like the weeds, Chacon said, Barelas looks ordinary but has remarkable qualities and is remarkably resilient.
So when Working Classroom asked Chacon to help students paint a mural on a 6,000-square-foot wall abutting the Washington Middle School campus Downtown, she thought of the resilient people who keep alive the communities whose children attend Washington. She would represent their resilience with weeds, their strength with butterflies and their future with the images of children.
The mural, called “Resilience” and two years in the making, will be dedicated Friday. Ceremonies begin at 5 p.m. at the school, on Park Avenue a block south of Central between 10th and 14th streets.
The project began when some Washington parents, Len and Donna Romano, asked Working Classroom to help the school replace an old, peeling mural on the same wall. The Romanos and other parents wanted to improve the public perception of the school, which serves several communities, among them Barelas, the Sawmill neighborhood, Wells Park, South Broadway, Old Town, the Country Club neighborhood, the Raynolds Addition and the Downtown neighborhoods.
Working Classroom describes itself as “a multi-ethnic, inter-generational community of student and professional artists, writers, actors and directors with a conscious commitment to supporting new and diverse voices and visions in the arts.” The organization contributes “to a more nuanced understanding of American identity by training aspiring artists and actors from historically ignored communities and creating art and theater by, for and about these communities.”
The organization was founded in 1987 with a project that originated at Washington Middle School, so Working Classroom jumped at the chance to “return to our roots” at Washington and to work with Nani Chacon, said Executive Director Gabrielle Marie Uballez. It didn’t even matter that it was not clear where the funding would come from.
Eventually, Public Service Company of New Mexico contributed $20,000 to the project. Families, businesses, neighborhood associations and individuals contributed thousands more.
Chacon worked with 21 students over two summers. She began by taking students on a walk through the community to take photographs of weeds. The students met with Maclovia Zamora to learn how the use of weeds helped form the local culture and community. Chacon taught drawing and art techniques and designed the mural.
Twelve-year-old Jocelin Diaz helped paint the monarch butterflies in the mural. She learned that the white spots on the butterfly’s wings have no dimension until you add a little gray. Her twin brother, Jovani, worked on leaves and stems. He learned to build up the image starting with primer, then adding color and highlights.
“I wanted to feel proud of myself,” Jocelin said. “When my cousins go to school, I want them to look at the mural and feel proud of me.”
Jovani didn’t want to spend the summer doing nothing, so he signed up for the mural project. “This was all new to me,” he said. He has now taken three Working Classroom art classes.
Izaiah Ramos, 19, has been with Working Classroom since he was 5 years old. He’s now a fine arts major at Central New Mexico Community College. He helped young students working on the project learn to look at the structure of objects like butterflies and notice how light falls on them and affects their color. He’s worked on seven murals since 2012.
The finished mural is nearly a city block away from Park Avenue, but its brilliant blues and greens leap across the school’s athletic fields to engage you as you walk past. You begin to understand what Chacon means when she says, “I aim to create dialogue instead of imagery that you thrust on people.”