The first public art project led and created by Latino artists in Chattanooga took place Sunday.
"Embracing Your Raíces, Abrazando Tus Roots" was a community painting project with the goal to "inspire, communicate and bring pride to the younger Latino community members," said Alex Paul Loza, executive director of the Center for Latin American Visual Arts.
He and fellow artists were busy adding color to the canvases in the parking lot of ArtsBuild on 11th Street in downtown Chattanooga on a steamy Sunday afternoon. They showed children and adults, who came to help, which colors went where. Latin music played and a Venezuelan food truck sold meals and drinks.
The project consisted of three portable murals featuring the Andean condor, to represent South American cultures; the Sol Taíno — a petroglyph of the indigenous people of Puerto Rico — to represent the Caribbean cultures; and the Mayan eagle to represent Central American cultures. Within the murals are other illustrations of people to represent the indigenous, European, African and Asian influences among the Latino people.
Loza said he hopes involving the community in painting the murals will spur young Latinos to connect or reconnect with their ancestral roots. He sees some young Latinos born in the United States are distanced from their Hispanic heritage.
"There needs to be a balance, because it can be easy to forget both sides," he said. "We forget the history of why we are here. We need to ask questions to help us understand our parents' and culture and who we are."
That's what Loza did. He asked questions. He said his family came to the U.S. from Peru when he was about 12 years old to escape the terrorism of the late 1980s and '90s.
"My father was a police officer and knew it wasn't safe," he said. "He moved here in the late '70s. I moved here in 1989 after he became a U.S. naturalized citizen."
Loza still keeps in touch with his family in Peru and tries to keep up with current events there.
He said there is a misconception that Peru and other Latin-American countries are still undeveloped, which is one of the stereotypes he and his fellow artists hope to break.
"We're hard workers, and we've made a lot of progress technologically," Magdalena Pedraza, a local artist who paints murals in commercial buildings, said in Spanish. "Our countries are rich, and we bring so much to this country."
Pedraza, originally from Mexico, said she hopes people can see the positive contributions Latin-American countries bring to the U.S.
The main theme for the murals is to "help build a better Chattanooga," Pedraza said. Through illustrations of children playing with building blocks, the murals symbolize the Latino community's contribution to Chattanooga's growth.
"We work hard," Pedraza said. "A lot of times some of the poorest people come to this country, and they're not afraid of doing the tough jobs."
Loza said he hopes this highlights the "positive influence and contributions that [Latinos] have, are and will offer Chattanooga and the United States," Loza said.
"Latinos have contributed in every field from small business owners to entrepreneurship, educators, caregivers, labor worker, and community leaders," Loza said. "Our contributions are not only financially but we also bring with us our cuisines, culture and traditions which are part of the cultural tapestry that the US represents."
Another goal for the mural is to support local Latino artists, Loza said. He's seeking a grant to hire artists to teach classes, and hopes more Latino artists' murals will be featured in Latino neighborhoods.
"It has a better impact if other Latinos are helping their community," he said.
Rodney Van Valkenburg, director of grants and initiatives for ArtsBuild, said the organization, along with the Benwood Foundation, saw more requests for grants from black and Latino artists. Through the partnership, the nonprofit arts agency created a grants program for equity in the arts.
He said ArtsBuild hopes to embrace diversity in the art community and raise visibility for black and Latino artists so they become more mainstream.
"Art brings people together," he said. "The arts are for [everyone]."
Despite the threat of rain Sunday afternoon, a number of families and their children came to work on the murals. Loza said he hoped 80 to 100 people would come, but he thought the weather might have deterred some.
The murals will be displayed in City Hall during Hispanic Heritage Month in September.
"It's a way of showing we're here in the community, but we're not going to be letting go of our heritage," Loza said.
Contact staff writer Rosana Hughes at email@example.com or 423-757-6327. Follow her on Twitter @HughesRosana.
Correction: This article was updated to correct that Alex Loza, not his father, moved to the area in 1989. His father moved here in the late '70s.