El Otro Lado: Immigrant Stories Become Public Art

How residents of Santa Fe are breaking down barriers and growing closer as a community.

A public display at the Genoveva Chavez Community Center in Santa Fe titled "Carlos," made of images by Carlos Mora and Chrissie Orr. The piece is part of El Otro Lado, a project created by the Academy for the Love of Learning.

Photo by Chrissie Orr

Profiled in Learn As You Go, the Fall 2009 issue of YES! Magazine, as one of 13 Radical Acts of Education, El Otro Lado is a community arts engagement project that uses the creative process to address issues of migration, human rights, boundaries, and sense of place.

But what makes the project transformational? Below, the project's founders and participants offer their thoughts.

Here's our original piece:

Santa Fe Tells Its Stories

You can glimpse the lives of Santa Fe youth in public art displays around the city. The Academy for the Love of Learning created El Otro Lado (“the other side” in Spanish), a citywide public art project that encourages people to learn about one another.

Through the year-old project, ­Santa Fe residents from different generations and cultures turn their heritage stories and immi­gration experi­ences into writing, paintings, photographs, and journals. Displays scattered in public places around ­Santa Fe transform feelings of alienation into feelings of community.

The pictured artwork is called “Carlos,” with images by Carlos Mora and Chrissie Orr, and is installed at Genoveva Chavez Community Center in Santa Fe. The project incorporates audio narratives of the artists’ personal stories. In Mora's narrative, he says: “I was born in Santo Domingo, the Dominican Republic, an island in the Caribbean. I currently live in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Home to me is within myself … I carry home with me wherever I go, wherever I am … Home is Santa Fe and it is also the Dominican Republic.”

The impact of El Otro Lado continues to reverberate throughout the Santa Fe community and beyond.

We have been reflecting back on our experiences to explore what made this project transformative for individual participants as well as members of the community. We have witnessed individuals claiming their voices and their stories, and have seen multigenerational participants move from a sense of alienation and isolation to an experience of belonging and connection. As they transformed, the community changed as well.

Multigenerational work, works! It adds texture, dimension and diversity.

The participants of El Otro Lado found that cultural boundaries disappear when their stories are told and heard. They learned that they shared much in common with one other—more than they realized or expected. Artist and facilitator Chrissie Orr says it is that mutual self-discovery that fuels her involvement: “The reason I work as an artist in community is that I learn too—it’s an absolute sharing of experience.”

In recordings, journals, and art installations, participants share their wise, eloquent, and sometimes heartbreaking stories. They express universal themes like loss, separation, family, journey, prejudice, and borders:

  • El Otro Lado journal

    A participant in the women's group shows her journal, in which she painted memories of her home in Mexico.

    Photo by Crissie Orr

    Ricardo, a teenager from San Juanito, Mexico:
    “We lived through racism and injustices and it hurts. But we kept thinking in the future, and not what everyone else says or thinks.”
  • Carlos, from the Dominican Republic: “My most immediate border was the ocean and many Dominicans crossed the ocean illegally in flimsy boats to make it to the United States. I believe borders do not, have never really existed. We fabricated them to keep each other apart, separated … The day we release the borders within ourselves, that day we will also release the external borders that separate people and nations.”
  • Sister Sylvia Gomez, a nun from Mexico who has spent half her life in Santa Fe: “I felt the discrimination, being from a different country, so that’s why I express it here in this poem—that to cross to the other side is not just to cross a border, a line that is traced by us, by people. When god created the world, he created it open with no divisions, with no borders … Just as we cannot divide the sky, the earth was not divided, so it belongs to all of us.”

The transformative power of giving voice to one’s voice

Through the creative process of the project, participants have found that their stories have the power to touch others, build understanding, and heal wounds in themselves.

For one participant in the women's and children’s group, the process of journaling became such an important means of self-expression that she has continued on her own, filling three more journals since the group ended. Another adult found the courage to connect with other people: “This project helped me a lot because I could not communicate to others, I always went around with a fear that I would be rejected but now do I not. Now I can talk without that fear."

Several youth participants also said they learned to communicate more freely. “This was my first experience of being able to express what I had been through coming from another country,” says one teenager. “I am not embarrassed any more to express my feelings and to talk out,” said another.

Students and their families notice that they now see themselves and their stories in a different way. “I had never been asked to tell my story before, and it felt good to know it was important,” said one youth participant. Another added, “I have a complicated story, but for once I am being asked about my story.” One parent, whose adopted child from China participated in the program, remarked, “my daughter is now interested to find out more about her Chinese heritage.”

Transforming self transforms the community

El Otro Lado students

Student participants in El Otro Lado check out panels of their work before they're displayed on city buses.

Simply through the act of bearing witness to each other's stories, both we and our larger community can become whole and complete. The art installations scattered around Santa Fe offer the community at large a rare insight into the lives and stories of people they may not know—and in the process, they, too, are changed. Instead of holding “the other side” at bay, we are immediately touched and transformed by the other. We move from our separateness to the experience of connection. Our community has the opportunity to feel whole.

One participant from Mexico says the impact of the communal experience has given her strength and self-value. “For me the importance of this project is that one gets to know other people and share time with them. One gets to know their stories and their lives, and we can share our experiences of coming to this country. This project has helped me to be able to talk more openly and with less pain.”

EL Otro Lado is working to expand its impact in Santa Fe, designing a facilitator training curriculum and partnering with the Santa Fe Public Schools. The project is also expanding to Albuquerque this spring, though in a different form: four different communities will take the journey to the other side, side by side, as they seek to create a new, unified community center. Stay tuned!

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