Guillermo Hernandez coached his young niece and nephews gently Monday afternoon as they used long-handled brushes to rub brown paint into the outline of a braceroworker's arm at the San Juan (Texas) Municipal Pool.
"Are you hot?" he asked the children. "Can you imagine them -- working for one penny?"
Hernandez had brought the kids, ages 10, 7 and 4, to lend their hands to a University of Texas-Pan American effort to create a huge mural recognizing braceros -- Mexicans brought into the United States to work in agriculture between 1942 and 1964 -- and other immigrant farmworkers.
The $25,000 project, funded in part by a grant from the Smithsonian Institute and partially by the city of San Juan, will grace a northern-facing wall at the pool at 201 W. First St. It aims to begin something of a visual history to record the stories of migrant workers.
For Hernandez, who found out about the project through a friend, it's a chance to teach the younger generation something about their community.
"This is my old barrio, my neighborhood," he said. "I thought it would be good for them to volunteer and help document ... . I told them the history of the braceros and then 10, 15 years from now, they can come back and say, 'I was part of this.'"
BUILDING A VISUAL HISTORY
UTPA Mexican-American studies professor Stephanie Alvarez said the idea for the art came out of seeing the excitement of her students -- many of them former migrant workers themselves -- when the class would do units looking at murals.
After a 2010 class trip to California, "I asked what their favorite part was, and they said seeing the murals in San Francisco," Alvarez said. "They had even gone to Disneyland, so I was kind of stunned by that."
The following year, student efforts began on campus to raise money for a mural project, and faculty members secured a $5,000 grant from the Smithsonian. They also enlisted the cooperation of Austin-based muralist Raul Valdez, known for his bright colors and bold cultural scenes.
Alvarez, professor Francisco Guajardo and a group of students approached San Juan city commissioners in November to pitch the project. Leaders embraced it and agreed to put forward $16,300. City Manager J.J. Rodriguez said he hoped public art would help attract visitors to San Juan, but moreover, that it would recognize the community's heritage.
"A lot of the migrant worker movement originated or has come from San Juan," he said. "We have the base here in San Juan, I think."
With the help of La Union del Pueblo Entero, or LUPE, organizers collected surveys from former migrant farmworkers and others at a Cesar Chavez Day march three months ago, and through a door-to-door campaign in the neighborhoods near the pool asking them what images came to mind to remember braceros.
Alvarez and Valdez said the common themes were family and children, along with images of labor in the fields and the heat of the sun.
"And the hoe, that was one of the biggest ones that came up over and over again," Alvarez said. "And they wanted to see triumph."
The work in progress now shows a worker stooping with a short-handled hoe amid a line of crops, a train and a truck both in the scene. The wall will incorporate both the sun and the moon in their Aztec representations.
It also shows images from historic photos of workers holding out their hands to show calluses proving they were hard workers and being sprayed down with DDT as they entered the country to work.
"It's the yin-yang again," Valdez said of balancing hardship with hope in the depiction. "I try to represent both sides."
Organizers picked the wall along First Street to be visible to traffic as well as visitors to the pool, park and nearby Amigos del Valle, Alvarez said.
"We really, really loved the idea of thousands of children growing up with that mural, coming to play or coming to swim," she said. "In Mexican-American muralism, the murals tell a story that has not been told in school ... . Those are the stories of the people of San Juan and the Valley."
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