One Summer Chicago youth complete two-block long mural

Youth muralists (from left to right) America Ortiz, Michael Ford III, Brendalee Cardenas, Arianna Abonce, Vannell Perez, Erica Flores & artists Manuel Macias and Brenda Lopez. Not pictured: Mariah Paz, Ashley Parker, Aneesah Muhammad, Rahnese Wooten and Guadalupe Barrera. (The Gate Newspaper/Sonya Eldridge)

(The Gate/Sonya Eldridge)

Imagine a relentless, blistering sun beating down on you day in and day out as you work what might be your first summer job. Now throw in slithering garden snakes, perhaps dropping your phone and glasses in a gallon of paint and the occasional bird flying overhead “dropping” a little present on your shoulder.

This was the summer job experience for a group of ten South Side youth from Back of the Yards, Englewood and surrounding communities. For about two months this summer, the youth painted two massive block-long murals on the 49th Street viaduct between Honore and Winchester Streets through the One Summer Chicago jobs program. Led by husband and wife duo Brenda Lopez and Manuel Macias, the new murals have brought color and vibrancy to 49th Street.

With an intergalactic theme, the first mural features an image of Mother Theresa (who recently became a saint) looking straight into the eyes of a baby with laser precision as she cradles it lovingly in her arms. “It starts with love, it ends with love,” is the theme and title of the first mural. “The invisible thread that binds us” was the theme of the second mural. The mural features outstretched hands reaching for each other with thread interlocking both together.

Back of the Yards resident Aneesah Muhammad, 17, said she was amazed at what a small group of people could accomplish when they work together. “I feel like I can fly,” Muhammad said. “You know, you come to something damaged and you fix it. It’s like repairing broken shattered glass. You’re working hard every day and it’s hot. But you see people smiling and loving this and it makes you feel better. You know you’re doing something positive when people bring stuff- like the little girl bringing popsicles [to us.] She didn’t have to do that, but this is her community, this is our community and this is what we built together,” she said.

While the youth toiled in the hot sun, neighbors and passersby showed their support regularly. Some days, beat police would stop by to check out the murals and just to keep watch as everyone worked. A neighbor by the name of Samuel volunteered to help prime the wall the day the project launched. One afternoon, a nurse named Erin passed through and brought everyone Gatorades. “It’s just so nice to see people actually care about what we’re doing. She wasn’t even from this neighborhood, she was just driving by,” Muhammad said.

The youth learned a number of valuable life lessons through this project, aside from picking up a variety of painting techniques and spray can handling methods. “This whole experience has been very enlightening. It’s taught us patience, endurance. We now know to look twice at something if you have [a skill] to offer,” Englewood resident and muralist Michael Ford II said. Lopez and Macias beamed with pride as they described how the youth transformed during the project. Before the program, some of the youth did not have a productive outlet to express themselves and now they’ve opened up to the universe of possibilities life has to offer, the husband and wife duo said.

“They beat that wall up with paint and those brushes and then they didn’t take that frustration into other things,” Lopez said. “When they weren’t at the wall, [a few kids were doing other things] with their lives that weren’t productive [or] healthy. They’ve said it themselves- things are changing because they kind of see that there are ways for them to release in positive ways that they can feel good about.” “I feel like they’re really in their minds now, just kind of thinking a lot,” Macias said.

On Friday, Aug. 12, a press conference was held at the mural site in the midst of a downpour. Ald. Raymond Lopez (15th) praised the youth and the artists for completing a large scale beautification project in Back of the Yards. “Today we’re here to celebrate something positive. The rain is symbolic, I think, for us, because this gives us an opportunity to cleanse the image of our community and to start fresh and start anew,” the alderman said. In recent decades, an extensive amount of research has found that the arts in its many forms builds character in youth and young adults. “At virtually every stage of life, the arts can foster openness to novelty, encourage connections to people, places, things, and concepts, and promote the ability to take multiple perspectives, among other positive outcomes,” according to a report by the National Endowment for the Arts.

“From what I’ve seen in the class and what I heard today, I think they’ve learned something that a lot of people their age might not have which is perseverance- to keep at it,” Lopez said. “They even said it, they’re like, ‘before we would quit easily, but this taught us that if you keep at it, all this is possible.’” And when the youth got discouraged, the artists found the most effective motivator was not to go easy on them, but to give them a healthy dose of discipline and tough love instead. “Being really nice and doing things for [youth] doesn’t allow them to really see what they’re made of,” Lopez said. “And then that’s what a lot of [youth], I think, need. They need that push, because a lot of people have already given up on them and they think we can let them do whatever because it’s pointless anyway. No, you need to be on them, because you believe that they can do it. Even if it comes off as being tough, that’s fine, because you’re going to get it done, and later on, they’re going to feel good about it.”