On a corner in South Philadelphia, the street signs read “South” and “Greenwich,” but the mural here directs viewers to a different intersection: Mexico and Philadelphia. On the mural’s right side is Diana C., a young immigrant from Puebla, Mexico who is immortalized in yellow and brown tones over a circular map of South Philadelphia. Diana looks out of the painting with a soft but defiant gaze, staring down from above to meet the viewer’s eye. On the mural’s left side, a young boy in blue and green tones is caught mid-step in front of a map of Mexico. He turns over his shoulder toward Diana.
The artist behind this masterpiece is Michelle Angela Ortiz, a dynamic artist-activist who I have the privilege of interning with this summer. Michelle has created murals all over the world, using her art to bring communities together and advocate for immigration rights. The mural at South and Greenwich is called “Aquí y Allá,” or “Here and There,” and it explores the youth experience of immigration by linking youth in Juarez and Chihuahua City, Mexico to youth in Philadelphia. Around Diana are panels made by students in Philadelphia who either immigrated to the United States as children themselves or are growing up in families with people who immigrated. Encircling the boy are similar panels made by students in Juarez and Chihuahua City.
As an artist and activist, Michelle strives to use her work to stoke discussions about immigration. Michelle has made two films about her works and the issues they address, one called Aquí y Allá (the same name as the mural it discusses) and the other called Familias Separadas. As an intern, I’ve been tasked with creating a curriculum to teach the films and their themes to college and high school students. At the moment, the films are only accessible to the public through screenings hosted by Michelle where she uses the films as educational tools by leading post-viewing discussions about immigration issues. Creating an accompanying curriculum will allow for the film to be distributed to a wider audience without losing this valuable discussion.
To this end, I’ve been working with my fellow intern, Abby Miller, to build a curriculum to teach the Aquí y Allá documentary in the context of the wider conversation around immigration. We’ve been looking at examples of documentary and art-based curriculums to get ideas, and then drafting lesson plans based on the youth stories addressed in the documentary. We’ve also been searching for supplementary materials on immigration to enrich the curriculum.
Although at the moment our energy is focused on Aquí y Allá, we’d like to eventually create a curriculum for the more recent film, Familias Separadas. Familias Separadas is particularly pertinent today because it addresses family separation at the Berks County Detention Center in PA. Michelle has been showing this film around the state, and I was lucky enough to catch a screening of it on my first day of the internship. Well, I almost caught it…
It turned out there were so many people who wanted to see the film that about fifty people who came to the event weren’t even able to get inside the venue (a testament to the popularity of Michelle’s work). After checking everyone in, I opted to let someone else have my spot and I sat outside chatting with some of the other people who couldn’t squeeze their way in. It was immediately apparent that Michelle is a celebrity in Philly. I talked with one man who had grown up in New Jersey and moved to Philly as an adult. Being of Puerto Rican descent, he wanted to get more involved in Philly’s Latinx community. He found Michelle’s work and began attending her events with enthusiasm. Many others like him were thrilled to meet Michelle, and she greeted everyone like family.
The idea of “community organizing” has always been a nebulous concept for me, but seeing Michelle in her element helped me finally understand what community organizing looks like. Her art and the Campaign to Shut Down Berks brought people to this event, but it was her openness, and her commitment to engaging a variety of voices that keeps people coming back. She took charge of the room without centering herself and elevated the voices of the mothers in the film. As I tried to describe the experience afterwards, the best description I could find was cliché, but effectively summed up my complete awe: “Michelle is a force to be reckoned with.”
Written by Hayle Meyerhoff ’21, history major; peace, justice and human rights concentrator
Edited by Emily Dombrovskaya ’19