Students at Fort Vancouver High School’s MEChA Club hope that every time Vancouver police officers see their mural, they’ll be reminded “there’s beauty behind every person,” said Nayeli Adame, 16.
Adame is vice president of the club, which promotes higher education, history and culture for Hispanic students.
The mural, painted on a canvaslike fabric that will be hung like wallpaper in a hallway of the Vancouver Police Department’s West Precinct, features a swirl of animals, nature and historic figures in eye-popping complimentary colors. At roughly 16 feet long and 6 feet high, it will be hard to miss.
Mural artist Rodolfo Serna, a case manager for Community Healing Initiative in Portland, brainstormed ideas for the mural with the students, coming up with elements reflecting traditional Mexican spirituality, indigenous stories and people worldwide who rallied for change — former South African President Nelson Mandela, Civil War-era abolitionist Harriet Tubman, Chief Seattle of the Suquamish Tribe and labor leader Cesar Chavez.
For the students, many of whom know people who have been deported for being illegal immigrants, the project has been about building trust with police officers and learning to feel safe.
“In this club … I think everyone’s been affected by it,” Adame said of the deportations.
Serna said the illegal immigrants are considered an “invisible community” because they try to avoid being noticed.
“That’s why a big piece of that is having the kids build this relationship (with police) so that doesn’t continue,” Serna said.
Homing in on themes of leadership, courage and adversity, social justice, stewardship and service, Serna sketched out the students’ ideas on paper and then showed them how to enlarge the scale of the drawing to the mural’s dimensions. Then they began painting, filling in swaths of color according to Serna’s instructions. They stippled every inch of the artwork with polka dots, which is a nod to traditional Huichol tribal folk art techniques dating back thousands of years, Serna said.
The use of high-contrast color creates optical tension and ties the entire piece together, said Serna, who plans to take the mural back to his workshop, lay down a couple more layers of paint and add finishing details, shadows and light. Studies have shown that color activates the brain and spirituality, he said.
Several weeks ago, the students toured the West Precinct building and met several police officers, a couple of whom stopped by their club meeting last month with pizza. Some of the students were scared to visit the police station, said the club’s adviser, Diana Avelos-Leos, Community Engagement Coordinator for Vancouver Public Schools.
MEChA stands for the Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztl?n, or the Chicano Student Movement of Aztlan. The club’s secretary, 17-year-old Teo Huerta, said it “was cool to go more in depth” and get to know the cops.
“I feel like this is going to make everybody safer,” he said, “and they’ll know us more and know not everybody is bad.”
Avelos-Leos had reassured the students that the police were good people, “and we shouldn’t stereotype them on what we hear, just like they shouldn’t stereotype us,” Huerta said.
Vancouver police Lt. Scott Creager said he viewed the mural as a chance to get to know kids working on a “worthy project.” They offered to let him paint, but he declined.
“I’m like, you don’t want me to paint,” he cracked.
Huerta said he hopes the mural will make police feel optimistic.
“Seeing it brought to life and hanging it in the police department is an honor,” he said. “We hope it’s a good thing for them.”
Police Chief James McElvain praised the effort, saying, “This is a great opportunity to further connect the police with the community, especially the youth of the community. The mural’s placement in the West Precinct furthers our commitment to community policing and building a mutually trusting relationship.”
Serna doesn’t know yet when the finished mural will be installed.