Community Muralism as Resistance

The story of the Companions on the Journey mural is a story in two parts. The first part coincides with the opening of the Aquinas Center in January of 2013, and begins with a painting by Br. Mickey McGrath. This painting, using simple shapes and vibrant colors, portrays the Holy Family as it journeyed to Egypt, fleeing threats of violence. This story depicted in McGrath’s painting, echoes the lived experience of many parishioners and community members. In keeping
with the Aquinas Center’s core mission of building unity in diversity – the diversity of journeys and experiences that brought people to this community – the Companions on the Journey Mural was born. Kelly Rizzo sketched the original design, emulating the simple, nearly abstract shapes of McGrath in order to illustrate a landscape through which people might travel.

A changing space

The second part of this mural’s story begins five years after the center opened its doors in January 2013. In celebration of all the ways that the center had grown, changed, and settled into its role in the community, the Aquinas Center Mural Corps embarked on a process of reinvigorating the mural that had born witness to all that the Aquinas Center had experienced during its first five years, while maintaining the original vision of the mural. The goal was to produce a mural that filled in the original landscape with the stories of migration and movement experienced by community members.

To achieve this goal, Mural Corps members Blanca and Stacey interviewed their family members who had immigrated to the United States from Ecuador and Mexico respectively. Youth Team Leader Danielle provided some additional perspectives with interviews of friends. From there, Mural Corps coordinator Mara worked with Blanca and Stacey to choose impactful quotes from the interviews that they would use in the mural. Mara also interviewed Blanca, Stacey, and Carmel about their experiences of either being born in the U.S. or immigrating to the U.S. as a young child. In this way, the team explored the ways the literal journey of their parents continued in their own lives. Quotes from these interviews were also chosen to be included in the mural. Blanca found this aspect of making the mural to be especially impactful: “I have learned a lot about where I come from,” she said, “When I did interviews, my family told me a lot about where I come from and how I was given the chance to study and live here.”

Amplifying voices

The process of incorporating community voices into Companions on the Journey is both unique, and part of a time-honored tradition of community muralism. Art is powerful in that it is an expression of people’s voices and perspectives, and it has the power to lend itself to people whose voices are often silenced and marginalized by dominant white patriarchal institutions and culture. On the other hand, art can be used to reinforce dominant narratives. Community muralism seeks to resist that outcome, radically centering the voices of community members and interweaving these voices in the very structures these voices (and the people behind them) regularly traverse.

In this way, the process of place-making, or using “color, shape, and structural form…to create distinctive feelings about a physical space or suggest certain uses” (Campano, Ghiso, and Welch, 2016), becomes a collective, communal project, in which community members construct, literally, the spaces they move through. Maureen O’Connell, professor of theology at Fordham University, defines community muralism as something that defines a collective identity “through storytelling, memory, and visions of the future,” resists dominant narratives by presenting self-determined narratives about the community, and sparks discussion about and awareness of issues affecting the community (51-52).

By incorporating direct quotes of community members’ experiences of immigration, Companions on the Journey sought to fulfill the criteria of community muralism as defined by O’Connell. In many senses, it succeeded, telling the story of immigration that many community members experience. “Immigration is still something that is widely discussed,” said Stacey, Mural Corps participant, “and some are completely against it, some people aren’t. It’s a controversial subject, and by turning it into art, we, in a sense gave it a voice, and raised awareness to it.”

“Not everyone was born here, and many have struggled to come here,” Blanca added, “the mural brings awareness of the struggles that these people face.”

From the interviews, Mara, Blanca, and Stacey developed a design for the mural that both included the quotes they had chosen and recurring themes. The mural tells a story of immigration, from left to right. A path moving through the landscape guides viewers across the wall, transitioning into a body of water through which fish are swimming, leaving fragments of their experiences in their wake. Adding to this sense of movement are a row of houses behind the water emanating
colorful tendrils of smoke. As the tendrils of smoke arrive at the other side of the water, they sweep across two figures, an adult and a child, standing on the bank, accompanied by the words “I felt as if I was blindfolded.” The child, undeterred, reaches up to grab a tendril of the smoke. Farther along down the wall, a different child kneels alongside their adult, teaching them how to fashion the smoke tendril that had previously been a blinding force, into a scarf, a warm, useful object.

This part of the image was what Mara was most proud of. “I think it both gives a great sense of movement to the mural and captures many of the concepts we encountered in the interviews,” she stated, “It is terrifying to arrive in a completely unfamiliar place, where the language, cultural norms, everything you have ever known, no longer seems to apply. But that very same language, culture, memory of where you come from, can also be a source of strength, something that children, who have grown up amid their parents’ culture and U.S. culture, find themselves helping their parents navigate.”

Resilience and hope

Quotes accompany the movement of the images across the wall, echoing and clarifying what these images represent. Although many of these quotes speak to hardship and suffering, they also embody a strong sense of resilience and hope. With a burst of color and energy, both these quotes and the images that accompany them reinvigorate the Companions on the Journey mural painted in 2013, while also capturing the same spirit of that original version. They move through the same landscape that countless others have moved through, migrating from one place to another fleeing persecution, looking for opportunity, seeking a safe place to practice the full breadth of their humanity. From the people whose words adorn this wall, to the Holy Family of Br. McGrath’s painting, immigration is an experience integral to human history, a fact that the reinvigoration of the Companions on the Journey emphatically expresses.