College student aims to represent her Hispanic heritage in mural for anti-racism art project in Grand Rapids

GRAND RAPIDS, MI – By signing on as a muralist for an anti-racism project, artist and college student Wanda Aguilar hopes to bring her community and culture together by validating the experiences of her Hispanic neighbors.

The Diatribe, a Grand Rapids-based arts and culture nonprofit, launched the 49507 Project it describes “as an artist and youth-led community celebration commissioning seven local Black and Brown artists for large scale murals on prominent buildings in majority Black and Brown neighborhoods” in the 49507 Zip code.

Besides bringing vibrancy to neighborhoods, students who participate in the project get to learn and raise awareness about issues such as gentrification and redlining that disproportionately affects minorities.

Related: Anti-racism project to bring large murals to the Southeast Side of Grand Rapids

Aguilar, who graduates from Ferris State University Kendall College of Art and Design later this year, said she learned about the nonprofit last year through a school email. She said two of her professors recommended her to The Diatribe.

Founded about eight years ago, The Diatribe’s mission is to use performing arts to empower young people to share their stories, raise awareness of social issues, and create change within their communities.

“I was completely down to do it because it’s an amazing opportunity,” said Aguilar, 23. “I want to be a part of creating change, and I think putting the mural together is one way I can do it as an artist.”

A DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) recipient, Aguilar says she looks to mold her art to represent immigration issues and generational trauma authentically.

She said The Diatribe assigned her the Farmers Insurance building, located at 2435 Eastern Avenue SE, to be completed by the end of July 2022.

The 49507 Project will take place over three years and, in addition to the mural paintings, the initiative includes an education program for youth and listening sessions with community stakeholders to help shape the murals.

Aguilar said she cannot start preparing her design until the community listening sessions hosted by The Diatribe are completed.

“Right now, there are listening sessions for the community to join in through links,” said Aguilar, about learning what types of murals people want to see in their neighborhoods. “The Diatribe sends out the link for the artists to distribute so that anyone interested in joining can join.”

She said the listening sessions started April. 11 and continue for the next couple of weeks.

After Aguilar began her career as an artist during her senior year of high school, she said she got rejected the first time she applied to Kendall College of Art and Design in 2017.

She said that rejection turned out to be a “blessing in disguise,” propelling her to focus on her art portfolio from a different perspective. She said it needed to be a very diverse portfolio focusing on one medium.

“I was tired of someone telling me that I can’t do it,” Aguilar said. “Part of me was like, I can do this. That it is a learning experience, and I am going to take that learning experience and make it a motivation to tell myself that I can do better. I wanted to reach my limits and learn.”

Aguilar’s growth as an artist such as in oil painting and putting together story boards secured her spot as one of the seven muralists for the art project.

Marcel “Fable” Price, executive director of The Diatribe, says the group wants to “use art as a catalyst to change the narrative” about the Southeast and Southwest sides of Grand Rapids with the large-scale murals and youth programming.

The former Grand Rapids’ poet laureate, said a lot of the stories people hear about inner-city neighborhoods are not positive, rather rooted in the trauma residents face.

Related: Arts and culture group plans new headquarters in Grand Rapids to strengthen neighborhood

The 49507 ZIP code is in inner-city Grand Rapids and is home to the highest concentration of Black residents in the city as well as being home to Hispanics and other minorities. The area is part of the city’s Third Ward, which historically has had the lowest amount of public and private investment among the city’s three wards.

“I am hoping that the narrative that we can bring and the light that we can shine on these businesses in our neighborhoods will hopefully inspire even more diverse entrepreneurs to come and start businesses in our neighborhood,” Price said in the nonprofit’s video about the 49507 Project.

For more information about the anti-racism art project taking place throughout the Garfield Park neighborhood, visit The Diatribe’s website here.

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