November 19, 2012
By Laray Polk
In Dallas, on the western side of Santiago Calatrava’s signature bridge, past the corridor of brightly colored warehouses awaiting the next big trend and Shepard Fairey’s Rise Above mural, there is another bridge under construction.
Far from bold demarcation with naming rights, the bridge being built in La Bajada and Los Altos is inconspicuous, though it’s had an enduring neighborhood presence since the 1930s. It’s architectural but not architecture: It’s composed of people, connections and community. Like most bridges, functionality is gauged by fluidity, passage and, as Bernie Diaz puts it, “access points.”
Diaz — a visual artist, educator and recent Southern Methodist University graduate student — is my nominee for Dallas Morning News 2012 Texan of the Year.
He’s part of a newly formed collaboration between SMU’s Meadows School of the Arts and West Dallas Community Center Inc. At the Bataan and McMillan centers, Diaz guides a cultural enrichment program called “Out and About” that pairs SMU students with the centers’ participants. Ages of participants range from 6 to 17, though Diaz points out, “We don’t speak to them as children, but people with their own ideas and perspectives.”
The interaction begins as transference of conventional art skills by way of specific projects led by SMU students. Over time, says Diaz, it becomes an opportunity for young people to engage in “earnest conversations about their own perceptions of their communities with adults that are willing to listen.” The interaction is creating both strong bonds and the emergence of initiative. He’s arrived at the centers to find kids creating their own skits and projects based on initial versions taught by the SMU students. Diaz finds that awe-inspiring, because it indicates “they can repeat what they learn on their own.”
The two community centers grew out of the West Dallas Social Center established during the Great Depression. The original center provided a weekly medical clinic staffed by volunteer physicians. It also provided a place for the neighborhood to socialize.
Today, two centers — one in La Bajada (Bataan) and one in Los Altos (McMillan) — provide a range of programming that includes drug prevention, parenting education, college preparation and more. With the SMU partnership, cultural events bring parents and children together as well as the community at large. The collaborations are expanding to include other like-minded entities such as La Bajada Neighborhood Association, Taqueria La Chilanga, W.E. Greiner Exploratory Arts Academy, the West Dallas Chamber of Commerce and the Dallas Mexican-American Historical League.
On an academic level, the partnership with the West Dallas community centers has allowed SMU’s art department to expand its physical range, creating off-campus learning environments where students explore art practices that aren’t based on the model of a single creator or marketplace presence as the quintessential endpoint.
According to Diaz, participants in the program “really enjoy leaving the studio to consider their roles as cultural producers in what they understand to be a very dynamic moment in their lives. They are hungry to discuss the serious social issues that confront our society at the moment.” He describes his role in this process very succinctly: “[I] help them to think like artists, rather than make like artists.”
A bridge with many access points is familiar territory for Diaz. His parents were migrant laborers who traversed a route from California to Illinois several times before settling in the Texas town of Eagle Pass along the U.S.-Mexico border. There, he became fluent in the culture and language of two neighboring countries, an experience Diaz continues to appreciate. His ability to find, explore and create access points in both the realm of modern art and traditional community-building is the reason I nominate Bernardo “Bernie” Diaz as Texan of the Year.