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Meadows Students Working with Barrio Residents to Preserve Identity

“Las huellas” event to be held Thursday, December 1 at Owen Arts Center

Dallas is a city proud of its art and architecture. Many in the city are anticipating the opening of the latest architectural wonder, the Santiago Calatrava-designed bridge that will span the Trinity River, connecting the western edge of downtown to the barrios of West Dallas.

Urban development is sure to follow in its wake. But Mexican-American residents of West Dallas are concerned that urban renewal and gentrification brought about by the bridge, and by the development of the Trinity River Corridor, could end up burying their heritage and culture in this community.

Dallas has seen this kind of thing happen before. “Little Mexico” was once a vibrant Hispanic neighborhood on the northern edge of downtown Dallas, until high rises, hotels and restaurants took over in the 1980s and 1990s. Little is left of Little Mexico, save a handful of houses.

West Dallas could meet the same fate. In 2008, a group called the Dallas Mexican American Historical League (DMAHL) was formed with the mission of researching, collecting, documenting, preserving and educating the public on the historical and cultural experiences and contributions of Mexican-Americans in Dallas. Some DMAHL members used to live in Dallas neighborhoods (not only in West Dallas) that no longer exist. If progress is going to change the barrios in West Dallas, they want to make sure the richness of their culture doesn’t get bulldozed away.

“We don’t want to stand in the way of progress,” says Albert Valtierra, spokesman for DMAHL. “But we do want to educate the public on how Mexican-Americans helped build this city, and we want to keep our Mexican-American heritage intact.

“We’ve had great success collecting thousands of photographs and documents over the past few years. People are eager to share their family’s stories. But we need additional manpower and resources to help us digitize our collection so that it can be shared for generations to come. This is where SMU steps in.”

The DMAHL project fit perfectly into SMU’s desire to connect students to the community at large, to bring the classroom experience out into the world. Associate Professor and Chair of Art History Janis Bergman-Carton saw the right opportunity for her students to apply their video, editing, photography, dance and art skills to DMAHL’s needs, and the “Las huellas” (the footsteps) project was launched.

For the fall semester of 2011, Bergman-Carton developed a new course, “Artspace: Mapping Sites of Social Change,” to respond to this opportunity. The project was well suited to the art history RASC/a (Rhetorics of Art, Space, and Culture) program, which includes emphasis on historical and new media and architecture and the city. Seventeen first-year “Meadows Scholars” from various arts backgrounds, including journalism, dance and art, signed up for the course. (Meadows Scholars are exceptionally talented students recruited to SMU who receive grants for travel and research, funded by the Meadows Foundation.) Bergman-Carton connected the students with projects tailored to their majors.

Bergman-Carton also brought two mentor specialists, architect Jessie Marshall Zarazaga and multi-media conceptual artist Celia Alvarez Muñoz, to work with the students on their West Dallas projects. Additionally, she invited DMAHL’s Valtierra and Pauline Marceleno Laws, DMAHL's project coordinator in West Dallas, to speak to the class. Her students also spent time in West Dallas photographing sites important to Mexican-American history in that community, recording oral histories, and working with artist-in-residence Bernardo Diaz, a graduate of SMU’s Division of Art, who runs art education classes for children in after-school programs at West Dallas Community Centers.

One result of these efforts will be a special event at SMU on Thursday, December 1, “Artspaces 2011: Las huellas: footsteps in West Dallas.” The event will kick off at 6:30 p.m. when Dallas author Sol Villasana speaks in O'Donnell Hall about changes in the Mexican-American community over the 19th and 20th centuries.

Then, from 7:30 to 9:00, the event moves to Doolin Gallery where visitors can explore the current and past heritage of the West Dallas community with photographs and videos of oral histories. Students will perform a “mapping” dance interpretation, inspired by the foot traffic patterns of West Dallas residents. Silhouette art will be on display, inspired by signage present in the barrios and the oral histories of residents who live there. Author Villasana will be there to sign copies of his book, “Dallas’s Little Mexico,” and light refreshments will be served. Click here for additional event information.


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