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Tomás Darío – Ciudad Mural

The association Colectivo Tomate started the project Ciudad Mural in 2009 and implemented it in the barrios of Xanenetla in Puebla, Hércules in Querétaro, América in Mexico City and in the town of Xicotepec in the sierra of Puebla. Altogether Ciudad Mural has painted around 150 murals in Mexico, filling barrios with colors and stories, creating processes where transformation is possible. My participation in this project led to the inclusion of elicitive methods regarding the way we connect with people, our role as facilitators and the design of our messages around the project.

Ciudad Mural is about the possibilities of creation out of elicitive methodologies, addressing youth and community members. It creates rituals, celebrates identities, and sets the hearing and sharing from the heart. It begins with an invitation by which people’s talents are offered within and for the community. It is inspired by what would be possible if people connected among themselves instead of living life in disconnection with other people’s surrounding. I have observed both the phenomena of connection and disconnection among people. As Colectivo Tomate we state that when there is more connection among people, the gap of mistrust decreases and therefore allows trust to emerge.

When trust is present, different possibilities of action arise. We share Marshall Rosenberg’s understanding of connection among people: speaking from the heart and listening from the heart. One root of this project is the idea of Wolfgang Sutzl on how to show peace (mostrar la paz), taking as an example how easily violence has a resonance in Mexico. But what about alternatives to demonstrate peace and live peace? Another idea comes from Wolfgang Dietrich’s concept of transrationality on how to understand ourselves beyond modern and postmodern realities based on reason. Most rituals that we create are to be understood beyond reason. Another key aspect is rooted in John Paul Lederach’s approaches to elicitive methods of conflict transformation bringing forth the knowledge and experience that already exists. These theorists and ideas are the grounding sources of inspiration for Ciudad Mural.

We are not here to change things

As members of Ciudad Mural, we go to a community and start speaking to the people we find there. We tell them about the possibility of creating a corridor mural. We ask and seek input from different people perceived as stakeholders: we map them and meet with them. An example of stakeholders is Doña Rosario, a seventy-four year old grandmother who connected her grandchild to the project. She was concerned about the insecurity in the small plaza where her house was located. Since the project, she has led a group of people who take care of the plaza. Another stakeholder is Alejandro, a forty-five year old man who manages the public market in the barrio of América in Mexico City. He engaged in the project and introduced us to other merchants who participated in painting and sharing stories. We simply find people who are eager to collaborate. Sometimes, it even seems that they have been waiting for this invitation to come. When we reach out to interview people in the community, we often find more than what we would expect. Yet we have also been faced with the narrative that people do not want to participate or that it is dangerous to speak to someone you do not know. This has turned out to be a disempowering narrative within communities. Anyhow, when people start taking on the invitation to participate, the effect it has on others is amazing. If there was something they thought they could do for the community, when it comes to action, this ‘something’ starts growing and growing.

We do not go to communities to change things, our project does not look for changes in the sense that something ‘should’ be different than how it currently is. Our project invites to action and, within this action, several other actions can be unleashed. We do not look to ‘resolve’ things, we are here to work in the collective process of creation in togetherness. Seen in another way, we set out elicitive methodologies for conflict transformation. We work on the context and structure of non-violence and we work with those who want to engage with us. If someone refuses to have his/her house be painted, we respect this no. Our aim is not to get a yes. We consciously do not seek to impose ideas, but create a space where other ideas can emerge, create a context of connection. We have found that the muralism movement is a profound way to connect people with each other.

Who paints the murals?

It is a key factor of engagement when it is the homes that are being painted. We do not relate to the mural as something painted on a wall. A wall could be anything. We paint sacred places where people live. In a metaphor we paint the skin of the family, with respect, care and cariño. When someone agrees to have his/her home painted, we make sure s/he understand what the project is about. Many people ask us what will be painted. We paint the stories that the people from the houses share with us. We look to listen, share and spend some time with them. We ask them what they inherited from past generations and what they would like to leave to future generations. We ask about their stories, what they enjoy about life, what stories form part of the history of the people who live there, what events they remember have happened in the community. The interpretation of all those stories is what is painted in the mural.

Once Colectivo Tomate has entered the community, got to know the people and offered dialogue sessions, we launch and open a call for artistic contribution. First, we look for local artists within the community; we make posters and go to schools and universities. We ask who could be potential artists within the community. Secondly, we use our social media platforms. And thirdly, via emails, we invite artists who have already worked with us. We look for a very specific profile of artists. This profile is closely linked to the understanding of what the project is about. We ask anyone who is interested in participating to fill out an application and send some samples of his/her work. We offer them our workshops, put at their disposal housing, meals and a space to give their own workshops, give them the possibility to be part of Ciudad Mural, a return ticket from their home and a symbolic stipend. We look for committed people who are willing to share their talents with the community and be the esthetic interpreters of the local identities. The application form includes questions such as: Are you willing to let go of your EGO in order to create something for the community? Do you understand that the project is for the community and about the community?

Painting process and rituals

The painting process is done within a two week period. Artists spend those two weeks in the community and are introduced to the family/home they will be painting. During that time, the artists and Colectivo Tomate live under the same roof. We give training in the following fields: Non-Violent Communication, Role of the Citizen, Trans-rational Theater, Paint Production out of nopal slime and Participative Leadership. During the workshops we seek for other talents within the community and invite the community members to give their workshops. For example, we have had Break dance and Soap elaboration workshops. We also invite the artists to give their own workshops. Thus, so far, we have had Fanzine Elaboration, Mandala Painting, Stencil Creation and others.

Every night we cook for each other and have a sharing of what happened during the day. We gather in a circle with flowers in the center and some candles. We share who we met, what happened and what we learned. It is important for Colectivo Tomate to take responsibility for the space. Part of this responsibility is transmitted through communicating to each other non-violently. This non-violence is set into practice among the artists and within the community. It is a seed that we take care of.

We create rituals when the whole process begins. There are rituals too when the artists arrive, are received by the community and informed on what will happen. During the interview rituals with the families, before the interviews between the artists and the families, we speak about what they look for and how to conduct the interviews. The families are very open to share, yet this sharing comes little by little, once people meet and connect. The drafts of the murals are presented by the artists to the families for their approval. Once the drafts have been approved, we create a session among all the artists to give feedback to each other about the drafts. Feedback is given regarding technique and interpretation.

At the end, there is an internal closing ritual with the artists and the people who participated in the organization of the project. We make vocal sounds and resonate together for one last time, we express what is to be said in order to let the project end. We acknowledge what we have created together, we hold our hands in the circle, then we take a step back and then another step back. By each step we take, we make sure that everything is said. We take the very last step back until our circle of hands break and each one of us goes back to their everyday life.

The last part of the process is the celebration ritual to which we invite the whole community. We go to local radio and TV stations and everyone who is interested can join. Then, we make a tour that reviews each mural. When all the people are by the mural, the artist and the family stand in front of it and tell the story of what the mural is about. When the celebration comes to an end, we hand in written awards to all the actors who were involved in the process: families, community members, media, sponsors, artists, everyone who made this Ciudad Mural happen. Most likely the community organizes themselves and offer everyone a meal and… we celebrate! For we created something together.

Examples of mural stories

The artist took pictures of the children he met in the city kiosk – there were so many children and there was a girl who asked me for a portrait. So, the mural is about this girl who has jicote wings staring at an eighty-eight butterfly. The butterfly is typical of that region and is in danger of extinction. The mural is thought for the children and dedicated to them as they helped in the creation.

This home is that of a family of musicians. The man painted on the wall is one of the founders of a music group that has just turned fifty. The man passed away some time ago, so the family asked me to paint him so as to honor his vocation. I used a photograph the family gave me; a singing bird comes out of his hair. This makes allusion to the importance of the music in this town.

Outcomes and context

Out of the first project we did in the barrio of Xanenetla in Puebla, the community organized itself to create a communal library for children and teenagers. They donated a space and got funding to make it happen. Ciudad Mural caught the attention of the municipal authorities who then invested USD$ 1.1 million to improve the public services of the barrio. In the barrio of Hércules in Querétaro, Ciudad Mural inspired the local youth and a paint company called Osel to continue filling the city with murals. Querétaro is currently one of the cities in Mexico with most murals.

It is very important for me to mention my perception of the current context in Mexico, where there has been an increase in the official narrative to target the youth as criminals. A clear example is the forced disappearance of the forty-three students of Ayotzinapa by the military, druglords and municipal authorities. Another example is an increase in the punishment for street graffiti in Puebla, where someone can get up to six years of prison for painting a historical building. In May 2015, a policeman accidentally shot Ricardo Cadena, a fifteen year old boy, on the pretext that he was making graffiti on a wall.

This context also reaches Colectivo Tomate. The governor of Puebla launched the construction of a thematic park by the pyramid of Cholula. Paola, one of the five members of Colectivo Tomate organized nonviolent actions to express the no to the project. People held hands around the pyramid – my father was part of that circle. In retaliation, the state launched an arrest warrant against Paola accusing her of beating up policemen and taking over Cholula municipal government house. Actions alleged to be done on a day Paola was outside the country. Since then, she has not come back, fearing she could be arrested.  So yes, this is the place where the movement we are creating takes place.