Immigrant youth reclaim their stories through art

A new mural in Oakland shows how young people are using art and solidarity to challenge racism.

Since 2010, AFSC’s 67 Sueños program has helped high-school age youth in Oakland, California to organize in their communities and recognize their power to change the world around them. Most  participants in the program come from immigrant families, living in neighborhoods with high rates of violence, mass incarceration, deportations, and poverty. As part of 67 Sueños, they hone their skills to practice “artivism”—creating murals, poetry, and digital media to demonstrate community resilience, power, and solidarity in the face of racism, xenophobia, and oppression. 

During the presidential campaign, our youth were deeply concerned by the dehumanizing language and fear mongering that then-candidate Donald Trump used to talk about immigrants in the U.S. For many of them, his election as president—and what the consequences would be to them, their families, and their communities—was terrifying.

As a response, 67 Sueños youth undertook a project to reclaim their identities—doing independent research and conducting interviews with community organizers over the course of a month. The process allowed them to reconnect with their ancestors’ legacies and familiarize themselves with the struggles of indigenous people and freedom fighters struggling for autonomy, self-determination, and justice around the globe. 

The knowledge they gained through that process helped them conceive, plan, and create a 260-foot mural in the Fruitvale district—a historically diverse low-income community—with guidance from their 67 Sueños mentors and lead artist Francisco Sanchez.

The mural, titled “Solidarity YES! Hatred NO!,” is about people power, pride, honor, and resistance. Youth decided to portray key leaders like Marwan Barghouti, Aung San Suu Kyi, Berta Caceres, Alicia Garza, Yuri Kochiyama, Rodolfo "Corky" Gonzales, and many more to represent the decades of activism our elders and ancestors have led so that we may all live in a more just and equitable world. Youth also used deep imagery—including the migration of whales to symbolize migration as a necessity for survival—and culturally significant elements, such as the color sequence of the Kanaka Maoli, or Native Hawaiians.

The mural is painted on a perimeter wall of Manzanita SEED, a public elementary school that was one of the first bilingual schools in Oakland and serves predominantly Latino and Black students. 

In the weeks that it took to paint the mural, 67 Sueños youth witnessed the impact of their work on the community. A family from Afghanistan, who had recently taken refuge in the U.S., joined us to paint and shared with us their difficult journey. Children from African- American families were also eager to paint and build community with us—in a space where Black-Brown solidarity is sometimes difficult to achieve.  

During our first week of painting, police showed up after someone in the neighborhood reported that people were “tagging” the school wall. But we were able to turn that experience into a positive one by explaining to officers what 67 Sueños is, our mission, and that tagging—when decriminalized—could produce something beautiful and empowering for a community.   

This mural, which we unveiled to the public earlier this month, is an example of how youth are using art and solidarity to challenge bigotry in our communities and beyond. And we hope it will continue to inspire others to reclaim their stories and identities to challenge racism—and give visibility to our larger community that oftentimes gets erased when we let others tell our stories for us.