Art Start, a non-profit organization, is featuring nine young Latino adults from Milwaukee’s south side in the group’s first fully bilingual “See Me Because” portrait project.
The outdoor exhibit, which aims to explore the identities of young people of color in Milwaukee through photography, will be at Harbor View Plaza, located at 600 E. Greenfield Ave. — where the street dead-ends at the waterfront.
It runs until July 31.
In collaboration with photographers, videographers, makeup artists and interviewers, the young adults, ages 14 to 20, posed for both realistic and surreal portraits where they aimed to express how they want to be seen in the world. Each portrait includes a brief biography with a QR code that, when scanned, leads viewers to a video interview.
Art Start teamed with Casa Romero, the Harbor District Inc. and Milwaukee Public Schools to showcase the exhibition.
“I think that there is a lack of complex narratives about people of color and youth of color in Milwaukee,” said Johanna De Los Santos, executive director of Art Start. “I think a lot of that has to do with segregation.
“I think that because of the geographic locations … there are these really solid misconceptions and narratives that are reinforced by the geography of the city. So any opportunity for youth to express some of the details of who they are and how they see themselves is great.”
The program, created in 1991 in New York, is focused on using the creative process to nurture the voices of historically marginalized youth. The “See Me Because” portrait project began in 2013 and was invited to Milwaukee in 2017 by Milwaukee Public Schools.
Since then, the project has taken place in Milwaukee and New York every year.
“A lot of youth express that they felt as though they didn’t feel that other people saw them the way that they see themselves, especially when they’re creating and exploring their identities through the creative process,” De Los Santos said.
‘Giving them this platform is important’
Ren Ayala, 20, stood admiring her portrait Wednesday evening, the first day the exhibition was open to the public.
The portrait features her sitting around plants, holding a relic. It emphasizes how she discovered her ancestral lineage through plant medicine. The plants represent her roots and her connection to her indigenous culture and her passion for healing practices.
Ayala, whose parents are from Michoacán, Mexico, remembers growing up speaking only Spanish. However, when she started attending a mostly white school, she recalls having to act differently among her peers of different races. She often had a difficult time finding ways to connect with her classmates. When she found plant medicine, she found herself and learned more about indigenous culture.
“To me, this is a tribute to them and my spiritual self,” Ayala said. “It’s being able to accept that I have so many layers, and we all have so many layers and it’s beautiful to see that.”
At first, Ayala said, it was difficult for her to be vulnerable in front of lights and cameras, but she quickly embraced it.
“I feel like my ancestors are proud of me,” she said. “I can feel it.”
Eight other portraits sit on the plaza near the water on easels that the featured youth helped build and install the weekend leading up to opening night.
Tony Padilla, 15, is pictured demonstrating CPR on a mannequin with a background that was taken in Guatemala.
“It’s supposed to represent me helping people,” Padilla said.
He remembers going to summer camps when he was younger and being inspired by a camp leader who taught him skills he hopes to pass down to others, such as how to properly remove a splinter.
The portraits include realistic concepts, such as high school athlete Christopher Beltran holding two basketballs. They also include surreal ones, such as the photo of 17-year-old Valeria Gonzalez playing the cello in a fantasy-like background.
“These kids are growing up here and I don’t know that there is always a platform for them to express their hopes and ambitions and goals for the future,” said Carols Beltran, youth program director at Casa Romero. “I think giving them this platform is important.”
Jessica Rodriguez is a Report for America corps reporter who focuses on news of value to underserved communities for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Please consider supporting journalism that informs our democracy with a tax-deductible gift to this reporting effort at JSOnline.com/RFA.
How to go
What: A multimedia exhibition that showcases Latino youth with ties to Milwaukee’s south side
Where: The free outdoor exhibit is at Harbor View Plaza, 600 E. Greenfield Ave.
When: Through July 31