New Sonoma Valley High School mural celebrates Hispanic community

“I hope that it helps people be more proud of their roots and not let people who are racist (make them) be ashamed of their roots, their heritage,” said student Lydia Segura.|

At Sonoma Valley High School, an expansive new mural celebrating Latinx culture and heritage was completed this week by a team of student volunteers who worked alongside professional artists on the colorful and symbolic creation. The mural is the first on the high school’s campus to prominently feature people of color and celebrate the Hispanic community.

Senior Marisol Álvarez-Díaz, 18, served as the project’s organizer and lead coordinator, first having started on plans for the mural last spring. Discouraged by the lack of art reflecting the school’s majority Hispanic makeup, and spurred on after taking a Cultural Anthropology Class at Santa Rosa Junior College, she decided to take action.

“[The class] taught me a valuable lesson about culture,” Álvarez-Díaz said. “If you don’t have culture at school, you don’t feel safe. I personally don’t feel safe, and I’ve talked with many people who don’t feel safe on campus. School administration has not made that a priority.”

The mural stands approximately 70-feet wide and 10-feet tall, and looks across a main student walkway. It features three distinct scenes: a pair of baile folklórico dancers, an older female farmworker with a raised clenched fist, and a Pomo Native American. Initial design plans depicted specific individuals and activists, but organizers ultimately favored more general and accessible figures, with a goal of allowing viewers to feel more connected to the piece.

The figures are surrounded by flowers in bright and bold color and green flowering cactus, all encompassed by the deep orange hills and dark green vineyards of Sonoma Valley. Monarch butterflies, a symbol of migration as well as a connection between the living and the dead in some Latinx cultures, fly through the scene.

“(At SVHS), for a very long time, I feel like we’ve been lacking diversity. When I heard about the mural I wanted to be a part of it because I thought it would be something that would bring more inclusivity to our school,” said Senior Lydia Segura, who had no prior experience with mural art.

The mural was painted by roughly 15 students, many of whom have Hispanic heritage, under the guidance of professional artists from Raizes Collective, a Santa Rosa-based nonprofit dedicated to empowering marginalized communities through art. The group, which has overseen murals at several county schools, helped with the design, logistics and execution of the mural.

Over the course of several weekends, the mural was colored in with spray paints and acrylics, using techniques taught by the artists. The students worked largely independently, however, and filled in large sections of the wall with their own design.

“We really try to provide spaces for students to express themselves and be able to create things like murals in which they feel reflected in,” said Isabel Lopez, the founder and executive director of Raizes Collective. “Having (students) learn about going through the process: in terms of going through administration, getting school district approval, that’s a skill set that you’re going to need later in life as well.”

Álvarez-Díaz was compelled to act by the experiences of her sister, Valeria Álvarez-Díaz, who graduated the high school in 2015. In a written proposal for the mural, Valeria wrote, “Although my dream was to become a doctor when I was in high school at SVHS, I couldn't visualize myself wearing a white coat. All my teachers did not look like me. This directly impacted my confidence in school, my aspirations, and most importantly, I underestimated my potential as a first-generation Latina student.”

“I am positive that if I entered school as a freshman at SVHS with murals that depicted my culture and Latinx contributions, I would be in medical school already. All the activities I took part in involved medicine, yet I was not able to ‘dream big’ due to lack of representation.”

Though the mural was approved this year by the site and district administration, Marisol Álvarez-Díaz’s first proposal was rejected by a past administrator.

“I felt defeated to the point where I gave up, but my sister was telling me that we need more Latinos that are first-generation achieving higher education, going into these roles predominantly held by white men. That’s why there’s a fist (raised) by the field worker in the middle: to symbolize perseverance, to symbolize ‘Si Se Puede,’” she said.

Depicting farmworkers was a priority for the project. “What is Sonoma? Wine Country. Who is (making) the wine? Field workers; and there wasn’t a lot of representation... especially in the school,” Álvarez-Díaz said.

“My dad is a field worker. I grew up with my dad always telling me about pesticides, (his job) is very hard. I was bullied (for my) parent being a field worker. I was bullied for a long time.”

Francie Ward, Álvarez-Díaz’ mentor, helped her manage the project’s logistics and obtain approval of the school district.

“It’s been a joy to watch one young woman’s idea grow — with the help of volunteer students and others who stepped up to help make it happen — into this inspirational, joyful mural!” Ward said.

Several teachers stepped up to oversee the painting process, and the mural received additional support from Sonoma Plein Air and Rotary Club of Sonoma Valley.

The mural and its planning was also the focus of the student short film “Si Se Puede!” created by Álvarez-Díaz, Vivian Hernandez-Santoyo and Maria Dalakiaris for Peter Hansen’s film class.

While Álvarez-Díaz, Segura, and many of the student volunteers who worked on the project will graduate in June, they hope that their artistry will have a lasting impact.

“Even though we have hardships, though we have to work twice as hard as other people, that’s not going to stop us. I need this to be at the school for future generations, for freshmen,” Álvarez-Díaz.

Segura added, “I hope that it helps people be more proud of their roots and not let people who are racist (make them) be ashamed of their roots, their heritage.”

Vince Basada is the editor of the Dragon’s Tale and a student reporter for the Index-Tribune.

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