Solutions in Sight: Social Justice

Niño Art

A Conversation with
Alexa Van Daam
May 1997

For the past two years, Alexa, 17, has taught art to a group of children at a church in San Rafael, California. The parents of these kids are immigrants from Guatemala and El Salvador. Alexa's classes have created art, friendships, and a new sense of self-esteem in children who are strangers to this country.

Check out Alexa's own paintings and art in The Gallery.


The InSite: What gave you the idea to start this project?

Alexa: I lived in Chile with my family and there was a girls' orphanage near my home. They'd go marching around the block for exercise a couple times a week. I would see them come out of this old house and then go right back in. It really intrigued me. I knew they had very, very few belongings. Most didn't have any parents or they had one poor parent who was a maid or something. I knew some neighbors gave a food basket every Christmas. I thought, "Why only do that at Christmas?" Why wouldn't they give them things at any odd time? Why does it have to be that one holiday? So I made some cookies, and I brought them over. One of the nuns took me in, and I was with some of the little kids for a while. They asked me what I did, and I said that I loved art. They said they wanted to draw too but they didn't have any crayons. So I brought some of my pens and paper the following day and drew with them for a while. Then it became a sort of habit of mine to go over, because it was so fun. I felt really good doing it, and I knew how happy they were because they didn't have pens or paper.

"Why only do that at Christmas?" Why wouldn't they give them things at any odd time?

TI: How old were you at the time?

Alexa: 14 or 15. One of the nuns who ran the orphanage told me to come on Saturday mornings. Then it started to expand, and we had more kids come there. When I moved back with my family to the U.S. my parents made contact with the Latin community here. In the house we were renting I met the old owner's gardener who was from El Salvador. He said at his church there were children who had Bible study and would like to draw too. Because the coordinator of the Bible studies was pregnant they wanted someone to come in and keep the children occupied while this woman went into labor. So I went over there.

TI: What was the place like?

Alexa: It's an old warehouse sort of place that they converted and rented a few nights a week for a church. When I first went there, they did not want me on a permanent basis at all. They let me in because I spoke Spanish, but a lot of them are illegal citizens or not citizens at all, and I think that's what makes them wary about having people come into the church who are not from their community. But I spoke Spanish and was young so they trusted me more. I took some of the older children, about four years old and up, and started doing art with them. I taught them little techniques. I used to go every Thursday night for about two or three hours while their parents were listening to a sermon. Then when the woman had her baby she just decided she would give all the time to me because the kids liked it so much. So I continued to do that throughout the school year. In the summer I went back to visit Chile. But when I returned to California I continued to teach the children here. I had to juggle school also. But I really enjoyed teaching art, and I knew how much the children loved doing it. Also I wanted to keep up my Spanish, so that was motivating me, too.

TI: Where did the art materials come from?

Alexa: From me! Art supplies can be very expensive. I had started using my own. Then I realized my paint brushes which had been pretty good quality, were getting ruined because some of the children were very small and pressed too hard. So I was using all of my own supplies and bought more. It was getting very costly. I tried to make things and use old boxes to paint. But it still adds up. So I told my art teacher at school how upset I was that I couldn't do projects that cost more money. She said that Marin County's Arts Council had spare money sometimes that they give to worthy causes. She suggested I ask for an application. So I made some calls and wrote about four letters. Unfortunately they already had their grants given out, and I would have to wait until the next year.

I said, "Niño Art needs money! Give us some!"

TI: So what did you do?

Alexa: I wanted to continue what I had started! Anyway, I'm graduating this year. That would mean I would be at college and I couldn't wait. In the group a couple of children decided they should be called "Niño Art" [Children's Art]. So when I contacted the Arts Council I said, "Niño Art needs money! Give us some!" They were interested and did have some spare money. I don't know how many letters I wrote and how many phone calls I made, but I did finally get a $1,500 grant! Which was a lot more than I thought because the ordinary amount was $300.

What kind of art are you doing with the kids?

Alexa: In school here they throw coloring books at kids and say, "Here you go! This is art class." They don't really get much instruction. I grew up with my mother being an artist, knowing instinctively that when you mix black with other colors it doesn't make it dark, it just dulls it. And white brightens it. Stuff like that. The children would have questions, or I would show them this or that, then they would learn things. It was also at the same time making them feel more sure of themselves in English. They felt insecure that they spoke Spanish. I wanted to show them that it's really cool if they can speak two languages fluently.

TI: Did you experience that kind of insecurity when you were going to school in Chile?

Alexa: Yes! I was ostracized for being American when I went down there. In the United States, especially, school is tough. I didn't want them to feel that they were strange or "the odd man out" here because they speak Spanish at home and a lot of their parents don't speak English.

TI: It sounds like a lot of this had nothing to do with art.

Alexa: I love art myself, and I love Spanish a lot. I've traveled with my parents throughout my childhood. So I just wanted to mold all three things together. I realized through the art I was helping them cope with who they were and form more of an identity. I really do feel that kids can lose a sense of identity here. The television, everything gives out these messages. Kids lose creativity too. It can be art of any form but it's a really great thing to have.

I speak to them only in Spanish,
and they mostly communicate in "Spanlgish."

TI: What have you seen happening with the kids who are coming regularly to these art classes?

Alexa: I've seen them really open up and become more receptive. They become more loving with each other and they don't really make fun of each other's English any more. Or even Spanish. I speak to them only in Spanish, and they mostly communicate in "Spanglish."

TI: What is that?

Alexa: Half a sentence is in English, half is in Spanish. To them it's almost a new type of communication. Like: Vamos a ir a "the store?" (Do you want to go to the store?) Y alla vamos a comprar unas "cookies." (And there we'll buy some cookies.) Or they speak in English and put in the Spanish words. I thought if they are to use Spanish in their future and jobs and things, it's not really practical to not be able to maintain a conversation in one language and separate it from the other. So either speak all English or all Spanish. But now they can sort of flip in and out of it. They still have the influence of home, but I'm trying to make them realize that it's really important that they can speak well in both languages. Language skills are very important.

TI: Have you ever had an art exhibit of the children's work?

Alexa: Mostly my projects are for Mother's Day or for Easter. Things that they bring home and give away. I really like the idea of learning how to make presents and not have to buy them. So they have brought everything home. And it is dispersed everywhere between grandmothers, aunts, uncles.

TI: By working with these children, you've surely given them something very positive.

Alexa: I have developed a lot of friendships that I really feel good about, and I think that they do too. It's been really fun. I didn't really go in with a direction. I mean, I didn't think that their self-esteem would grow. But then I started to notice that it did! So I started to build on that.

TI: But you didn't need a game plan because you obviously cared about them and wanted to share something that you were enthusiastic about. You valued them as people.

Alexa: That's right! I have always concentrated on the academics thinking that's the way I have to go, but the art has just crept in and won't go away. And I realize it's just a part of my life, and it's what makes me de-stress. It's what makes me happy. And I realize that I can't live without it.

...the art has just crept in and won't go away.
...And I realize that I can't live without it.

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