4:32 a.m., May 22
"I had time on my hands," the young man said with bowed head. I nodded in comprehension. As I watched him running paint speckled hands through his cropped hair, I thought of the long haired Lakota-Shoshone brothers I had met while in Santa Fe, one of whom had spent almost half his life in and out of jail. They were artists, too.
Recently, while enrolled in the Urban Corp of San Diego County's year long accelerated academic paid job training program, Jordan Mack rubbed shoulders with master muralist, Sal Barajas, and learned the technique behind his craft. Leaning over the equipment counter where he works issuing tools and protective safety equipment to his peers, Mack shared with me how he had learned how to mix paint pigments and apply shadowing to create depth and dimension while working beside Barajas on the Jefferson-Rosecrans Street mural just a stone throw from Old Town.
Pulling out a notebook stuffed with loose papers covered in drawings and bits of his writing, he showed me his artwork. “I work mostly in pen or lead,” he said. I nodded again in understanding. As I had felt back then when studying the sketches of the native American artists I had met that had been harbored in similar notebooks pulled from knapsacks as worn as Mack’s, I was filled with awe for his natural brimming talent. As I ran my hand over the sketches of the magnificent dragons drawn with such intricate detail, I was happy to have crossed paths with this young man with the potential to contribute stunning beauty to the world.
I asked him if he had been down to see the dragon murals in the Barrio and he had said no but that he would find them if he went down to help Barajas out. I looked into his eyes as I handed him back his notebook, “You mean ‘when’, don’t you?” He smiled as he zipped up his bag. A little goes a long way with Mack.
He wants to be a fire jumper but says everyone tells him he should pursue his art. I suggested that he do both, that he does what it is that makes him most happy. Tilting his head sideways and averting my eyes, he shrugged. I understand this response, too. He is young yet and may not think that’s within his control—happiness; he undoubtedly believes it is what’s forfeited when a man does what a man has to do to get by in this world. I can read his thoughts as clearly as if they were blinking across his forehead like a neon sign. “I’m glad you had the opportunity to work alongside a Master like Sal,” I said.
His head came up and he nodded in gratitude with eye brows raised. He knew he’d been blessed by fortune and humbly stated, “Yeah, I am, too; I learned a lot from him! I think I could do one (a mural) on my own now.” I looked into his pale blue eyes and hoped his get-up-and-go-gets-up-and-goes to find Barajas among the scaffolding down at the Barrio.
One of the original Barrio Logan mural artists and one of four artists who adorned the Balboa Park water tower way back when the Centro Cultural de la Raza first assumed residency there, Barajas has left his mark throughout San Diego. A few years back, he was commissioned by Caltrans to contribute to the Mural Restoration Technical Manual which is now guiding the restoration process on 18 historic public paintings in Chicano Park located beneath the Coronado Bridge overpass. Barajas was on a tight schedule to complete the mural for the Urban Corps so that he could return to the Barrio project. Restoration on the 39 year old socio-political murals is anticipated to be completed for the Park’s anniversary on April 22.
A few weeks back, Mayor Sanders held a press conference in the parking lot of Perry’s Café upon completion of the 5,000 foot Gateway Mural Project that was funded in part by the North Bay Project Area Committee (PAC) of the San Diego Redevelopment Agency. As the dignitaries made speeches, the uniformed Corpsmembers the likes of whom Barajas depicted throughout the length of the mural stood attentive behind the rows of chairs. Others may have come to see the big shots, but I had come for them. Mack was there, tall and broad and proud of his contribution to this neighborhood beautification project.
Founded in 1989 in an effort to transform the County’s disadvantaged youth into more employable and engaged citizens, Urban Corps has served more than 10,000 young adults just like Mack since its inception. Based on FDR’s New Deal Conservation Corps, San Diego’s Urban Corps provides on the job training in environmental fields for unemployed high school drop outs. The onsite charter school enables Corpsmembers to earn diplomas while earning part time salaries planting thousands of trees in public right of ways, weatherizing homes and beautifying business districts, collecting and sorting thousands of tons of recyclables, and erasing miles of graffiti each year in the very neighborhoods in which they themselves reside. The post Corps Apprenticeship Program seeks to place eligible graduates into careers with local business sponsors within growing industries.
Lined up just after dawn, scrubbed and brushed, the olive clad Corps begins its day with military style “PT”. Shouts of “ONE, TWO, THREE, FOUR…” can be heard down the block as scores of uniformed Corpsmembers drop to the ground in unison and begin to count off push ups. Their Supervisors inspect their attire to ensure compliance with the Code. Shirts must be tucked, pants hiked, and hair rolled off the collar. All safety equipment must be in tow or the Corpsmembers are excused for the day, and thus don’t get paid. Strict standards apply as Corpsmembers are taught invaluable lessons that far exceed the three R’s such as the importance of punctuality, hygiene, responsibility, and courteous communication. Such as self control and self respect.
But, the list of rules outlined in the Corpsmember Handbook doesn’t deter the hundreds that apply each year. In these tough economic times, a job’s a job and in the case of the Corps, it’s also a well rounded education often delivered by streetwise staff, some of whom began as Corpsmembers themselves. The rigidity of the Urban Corps Program leaves little room for nonsense as it delivers a stiff cup of wake-up-and-smell-the-coffee.
Mack was one of only seven graduates with perfect attendance records. Doesn't sound like much of an achievement until you comprehend that three unexcused tardies or absences would have earned him his walking papers.
Old habits can be as hard to break as bad influences, but the best of them manage. Listening to his class valedictorian give her speech on just this subject a few days later, Mack knew exactly how far he had come and was acutely conscious of the journey still ahead. It hadn’t been easy, not for him, not for any of them. They, like us, had the same pubescent intensities to survive while faced with the weight of life defining decisions as young adults leaving the nest to enter the worldwide workforce during bleak financial times. We all have our stories, as do they. They may not think we do; we’re employed, after all. We’ve vehicles and homes. Those of us that have lived a bit, however, know that everyone’s got a tale of woe and strife shoved somewhere up their sleeves. They’ll know this someday as well. That they aren't alone.
Many Corpsmembers have barriers to every day existence that are difficult for even the likes of me to imagine. Un-hemmed as my perspective can be, I am seriously sobered to hear some of their situations. Most of us had homes and parents that provided for us while we finished school. Most of us weren’t the parents having to do the providing. Most of us had mastered the English language, having been born and raised in this country. We hadn’t been forced to flee war torn villages, or struggle to learn a new language in an alternate culture or dig through dumpsters with a toddler in tow to find our next meal, or join gangs on fear of death. I don’t know one person that I went to school with who ever had to dodge bullets.
Not surprising then, that as I watched the class of 28 file out of the building pride poured forth from the Corpsmembers who stood cheering their graduating peers as tassels were flipped and hats tossed. For they knew the challenges faced each day to get to that podium. It radiated from the staff shouting and hooting and high-fiving those shuffling through the jubilant crowd in the gowned procession pushing its way towards the reception outside. They, the Urban Corps staff who knew that the graduates had achieved so much more than just a diploma, stood in solidarity, in undying ranks of support for those whom they had served during the last year.
I caught Mack’s attention before he stepped out into the sunshine. He stepped out of line to shake my hand, his bobbing gestures and exuberant expressions making me see what he must have looked like as a little boy. I smiled at the self pride that he could barely contain. Looking behind him I saw more of the same.
When the reception finally petered out, Mack and his classmates would all return back to where they came from. The Urban Corps doesn’t change that fact. But, it does change them. Ask any one of them—ask Mack. And it’s that influence, that simple small thing, which the dedicated staff hopes will make the difference in their lives.
This crew had fought against the odds to make it to the finish line. In the last three months, more than half Mack’s class had been terminated or self terminated and three of his peers lost their lives tragically. The pride this small but glowing group exuded was well deserved; the pride I felt for them well earned.
As I walked back to my car past the many curbed rent-by-hour RVs that line the street leaving Mack to celebrate his success with his family and friends, I studied the faces in the mural and thought of the next 10,000 Urban Corps would serve. I thought of these graduates coming back with their children years from now, walking past this very mural pointing out faces remembered. I thought of the legacy some people leave in their wake simply because they bothered. I thought of the artist, Barajas, back up on scaffolding down in the Barrio touching up paintings he applied more than a quarter of a century ago. I thought of his son, newly graduated from college with an art degree embarking on his own career and the walls he may go forth to paint, thanks to the influence of his father. I thought of Mack and hoped to God he never stops drawing.
My hands are held high above my head in honor of those who rise from the trenches daring to believe that they are deserving of more, of better. Who have the courage to plow through barricades in search of themselves, the selves they were born to be. And my deepest respect goes out to those who serve them selflessly, with outstretched arms.
Blessed Be, Mack. Blessed Be all who make it through the Corps. May you use the lessons learned to thrive, not just to survive.