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Jane Golden, executive director of Mural Arts Philadelphia, speaks at the dedication ceremony of the "Sanctuary City, Sanctuary Neighborhood" mural on the wall of the Providence Center at Fifth and Huntingdon streets in Fairhill. Photo: Emily Neil / AL DÍA News
Jane Golden, executive director of Mural Arts Philadelphia, speaks at the dedication ceremony of the "Sanctuary City, Sanctuary Neighborhood" mural on the wall of the Providence Center at Fifth and Huntingdon streets in Fairhill. Photo: Emily Neil / AL…

'Sanctuary City, Sanctuary Neighborhood' mural unveiled in Fairhill

The Fairhill community celebrated a new mural depicting a vision of the neighborhood, the city, and beyond as a sanctuary for all.

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For Stephanie Torres, the striking mural that now graces the side of Providence Center at Fifth and Huntingdon streets was almost impossible to imagine when she and other community members ventured their first few brushstrokes to begin the process.

The bold yet intricate design depicts a woman with symbols and allusions to the cultures and traditions of Latin America in her hair, which spreads out in an afro around her face. She is gazing straight ahead as her hands pull back two sides of a border wall. On the back panel is a line of immigrant families, led by a young woman from Honduras in the foreground, who are waiting to enter through the opening in the wall. 

Torres, a teen leader at Providence Center, a nonprofit organization that provides education programming for people of all ages in the Fairhill community, said that initially she was overwhelmed wondering how they would be able to create something as large and detailed as the mural — especially for those, like herself, who didn’t have much experience painting.

But just a few weeks later, as she stood looking up at the finished product unveiled on Aug. 27, her perspective had shifted.

“When they put it up, I was like, ‘Wow, we did that,’” Torres said. “I feel really proud of us.”

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Torres and the Providence Center employees and students were part of an even larger team that worked alongside artists Ian Pierce (who goes by Artes Ekeko) and Betsy Casañas to make the two muralists’ vision a reality in the six short weeks that artists, community members, and stakeholders came together to create the “Sanctuary City, Sanctuary Neighborhood” mural.

On Aug. 27, the Mural Arts Philadelphia program, in partnership with Providence Center and La Puerta Abierta, an organization which provides pro-bono mental health services to the Latino immigrant and refugee communities in the Greater Philadelphia area, gathered the community to dedicate the mural. Artists, organizers, and youth alike spoke to the enduring power of the arts to present a message about the reality many members of the  Latino and immigrant communities in the country face, while also revealing the possibilities for a different, brighter future.

Many of the youth from Providence Center and La Puerta Abierta, who worked to create the mural have experienced their own immigration stories, arriving in Philadelphia in search of a home from countries throughout Latin America and Africa, as well as Puerto Rico.

“The neighborhood has a lot of culture. The neighborhood has a lot of talent. The neighborhood has a lot of art. The neighborhood is not lost,” Charito Morales, Providence Center community organizer, said in Spanish at the ceremony.

Pierce, an internationally-acclaimed Chilean artist, first worked with Mural Arts Philadelphia in 2018, when he designed the Families Belong Together mural, also located in the area, on Front Street.

Once Mural Arts Philadelphia invited him to do another piece, Pierce and Casañas, a Puerto Rican artist who grew up just two blocks away from the mural site at Fourth and Cambria streets, began collaborating to design a mural that would speak to immigration at the border as well as encompass the experiences of the diverse communities in Fairhill.

Pierce said that the intention of the mural is, in part, to show that “the pain of others is our pain.”

“This mural is about empathy, it’s about solidarity, and it’s about the incredible pain that people are going through trying to get to the United States,” he said.

Casañas, who said the mural was also a way for her to “reconnect” to her childhood community, was one of eight artists who had painted the wall’s previous mural, which represented the Puerto Rican culture and heritage of the neighborhood.

Danny Torres, another of the eight artists who had painted the former mural, was present at the unveiling. The artist, who has lived in the neighborhood since moving to Philadelphia 31 years ago from his native Puerto Rico, said that he “love[s]” the new mural, and that its theme is “right on time.”

“The other mural...was nice, [but] it was old, it was peeling out. It would be more expensive to fix that one instead of doing a new one,” he said.

Torres, who continues to work on murals throughout the neighborhood, has witnessed their power in connecting community members throughout his more than three decades working with Mural Arts Philadelphia and its previous iteration, the Anti-Graffiti Network.

“[Community members] feel that they are part of the project and at the same time they are the ones that protect that mural, they always watch it, they protect it, like, ‘Hey, don’t do graffiti there,’” said Torres.

Another group among the constellation of artists who took part in creating the mural were workers from The Guild - a Mural Arts Philadelphia program in which formerly incarcerated individuals develop job skills and have the option to stay involved as workers after graduating from the program.

After the ceremony had finished and a musical performance in front of the mural was underway, The Guild graduate Shaun Durbin stood gazing at the wall and sketching the mural he helped create in his notebook.

One of the most important parts of the mural for him, Durbin said, is the depiction of a baby being lifted over the wall on the back panel.

It is the kind of detail that “can inspire thought, dialogue,” said Durbin, pushing people to act “so that another child...won’t have to be carried over a wall like that again.”

It is a message of activism and awareness that many at the ceremony said will resonate even as the new becomes familiar, and the mural is officially part of the day-to-day life of the community for decades to come. 

For Morales, the mural is special because it was “made by immigrants.”

“There’s blood behind this mural. Because it was made with love, with passion, it was made by people who are wanting and willing to have changes in Philadelphia,” she added.

“This is not a regular mural. This is their mural.” 

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