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The Berkeley Beacon

Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

Colombian artists map their way through East Boston

Alejandro Ramírez, left, and Manuela Meneses, right, show their findings from South Fronteras, a Mobility Movilidad project in East Boston. Photo by Maya Gacina

In the fifth Proyecto Boston Medellín exhibition, South Fronteras, artists unearthed maps, photographs, and stories of East Boston residents with similar traits—both are Colombian and living in areas prone to gentrification.

In a two-week intensive project called Through Our Eyes, six student artists began to controversy map East Boston using a series of algorithms to pinpoint social and environmental crises happening within its communities and governmental systems. They displayed their progress through maps, hand-drawn postcards, candid shots of residents and small business owners, and short stories during a presentation in the Multipurpose Room of Piano Row last Friday.

Every year since 2013, professor and PBM Founding Director Tamera Marko selects a small group of emerging artists and students from the National University of Colombia in Medellín through PBM. The program is run by Mobility Movilidad, in collaboration with the Social Justice Center.

Once completed, Marko displays student artwork and findings to the community in the form of a gallery or exhibit held on-campus.

“My work is all about tracking different kinds of data to understand social inequities, economic, and environmental crises,” Marko said. “I’m always searching for ways to represent that in a way that people who can make a change are inspired to do so and have the information they need.”

Last October, Marko and National University of Colombia in Medellín professor Luis Serna conducted an application process and a series of interviews to find a small group of students from the Colombian university to fly to East Boston and controversy map the area.

Using Boston public records and data, the students found that immigrants do not match Boston’s ideal citizen model of high income. They also found that the government’s many departments and sub-groupings are too complex for some residents to understand, especially if navigating as a second or third language.

“The one thing we know for sure that we can accomplish is that people can realize that this is happening, and it’s not just happening in East Boston, it’s happening in cities all over the world,” Marko said. “Gentrification is intimately linked to war and capitalism—it’s a phenomenon we’re going to see more and more of and it’s happening at an incredible velocity now.”

Marko said she suggested mapping East Boston to Serna because of its large community of Colombians experiencing displacement caused by gentrification. According to Statistical Atlas, about 55 percent of the neighborhood’s population is Hispanic with the median household income for these residents at $50,900.

“I know that we mapped East Boston, but it’s not too different from downtown,” Serna said. “People are getting mad. People are getting frustrated.”

The Colombian students interviewed over 80 families and small business owners in Little Medellin, East Boston. The students each came up with unique ways to present the information and stories they found.

National University of Colombia in Medellín students Manuela Meneses and Alejandro Ramírez began the cartography of East Boston through mathematical analyses and social interactions with the community.

“This is one of the steps—showing to people who didn’t have any idea, and the people in East Boston we were involved with,” Meneses said. “I think that they have felt empowered by their own stories because we’re not doing anything, they’re doing the whole job.”

Two other students, Isabel Giraldo and Angélica Camargo, made postcards decorated with a hand-drawn map of East Boston. The cards were overlaid with the faces of the students and professors involved in the mapping project to facilitate conversations amongst the Latin American community members in East Boston.

She and Camargo filled out and distributed 118 postcards with messages written in Spanish into mailboxes with Spanish-sounding last names labeled on the outside. Giraldo said audience members received postcards the day of the exhibition as a way to keep the conversation going.

“It’s really meaningful for us because it’s people of our cities so I think it’s a very strong connection with them because we understand everything that happens in that place, East Boston,” she said. “I think it’s incredible in two weeks all the work that we have done and the connection we’ve made with people there.”

To further the project, Marko said she plans to enlist the help of Emerson students in Colombia during a five-week Global Pathways program she teaches called Mobility Medellín: Art, Research, and Social Change. Students will collaborate with some of the now 7,000 residents of Manantiales de Paz, a neighborhood founded in 2009 by displaced Colombian residents, to build off of the artists’ controversial mapping foundation in East Boston.

Serna said if things go well and their findings develop more fruition while in Colombia, that the Colombian artists will travel back to East Boston in September and exhibit their final project to the community there. He said, either way, the artists plan to keep in touch with everyone they met and hope to maintain the cultural, social, and environmental connections they share.

“I hope they feel connected, not as documented or undocumented, but as humans that have things to share and different experiences and different backgrounds,” Meneses said.

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