Understanding one’s self and the nature of one’s identity can be tricky; there are a myriad of factors that influence who we are and why. Understanding the pieces of our identities is tough… and even more of a challenge when you are 17.

Hispanic Center Youth Advocate Javier Jauregui understands the challenging nature of the question, and is seeking to help SOL youth find answers through art.

A transplant from San Diego, California—where street art was everywhere— Javier was surprised to find a conspicuous lack of painted walls and buildings along the Grandville Corridor, the Latino part of Grand Rapids. Through a grant from the Michigan Humanities, Javier and a team of local Latino artists will guide 30 youth in the SOL Program as they work together to learn and explore the history of the Grandville Corridor area, and to create a mural in the community that reflects the rich history of the students and the area. This project  is called Nuestra Historia, Nuestra Voz (Our History, Our Voice).

In 2010, Grand Rapids was 15.9% Latino, with sociologist Manuel Pastor predicting the population will swell to at least 25% by 2040. These numbers, however, are low, as roughly 35,500 migrant seasonal farmworkers pass through West Michigan every year. Despite their significant presence in the area Latino youth do not have the opportunity to learn about their cultural history or heritage in school.

Nuestra Historia, Nuestra Voz will provide students that opportunity. Youth will begin learning the history of the Grandville Corridor Area and of their personal heritage. In the spring, they’ll express what they’ve learned, turning it into a mural for the community to enjoy for years to come.

“A mural would be really cool to have in the Grandville area,” says project participant Peter Rodriguez. Peter, a 17 year old senior in the SOL Program, says that talking with Javier has made him excited about learning his history. “It’s important to know, and to build pride in ourselves, and to make you more proud of where you come from.”

“The kids don’t know about their heritage and history. I think identity is a human need and want, especially as a teenager,” Javier says, gazing out the window to the street below the Center. We are in the Cesar Chavez Room, and in a few hours, Latino students in the SOL Program will stream in, asking for help with homework, to check in with a case manager, to sit and talk before their shift at Red Robin starts. They come because there are people here who understand. There are people who care.

Javier is optimistic about the impact the project will have on the community. Art made by youth who live down the block is more likely to be left alone, rather than something installed by an “outsider” from another community. It’s the idea that after learning exploring their history and making art, youth will come away with ideas about who they are that they can be confident in and proud of.

“What makes you Latino? Is it brown skin? Is it knowing the language? Is it where you were born? Are you less of a Latino for not liking spicy food? A lot of kids struggle with that,” Javier says. “I’m not here to give them those answers. I want kids in the program to figure that out for themselves.”

The goal of the Supporting Our Leaders Youth Program is to prepare youth and their families for lifelong success through college preparation, leadership development and workplace readiness activities. Nuestra Historia, Nuestra Voz is made possible in part by a grant from the Michigan Humanities, an affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities.


Amy Hinman is the Grant Writer & Social Media Specialist at the Hispanic Center of Western Michigan.  She currently resides in Grand Rapids, Michigan with her husband, and pet fish, Piccolo.

This post originally appeared on the Hispanic Center’s Blog: