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Our Immigrant Abuelitas, Nonnas And Grandmothers Take Their Place In A New Mural

"Immigrant Grandmothers" mural in East Boston. (Phaedra Scott/WBUR)MoreCloseclosemore
"Immigrant Grandmothers" mural in East Boston. (Phaedra Scott/WBUR)

Under the Sumner Street overpass in East Boston, a crowd of people gathered in the crisp December air Friday morning for the unveiling of a new mural. Many of them had a particular interest in the subject of the painting: the faces of their immigrant abuelitas, nonnas and grandmothers.

"Immigrant Grandmothers," the third mural installation of the city of Boston's "To Immigrants with Love" campaign, celebrates the lives and legacy of the women who built the community.

At the turn of the 20th century, East Boston was known as the second largest hub for immigration in the United States outside of Ellis Island in New York. Starting with a large population of Italian immigrants, and later immigrants from Central America, East Boston has had changing demographics, but remains a community created by immigrants.

The mural, painted by the Mayor's Mural Crew, used print and digital photographs of first-generation grandmothers that families from East Boston submitted to the project.

Families and friends of the grandmothers in the mural line up for the unveiling Friday morning. (Phaedra Scott/WBUR)
Families and friends of the grandmothers in the mural line up for the unveiling Friday morning. (Phaedra Scott/WBUR)

“These are the people who make the memorable meals, pick up children from school, who do the shopping, who work and try to make life better for those people who have just come here,” says Heidi Schork, director of the Mayor’s Mural Crew.

Schork, along with her mural team including Connor Woods, Jerome Jones and Lauren Donnellan, worked with members of the East Boston community, hearing their stories, sharing meals and understanding the tremendous legacy of family and the neighborhood.

“The common story of grandmothers is really what inspired me most to create the mural,” says Schork. “The immigrant women who walk the streets of East Boston have very similar stories to tell, or the ones who came in 1920 have parallel stories to the ones who are arriving now, almost a century later.”

The gatekeepers of preserving the legacy of culture lies within the cultural memory of the grandparents, and most notably the grandmothers of these communities. Rose Forina, whose grandparents are featured in the mural, said at the unveiling, “Our grandmothers worked long hours and sacrificed a great deal to make a better life for themselves and their family."

Connor Woods, Heidi Schork, Lauren Donnellan and Katherine Copeland at the unveiling. (Phaedra Scott/WBUR)
Connor Woods, Heidi Schork, Lauren Donnellan and Katherine Copeland at the unveiling. (Phaedra Scott/WBUR)

These are the stories that Katherine Copeland is trying to preserve. She works at the Mayor's Office for Immigrant Advancement and proposed the public art campaign. In addition to the murals, the team is documenting the process of developing the murals and the stories and photos they collected along the way.

So far, Copeland has planned two previous murals unveiled this summer. One is located on the side of Atlas Wine & Liquors in Roslindale, featuring Louis and Beatrice White, the Russian couple who founded the store in the 1930s. The second mural, located in East Boston, features Carmello Scire, an Italian man who immigrated to Boston in the 1930s and founded Sammy Carlo’s Delicatessen and Catering.

The new mural in East Boston pays homage to the immigrant grandmothers who made the neighborhood their home, Forina explained.

“They remind us that a city is not just brick and mortar, it’s built with the heart and soul of people like our grandmothers who took a risk and journeyed to a land they had never seen, and whose language they didn’t speak.”

Related:

Phaedra Scott Twitter Community Arts Journalism Fellow
Phaedra Scott is The ARTery's Community Arts Journalism Fellow.

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