In a classroom-turned-music studio at the Villa Victoria Center for the Arts in Boston’s South End, teens mill around preparing for rehearsal. Beat makers, rappers and dancers take their places. The catchy baseline to the group’s new song, “Won’t Get Paid” — a cautionary tale about the consequences for slacking at work — starts to play. In a quieter classroom next door, some students write in their notebooks while others sketch quietly in the back.
They're all preparing for “50 Portraits of Villa Victoria,” opening on Thursday, Dec. 20. It is a multidisciplinary art show featuring paintings, drawings, photographs, poetry and music for the 50th anniversary of Inquilinos Boricuas en Acción (IBA) at Villa Victoria.
Villa Victoria has offered programs for young people since 1968. It was founded alongside IBA when Boston’s urban renewal project targeted the South End for development. The neighborhood’s Puerto Rican community organized for the right to develop their own housing. They won the battle, founding a community that currently provides affordable housing, education and arts programs. Villa Victoria is the largest art center dedicated to showing Latinx arts in New England and the only one that has run continuously in Boston for 50 years.
Art Program Director Elsa Mosquera says Villa Victoria's constancy is important for Boston’s Latinx communities. “We give voice to Latino artists and Latino themes,” she says. “That is important because they are underrepresented, under-heard and under-seen.”
For the teens, IBA provides space to take creative risks and build relationships. One of the young contributors, Aby Rivera-Ortiz, who will be sharing a poem and painting at the “50 Portraits” showcase, remembered how sharing her poetry with friends became a turning point in how she thinks about relationships.
“Something I had a hard time with that made me feel more confident and better in my own skin was speaking out my story to the people I knew and grew up with,” the 16-year-old explains. “I spoke about how I survived. … And they took it like a real friend would, and it built our relationships.”
Pedro Cruz, the interim director of youth development and a longtime Villa Victoria community member, envisioned the exhibition a year ago as “50 Portraits” honoring IBA’s legacy. That legacy is displayed through portraits of the community as seen through the eyes of young people. Although Cruz presented IBA’s history to the teens, he never asked them to illustrate the story for the exhibition.
“It’s not like we told them draw a picture of that,” he says. “It’s more like now that we taught you that, now that you know that, feel empowered because those people did what they did to have this space… If what that means is draw a picture of the sunset, then do that. Or if it means writing a poem about the revolution then do that.”
For Cruz, the exhibition marks a shift for youth programs — from arts for social justice to arts as healing.
"We want to start from within,” says Cruz. “Instead of focusing on the problems that are out — within the community, within the government, within the system — let’s first fix the problems that are within you … and then let that healing spread into the community.”
Unlike past performances at Villa Victoria, “50 Portraits” will feature a new creative medium: music.
Under the direction of Devin Ferreira, Villa Victoria’s artist-in-residence, the teens recorded original songs. Ferreira’s goal was to get teens to step out of their comfort zones. He broke down challenging skills like lyric composition by asking them to shout out words that represented their community. Then, they worked together, creating lyrics from a word bank of their own making.
Through collaborative sessions like these, students found their grooves as beat makers, lyric writers, performers and more. As a result, “Won’t Get Paid” is just one of the many musical offerings created for the showcase.
“My goal as a guest artist,” he says, “is to just help bring to life what is already there.”
A celebrated history, dedicated staff, artist-in-residence and youth creativity are the key parts of “50 Portraits of Villa Victoria.” And, for Aby Rivera-Ortiz, the exhibition opened a door for her to reflect on her own identity and her feelings about her community.
“Here they teach you about your roots,” she reflects. “There’s a lot of history that goes into your identity, and I feel like a lot of people don’t know that. So now that they gave me that kind of perspective of history and how it reflects to my present day. I have a different perspective on how people act around me, how people do their thing, how people decide what they want to decide about how they want to treat others.”