Martin Moreno was born in Michigan to Latino parents who picked vegetables and fruits for a living. He learned English, played the role of family translator, helped organize for better working conditions and struggled against the prejudice many Latino migrant families faced during the 1960s. Ultimately, art became the language he would use to speak out against injustice. Today, he’s a muralist, painter, stone carver, sculptor and teacher, directing Las Artes de Maricopa, a General Equivalency Diploma (GED) program for disadvantaged youth.
Vicki: How does art help students finish a GED?
Martin: We find that if you utilize art, you’re enriching their lives—exposing them to the arts [and] giving them a chance to be successful for the first time, maybe, in their lives. They can create work that’s relevant to them. We also concentrate on community programs, so [students] create public projects [that] give back to their community. So it’s a win-win situation.
Vicki: What kind of art are we talking about?
Martin: Well it varies. It can be very personal. I have students who create images of siblings that they’ve lost. Some of the students come from very impoverished backgrounds. It could be religious, spiritual, it could be a thanks to their parents, their grandparents, whatever—the work that they create is theirs.
Vicki: Sounds like the intention is based less on building skills and more on providing a healing experience.
Martin: I think it is. I know that students come in and say, “I can’t draw.” I tell them that if they go into life with that attitude, they’re right; they will be unsuccessful. Our philosophy is to change that way of thinking, to give them a positive outlook, to give them success. Every student that graduates has had a successful story here. Our philosophy is that art saves lives.
Vicki: What media do the students use?
Martin: We work primarily with mosaics or ceramic tile, which is a permanent thing. We’ve also done painted murals but we want something that will last a little longer—above and beyond their time at school. I’m really proud to say that I’ve been involved with public art for over 30 years. And I have some murals in the community that are over 25 years old. Still respected, still relevant to the neighborhoods. So I know that this approach to art works.
Vicki: Talk about your own work with murals, mosaics and paintings on public walls.
Martin: I come from the late ’60s, when public art really had more than just an aesthetic purpose. It had social comment behind it. I come from a migrant background, so the whole United Farm Workers Union movement is very important to me. A lot of the murals that I created at an early time had that social commentary. It was not just art for art’s sake—it pointed fingers and hopefully provided some answers to some social issues.
Vicki: Do you draw on your own experience as a young person when you work with your students?
Martin: I lost my mother when I was really young so I’ve been on my own since I was 16. My father was an alcoholic. He was there to support my physical needs, but not emotional counseling. The “words of wisdom” weren’t there. Now a lot of our kids come from single parents and are in the same situation that I was in—maybe for different reasons—but if I can share some of my knowledge, my experiences, to keep them from going through the same thing, then I think it’s my responsibility to do so. RAK