Manuel Rueda/Fusion

On a warm autumn night, Michelle Angela Ortiz and two dozen undocumented immigrants met in front of Philadelphia’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement [ICE] building armed with stencils and yellow paint.

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Under Ortiz’s direction, the group worked diligently through the night, drawing a 90-foot-wide message that had been uttered by a Guatemalan immigrant who was deported from the United States: “We are human beings, risking our lives for our families and our future,” the bright yellow letters read. The message, stenciled on the road passing in front of the ICE building, served as a reminder to government employees who looked out their office windows.

“It was a moment of hope,” said Ortiz, a Philadelphia-based muralist who works on public art projects with underprivileged communities around the world.  “I like working with communities because it's important for artists to listen. We help them to amplify their voice when others don’t want to.”

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Ortiz's style of art is becoming increasingly popular in the U.S. and Latin America.

Unlike 20th Century artists who painted epic murals portraying their own vision of world history (think Diego Rivera), Ortiz asks communities what story they want to tell then works with them for several days to finish their project.

The idea is to produce the stencils, graffiti, and murals in a participatory fashion, giving communities ownership over the art that decorates their living space.

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“You could say this is the evolution of muralism,” said Emanuel Audelo, a specialist in the recovery of urban spaces in Mexico City.

Ortiz painted this mural with Fiji islanders in 2008. It reflects concerns over climate change

I caught up with Ortiz in Mexico’s capital as she worked on her latest project: A set of colorful murals that shows how the Mazahua and Otomi indigenous communities migrated to Mexico City.

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Since the two groups began resettling to the big city in the 1950s, they've struggled to get jobs and adequate housing. Many of the people in the two indigenous groups only managed to move into public housing in the past decade, after years of living in tents or abandoned buildings.

Mazahua volunteers work on a segment of their tall mural

Community leaders say they wanted an art project that would spruce up their new neighborhoods, but also reflect their identities and and show younger generations how their ancestors arrived in Mexico City.

So, with the help of the U.S. Embassy in Mexico, and a local NGO, the Mazahua and Otomi communities brought Ortiz to Mexico City to help lead the mural project.

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A group of volunteers worked with the artist for 12 days to paint two intricate, five-story murals in the housing projects. For many people, the process of getting together and making something as a community was a victory in itself.

Ortiz shows volunteers how to use parachute paper, a material that is used to make murals
Manuel Rueda/Fusion

“I didn’t know anything about art before I did this,” said Sandra López, a 21-year-old Mazahua who helped paint one of the murals. “For me the biggest lesson from this was that if you really want to do something, and you like it, you can achieve it.”

To make the murals, Ortiz also enlisted a dozen Mexican street artists with experience painting murals and graffiti projects. The team met with the indigenous communities for four days to learn about their history and come up with ideas of what they wanted to paint.

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Then they offered lessons in drawing, painting and muralism techniques to the indigenous volunteers.

“It was very cool, because they learned about our culture, and we learned about their art,” said Miguel Vega, a Mazahua volunteer.

Volunteers post one of the mural's main figures on the side of a building. Ortiz looks on from the window

The final mural in the Mazahua housing project depicts a woman who “weaves” the future of the community, a man with a traditional hat that represents the Mazahua’s rural origins, and a young father lifting his daughter into the limitless sky. The girl is wearing a t-shirt with a deer, a symbol of the Mazahua, whose name means “hunters of deer.”

The mural in the Otomi housing project is a geometrically inspired work of art featuring a message in their native language: “We are from Santiago Mezquititlan and we came to the city to fight for a more dignified life.”

Photo by @HabitajesAC

Ortiz returned to Philadelphia after the murals were finished, but not before having a proper inauguration ceremony in which the artists, community members, Mexican officials and the U.S. Embassy’s cultural attaché mingled with folk music playing in the background.

Innauguration day at the Mazahua neighborhood

“The mural was a success,” Ortiz said during the event. “But the bigger success is for young people to follow this example and keep on doing things that bring about social change.”

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Manuel Rueda is a correspondent for Fusion, covering Mexico and South America. He travels from donkey festivals, to salsa clubs to steamy places with cartel activity.