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IndigenARTS & Wellness Heals East L.A. Communities Through Indigenous Traditions

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In August of 2018, 21-year-old Anthony Vargas was killed after being shot over a dozen times in the back, including twice in the head, by East L.A. sheriffs. He was one of 15 people in East L.A. that year who died of gun-related homicide, whether victims of crime, gangs, police or unknown circumstances leading to their deaths. According to the L.A. Times Homicide Report, nine people were killed in East L.A. in 2019, and 14 have been killed in East L.A. so far this year, all from gun-related homicide. The majority of the victims are Latino males between the ages of 16 - 40.

What the numbers never show is what happens afterward save for a few moments on the television and a few words on a page about the grieving families and friends of the victims. Too often, those people are left to deal with the aftermath without support or guidance, much less an outlet for their sadness and rage.

“Look, our families don’t know how to grieve,” explains Joel Garcia via Zoom. “We don't know how to cope with these losses, and we need to make space for them…for all of us that are having to grieve appropriately.”

Garcia is the Director and co-founder of Meztli Projects, an arts & culture collaborative that centers Indigenous people and Indigenous creative practices. On November 1st, they launched their newest project, IndigenARTS & Wellness, a collaboration with the Indigenous Circle of Wellness and the California Arts Council.

A workshop with Meztli Projects, which just launched IndigenARTS & Wellness | Joel Garcia
A workshop with Meztli Projects, which just launched IndigenARTS & Wellness, gives those in the community to talk about their loved ones who have passed on. | Joel Garcia

The purpose behind IndigenARTS & Wellness is “to generate dialogue around intergenerational trauma & resiliency, sexual & gendered violence, systemic violence, art as medicine & a healing tool, to process, reflect and work towards individual & collective wellness” through a combination of Indigenous artistic/creative practices, such as ceramics/clay, weaving, beading circles, with mental health and wellness support. Their work will focus on assisting Indigenous-identifying people in Los Angeles county, especially those in the communities on the eastern side of L.A., but will be open and available to all.

An adult and a child working on a project together for Meztli Projects, which just launched IndigenARTS & Wellness | Eugene Lee
An adult and a child working on a project together for Meztli Projects, which just launched IndigenARTS & Wellness | Eugene Lee

“This idea of working around mental wellness and mental health from an Indigenous perspective was something that we needed,” explains Garcia. “We had a few tragedies around here, like about a year ago, a youth that got killed. It's tragic when a youth passes on, period, but the way that they passed on was pretty bad.”

“We've been working with some of the families that got killed by the sheriffs here in East L.A.,” he continues. “Anthony Vargas, who was killed, would be about two years ago now, up in the projects. He got killed in a parking lot that I grew up in. That is very much a personal thing as well.”

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Garcia and Meztli Projects have already hosted numerous events with different collaborators that have touched on healing through dialog led by arts and crafting. At one event, for example, members of the community were invited to create a memorial medallion.

“Folks brought out a portrait of a family member that passed on,” explains Garcia, “and we sat there talking about what the loss meant, how this specific person, moving on, impacted the family, impacted them individually, and talked about healthy coping mechanisms. People were really open about it in ways that they hadn’t been before.”

“We wanted to make sure that men were included as well,” he adds, “because more than anything, men don't talk about these things. They kind of just tough it out and try to be the strong ones and not really talk about what it feels like to lose a child or all the complications of trying to get the money together to plan a funeral.”

East L.A. youth working on a project for Meztli Projects, which just launched IndigenARTS & Wellness | Eugene Lee
East L.A. youth working on a project for Meztli Projects, which just launched IndigenARTS & Wellness. While working on their projects, they also discuss the portrait of this beloved family member who has passed on. | Eugene Lee
An art project for Meztli Projects, which just launched IndigenARTS & Wellness | Joel Garcia
An art project for Meztli Projects, which just launched IndigenARTS & Wellness | Joel Garcia

Garcia and Meztli Projects tested some ideas for IndigenARTS through their youth program. In one program, participants were taught how to create linocut prints using Californian native medicinal plants as a learning prompt. Thus, they learn an artistic skill and learn about plants and their relationship with the environment. In another workshop hosted during the summer, participants were taught about bead-making while holding a discussion focused on gendered violence, violence against women and gender justice.

“We're all carving and having a conversation,” says Garcia. “We've had to do this through Zoom, but it's worked out really well because it seems like they're more focused. They've carved out that time to just be there.”

Meztli Projects also took great care to invite the youth in each program to co-curate and co-create the programs they are in to give them the opportunity to build a program that truly benefits them and their community.

With the IndigenARTS & Wellness program, Meztli Projects and their collaborators plan to push those concepts further. They want to use the same concepts of using art and crafting to guide people towards counseling or formal clinical therapy, either alone or with their loved ones. They've even allocated some of the grant money they received from the California Arts Council to use towards financial assistance stipends for community members who cannot afford formal therapy.

“We challenge the notion of wellness, what wellness means for, not just people of color, but Indigenous identified people,” explains Garcia. “This is what wellness can look like for us. These are the things we can use to work towards wellness. We’re going to do it through art-making with the hope that these same folks end up creating their own individual care plans.”

“That’s the idea,” he continues. “Can we reinfuse the conversation around wellness and mental health with concepts of Indigenous practices? Because they're there! The idea of talking circles, the idea of transformative justice, it comes from a lot of those practices, and they've been, in many ways, professionalized to the point where they exclude the communities from where these tools come from, so it's also a way of reclaiming some of this. These are our traditions that we've been excluded from, and we're going to take them and use them back in the way that we feel they need to take place."

Top Image: A project with Meztli Projects, which just launched IndigenARTS & Wellness | Joel Garcia

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