STITCH-ing Milwaukee Together: A Conversation with Jeanette Martín

STITCH began in 2009 as a summer open mic series in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. It has since flourished into a comunidad of gente who are creating spaces where arts and cultura are intentionally intertwined into rotating physical spaces. In a recent recorded conversation with co-founder, Jeanette Martín, she talks about the efforts and inspiration to connect Milwaukee’s racially and ethnically segregated communities and heal the cultural desert found in Milwaz. This movement of poets, visual artists, and musicians of color coming together from all sides of the city blossomed in the summer of 2013 into a mobile mural project. Jeanette gives testimony that resonates with the Zapatista saying, “caminando se hace el camino” or “by walking we create the path.” Here are the answers to some of my questions for Jeanette on their STITCH project.

Being that Milwaukee is one of the most racially and class segregated cities in the U.S., what does that look like and how has that impacted you?

The physical layout of the city helps segregate communities in Milwaukee. For example, there are bridges that you have to cross just to get to another side of town. Because there has historically been a big industrial and factory component to the city, trains move through the city and the railways split the neighborhoods. Job placement also contributes because different kinds of jobs are in specific parts of the city. The South side is predominantly Mexican/Mexican American and on the North side it’s predominantly African American, with various communities of color residing on both sides like our Hmong community. As you cross these bridges and streets you just can’t deny it, you see it and feel it. What I am starting to see and hear more of now is African American families moving into the block I was raised on and how tension exists because of this block change. I hear in the voices of my own familia the amount of prejudice that still exists between our communities of color. Because we have been segregated for so long, we literally don’t know how to live next to each other. Stereotypes dominate peoples’ limited perspectives and violence cycles. We have to begin to learn more from each other; more ways of healing creatively, and this is what STITCH has become for many of us.

How is STITCH a remedy to segregation and why did you choose the approach of mural-making and open mic spaces to confront these issues?

We put a loving, critical and radical intention into all that we do; every space we create, every event we organize. We have lived experience of the hostility that exists in our city. We work hard to not perpetuate that as we create workshops, events, open mics and now this community mural project, and to maintain at the heart of the work our desire to bring people together that would have otherwise not met. We do this by rotating the spaces we use for events, using different coffee shops, community centers, etc. across our city. Las mujeres, the women, in the collective are all creative, from poets, jaraneras (Son Jarocho music players) jewelry makers to visual artists. These identities, these skills have become tools that we heal with; we work to make these and other creative expressions accessible to our communities, to our people. That’s what STITCH is about; we share space and ourselves, connecting genuinely through story, dialogue and creativity.

Part of how we go about organizing is aligning ourselves with a consensus, non-hierarchical framework. We see many private and non-profit organizations out here in the community that bring about “change,” but these very organizations see themselves as separate from the community; they label themselves “organizer,” “director,” “community partner.” We don’t believe in creating a hierarchy amongst our people. We believe we, la gente, the people, have the solutions and ingenuity to transform our own comunidad and have the capability to create change as we see fit. As a collective, we are very much influenced by the Zapatistas in the way that we “lead by obeying” or “mandar obedeciendo” with our community. This is why we seek to remain grounded and humble, to be of and for our communities, to work with ourselves and share the power we all have.

As for the community mural project, we see that in our hoods we have minimal amounts of public art. The small effort from organizations to put up murals has received pushback from local politicians who don’t understand the need for them and are not artists themselves. I have personally been impacted by seeing murals in Cuba, Los Angeles, Brooklyn and Chicago and wish Milwaukee’s walls would also come alive with paint, stories of our ancestors and everyday hustle. For our STITCH Community Mural Project, we wanted to make sure we didn’t have community members simply fill in a pre-determined mural design, which I think is common. I believe everyone has the ability to be creative, pero when you are not given those opportunities, spaces, resources or time, you do not realize or even begin to explore it. Our goal was to be able to make the process collectively driven, where everyone was able to give their opinion and where there was no lead artist, but we all learn together through the knowledge that we already hold as people. We already work in consensus as a collective, so we didn’t want to perpetuate any hierarchical structure into this mural project. As far as figuring out the location for our mural, we experienced moments of frustration as to “where is the mural going to go? Just on the South side? Only on the North side?” After having more and more conversations, we somehow organically came up with the idea of painting the mural on plywood for two reasons: it would co-exist in two locations, and if anybody, specifically a politician, would have a problem with it, we would unscrew it and relocate it. The last thing we wanted to happen would be for the mural to be painted over, which we had seen done with a mural created by youth from a local organization, TRUE Skool.

Before there was a mural project, we asked, “How do we learn peoples stories? How do we see our own reality reflected in our surroundings?” We are the experts of our own lived experience

Before there was a mural project, we asked, “How do we learn peoples stories? How do we see our own reality reflected in our surroundings?” We are the experts of our own lived experience so we asked, “Do we have a way of hosting monthly community dialogues to hear peoples perspectives?” This is how we landed on the idea of the mural project, as we all learn our communities’ stories, let’s have those manifest publically in our everyday.

STITCH mural crew. Photo by Alida Cardós Whaley

Our conversation continued into talking about how Milwaukee lacks free, creative spaces for community that are culturally relevant to our comunidad, where those spaces becomes a hub for people in which to organize, celebrate, contemplate and more. Because those spaces that do that type of programming don’t exist, it has then been what drives us to create those events, workshops and spaces for our community. We put in the work to find the space, do the outreach, create el taller, or the workshop and we continue moving from there. Many of us have been a part of alternative spaces that have really influenced us in the way we see culture, politics and ourselves, and we want to create those spaces here at home. Not only do we need them, but also we deserve them.

How did you approach this project that would become STITCH in Milwaukee?

STITCH began as a summer open mic series in 2009; something my friends Alida, Tony and I started. We connected with established poets in the community who helped us get two venues, then we really spread the word by texting and calling and personally inviting our friends and fam for the first year. The beginning was all folks coming through that we knew; now we meet tons of new people who hear about STITCH through a friend of a friend. We approached it wanting to create a space in Milwaukee that we had yet to see; a space full of young, creative and talented people of many shades of brown. In the last 2-3 years, our compañeras Valeria Cerda, Anahí Sánchez, Linda Serna and Cynthia Zanow joined us. Over time and through conversation we asked, “What’s up? What do we see ourselves doing?” Some of the ideas we had/have are to open a centro autonomo de arte cultural, (autonomous cultural arts center). However, we knew and know that in order to get there we have a long path to travel, including re-grounding ourselves in our community after returning from four to six years of undergraduate and graduate studies. The return from college has been its own work; re-learning our communities that in few years have changed un chingo (a lot), but most importantly creating these spaces with the community involved.

What did you anticipate in how much external support you received and did the Indiegogo campaign boost the project?

It’s interesting to be asked about external support for the mural project because we first applied for a grant through a local funding source and got denied. That denial was the perfect reminder to us that our work is sacred and comes from the ground with the people. Although this public art grant sounded like a good fit, it wasn’t. We weren’t willing to change the way we viewed engaging community members, just to fit into a funding box; for far too long we have been boxed up and compartmentalized as people. After being denied the grant, we knew that grassroots fundraising was what we had to do. We were looking for a way to fundraise and also share the vision for the project; and so an Indiegogo campaign was the platform we chose. We created our campaign video,“STITCH Milwaukee: Community Mural Project” which was a great space for us to take up tools like a video camera and for the first time, create a visual story about our city for both people from our hood and for people from other communities. We also dropped off letters to businesses asking for donations of supplies. There were many people that had paints, brushes and cloths they wanted to donate; we even got a special package from the San Fernando Valley donating tarps for us. This was the way it was supposed to be; de la comunidad for la comunidad, by the community and for the community.

Jeanette Martín is a first generation Chicana, born and raised on Milwaukee’s South side.  Driven by her lived experience as a child of economic refugees from México, her personal journey has been using art as a healing tool, and combining that with community organizing.  Jeanette’s unyielding passion for accessibility to cultural arts, social justice and transformation moves her to co-create sustainable and dignified projects, programs and spaces for marginalized communities in Milwaukee. To learn more about STITCH visit their website, for more on Jeanette Martin visit her website.

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