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Teens create art out of hurtful words said by adults

High school senior Moises Zaragoza created art work deconstructing hurtful words said by family members when he was younger.
High school senior Moises Zaragoza created art work deconstructing hurtful words said by family members when he was younger.
High school senior Moises Zaragoza created art work deconstructing hurtful words said by family members when he was younger.
In her art piece Denise Barrios writes about how painful it was for her second grade teacher to put her down.

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At first, the picture hanging on the wall of Espacio 1839 in Boyle Heights looks like an artful take on a vintage class photo - little kids standing next to their teacher.

But step closer to Denise Barrios's artwork and writing in red letters emerges.

My teacher Ms Moreno would make me feel inferior by comparing me to students who were more advanced.

My parents went to go visit her and she told them that I was hopeless, that I didn’t listen and that I basically didn’t work. I would cry by the way she treated me and made me feel.

The piece is part of an exhibit called Writing Wrongs on display until the end of the month. The artwork is composed by teenagers recounting - and thus, defusing - hurtful and demeaning words directed at them by teachers and family members.

Moises Zaragoza created a screen print of hurtful words in Spanish and English that he remembers from his childhood. He reproduced them in big yellow block letters in a zig-zag pattern under an image of a boy on a bike.

"It says, 'You can’t'," he said. "From there it goes to 'Baboso, Pendejo, You’re Nothing, You’re not good enough, You can’t do nothing right.' "

The Spanish words roughly translate into idiot and loser. All of them were uttered by his closest family members and classmates.

"My mom would say, you know those words don’t mean anything," he said. 

But Zaragoza has never forgotten them.

"They still affect me in a way and I wish she hadn’t told me them," he said.

He said putting them down on paper has given him the confidence to stand up for himself.

And that was the idea behind the project.

The screen prints were the idea of visual artist Omar Ramirez, who coordinates the college counseling program for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF).

While working with the teens, it became clear to him they weren’t able to reflect on their lives and fully appreciate how far they’ve come. Or -just as important– how to express tell those stories.

"The idea was to right the wrongs that the teachers had committed so students can go through the process of knowing what happened to them in school and then, I guess like a grieving process, where you explain things, you go through it and through that you kind of transform," Ramirez said.

Self-expression is critical for writing a good college essay, so it seemed like an important place to start, he said.

Ramirez said he hopes to exhibit these and other works at LA Unified schools to start a dialogue between students and adults about hurtful language.

Gustavo Fierro, a psychotherapist at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, said older generations don't realize how harmful these words can be to younger generations - in part, because they demeaning language has been prevalent for so long.

"If you trace that family’s origins back from where they came, the pendejo bomb is probably used every other word," said the psychotherapist.

But repeated enough, children internalize those messages.

Barrios, 16,  grew up in a mostly Spanish speaking neighborhood in the East San Fernando Valley.  Ramirez has been working with her for two years at the MALDEF program.

She's now in her senior year of high school at the Cesar Chavez Learning Academy where she'll be getting an Advanced Placement scholar award for doing well on those tests. She loves history and admires Thomas Jefferson’s writing.

When Ramirez encouraged her to bring in a picture and make art out of it, she chose her second grade class photo.

Creating the piece of art gave Barrios the strength to tell adults around her that she’s succeeding, she said, in spite of their doubts.