Painting Toward Peace

By Gregory McNamee

ON THE AFTERNOON of July 17, 1995, 15-year-old Peter Valenzuela Jr. took in a movie at a southside theater with a few friends. After the movie, they waited for a ride home to Barrio Sovaco, on the city's southwest side. When their ride was late in arriving, the teenagers decided to walk home up 12th Avenue. Three men, members of the Bloods, drove alongside them. Gang signs were thrown, words exchanged, and at least three shots fired.

When the shooting stopped, Peter lay dead. Soon thereafter, 19-year-old Norman Garcia was arrested on a charge of first-degree murder. He now awaits trial in Pima County Jail.

That arrest, Julio and Judy Bernal figured, would not be enough to stop the inevitable payback. Fearing that Peter's friends would seek to avenge his death somehow, they did two things. First, and immediately, they packed their teenage son off to Alaska to visit relatives, aiming to keep him away from whatever action might develop.

Second, a few weeks after Peter's death they gathered up paints and brushes, and they invited Peter's friends to paint a mural in his memory. His friends accepted and set to work. Now about half-completed, the mural, made up of a complex of figures on a field of turquoise, takes up a large garage wall beside the El Rio Health Center at 839 West Congress St. It is dedicated as well to Joseph Campos, a neighbor of Peter's who was accidentally killed by a handgun earlier in the summer.

"Things are tough in our barrio," says 47-year-old Julio Bernal. "When I was a kid we could go anywhere we wanted to, and we had to look for trouble. Kids can't do that now. So it's good that they have someplace to come to like this and do something productive."

pix Judy Bernal, a member of the El Rio board, elaborates. "In the community we have no way to help these kids deal with their grief, and by not doing that we have these walking wounded in the streets. By not doing anything we're just increasing their anger."

Whether painting a mural can do much to defuse the cycle of southside street violence remains to be seen, but it has given a group of sometimes bored, sometimes disaffected teenagers something to do with their Saturdays, when they come together to work on their collective creation. "We started off with about 30, maybe 40 kids," says Julio Bernal. "Now it's dwindled down to about 15. But the ones who have stuck with it are hard workers, and they'll get it done."

The project has earned a $400 grant from the Tucson-Pima Arts Council and a small cash gift by a member of the El Rio Health Center board, but it mostly operates with contributions from neighborhood residents and cash from the Bernals' household funds. "We're keeping this small," says Judy Bernal. "This isn't really a social-service project, so we're not looking to involve any outside agencies. Think of us as the Elks Club. We invite kids to participate, but they have to be invited to join.

"We're also not a gang-prevention unit," she adds. "These kids do their beer parties and stay out late. But they're not really bad either, which the cops who come into the neighborhood have to learn. They don't distinguish between barrio-based gangs and criminal gangs like the Bloods."

Still, Bernal continues, "This mural opens the door to other things we can do in the community. For one thing, we've been talking about having the police come in and give the kids lessons in how not to piss off a cop. Those are barrio-survival skills that they need."

Adding small touches of white paint to a Maya cross, 16-year-old Jesus Cruz takes a more personal view of the work, and of survival. "This mural has helped me see that I can do creative things," he says. "Julio is teaching me how to paint, and I'm learning a lot of new things. When I get older I want to make this a career."

The mural, with its images of Yaqui deer dancers, red roses, and the Virgin of Guadalupe, will be formally dedicated at 1 p.m. on April 27. Between now and then there is still much painting to be done, along with the addition of landscaping and of a plaque bearing the names of all the southside youths killed in 1995.

"The hardest part about this is figuring out how to make Peter and Joseph look like they're supposed to look," says 16-year-old Gino Molina, examining the blank wall where their portraits are to be placed. "We want to do this mural right, so that our friends won't be forgotten." TW

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