Best Of Tucson®

Kids, Parents, Artists

Former dropouts get their lives together at a South Tucson school--with an assist from art.

It is possible in South Tucson to enjoy the finest regional cuisine and then stroll down on South Fourth Avenue among beautiful tile mosaics featuring the city's embracing cultures.

These pieces--outside Rigo's and adorning the paseo at Mi Nidito--are more than monuments to those icons featured. They are also shrines also to the young artists who have created them. They are tribute, too, to the humble maestro who has provided the cohesion for the artists, students and staff of Las Artes, the innovative school that attracts and then nurtures forgotten, ignored or discarded talent.

Las Artes, in its 10th year at 23 W. 27th St., accepts only students from 16 to 21 years old who have quit school. These are kids. But they are mothers. They are fathers. They are gang survivors.

"It really is something for them to get here for school every day," says Alex Garza, the talented and unpretentious head artist whose work on a public art project inspired Las Artes.

For these students, there are babies to be taken to an abuelita. There are bus transfers to make. There is enemy turf to cross. Just to get to school by 8:30 a.m.

"You can't be late," Garza says. "We are known for our discipline. Part of our rap is, 'You can scam your probation officer. You can scam your parents. Try to scam us. You can't.'"

Classes for the various grade levels run eight weeks. Students have to test at least at a fifth-grade level, but this is a prep school--GED prep. Test and move up. Test and move up. Test and get the GED and a job placement.

This may be the best $408,000 that Pima County will spend this year. Combined enrollment is about 100. The graduation rate is 80 percent.

Consider that Las Artes is keeping some of these kids out of the legal system, and it becomes a more dramatic bargain.

"It could be our wage incentive," Garza says.

It is progressive adult education that also progressively pays the successful students. It isn't much, but it frequently is a necessary supplement to a household income.

Graduation ceremonies have become a hot ticket for politicians who covet a spot. A speaking role is a premium for judges and governors who elbow to get into a Las Artes graduation.

"We used to have them here and have them every eight weeks. But they got too big. Now we have them every 16 weeks. We combine two and we have them at the Kino Recreation Center," Garza says.

The mosaics and murals are not confined to South Tucson or the southside. They mark gateways to Rillito Linear Park, to Marana, to Sahuarita, and soon, to Arivaca. Las Artes' mosaics, advanced from the original broken and chipped tile to hand-made tile, polished glass and air brush elements, also are part of public art projects for government construction.

Las Artes students are making the glass tiles that will cover the base of a sculpture that will be installed for the East Ajo Way, widening at the Kino Veterans Memorial Sports Park.

The county has thus been able to create a wheel of money, successfully bidding in public arts sweepstakes, and then pumping the money back into Las Artes, to the students and, as Garza says, to the community.

Even Garza, a sculptor who trained and worked in Chicago, marvels at advancements at Las Artes. The heightened technical work corresponds with the total transformation of the school property. Sophisticated tools, computers, kilns and other equipment are now fully contained in a building that once was a Food Bank location with gravel parking and a wide loading dock.

"It was hot in the summer and cold in the winter," Garza says.

Students once broke up pieces tile with a type of scissors. Now they design and fabricate the material. Classrooms, a computer lab, offices, the work shop and gallery now surround a cool courtyard. And there is plenty of classroom space with access at the John A. Valenzuela Youth Center and Project SER close by.

Las Artes has blossomed under Garza's care, but he is quick to give credit to administrators, the current and past members of the art staff, teachers, counselors, vendors and essentially anyone who has given a hand.

The school also has flourished, in must be said, under the protection of the brothers Eckstrom: Dan, the retiring longtime member of the Board of Supervisors and former mayor of South Tucson, and Art, the unflappable former miner who has long been a leader of county job and youth programs.

Las Artes has provided members of the Board of Supervisors a rare shot at harmony. Dan Eckstrom doesn't hesitate to dole props.

For example, he quickly points out that he can't claim ownership of the idea to include wholesale Las Artes building renovation, via a $1.5 million bond included in the list of Pima County projects that voters approved in 1997.

"That was Mijito," Eckstrom says of former fellow Democratic board member and current U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva.

It was Art Eckstrom who eyed Garza's first mural for a South Park housing site. He saw that Garza had help from kids.

"He saw them working and learning in a neighborhood program," Garza says.

"I'm fortunate somebody was willing to listen," Garza says of Art Eckstrom.

Garza was born in Cristal, an epicenter at one time for Mexican-American civil rights in Texas. Garza's family moved well before Jose Angel Gutierrez, a founder of La Raza Unida, and other activists changed the course for Mexican-Americans in south Texas.

The Garzas found discrimination up north when they settled in Des Plaines, Ill., where they worked tomato and onion fields near what was becoming O'Hare Airport. Garza combines matter-of-fact recollections with humor, including being a champion in downing burgers from the first McDonald's.

His and other Mexican-American families were pushed off the main streets, and Garza was intent on exploring. He did in Chicago in the heady late 1960s. He studied and trained and gravitated not toward galleries but to neighborhoods.

His role at Las Artes is the logical extension.

Some fret: How do they motivate these kids? Garza answers: "They are motivated. We just give a focus and discipline. Let's be real: These kids are dealing with real-life issues. Some are moms. Some are dads. Some are in the legal system. A lot of the success has to do with the fact that we have discipline. They have to sign contracts. No drugs, no fighting or they're out.

"But we have roots in the community. The new building was a turning point. Families saw it. This is a safe place. We don't romanticize the barrio here. We don't fantasize. We know what it is and what we can do about it."

That's why it works.

Students are taught that they are creating something tangible, something permanent and something valuable, Garza says, whether for a big mosaic full of icons on South Fourth Avenue, or a personal project for their tata, or a piece in memory of someone who is no longer here.

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