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The ‘Arte’ of Living Well in San Miguel

“I paint flowers so they will not die,” wrote Frida Kahlo, one of Mexico’s most celebrated artists. Immortalizing the vitality of nature is one motive for creating art. Another is invigorating the community – and few cities better reflect the character that public art creates than San Miguel de Allende. To wander the streets of this Central Mexican town is to be bathed in arte that excites the senses and feeds the soul.

In Colonia Guadalupe, stunning murals cover the facades of buildings and infuse corners of las calles with bursts of color and bold artistic statements. The murals came about from the Muros en Blanco project, which was started by an American named Colleen Sorenson in 2012 to coincide with the Calaca Festival. She brought graffiti artists from all over Mexico to express themselves on the walls of the neighborhood. Since then, other enhancements have been added such as sidewalks, walking bridges and trees, along with sculpture that serves the dual purpose of collecting recyclable plastic and cans.

This artistic neighborhood in San Miguel is the home away from home to Debora Annino, co-founder of the Little Things Matter Foundation. Debora and her late husband Barry created the non-profit after Barry’s terminal diagnosis. Their story, as told in their co-authored memoir Little Things Matter: A Story of Suffering, Survival and Legacy, chronicles their journey into forming an organization to bring opportunities and well-being to Hispanic communities, a mission that stemmed from spending summer vacations as a family in San Miguel, a tradition they began in 2008.

One partner of the Little Things Matter Foundation is Ojalá Niños, a non-profit that empowers children living in indigenous San Miguel Viejo to hone their creative skills. We visited the community to collect stories for a heritage book we’re creating on the history and impact of this organization, which has served the Otomí people since Elsmarie Norby founded it in 2011. One student, Juan Daniel, age 19, learned how to make nature-inspired stained glass pieces such as this beautiful piece of sculpture I bought. Juan supplements his art training by teaching himself techniques with lead and other materials through free tutorials on YouTube. One day he aspires to create stained glass windows for churches. For now, every sale of a stained glass figurine gives Juan more means to help support his five siblings.

Coming back to San Miguel for this purpose gives me an occasion to reflect on the role of art in creating cultural value and economic development. From high-end galleries to artisans selling their crafts in the square, art is embedded into the economic fabric of San Miguel. Yet, some are not as woven into that fabric as others. The Little Things Matter Foundation’s mission is to create well-being and opportunities, which in this context means helping the children and their mothers sell and market their creations. As Debora explains:

Environmentally friendly, hand-poured soy candles made by a group of mothers in San Miguel Viejo help support economic opportunities for rural families. The candles are poured into Mexican glass, which makes these locally produced goods even more sustainable. The women chose the fragrance of chamomile and lavender because it reminded them of the scent of San Miguel. The skills they’re getting through this work can give them more economic opportunity while also helping them build community.

Artes de Mexico is among the local retailers that have carried artisanal goods created in the programs that Little Things Matter Foundation supports, including a woman’s cooperative called Manos y Corazones de Otomis. On this trip, we’re visiting other boutiques with samples of the candles and pom-pom key chains made by women of the Otomí community, including Juan Daniel’s mother, Celia.

Seeing the chain of production and consumption through the lens of artisanal crafts helps me appreciate the value that organizations like Ojalá Niños and Little Things Matter Foundation bring into the communities in need. The artisans I met are as eager to learn new skills and tap into opportunities as we are in the U.S., but it takes conscious consumers and investors to help them. Fortunately, it doesn’t take a lot of money to create real value. Even small purchases and donations can make a big difference in the lives of these children and their parents.

To help more people live well in San Miguel while creating art of your own, participate in the upcoming Mother’s Day Watercolor Whimsy Art Workshop benefitting the children of San Miguel Viejo. Click here to register.

For more information about the work and projects of Little Things Matter Foundation, visit www.littlethingsmatter.net.


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