Notre Dame students contribute to South Bend mural celebrating the immigrant experience

Author: Erin Blasko

Michael Hebbeler, Freddy Rodriguez and Juan Constantino pose in front of the mural outside La Casa de Amistad.

Reflecting themes of hope and renewal, a new mural outside La Casa de Amistad, created with help from the University of Notre Dame, commemorates the emotional journey for people who immigrate to the U.S. in search of a better life and in response to violence, persecution and economic hardship back home.

Framing the south entrance to the center overlooking South Michigan Street in South Bend, the mural is a collaboration between La Casa and artist and educator Freddy Rodriguez, with input and assistance from students with the Notre Dame Center for Social Concerns (CSC).

Conceived as a triptych, or a single work of art divided into three parts, the mural juxtaposes the immigrant experience with that of the monarch butterfly, a symbol of solidarity with the immigrant rights movement. It includes references to past waves of immigration and the immigrant rights movement, as well as scenes and symbols of South Bend and the Southwest, and depicts men and women representing a diverse range of ages, races, cultures and faiths.

“The story of the monarch butterfly and how it migrates from one season to another and what it symbolizes is the idea that nature has no borders, that it is the right of all living beings to move freely across the world,” said Juan Constantino, executive director of La Casa de Amistad, which provides educational, cultural and advocacy services to members of the local Latino community and others. “It also signifies how far some families travel to seek freedom.”

He added, “People don’t leave their homes out of choice. They do it out of a need to get ahead in life or have better or different opportunities.”

In creating the mural, Rodriguez, an outreach coordinator for bilingual services with South Bend schools and the fall community art fellow at CSC, worked closely with students in Art and Social Change, a CSC course that challenges participants to contemplate the role of art in cultivating the common good. 

As part of the class, the students engaged with students in La Casa’s citizenship class to identify themes for the mural, then worked with Rodriguez to translate those themes into arresting visual images. They then collaborated with Rodriguez and others, including La Casa students and staff and community members, to actually paint the mural.

Rodriguez described the creative process as a “conversation” among himself, the CSC students and the La Casa students to “find out what was the most important information that they wanted to convey regarding what goes on within the walls of La Casa de Amistad.”

Freddy Rodriguez
Freddy Rodriguez

“La Casa de Amistad is a beacon of hope for the community, so it’s important to show the community what’s going on in that building and how their services help society as a whole to become better. How they equip people with the tools and resources necessary to succeed in this new place,” Rodriguez said.

The mural includes a silhouette of an eagle as a nod to the influx of Polish and other Eastern European immigrants to South Bend in the first half of the 20th century, preceding the current wave of Hispanic immigration. A man in a red shirt emblazoned with the United Farm Workers emblem pays homage to the farm workers movement of the 1960s. Further images reference the United States, Indiana state and South Bend flags.

As a public-facing piece of art, the finished product is meant to provoke conversations about immigration and the immigrant experience among visitors and passersby, according to Mike Hebbeler, CSC program director. It is also meant to subvert the concept of a wall as a tool and symbol of division, particularly during this moment of heated rhetoric around immigration in the U.S. in the halls of Congress and beyond.

“Walls often acts as dividers, things that separate and exclude in a very real way,” said Hebbeler, who also serves as managing director of Notre Dame Programs for Education in Prison. “This is the story of a wall that brings together, that celebrates, and that’s the dignity part of the piece.”

Constantino praised the CSC students for their commitment to the project, noting how they went above and beyond course requirements to engage with the La Casa students and assist with the mural.

“The students were so intentional in every step of the process,” he said. “That’s what made it so special. It wasn’t just an art project, it wasn’t just painting a mural, it was us creating a piece of art in collaboration with our community and with our students. So the (CSC) students really got to experience what it meant to participate in a community-driven project.”

Established in 1983, the Center for Social Concerns is an interdisciplinary institute dedicated to justice education and research for the common good. The center counts hundreds of partners across the globe. It engages more than 1,000 students each year.

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