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West Harlem and Northern Mexico Kids Come Together Through Art

 The organization provides free art classes to children in Harlem and Mexico.
Artistic Dreams International
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HARLEM — Local children are using art to help kids in northern Mexico stay away from street gangs.

Art Dreams International, an organization that offers free art classes to children in Harlem and Mexico, is using art to connect the two cultures and help them learn from each other.

“The children of [northern] Mexico are so limited that they have no dreams — the only examples they have are work in agriculture or be a criminal,” ADI founder Lillian Alonzo-Marin said in Spanish. “The children of Harlem have a lot to offer because they will teach the children of Mexico to dream.”

The organization is hosting a cross-cultural art auction May 16 at the Art Horizons LeRoy Neiman Art Center on Frederick Douglass Boulevard that features work from Harlem and Mexico. It will be the first time art from Mexico and Harlem will be displayed side by side, she added.

Alonzo-Marin, who is from Mexico City and lived in New York for 13 years, came up with the idea for the organization while earning a graduate degree from Columbia University.

While living in West Harlem in 2011 she kept reading news reports about children in northern Mexico being recruited by criminal gangs. She wanted to help but felt powerless because she was so far away.

Since she couldn’t help the children all the way in Mexico, Alonzo-Marin decided to start the organization right here in Harlem. The idea was to help people here and use it as a blueprint of something that can be replicated south of the border, she said.

In Harlem, ADI offers free art classes to children between 7 and 12 in four locations. Those who participate in the program see an increase in confidence and reading and math skills, according to ADI.

When Alonzo-Marin moved to the Mexican state of Sonora in late 2014, she opened the first ADI class in a rural Mexican town in January.

She immediately noticed significant differences between her Harlem students and their Mexican counterparts, she said.

“The children of Harlem are impressively creative,” she said. “You give them one assignment and they come up with a lot of different ways of doing it. When we give the same assignment to the children in Mexico they are paralyzed, they leave the page blank.”

One example is when the students were tasked with creating an animal that represents them. In Harlem kids came up with animals that had the tail of a snake, the face of a lion and the teeth of a shark.

In Mexico, not a single student made up their own animal. They all drew existing creatures, she said.

The students of Harlem will learn that they can make a big impact in the world. By seeing what they are capable of doing, they will be empowered to do more and avoid thinking that because they are from Harlem their options are limited, Alonzo-Marin said. 

ADI plans to slowly introduce the Harlem students to the Mexico students through recorded videos and then video chats. Although it may be difficult because there is no internet connection in the Mexico location, she added.

In the five months since opening the location in Mexico, Alonzo–Marin has seen a drastic difference in the children. They have became more engaged in class and are less afraid of making mistakes. Most importantly, they want to do something different with their lives, she said.

“They used to say ‘I will be a criminal because they do pretty well.’” Alonzo-Marin said. “Now they are saying, ‘I want to be a doctor, I want to be a pilot, I want to be a cowgirl.’”