Sunday, December 15, 2013

Art of the Heart

Olga García Echeverría 

It’s Friday night and I just got paid. I’m headed towards K-Town, where Korean BBQ and tlayudas rule. I’m hungry and torn between kimbap at the Plaza on Western and street tamales and champurado on 8th. But my cravings will have to wait. I’m on a mission to check out and buy some arte from one of my favorite colectivas. Actually, I have a couple of pieces on layaway. Remember the beauty of layaway? Pay in pagos. No interest. The art that’s laying away waiting for me is hecho a mano con mucho corazon and with recycled materials, multi-colored broken dishes and glass. Beautified. I love broken anything recreated together again. That's poetry.

Mujeres Maravillosas: Rosa, Rebeca, Ninive, y Reina
The artists whose art I'm buying may not have art degrees, but they got ancient skills. You know, like from the "old" country. They knead masa and whip up tortillas and memelas in a minute. They juggle children, housework, art and activism. They're mole masters. Salsa superstars. They knit purses, scarves, and  tortilla warmers. Embroidered tablecloths, anyone? Tamales? Pupusas? True, many of them are still learning English (their website testifies to this), but that hasn't stopped them from maximizing on their talents and just going for it. They’re immigrant workers of the USA after all. They left everything they knew and loved to venture like brave pilgrims into this country. They know how to take risks and they know how to work. They’re women and men and mothers and fathers and children and members of Arte del Corazon, a mosaic art and economic development project at Koreatown Immigrant Workers Alliance (KIWA). 

KIWA is one of those community organizations that has heart and soul. Founded in 1992, KIWA’s mission is to empower immigrant workers and residents and to organize a progressive grassroots leadership to transform workplaces and communities. Since its beginnings, KIWA has been a leader and team member in historic struggles for immigrant rights throughout Los Angeles. In 1997, KIWA helped win over $2 million for garment workers from retailers and manufacturers connected with the infamous El Monte “slave shop” operators who had held Thai workers hostage in a home. Remember them? KIWA is also well-know for its past boycotts and campaigns against ASSI markets. In 2007, with the support of KIWA and other community organizations, immigrant workers in Koreatown won over 1.4 million in a landmark case against ASSI for numerous violations of labor laws. Over the past 20 years, KIWA’s Worker Empowerment Clinic has also helped immigrant workers win back over $15 million in unpaid wages. This past summer, KIWA successfully helped community member Heriberto Zamora lead an anti-wage theft campaign against one of his former employers, Urusawa (one of the nation’s most exclusive sushi restaurants). You can listen to Zamora’s inspiring story at Re: Work Radio:

Testifying Puppets
But KIWA isn’t all fight and no fun. It’s also an organization that has been branching out and blooming in the arts. Giant multi-ethnic puppets dispersed throughout the organization's office can testify to this. These were made last year by members in a puppet-making workshop. For the past year and half, the Arte del Corazon collective has also been gathering and making mosaic art pieces. Mirrors. Flower pots. Candle holders. Light switch covers. They had an open house this past Friday to display and sell their numerous creations. Lucky for hungry me, they had plenty of homemade food at the event and even a bar. After sipping on two tangy margaritas and stuffing my face with memelas con tasajo and made-on-the-spot eel sushi, I caught up with KIWA member and teacher of the mosaic classes, Jose Morales.

El Profe: Jose Morales
Originally from Tlaxcala, Jose considers himself part-Oaxacan, since he lived in Oaxaca for many years. Like many migrants in this country, Jose has now adopted the U.S. as his home, since he’s been here for the past 27 years.  When asked how he feels about teaching the mosaic classes at KIWA, Jose beams with pride. Most of his family members back home are teachers. In Mexico, he says, he dreamed of becoming a teacher as well, but it didn’t quite pan out for him. He didn’t intend on being a teacher here in the U.S. The mosaic classes at KIWA came about quite organically. About a year and a half ago, while brainstorming for ways to raise funds for KIWA, Morales and other KIWA members decided to create a collective mosaic piece for the organization’s annual fundraising dinner. Morales, who learned to make mosaics at another non-profit, Piece by Piece, agreed to lead the project. The members enjoyed working with mosaics so much that they approached Morales and asked him to teach an ongoing class for the community. With KIWA’s support, the idea sprouted into action pretty soon after. 

Arte del Corazon/Art of the Heart
Morales has now been a devoted instructor for the past year and a half, lugging materials, designing lessons, guiding and encouraging students to create art pieces from the heart. It is not surprising how successful the mosaic classes have been; not only do the participants learn new, marketable skills, they also find a place for solace and artistic expression. The art pieces generate artistic energia, but they also generate much needed revenue, for both the individual artists and the organization. The mosaic program is still evolving, but its success thus far has led to goals of self-sustainability. “Me siento muy orgulloso de todo lo que hemos logrado en este año y medio,” says Morales. “It’s been a journey for us, and our struggles have been connected to our art--from fighting for immigrant rights and reform to establishing parks in our community to advocating for wage equity. Everything has been interconnected. I love working with my fellow community members. I feel very happy and fulfilled to be doing this work, and I am very proud of them and the beautiful art pieces they are creating.”

You can support Art of the Heart, Arte del Corazon, at:

For information on purchasing art pieces, contact: 

Rebeca Ronquillo
Phone (213) 925-0843

To learn more about KIWA: 



Anonymous said...

Thanks Ms Garcia Echeverria for enlightening my Sunday with your blog of KIWA's good works and how L.A. is a real mosaic. I collected pieces of colored glass as a kid and loved looking at the sun through them.
We grew up on the layaway plan! Love it and your writing.
Blessings for you and yours this holiday season and next year.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Salsa Superstars! Thank you.