BURLINGTON — Dozens of people gathered Tuesday at Burlington-Edison High School to get a glimpse of a mural painted on a side of one of the school’s buildings.
As the sheets covering the mural were pulled down, Ignacia Ojeda teared up at the sight of her 13-year-old son Nathan Ojeda’s face on the wall — staring into the distance as if looking at his future.
“Immigrants, we came here to the U.S. and all our dreams are to give a better life for our kids,” Ignacia Ojeda said. “This is what we want is to teach them, that they can follow their dreams and they can be whatever they want.”
The brightly colored mural was the work of about two dozen seventh, eighth and ninth graders in the Burlington-Edison School District’s GEAR UP program, which helps low-income and first-generation college students prepare for college.
For about three weeks right after school got out, the students worked with international artist Kate DeCiccio and a street art artist from Oaxaca, Mexico, named Yescka.
“It’s a really strong message from a school to make space for their students,” DeCiccio said. “To give kids power to take up space in ways they decide ... is really important.”
Nathan Ojeda isn’t the only student to be featured on the mural.
An image of Lluvia Bautista wearing a mortarboard on her head is at the high school before the Lucille Umbarger Elementary School student is.
“It’s imagining myself looking at my dream come true,” she said of the image. “(The purpose of the project) is for the older kids to hear our voice. It’s usually never about us.”
The faces, the students said, were chosen to represent the diversity of the district’s student body.
“Mostly you see famous white people that lived 100 years ago,” said ninth grader Hugo Avila. “If you’re Indian or something, you don’t ever see yourself.”
Some students projected images onto a sheet of paper to make a template, then traced the image onto a piece of plywood, spray painted it and affixed it to the wall.
Avila chose two images: one a cow to signify his father’s history as a dairy farmer, the other a berry to symbolize the agricultural workers in the area.
“My community, a lot of Hispanics work in the fields,” he said. “We grow a lot of berries for the country. That’s something to be proud of.”
Heather Paton, the district’s GEAR UP coordinator, said one purpose of the project was to get the participating students excited about high school.
“We have a beautifully diverse background and it’s not always celebrated,” Paton said. “Students, when they get here, they’re already in their little groups, and our campus ends up being segregated. I’m really hoping that they feel like they belong on campus no matter what their elementary school or their background.”
Because the district does not have a middle school, many of the students stay at the same school — with the same group of people — until they get to high school.
“It’s teaching us how to make new friends,” said Kenai Kitzman, who will be a freshman at the school in the fall. “And also how to be leaders.”
In attendance at Tuesday’s unveiling was new Burlington-Edison High School principal Jeff Baines who used the opportunity to get to know some of his future students.
“How empowering is this for the kids,” Baines said. “There’s a lot of prideful ownership right here.”
For Nathan Ojeda, the project was not only a way for him to leave his mark on the school — like his two older brothers before him, who also have artwork displayed in the school — but also a way to honor himself and his family.
“I know that my ancestors used to work so hard,” the Lucille Umbarger student said. “It feels like tears of heaven, tears of joy, to make my U.S. dream come true.”