Creating community with tile

When I was a little kid in grade school, I heard of the Watts Towers in Los Angeles. It was some kind of reading assignment for school, and while I soon forgot the name, the vague silouette of a tower stuck in my head ever since. But not because of the simple cone shape of tower, but rather it was a labor of love by a man, who took what he had around him to make something unique.

The work of Natalie Moraga brought that fuzzy memory back, and armed only with it and the Internet, I amazingly found the name of the project and its current status.

What I didn’t know was the use of broken tile and other bits set in concrete to decorate had a name – trencadis.

This I learned from Mexican-American/American-Mexican artist Natasha Moraga. She was born in La Mirada, California to a Chilean father and Mexican mother. When she was just 8, the family moved to Mexico permanently.

Her childhood from that time was tumultuous to say the least, effectively emancipating herself at 15, and living in Puerto Vallarta. The first sign of her future path was found on a trip to Barcelona. Here she saw the trencadis work of Antoni Gaudi. Like my image of the broken bits on the Watts Towers, the idea of arranging broken bits to create something beautiful fascinated her.

Back in Vallarta, she told a friend what she saw. This friend paid for her to go to Philadelphia and study with mosaic artist Isaish Zager. Moraga describes it as a week of “carrying buckets” and “watching,” but it formed the basis of what she would eventually do.

She finally put this to work in 2011. Seeing a grafitti-covered wall in Old Town, Vallarta, she applied for a permit to put a mosaic mural, and it was granted. She stated that as soon as she started putting the tiles up, she knew this is what she had to do.

In less than 10 years, Moraga has done a number of mosaic murals and other projects, from small murals on hotel walls, to the second-largest in Mexico (on PV’s marina) to the letters spelling “Puerto Vallarta” on the highway coming in from the north.

But it is her current project that has been the most ambitious – Parque de los Azulejos (Tile Park). It is an immense project both in size and organization.

It seeks to cover a large chunk of Lazaro Cardenas Park, focusing on the amphitheater, with the trencadis technique. It is far more than one person could possibly do, so Moraga has made it a community-based effort.

Moraga’s bilingual and bicultural heritage gives her some unique advantages here. She is able to work with the many groups of people that live in Puerto Vallarta, from local masons (with their famous reputation for “colorful” talk) to retired grandmothers from the US looking for something worthwhile to do with their free time.

Volunteering here does not simply mean doing what the artist tells you to do. Depending on time and inclination, volunteers can participate in design as well as lay tile. In fact, most of Moraga’s hands-on work now is training volunteers with 3-day workshops, repeating her experience in Philadelphia, but now she is the maestro.

She also has a talent for fundraising in creative ways as the project receives no public monies. People can help by buying sponsorship tiles, or a bench; they can donate through the project’s website (https://www.tileparkpv.com/) and there is even an old-fashioned donation box on site.

After learning about Moraga’s project and organization (called Mosayko Vallarta), I am rather surprised no one thought of doing something like this before. Tile is a hugely popular utilitarian material in Mexico, well-suited to many of the country’s hotter climates. As a decorative and artistic medium, it is uniquely suited for withstanding the harsh sun of beaches and deserts, as well as the salt-tinged air of the coasts.

Vallarta is one of a number of cities in Mexico with a large expat population. One common problem with these is that there can be a wide divide between resident foreigners and the local population. This project not only brings members of these together, it also attracts tourists and has sparked others to do similar projects in the United States.

Photos and video courtesy of the El Parque de los Azulejos Facebook page

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