Shortly after the Great Depression newly elected President Franklin D. Roosevelt implemented by Executive Order a public works program to get US citizens back to work called the New Deal. A program that emerged was called the Works Progress Administration or WPA and one of the communities to benefit from the WPA projects was the high altitude community of La Isla (located in San Luis Valley of southern Colorado). In the mid 1930s a one room school house was constructed for this rural, farming community which was used until 1959.
I was invited by CU University Field School to spend a week this past spring learning the history and hearing stories of people in this cattle ranching and farming community with a large population of people who trace their ancestry back to the Spanish colonialists who passed through the region beginning in the 1500s. I interviewed people who attended the one room school house made of adobe hearing anecdotes of the simplicity of their lives in the 1950s. Family photos were used as reference images in the murals. In talking with former La Isla student Walter Perea he remembered that not many people had cameras back then but his mom had a Brownie camera with which she’d document their lives. He was able to find her camera and a photo of him holding it is included in the fabric collage. He also remembered going to school with a Flintstone lunchbox and while he couldn’t find that I was able to locate a used Flintstone lunchbox from that period at a small antique store in Antonito, CO. An image of this also appears in the fabric mural.
My experience in this community was brief but I was there long enough to begin to get a sense of the interconnectedness of families in the valley and how people supported one another over time to build community. I got to attend a large birthday celebration for a 92 year old matriarch which reinforced for me the value the community placed on family and the wisdom of elders. Like the stories I heard from individuals in the community the birthday celebration was an opportunity for people to reflect on the interconnectedness of their lives. While I often don’t have difficulty leaving a installation spending a couple days watching the fabric mural under different lighting conditions over the course of a day and being mesmerized by the movement of the fabric to the subtle breezes in the morning and evening to the manic movement of the fabric midday as the wind picked up I felt like narratives emerged from the fabric that made this piece hard to leave.
Thank you to CU Field School, Ron Rael, Drew Ludwig for assisting and to the former students of La Isla who shared their stories with me.
This text comes from a recent Facebook post by Cletus Perea… “So Mercy Ann Gallegos And myself decided to have a Mini Class Reunion in our 1st & 2nd grade schoolhouse. This is also the place of The La Isla School Mural Project where some of our ancestors are featured. Mercy was actually raised by the 2 elderly ladies in the picture. Her Grandma Lupita Sanchez, Great Grandma Cirila Valdez And her Mom Berta Ortiz as well as my Dad Juan Perea
Felix Sanchez And my Grampa Estevan Perea.
Then we went to Los Cerritos Cemetery to celebrate our ancestors life and our Blessings.
My cousin Mercy comes from Albuquerque so it was nice catching up.
Mercy, Thank You for your time and an enjoyable morning. ♥️🎶🎵🤠
By the way, that was me on the horse 62 years later. 🤠
Cletus with his cousin, Mercy Ann Gallegos, standing by the photo of himself as a little boy wearing a suit with one of his brothers and his mom, circa 1957.