For some artists, art is not simply an expression of ideas and aesthetics, but the means to change the narrative of mischaracterized or maligned places and identities.
Ask Victor Ortiz, 35, what the purpose of Mi Barrio 214 Gallery, a cultural center he opened in March in Pleasant Grove, is.
“I’ve been traveling for the last 10 years and I’ve always wanted to do something like what they have in New York, Washington, DC or Oakland, LA, you know, public space,” said Ortiz, the son of what he describes as Chicano parents.
Ortiz’s gallery is one of several art spaces that have sprung up in the last few years in this neighborhood in the southeast corner of the city. Graffiti artists, muralists, painters and even Folklórico performers see their art as the glue between thriving communities and their people.
Mi Barrio 214 (214 stands for Dallas’ area code) is also a gathering place for African-American, Latino and LGBTQ artists looking for a safe place in their neighborhood, Ortiz said.
“We still stay true to East Side Dallas because we don’t come from the same privileged places as people from the West Side or Central Dallas,” he said.
“We’re a little more detached, but here we arewe are still Dallas.
Pleasant Grove is home to about 87,000 people, including 61,000 Hispanics and 20,000 African Americans, according to the 2020 census.
The area has a thriving business district along Lake June Road and Buckner Boulevard. Dallas College’s Eastfield campus opened a satellite building there in 2009. DART expanded its Green Line in 2010.
But the area is plagued by crime. So far in 2022, Pleasant Grove is the Dallas area with the second most violent crimes, with 600. Only nearby Cedar Crest has had more violent crimes, 744, according to the Dallas Police Department.
Muralist Juan Antonio Castillo, 31, knows firsthand the impact of crime in this community. Two members of the family have served time in prison for crimes.
“I think the only thing that saved me was the fact that I had art. The fact that I had something to really guide me and (where to) focus my energy,” he said.
Castillo lived most of his life in Pleasant Grove. When he attended Urban Park Elementary School, teacher Vicki Crenshaw taught him to draw. According to him, this marked his life as a future muralist.
One of the most famous images he has painted is called “Americano,” which he created in 2017 in Deep Ellum, inspired by the Mexican-American population.
Later this November, Castillo, along with artists Nicolas Gonzalez and Javier Riojas, will open a new art studio in Pleasant Grove.
Gallery 86 will be located at 2084 N Jim Miller Rd. Suite 102 A, down the same street where he was inspired to become an artist as an elementary school student. Castillo and his friends will use the studio to work and present their work.
“I feel a responsibility to my neighborhood, like we can make a difference. It requires people to really invest time in it and invest effort, and I think with this art studio we’re going to be able to do that.
Ballet folklórico engages children and parents
Each week, Cindy Vergara, 49, practices dancing to Mexican folk songs with a group of more than 40 children, ages 4 to 17.
Vergara launched Ballet Folklórico El Trigo in 2018 as a way to enhance the identity of this neighborhood through the arts. She keeps membership affordable, about $5 per class.
Vergara, a former member of the Anita Martínez Ballet Folklore Company, said she became interested in starting her own children-only academy when she moved from Oak Cliff to Pleasant Grove in 2017.
She initially offered classes in her home, and in January opened a location at 9709 CF Hawn Freeway, Suite K.
Her ballet has performed at local events, including a Hispanic Heritage Month celebration hosted by the city of Dallas in September and at the Mundo Latino Pavilion at the State Fair of Texas.
“Kids love to play live. They say they feel like stars,” Vergara said.
The ballet is made up entirely of children living in Pleasant Grove. Vergara said this group has sparked more parental involvement, where friendships and networking counteract negative misconceptions about this part of town.
A creek turned art gallery draws muralists from far and wide
For the past decade, the murals on “The Walls” have been a gateway to Pleasant Grove’s vibrant street art scene. Art organizer Khadafy “DAP” Branch has one goal: to let art serve as a community unifier and change the narrative around this neighborhood.
“I’ve brought artists from all over, like Canada, California, New York, Florida and all over the West Coast,” said DAP, 40, a Pleasant Grove resident who has curated murals and installations at the space, located south of I-30 and east of US-175.
The neighborhood celebrated its first edition of Styles Fest from October 15 to October 17, a community festival that featured graffiti artists painting new murals.
The Walls is located in the bed of Elam Creek, an open, concrete-lined stream that can be waded during the dry season. The art project uses the creek walls at least half a mile from Lake June Rd. to Hillburn Dr., with exits through the Pleasant Grove Public Library and the Umphress Recreation Center.
“It’s a part of the city where we don’t have a cultural center yet, and we’re working on that.” But because a lot of people don’t have access to art because they work or don’t have access to transportation, we want to have events here,” said Priscilla Rice, a Dallas Parks and Recreation board member who represents District 5, which includes Pleasant Grove.
The site where The Walls is located is owned by the Dallas Water Department. Because of its location, city officials believe it has the potential to become a gallery with better installations.
“The goal is to have it open to the public, and I think there’s an opportunity to use this space for more events highlighting the arts in our community,” said Jaime Resendez, Dallas City Council member for District 5.
The murals at The Walls in Pleasant Grove, El Trigo ballet folklórico, and cultural galleries Mi Barrio 214 and Gallery 86 are trying to improve Pleasant Grove’s image—and hope to avoid gentrification.
“We want to put Pleasant Grove on the map in a meaningful way, not for show, but for community pride — and to bring us together because everyone in this community works hard and we need places like this to come together and celebrate all of our cultures,” said Tamita Curiel, an educator and member of the Dallas Arts and Culture Commission.
DAP said it is a noble and resilient district.
“Our community is big and gives back a lot. I love Pleasant Grove,” he said.