TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - The first thing asylum seekers now see at the Casa Alitas Welcome Center is a colorful welcome mural.
A multi-cultural tile mural was installed this week, brightening the exterior of the main entrance to the building on East Ajo Way, the culmination of a 13-month project that was a collaboration among Pima County, Catholic Community Services and Las Artes Arts & Education Center.
“We wanted people when they got off the bus to feel like they were going into a welcoming space,” said Teresa Bravo with the Health Department’s Spencer Graves.
In early Aug. 2019, the Casa Alitas program moved to the shelter at the county’s former Juvenile Justice Facility, which was remodeled to serve as temporary housing.
By Aug. 21, artist Saul Ortega of Las Artes had sketched the design for the mural project, incorporating visuals representing the different communities the asylum seekers had called home — Guatamala, El Salvador, India, Brazil, Mexico, Honduras and even Russia.
Ortega blended flags, birds, flowers, landmarks and more into his colorful design, with the United States represented in the upper right by the Statue of Liberty, the Golden Gate Bridge and a red rose. The tiles frame the doorway.
“What we wanted was some kind of design that would give people coming to that door some kind of reminder about their country, that maybe made them feel like they weren’t lost,” Ortega said.
Soon, Ortega was directing Las Artes students, who, as part of their GED program, went to work painting the tiles. The GED program is part of Pima County’s Community and Workforce Development Department, which aims to give young people the academic and job-readiness skills to prepare them for successful careers. Students' murals, ceramic tiles and other artwork can be seen across Pima County.
“We gave the students a little bit of the history – and they were excited that their work was going to be displayed in such a manner,” said Las Artes Program Manager Patricia Gastelum. The experience also enabled the students to learn more about the immigration process and what a local agency like Catholic Community Services was doing to assist.
Students also helped in picking artwork from Las Artes for the interior of the shelter, which serves families who have left their home countries to escape violence and poverty. After the families have been processed and released by federal agencies, Casa Alitas steps in to provide care and short-term shelter while helping migrants reunite with family members or sponsors all over the United States.
Pima County expanded the driveway to the facility in order to accommodate busses from Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, so they could bring those seeking asylum to the front door, rather than dropping them off at bus stations, sometimes with not much more than the clothes they were wearing.
That front door was merely a bland entryway in a brick wall – until now.
“At first, this was just another project (for the students),” Ortega said. "Once I started explaining to them what the project meant to the people who were getting processed, that kind of opened them up to thinking, ‘Maybe we can’t help them physically but maybe we can give them some kind of a happy thought.’
The students weren’t able to see the project through to completion because of in-person learning restrictions established in March due to COVID-19. Ortega and an assistant finished painting the tiles. The tile mural is framed and mounted to the building in such a way it can be removed and transported, if needed.
For now, it says “Welcome."
“You just heard horror stories of why they were leaving their countries — the violence, death threats and things of that sort,” Bravo said. “The people have been so kind and appreciative. It was amazing to see how thankful they were just for a place where they could sleep with their kids. And that was just beautiful.”
To see photos of the mural, click HERE.