BURIEN — Trini was scrolling through her iPad when she heard the sharp noises outside her apartment building. Fireworks, she thought to herself.
Then her mom ordered her to leave the room.
At half-past 9 p.m. on March 28, 2018, the alleyway she and her neighbors take to the Mexican market to buy snacks became the latest stop in a South King County gang feud.
Nearby, police found the bodies of Eveona Cortez and Elizabeth Juarez, two teens not much older than her, along with a black spray paint can and more than a dozen bullet holes in the siding of the apartment complex.
This summer, more than three years after the shooting, she and her neighbors got some new scenery on the path. She helped paint it. (The Seattle Times is using a pseudonym to protect her privacy.)
In early August, 15 kids living in the Alcove at Seahurst Apartments, formerly known as Alturas @ Burien, unveiled a mural, a zine and a spoken-word poem at the wall facing the alleyway, once a canvas for rival gangs to leave their marks. They were the capstones after six weeks of creating art and poetry under the guidance of local artists and mentors, who coached the middle and high school students to speak the truth about where they live, and what they want it to become.
The mural is barely noticeable from busy Ambaum Boulevard, the neighborhood’s namesake. But the message is large.
At the far left, a visual altar dedicated to nonviolence: a girl with tape over her mouth sits between a stop sign and a vine of flowers erupting from guns, an image dreamed up by a 12-year-old in the group who wanted to represent the way girls are silenced after abuse. The mural also brims with Mexican and Central American symbols, including a Honduran flag, a dress from the Chiapas region of Mexico and a piñata.
At the unveiling, Sophia Alvarez, 13, looked on at the mural from the parking lot above and smiled.
She wants people to look at it and think of how the community needs to be like a “cadena” — a lock, or chain.
“I feel good here,” she said. “I feel safe.”
For years, adults in the community have wanted to do a project like this to help reclaim the space and restore balance to the narrative of Burien as a place often caught in the crosshairs of violence and poverty. This year, through a grant from the federal government, the city of Burien was finally able to find the funds, bringing on the nonprofit Urban Artworks, an organization that regularly works with youth on public art installation projects.
During classes at the Highline Heritage Museum, students, adults and local artists brainstormed ideas for the mural. Initially, the adults encouraged the students to create art that celebrated the good things about the community.
But the students didn’t want to shy away from the problems, said Scott Méxcal, the project’s lead art instructor. They wanted the mural and their other work to confront it.
Embracing joy and confronting the problems
“When you [search] for Burien” in the news, you see gangs in the results, said Adanari Zuniga, 13.
Burien is a young city compared with some of its neighbors, such as Normandy Park and Seattle. Incorporated in 1993, a quarter of residents were born outside of the United States, according to census data. About a third of the people living in the students’ census tract identify as Hispanic.
For people living in the Ambaum area — named for the city’s boulevard dotted with apartments, Spanish-language election yard signs and small businesses — the March 2018 killing of the two girls was a reminder that they had been forgotten, said Krystal Marx, the city’s deputy mayor.
It “ripped a hole in our community,” she said. The 2018 event marked the third year of teenage shooting deaths in a row at the apartment complex.
Cortez’s parents told reporters that their daughter, a 19-year-old who loved music and singing, wanted to part ways from gang membership and start fresh. Juarez, just 13, was a student at Sylvester Middle School, a six-minute drive from the complex.
Gang violence arises from a variety of conditions, including insufficient investment in programs that prevent youth from joining gangs, poverty and a low sense of belonging among kids, according to a U.S. Department of Justice report.
After the shooting, the city created several gang-intervention initiatives, and the police chief said in June that tensions between rival gangs have largely cooled. Still, some students said they have recently witnessed violent incidents, such as fighting and arguments in the street.
City officials also began funding an after-school tutoring and mentorship program through Southwest Youth and Family Services based at the Alcove complex.
All the students working on the mural get support from this program, which is based in an empty unit in the complex. An instructor through the program, Aurelio Valdez, picked up a paint brush and cheered the students on during the project.
Valdez, a performer and organizer with Mexican roots, grew up poor in South Everett. He witnessed gang violence throughout his childhood, himself falling victim as early as 9 years old, he said.
There’s a pernicious ripple effect on youth when a neighborhood develops a stigma, he said. He’d often hear the kids say they come from the ghetto, that the police don’t care. This project, to him, represented an opportunity for the students to “plant seeds instead of digging graves.”
It was difficult for some students to see themselves as part of the fabric of the community.
“They feel like they’re just along for the ride. And whatever Burien is, Burien is,” said Méxcal.
One day during a discussion with the students, he pulled up maps of Los Angeles County, pointing to the Crenshaw neighborhood and the city of Compton, both places oft-mentioned in the same breath as violence, but whose communities inspired the work of their favorite artists, including the late rapper Nipsey Hussle.
“I told them that if you go there, it looks like Burien. Compton had a bunch of young people who made stuff that reached the entire world.”
In another session, the students went to the farmers market in Burien and asked shoppers about their favorite and least favorite aspects of the area, recording the responses on notecards.
Eventually, Méxcal said, the students began to open up. One student talked about how a neighbor gave an expectant mother who was in labor a ride to a hospital because no one was home. Several shared that they loved the multiculturalism of Burien.
“People are like, ‘Oh, you shouldn’t live there. People die there.’ But people die everywhere,” said Trini. “It’s not the best place to live, but that doesn’t mean it can’t get better.”
“We are a wolf pack”
The teens have an easy dynamic with each other. Most of them are classmates, attending middle and high school at Glacier Middle School and Highline High School. During paint days, they marked each other’s faces, giggling in the sun and joking in Spanish.
Naomi Ignacio, 14, was initially resistant about joining the program. It was her mom’s idea, she said.
But after struggling with feelings of isolation over the past year, Naomi said the writing and drawing exercises helped her with self-expression.
On the second, sweaty day of painting, Méxcal invited Naomi over to outline the Chiapan dress on plywood where the mural was painted.
“Are you sure?” she asked, stepping gingerly toward him, her hot pink hair draped on her shoulders.
“Yeah!” he chirped.
She climbed the second step of the ladder, grabbing a pink piece of chalk from his hand. Eyeing a printout of the mural sketch taped to the wall, she slowly drew a curve for the neckline. Once she reached the sleeve, she drew and erased a few times, then called for help from Méxcal.
The help made her feel “safe,” painting on her own later on.
Méxcal says he feels a kinship with the youth.
A blank canvas and a church group helped the Albuquerque, New Mexico-born artist find his footing while he was growing up in a violent neighborhood, watching his friends become ensnared by gangs.
“To have the tools to be still and present with yourself — It’s important.”
A few yards away from the painting site, a group of students — all but three on the project are girls — circled around Sasha LaPointe, a writer, spoken-word poet and adjunct instructor at the University of Washington. They held strips of paper in their hand, squinting in the sun and reciting a stanza from the poem they’d created.
She gently reminded the quieter students to raise their voices.
LaPointe had never worked with school-aged students before. She had tried her best to avoid wading into the community trauma that brought them all together, and it surprised her when they began to bring it up on their own.
One day, during a break from poetry reading, Griseydi Sanchez, 12, began explaining the part of the mural she envisioned, the girl with tape over her mouth, inspired by gender-violence protests in Mexico. She told the group she was nervous about reading the poem out loud, but that they needed to work against the quiet.
“When girls are abused, they’re told to be silent,” Griseydi said in an interview later. “I want people to see this and speak up.”
“I was crying behind my heart-shaped glasses,” after hearing her words, LaPointe said. “I was like, holy [expletive].”
LaPointe also felt a connection with the students and the mission of the project. She grew up in a trailer on the Swinomish Reservation looking for an outlet, and as an adult, has lived in areas that outsiders perceive as dangerous.
“These places do experience violence, but that doesn’t negate the fact that [they] are still communities, places where families live, where joy and togetherness still happens,” she said.
The spoken-word poem, which they read during the mural unveiling, was a mashup of metaphors they came up with that describe their peers. They passed the mic, speaking the words gently and quickly.
we are a wolf pack
strong and fierce
like a river
our voice is
as important as any
we will be dangerous
learning new magic
to disappear violence
They finished to the applause of the small crowd of neighbors, family members and city officials who’d gathered to watch. At Buena Market, the store on the other side of the mural, small children emerged sucking on ice pops and clutching bags of chips. Photos of a young man killed in a gang-related shooting, attached to a chain-link fence across from the alleyway, glared in the sun.
Trini says she liked the experience. She used a stipend from the project to help her dad replace a lost chain necklace. But the issues her community is facing, she says, demand something more than a mural from “a bunch of teenagers.”
Still, she used to feel irritated when she looked out on that alleyway. Now, it’s nice to see some color on that wall, and her name attached to it.