A House of Learning

April 26, 2018

Thanks to a grant from ArtPlace America, the Raúl H. and Patricia M. Castro Border Studies and Outreach Center will house the project VozFrontera, which will help develop youth leadership through creativity and art.

On a steep hillside in Nogales, Ariz., sits a century-old stone house. Green foliage and ivy shade the front porch, but the back offers a clear view into Nogales, Sonora, Mexico, on the other side of the border wall several hundred yards away. 

Once the residence of Arizona’s first Latino governor, Raúl Castro, and his wife, Pat, the house is quiet these days. But it will soon be a hub of activity, a place where young people learn to document Nogales’ stories and traditions, where artists and scholars engage the community, and where young leaders and entrepreneurs incubate their ideas.

A new project, VozFrontera, is the vision of the Southwest Folklife Alliance (SFA), an affiliate nonprofit organization of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, and several cultural leaders, artists, and community organizers.

In December, SFA received a $350,000 National Creative Placemaking grant from ArtPlace America, a nationwide initiative supporting projects that place arts and culture at the center of community planning and development, to make VozFrontera a reality. The grant will support two years of programming.

The ArtPlace grant will also provide funds for the remodel of the Castro House, which was donated to SBS by the Castro family in 2015, who envisioned it as a place for extended student exchange and learning, said Ginny Healy, SBS senior director of development.

“The Castros wanted to make sure students had a place to meet, review research, and collaborate with each other and with students on the other side of the border. They thought their home could provide that,” Healy said.

The first gift for the Castro House renovation came from the Agnese Nelms Haury Program in Environment and Social Justice. 

In addition to housing VozFrontera, the Castro House will bring people together for collaborative research, outreach programs, and lectures. Plans include meeting rooms, a technology lab, and a resource center where students and community members can access UA library systems, Healy said.


UA journalism students working on the border.
UA journalism students working on the border.

Programs will build on SBS’s current offerings in the community, which include courses in anthropology, Latin American studies, Mexican American studies, and journalism. 

“With the ArtPlace funding in the community of Nogales, we can now say this is really happening. The University of Arizona is really going to have a presence in the community. There’s a renewed energy there and a sense of pride. It’s made it real,” Healy said.

Animating Community and Culture

SFA is perhaps best known in the region for its production of the annual folklife festival Tucson Meet Yourself, now in its 45th year. The organization also works year-round to celebrate and promote heritage, traditional arts, and folklife practices in the region through festivals, artist support, and cultural community development.

Community relationships have long been a critical component of the organization’s work, said Maribel Alvarez, executive director of SFA and the Jim Griffith Public Folklore Chair at the UA Southwest Center.

“We’ve discovered after many years of producing a festival that we have an incredible amount of knowledge and how-to practical approach in activating community assets with authenticity, thoughtfulness, and efficacy,” said Alvarez, also an associate professor in the School of Anthropology.

“Events come and go, but it’s the continuity of relationships that allows for economic development and heritage preservation,” she said. “In Nogales, knowing that the Castro House had been gifted, we knew that SFA could animate a space with programs and add value to both the community and the university.” 

Amplifying Youth Voices

The idea for VozFrontera came from conversations with cultural leaders in Nogales through a rapid qualitative assessment SFA conducted to identify community needs, Alvarez said.

The study found that while Nogales is home to a large-scale produce industry – which provides much of the country with winter vegetables – economic opportunities beyond produce and law enforcement are limited.

Often young people leave after high school, seeking education and work elsewhere. But young entrepreneurs like Stephanie Bermudez, who was interviewed for the study, are working to change that. “I kept trying to find elsewhere what I had [in Nogales]. The kind of people here are really special. There are young people and old people here. But the middle, they’re gone. So I began to come back. And I’m asking, How can we inform young people who’ve left to come back and make something that’s theirs?” Bermudez said. 

Bermudez and others spoke about the sense of pride in Nogales, a close-knit community with a rich cultural history and a long-standing relationship with Nogales, Sonora. (The two communities are often called Ambos Nogales, or Both Nogales.) 

SFA’s vision is to involve young people in galvanizing that pride, helping the community see its own assets, and in turn, create new economic opportunities for those youth. 

Gustavo Aranda, a high school music teacher in Nogales also interviewed for SFA’s assessment, said youth programs are desperately needed. “Nogales doesn’t have neighborhood centers where kids can learn from role models. Kids don’t have options to go anywhere other than school. If there’s a place where art is brought to kids and adults, it’s going to change the city in great ways,” Aranda said.

Celeste González de Bustamante, an associate professor in the School of Journalism, takes her students often to the border town for reporting experiences. “My students will benefit greatly by being able to work directly with young members of the community. And, undergraduates and graduate students will be able to give back to the community through mentoring efforts,” González de Bustamante said. 

Honoring Border Heritage

Alvarez credits local community members like Bermudez and Aranda as well as existing SBS learning programs for setting the stage for a project like VozFrontera. “There is no better time for this investment in Nogales’ youth and young adults than now,” she said. 

“I am certain our application to ArtPlace would have never moved forward had it not had the authenticity of energy and ‘buenas ganas’ of the visionary people on the ground in Nogales. Their work, which precedes our involvement by many years, gave us the credibility to propose a new investment in culture and education,” Alvarez said.

Partner organizations for the project include Nogales Community Development Corporation, StartUp Unidos, SEEDS/Semillas, Inc., and the Nogales Farmers’ Market.

Javier Torres, director of national grantmaking at ArtPlace, acknowledged the combination of strong leadership and community passion in making the VozFrontera proposal successful. “This project harnesses Dr. Maribel Alvarez’s decades of community-based experience and scholarly work alongside the rich human and physical assets of Nogales to increase economic opportunity for the youth in this historic border community,” Torres said. 


This story originally appeared in the SBS Developments 2018 magazine