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Meet The Salvadoreña Filling New York Streets With Love Letters To Latinas

Scattered throughout New York’s grimiest ‘hoods and most expensive neighborhoods are public messages to black and Latina women. The signs, with words that both uplift the disenfranchised and disrupt spaces where racism and xenophobia thrive, are part of the Unapologetically Brown Series – a street art project by Queens-based artist-activist Johanna Toruño.

Tired of advertisements throughout communities of color that rarely reflect the people in them, Johanna Toruño a queer salvadoreña, created this series of pop-up posters for black and brown people to feel acknowledged and empowered.

12×18 Brown Girl This World Is Yours Poster by the flatiron building ?✨

A post shared by Unapologetically Brown Series (@theunapologeticallybrownseries) on

“I just want brown women to know that I see you, we’re here, we’re resilient and this space belongs to you,” Toruño, 27, told mitú.

She does this by posting dozens of signs throughout New York’s five boroughs about three to five times a week, all speaking to people of color directly.

Some of her prints, like the one pictured above, include her own poetry, while others are quotes from black and brown scholars, activists and celebrities.

Other signs, like one reading “Dismantle ICE” and another declaring “Black Lives Matter,” are located throughout the Upper East Side, one of Manhattan’s wealthiest neighborhoods. The placement is intentional. Toruño believes that the city’s most powerful need to be reminded of the everyday struggles of the most vulnerable. Sadly, and revealingly, the posters are usually quickly removed in these areas.

Toruño knows firsthand what it’s like to feel powerless in this country. She moved from El Salvador to Virginia when she was nine years old, unaware of the language and unfamiliar with the culture.

like butterflies & flowers ? resilience at the root. 12×18 posters up now

A post shared by Unapologetically Brown Series (@theunapologeticallybrownseries) on

“I felt displaced because of that, and that will make you feel powerless,” she said. “I always felt that unsureness of my space. I still do.”

Toruño, who was incarcerated as a teenager and remains entangled in the U.S.’ broken immigration system, uses her self-taught art to empower her community because she understands how debilitating it is to feel othered, less than and defenseless all the time and everywhere – including in your own home.

She launched the Unapologetically Brown Series one year ago. Initially, it was a space for spoken word poetry, then it turned into a photo series and ultimately it became the community poster project it is today.

Selena isn't dead because she lives in every single one of us that she's raised ?✨ 12×18 poster now outside of Madison Square Garden.

A post shared by Unapologetically Brown Series (@theunapologeticallybrownseries) on

“I was playing with different ways to spread this message, but when I started the posters I knew that I had finally found the right approach,” she said.

Street art is a part of everyday life in El Salvador. When coming to the United States, she brought her fascination of murals and public posters with her. As a teenager, she often hung signs around her Virginia neighborhood, making it a natural way for her to execute her activism in her adulthood. But as someone who describes herself as “socially anxious,” she also preferred this avenue because it allowed her to decenter herself from the work.

“I’m not good with crowds. It’s easy for me to put up a poster and for it to have a life of its own after I leave. It tells a story for me. People see it and I don’t have to be there for it,” she said.

For Toruño, it’s always about the community first, and she is using her posters to give back in more tangible ways as well.

The artist, who sells her prints online, teams up with street vendors for poster giveaways. Here’s how it works: Toruño posts a photo of a local brown vendor on her Instagram, telling her more than 11,000 followers about their service or good and informing them that the next person who purchases one of their items can get a free print.

Toruño has done four giveaways like this, and each one has been a success.

“These people are the backbone of this community, the ones who keep us fed. They’re busting their asses and people talk shit about them. I want to use my platform to give them some publicity, to help put more money in their pocket, because they deserve it,” she said.

This month, the Unapologetically Brown Series also held its first pop-up shoot and social, an event for black and brown people to get together, take photos, create art and discuss the ways they can reclaim spaces. Toruño expected about 15 to 20 people. Instead, more than 100 guests showed up.

The series’ thousands of social media followers and packed first event show just how hungry people of color are to see themselves represented – and not solely in the media, politics or higher education, but in their own neighborhoods as well. It illustrates how unseen many of us feel even in our own communities and how powerless we think we are in our own homes.

Through her series, Toruño is trying to change that. In the face of gentrification, she is reminding everyone that historically black and brown spaces belong to us, that we are valuable, our presence is beautiful and our community is essential. And while Toruño is New York-based, her message is being felt across the nation, as people have printed and placed her signs throughout neighborhoods in Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Seattle and more.

“I create for and around my community, and I want to shine a light on it because we are beautiful and special,” she said.

Find a powerful floral dispatch from Toruño throughout New York, and for those outside of the city, catch them on Instagram. To purchase prints and spread them around your ‘hood, visit the Unapologetically Brown Series’ website.

READ: These Photos Put The Curvy Latina Stereotype To Rest Once And For All

Let us know which sign is your favorite in the comments!

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Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Calls The Lack Of Black And Latinx Diversity At NYC’s Specialized Schools An “Injustice”


Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Calls The Lack Of Black And Latinx Diversity At NYC’s Specialized Schools An “Injustice”

In New York, Black and Latinx youth make up 70 percent of public school students, yet just 10 percent are admitted to the city’s eight specialized high schools, the New York Times reports. The shamefully low, and decreasing, number of students of color in these prestigious institutions has picked up criticism, including from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), who called it an “injustice.”

Just 4 percent ― or 190 students ― of the 4,800 youth invited to attend New York’s eight specialized schools this year are Black. This number is down from 207 last year, following an annual trend of decline. In fact, at Stuyvesant High School, the city’s most selective school, the number of Black students offered admission has dropped for three consecutive years. In the fall, just seven of the 895 spots will go to a Black student, down from 10 last year and 13 the year before. According to the Times, Stuyvesant, which has four Nobel Prize laureates among its alumni, now has the lowest percentage of Black and Latinx students than any other New York school, though it must be noted that the school accepted 33 Latinx students this year, up from 27 in 2018.

“To only have 7 Black students accepted into Stuyvesant (a *public* high school) tells us that this is a system failure,” the congressional freshman, who represents parts of the Bronx and Queens, wrote in a tweet.

Eight of the elite specialized high schools use the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test as part of their admission process, a measure of success that has received increased disapproval. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has advocated for abolishing the test, which he has referred to as a “roadblock to justice.”

“Can anyone look the parent of a [Latinx] or black child in the eye and tell them their precious daughter or son has an equal chance to get into one of their city’s best high schools,” the Democratic mayor wrote in an op-ed for Chalkbeat in 2018. “You can’t write a single test that captures the full reality of a person.” However, the Times reported that any push to get rid of the test have stalled out.

For Ocasio-Cortez, the system has the potential of deepening inequality for years to come.

“Education inequity is a major factor in the racial wealth gap,” she said. “This is what injustice looks like.”

While the number of Black and Latinx students accepted in New York’s elite public schools dwindle — Latinx invitees dropped from 320 to 316 overall — among all eight schools, the acceptance rate for white students has increased.

Read: Her Mom Cleaned Houses To Pay For Her Education After Her School Learned She Was Undocumented And Took Her Scholarship

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This Houston Artist is Bringing a Touch of Whimsy to Her Hometown


This Houston Artist is Bringing a Touch of Whimsy to Her Hometown

Art is often the manifestation of our emotions. It manifests the artist’s intentions and projects them onto the audience. Though we don’t all experience art in the same way, the visceral reaction we have to an especially moving work of art is universal. Through the lens of its artist, art makes us hope, feel as well as heal. For Texas-based Mexican-American artist Shelbi Nicole, the desire to share these feelings with her audience is what drives her to create.

Named one of Houston’s Top Ten artists back in 2014, Nicole is a Texas transplant originally from Oklahoma City. Using bold color and shapes, it’s her goal to put feel-good vibes out into her community. Working in a mix of media but a painter at heart, Nicole’s work can be seen all over her adopted home. Whether it’s through murals, in private and public art collections or through her newest interactive art installation, this artist is committed to drama and whimsy.

Recently, FIERCE caught up with Nicole to talk about the intention behind her lively art and see her latest installation.

For Shelbi Nicole, art was an instinctive passion to pursue even from an early age.

Instagram / @fiftyshadesofelishagray

In fact, the medium of painting became a therapeutic tool that helped the artist evolve into the woman she is.

“I have enjoyed creating since I was very young, which was when I discovered my love for painting,” Nicole told FIERCE. “I suffered from depression and found the benefits of painting to be extremely therapeutic. Painting has tremendously helped me combat depression and in a lot of ways been essential to my well being. Once I discovered the impact painting had on my life, I wanted to identify first and foremost as an artist.”

Drawn to abstract forms, Nicole traveled to France at 18 to study her craft. Exploring the numerous art museums Europe has to offer, she grew into herself as an artist. Her search to find her own voice as an artist took her to Miami. There, the vibrant colors of the South Florida Latinidad inspired her and made their way into her permanent color palette. Having found her signature style utilizing abstract shapes and vibrant colors, Nicole made her way to the University of Houston for her formal education.

“I think my constant exposure to so many different cultures has influenced my work,” Nicole explained. “Especially being back in Houston, the most diverse city in the U.S.”

Since then, Nicole has been a cornerstone of the local Houston art scene, literally leaving her mark all over the city.

Instagram / @shelbinicoledesigns

Putting her skills as a mural artist to the test, Nicole beautifies the Houston Metro through her work with Mini Murals. Mini Murals is a multi-city project aimed at bringing color to unsuspected places utilizing electrical boxes as mural space. The pop of unexpected art that these pieces bring to local neighborhoods is completely on message for this dynamic artist. With her mix of abstract and geometric shapes and bold use of color, Nicole has contributed a dozen mini murals to Houston.

Aside from her many projects with her own design firm, Nicole has collaborated with everyone from local artists to big name corporations.

Instagram / @shelbinicole
Houston Press / Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo

“The last two years of my life have been some of my most successful, thus far, with my art endeavors,” Nicole proudly shared. Last December, the artist teamed up with jewelry designer Kendra Scott to create the “Korridor.” Next to the Kendra Scott jewelry store in the posh community of Rice Village, the bright mural space is a combination of Nicole’s colorful sensibilities and Scott’s elegant forms.

Another such collaboration matched Nicole with the largest rodeo in the world. The tremendous Texas event — once headlined by Selena herself — is also an opprotunity to take in arts and culture. This year, the artist won the opprotunity to paint in her own style a 6-foot tall ceramic boot for the Rodeo’s Boot Row. Nicole is only one of six artists chosen to execute a design for this piece that lines the Rodeo’s entrance.

Still, perhaps one of Nicole’s biggest collabs have been with coffee giant Café Bustelo.

Instagram / @shelbinicole

The Cuban coffee company established these pop-ups around the country for some time now. Not only do they bring their bold flavors, the pop-ups also invites emerging Latinx musicians and artists. For Nicole’s project, the people behind the iconic yellow can connected her with fellow Houston artist Gonzo247. At a Café Bustelo pop-up event in Houston’s art district, the two artists worked together to create a unique art piece to embody Latin flavor and culture.

While these accomplishments are impressive in their own right, the project that Nicole is most proud of has been five years in the making.

Instagram / @shelbinicole
Instagram / @thewhimsyworld_

A larger-than-life visual funhouse, Nicole’s newest exhibit — Whimsy World — is a colorful, interactive fantasy world. The exhibit debuted in Houston during February of 2019. It opened to rave reviews as Houstonians explored Shelbi’s brilliant dreamscape.

“What inspired me to create Whimsy World was an intense desire to showcase my work in a solo show that was unconventional and much more interactive,” Nicole explained. “I’d lost interest in traditional art shows and the lack of color in most gallery settings. I wanted people to be able to feel like they’re inside of one of my paintings rather than just standing back and looking at a canvas.”

The multi-experience installation spans several rooms, each with its own touches of magic. From a hand-welded claw foot tub and in-door rain cloud dripping with hundreds of crystals to the abstract paintings spilling over the canvas and onto the studio walls, every inch is art. Even the bathrooms — with their fierce boss lady Beyoncé motif — are a spot worthy of Instagram.

For Nicole, Whimsy World is a culmination of her artistic voice and the joy she hopes her art creates in others.

Instagram / @thewhimsyworld_
Instagram / @whimsyworld_

“I want to encourage everyone to understand the endless possibilities there are, when it comes to how we experience art,” the artist confessed. “It can be a feeling, a moment, a world that you enter that brings joy and elicits feel-good vibes. That is the intention of The Whimsy World and I hope everyone can experience its magic.”

For Nicole, the future is as bright as the art she creates. An extended version of Whimsy World will be debuting in Sugarland, Texas March 15th-April 27th. The installation will include 8+ brand new fixtures. The Sugarland show will also feature a new main attraction — a mirrored art room hand-crafted by the artist. Nicole is also planning to take Whimsy World to audiences beyond Texas.

Shelbi Nicole’s dedication to sharing her positivity and light with the world is evident whenever you see her art. It’s a reminder that through artistic creation, we can share who we are and what we want the world to be.

Read: It’s The Beginning Of The Year And Cardi B and Selena Gomez Have Already Topped Spotify’s Most-Streamed Female Artists

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