Sandra Hernández-Lomelí, Latinos Unidos Siempre director, holds paintings made by young people at the organization's northeast Salem office. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

When Sandra Hernández-Lomelí was 12, she was arrested for tagging on a Salem street.

Like many of her peers, Hernández-Lomelí used graffiti to express herself. But instead of getting a canvas or art lessons, she was funneled into the juvenile justice system.

Now, as the director of Latinos Unidos Siempre, Hernández-Lomelí works to give young people in northeast Salem a chance to be celebrated, rather than punished, for expressing themselves.

“We wanted to make a space for them and show that urban art is a positive thing for youth,” she said.

The youth advocacy organization, which works mostly with Latinos, is teaming up with Salem Art Association for a program called Art Intersections/Interseccion de Arte – a series of workshops, field trips and art shows.

The project, supported by a $6,550 grant from the Oregon Arts Commission, will bridge gaps between the largely white community in south Salem that has traditionally supported the arts association and Latinx artists in northeast Salem whose work often doesn’t get the same exposure, said Kathy Dinges, community arts education director for Salem Art Association.

The goal is “trying to get communities to know each other,” she said.

Hernández-Lomelí and Evelyn Sanchez, a local multimedia artist who studied art at Western Oregon University, began talking to Dinges last year about teaming up on a project.

Sanchez said they discussed doing “something out of the box that SAA hasn’t done before” and applied for the grant in the fall.

Salem Art Association has shown work by Latinx and graffiti artists in pop-up spaces previously, Dinges said. But with a 2016 remodel of the Bush Barn Annex, the community program now has its own space to host shows and do more outreach work.

Shows in the annex focus on contemporary art, and artists have more freedom to do work that doesn’t usually appear in a traditional gallery.

"A Cure for Delicacy" by artist Maria Maben on display at Salem Art Association's Bridging the Gap show (Courtesy/Salem Art Association)

The Art Intersections project will end with a graffiti artist show where artists from Latinos Unidos Siempre can paint directly on the annex walls. It’s scheduled to run Nov. 5 to Dec. 5.

“Artists really participate in what happens here,” Dinges said.

Latinos Unidos Siempre was founded in the mid-1990s and has used art as part of its curriculum for young people from the start.

The organization’s second floor office is covered with paintings and drawings, including large canvasses depicting Mexican history painted by Oregon State Penitentiary inmates and protest signs featuring marker drawings of President Donald Trump.

In the mid-2000s, the organization began Urban Art Fest, a weekend event celebrating beatboxing, breakdancing, hip-hop and graffiti.

Alex Buron, who works with young people at the Latinos Unidos Siempre, said he focuses on teaching them the history of urban arts, including graffiti and hip-hop, which were developed by people of color to speak to each other and share their experiences.

Those art forms have historically been viewed as lesser than classical Europeans arts like painting, Buron said. By helping young people of color understand their history, Buron said they learn that their cultures have their own forms of art that are valuable, and that they don’t have to learn to paint with oils to be artists.

“Instead of forcing them to assimilate to a culture that’s not theirs, they learn to accept where they come from,” he said.

Graffiti is becoming more recognized as an art form, Buron said. But many of the artists becoming well known for graffiti in Salem are white, while the Latino and black young people he works with are often punished for spray painting walls or even doodling in class.

“Nobody had a gallery for that. You went to juvie,” he said, speaking about his experience as a teen at North Salem High School.

Art Intersections isn’t only about graffiti. The art association hosted a show in January called Bridging the Gap, with art focused on machismo in the Latinx communities. That theme, Dinges said, grew out of conversations with local artists about the work they wanted to show, and in collaboration with Sanchez and Latinos Unidos Siempre.

Visitors explore the Bringing the Gap exhibit at the Salem Art Association annex in Bush Pasture Park (Courtesy/Salem Art Association)

Before the November show, Sanchez will lead workshops for youth the organization is already working with, helping them develop as artists.

 “There’s amazing artists out there that are not encouraged to show their art,” she said.

They’ll also travel to view art on field trips, though the details on timing and location are still being worked out.

Hernández-Lomelí said she hopes the program will show white Salem residents that there’s already a vibrant community of Latino artists in town, while inspiring young people to consider art as a means of self-expression.

“Seeing someone that looks like them teaching this is really, really important,” she said.

Reporter Rachel Alexander: rachel@salemreporter.com or 503-575-1241.

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