Best S.T.E.P. moves Forward with mural, “I Am Able” campaign

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EL CENTRO – A smiling child in a wheelchair, flowers, bugs, hidden hearts and bright colors are can what now be seen on East Main Street of nonprofit, Best S.T.E.P. Forward’s south wall, a beacon of inclusion and positive messaging now shared with the community here in the Imperial Valley.

Among smiling children’s faces lie various other positive images, all along a pink and multi-colored wall with one bold message: “I AM ABLE.”

The mural, completed in tandem by local designer Alex Tamayo, and Mexicali graffiti artist Etelberto “Beto” Ortiz Aguilar, known as @Star27 on Instagram, was an art project commissioned by the special needs-serving nonprofit Best S.T.E.P. Forward (BSF) through the ongoing art projects coming to fruition from the Far South/Border North: Artists and Cultural Practitioners in Community grants, some having been previously covered by this newspaper.

Opened in 2023 for round two funding of the community arts-promoting grants, El Centro/Calipatria’s Best S.T.E.P. Forward was one of 18 different entities awarded funding, and one of only five from Imperial County. The Far South/Border North funding comes from Community Catalyst of San Diego and other state funds, such as the California Arts Council.

“We did apply last minute … I stayed up all night and applied and we asked for the max amount,” Best S.T.E.P. CEO Jacqueline Estrada-Mercado told IVP.

As a nonprofit focused on serving the special needs community, in particular local youth, in new and innovative ways, BSF and an art-based grant collaboration seemed to be a perfect fit.

“With BSF we promote self-expression and art is a form of self-expression. It’s often an overlooked outlet for many people, and it’s a stigmatized form of outlet in my opinion,” Estrada-Mercado said, “especially in graffiti art”

Estrada-Mercado said the art form of graffiti art was specifically chosen by BSF for their mural project in order “to give an opportunity to show or community how beautiful that art form can be,” but also for the nonprofit to use it as a campaign launch for their message: “I Am Able,” as the mural reads in big, bold, bright green letters.

“We want a bold statement, (and) something that is generalized for everybody and not just the special needs community but for the community, period,” she said.

“’I Am Able’ really encompasses anyone facing any challenge,” graphic designer and owner of local Inerglo Creative marketing business, Alex Tamayo, said.

“The main word that you often hear is ‘disabled,’ and so the complete opposite of that is ‘able,’” Tamayo, a volunteer with BSF and the parent of a special needs child, said, “so we kept it to the three words ‘I am Able’ for it to be bold and powerful. The intent was to reach everyone while also targeting specific groups, like the special needs community.”

Estrada-Mercado and Tamayo said the artist, Ortiz Aguilar and his three-person team was chosen because of “Beto’s” specific style of art, which, in their summation, is very indicative of the border lifestyle and culture, they said.

“I took it very literal when they say ‘Far South/Border North’ – this means we should be getting artists that are relatable to border-town living – people had to cross back and forth to go to school, our Spanish speaking community and that richness that comes with it, often, that in my opinion, is misunderstood and not appreciated,” Estrada-Mercado, of Calipatria, said.

“Border-town living is a different lifestyle,” she said, “and that’s what Beto does, he brings in these forms of art where you’re like, ‘I’ve never heard of that.’ Just watching him and his team go through the whole creation process in a few days was amazing.”

Estrada-Mercado said once Tamayo presented Ortiz Aguilar and his team with the blueprint for the mural, Tamayo said he wanted Ortiz Aguilar to have his own creative license in creating the mural. The mural was started by Ortiz Aguilar and his team on February 21 and completed by February 28.

The image has an amalgamation of happy children, indigenous-looking figures, sports, flowers and bugs including ladybugs and butterflies, and a heart-face as its centerpiece; all painted in bright, bold colors.

The artwork is rife with symbolism, the BSF duo said, with its pieces of faces, insects, people, and waves representing things such as the soul, mind, body and heart.

“Anything that has anything to do with neurodiversity or any mental health diagnosis is all addressed there in a really unique and colorful way,” Tamayo said. “We wanted, when people look at it, to find something new each time, and that is Beto’s style.”

“My son has autism, so anything and everything that (BSF) does hits close to home,” Tamayo, of Imperial, said. “I want to make sure that if I can contribute to bettering anything associated with their efforts, then I want to do that, because not only is it reaching my son but its reaching everybody else’s kids who are also in need of these types of services.”

“I was really happy to be involved in a project like this,” he said.

Estrada-Mercado said, “I think that what made it more exciting is every inch of that piece of art is,” “a nod to Best STEP Forward services,” Tamayo said, finishing her sentence.

“Yes. Everything we do is loud, colorful,” Estrada-Mercado said, “and stands out,” Tamayo added. “(The mural) is a message; it’s all of the above.”

BSF hopes the “I Am Able” mural is just a kick starter to their campaign, Tamayo and Estrada-Mercado said. The nonprofit is working on setting up an event to be held in April, which will be an official ribbon cutting for the mural, but also include various art-based activities for local youth.

“Our hope with this campaign is that this is just a starting point for future projects in a similar vein,” Tamayo said, “and hopefully … this can be the first project of many that Jackie and I are able to coordinate in the Valley.”

“At the end of the day those three words – ‘I Am Able’ – say so much,” Estrada-Mercado said.

For more information on Best S.T.E.P. Forward, visit beststepforward.org or contact Jacqueline Estrada-Mercado at inclusionwave@gmail.com or by telephone at (442) 322-9419, or find Best S.T.E.P. Forward on social media.

Artist Etelberto “Beto” Ortiz Aguilar’s works can be found on his Instagram, @Star27.

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