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National turmoil and turbulence made 2018 a tough year for many immigrants, but in the heart of Lansing’s Old Town, the year was bookended by two changes that celebrated the city’s immigrant history and showed the power of positive local action.
In January, Mayor Andy Schor joined City Council members and leaders from the Latino community to change the name of Grand River Avenue, as it branches off from Oakland Avenue and runs through Old Town to the old School for the Blind, to Cesar E. Chavez Avenue.
For the Latino community, the change was a culmination of years of work, and heartbreak, in the push to recognize the history of the area as a place of settlement for immigrants from Mexico and Latin America. It’s also a stretch of road Chavez himself visited several times.
But it took until November to put the cherry — or the strawberry — on the cake. As snow started to fly, Albuquerque-based mural painter Nanibah Chacon, an artist in residence at MSU, completed a gorgeous mural honoring Old Town’s Latino history and her own Native American heritage. “Maawed Miijim: The One Who Provides features a noble female figure conjuring up sinuous strawberry vines and fruit on the conspicuous south wall of Polka Dots Boutique, across the street from the spot where the mayor put up the first Cesar E. Chavez street sign.
Public art is a hit or miss proposition, but Chacon’s mural makes splendid use of vivid colors, iconic imagery and a craftsmanlike style recalling early 20th-century advertising art. She also left plenty of bare red bricks that tell their own story of Lansing’s oldest district. The street renaming, and the populist, earthy mural, will serve as bulwarks against the commercial pressures that constantly threaten to gentrify the quirky businesses and gargoyle-topped stones of Old Town.