Eight vendors were chosen for profiling in the tarps, and Rocco and Ortiz returned to each for follow-up interviews. Upon revisiting, the subjects seemed far more at ease, willing to share intimate details of their work. Anthony Anastasio, proprietor of Anthony's Italian Coffee House, described the pushcart filled with produce and fish that his grandparents used to wheel up and down Ninth Street. He also told a story about his grandfather walking around in shoes worn through with holes, vowing as a child of the Great Depression to provide for his offspring.
"Sharing these stories with Tony and Michelle, it was surprisingly hard to verbalize them," Anastasio says. You know the facts, but when speaking them out loud, "It hits you — it makes you realize how difficult it was for merchants in the 1920s and '30s. They didn't have the technology we have today. They didn't have the advantages we have today."
The design Ortiz created for Anastasio's shop blends the circle and spokes of the pushcart wheel with an old photograph of Anastasio's grandfather, with the phrase "A promise to my family" arcing around the side.
Key phrases like this are prominent on each tarp, reading as a free-associative poem as the works unfold southward from Christian Street to Washington Avenue and back up the other side of the street. Likewise, the circular contour of the wheel becomes a recurring visual motif, shaped as an Aztec warrior shield on the banner at Rosalio and Karina Corona's produce stand and a silver coin on the one at Giordano and Giordano's Groceries. A video loop of interview excerpts explaining these elements screens Saturdays through June 11 at the vacant Pronto storefront at Ninth and Montrose. Along with a display of Rocco's portraits, the video provides an enriching complement to the tarps. The work is simultaneously aesthetic, literary and documentary.
It's also functional: The images are themselves awnings, shielding the vendors from the elements — like the rain we're trudging through. When the exhibit concludes in June, the vendors may keep the tarps permanently if they wish. Giving the work a purpose beyond being purely decorative was important to both artists, who each have formidable public art résumés. Rocco's documentary photography in Colombia led to an educational outreach program in the capital of Cali, while Ortiz's murals in Mexico, Fiji and Philadelphia were each designed with neighborhood participation.
Artwork by Michelle Angela Ortiz and /Mural Arts Program
They know how to work within communities, and how to reflect the stories of those communities to a broader public. In the market, the challenge was also getting their subjects comfortable with having their stories told in a climate where anti-immigration sentiment is high, both nationally (the staunch rhetoric and strict laws in Arizona and California) and locally (the "order in English" hubbub at Geno's Steaks a couple years back).
After meeting with that initial resistance from Scott and Judy Tran, the artists approached the couple's son, Keong, who also works at the shop. He explains that the problem wasn't just that his parents were camera-shy.
"My dad, he's respectful of the other businesses, he doesn't like to have any drama," Keong Tran says. "He thought that if we had a tarp up, other vendors, the Italian vendors, would look down on us, would have prejudice against us. He didn't want to be flashy. He was content."
Rocco concurs: "There's a 'don't rock the boat' mentality," he says.
As the project went on, seeing fellow non-Italian vendors working with Rocco and Ortiz turned Tran's father around. The artists say he's now the most enthusiastic participant.
"You lead by example," Anastasio observes. "We've had negative connotations associated with the market — it smells, it's dirty, people are rude. Looking back, and looking to the future, what makes it special is we've overcome those barriers with how we present our products, how we present ourselves and how we present our families."
And the families, Ortiz notes, have very similar stories.
Rosario and Karina Corona, the Mexican couple operating a produce stand, met and fell in love in the market, just as Paul and Frances Giordano, an Italian couple, did nearly a century ago.
The story of the Trans progressing from produce-stand merchants to store owners over the course of two decades follows the trajectory of the Anastasio family, who went from pushcart vendors to successful wholesalers to coffee-shop proprietors.
Ortiz wants the vendors to see those common threads. In her eyes, "Different Paths" is about them sharing with one another as much as with the larger public.
"So that way, there isn't the element of 'you're an illegal' or 'my family has been here longer,'" she says. "I'm trying to break that down so the merchants take a moment and see each other in one another's stories."
Journeys South runs through June 11. For more information, visit muralarts.org.