For most of his life, all Manny Velasquez has needed to tell a big story is a blank wall – Daily News

on Nov4
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The kid had talent and a story to tell. One that was getting lost in the gang violence on the rise in this city in 1974.

Many of the boys 14-year-old Manny Velasquez had gone to school with since kindergarten in Pacoima were leaving their skateboards behind and joining neighborhood gangs.

Manny had other ideas. While his friends went looking for trouble, he went looking for a blank wall to tell a story on. He found it in an alley behind an old, rundown office building in his neighborhood.

He beat the taggers to it and painted his first mural, a colorful collage of Hispanic cultural history. The message was clear. You come from a rich, proud heritage, don’t stain it here in America with senseless violence.

His friends could have turned on him, but they didn’t. They knew Manny had real talent, a talent none of them had. In a strange way, they were proud of him. He didn’t need a gang to feel like somebody special.

They left Manny and his murals alone. Nobody tagged them. He was no threat. Go ahead and do your thing, Manny, they said. Tell your story, but we’re not listening.

What a shame. Too many of those little boys he went to kindergarten with wound up in jail or worse. Manny wound up becoming the Valley’s story teller on more than 100 public and private blank walls he’s transformed into works of art.

You’ve seen his murals, you just didn’t know the man behind them.

Now, it’s 45 years later, and Manny’s 60. He’s been hired by Rafael Gaeta, principal of Panorama High School, to paint a mural on the wall outside the school’s college center.

He’s done similar murals at Van Nuys High, Canoga Park High, and dozens of other schools in the Valley where sharp principals, like Gaeta, want to instill campus pride in their students, and hopefully have them learn a little about themselves and their roots.

Gaeta asked Manny if would be interested in a permanent job becoming the school’s art teacher? There’s a special teaching credential in the Los Angeles Unified School District that allows professionals in non-academic courses, such as art, film, and construction, to teach in public schools.

“The idea of one day being a teacher was probably in the back of my mind somewhere,” Manny says. “I’d been working all these years on the streets as a teacher with my murals, but to become a teacher teacher, well, the offer surprised me, but I’m loving it.”

Panorama High, with its 1,262 students and 50 teachers, is 91 percent Hispanic. Manny’s already covered the Valley with Hispanic historical and cultural murals. He’s told that story.

Gaeta knew that. He had another challenge for his new art teacher. Asian students were the next largest group at his school, particularly Filipino students. What about them?

“It’s not a culture we see a lot of in murals and public art,” Gaeta says. “We want to start that here.”

Manny has, but he’s doing it across the board with other ethnic groups, as well. Telling a story maybe these kids haven’t heard before.

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