photography by Tani Ikeda

photography by Tani Ikeda

By Louis Sahagun

The rare yellow-billed cuckoo is a shy, slender, long-tailed bird that migrates from Central America in spring to breed in streamside forests that once thrived throughout Southern California.

And that got some female high school students and two art instructors at the Miguel Contreras Learning Complex’s Academic Leadership Community in downtown Los Angeles thinking about developing a mural about federally threatened species and people who come from as far away as Central America in search of a better life.

4:30 a.m.: A previous version of this article stated that the mural was created by high school students at the Miguel Contreras Learning Complex’s Academic Learning Community in Los Angeles. The group's name is the Miguel Contreras Learning Complex’s Academic Leadership Community.

photography by Tani Ikeda

photography by Tani Ikeda


What they produced over the next year and a half with research, photographs, stencils, spray paint and house paint on a huge wall overlooking the school’s basketball courts is a mix of female empowerment, social commentary and environmental conservation.

The 25-foot-by-75-foot work uses vivid color portraits of the birds and the girls’ faces as metaphors and symbols to open lines of enquiry into the intersections between urban and wild, local and displaced, migration corridors and international borders.

Artist Jess Chen helped high school students at the Miguel Contreras Learning Complex in Los Angeles develop a mural featuring rare yellow-billed cuckoos.

Through it all, art instructors Tani Ikeda, 29, and Jess X. Chen, 24, and their students and assistants -- Karen Diaz, Cindy Francisco, Jennifer Gonzalez, Lesly Gonzalez-Renoj, Kenia Lopez-Chavez, Linda Lozano, Laura Pastor-Lopez, Daisy Perez-Chavez, Brenda Rivas, Daniela Rosales, Elizabeth Sanchez, Lizbeth Sanchez-Lopez, Mariso Valentin Escobar, Jacqueline Marybeth Rauls, Nina Lee, Alexa Strabuk, Natascha Heckers, Thaynara Fernandes de Silva and Thea Ulrich -- developed strong personal bonds.

“At first, I thought it would just be cool to have my picture on the wall,” said Linda Lozano, 16, a junior at Miguel Contreras and an aspiring architect. “Then I learned about the bird’s life cycles, and the reasons why immigrants come here from Mexico and Central America.”

Art instructors and high school students gather in front of their new mural of yellow-billed cuckoos at the Miguel Contreras Learning Complex in downtown Los Angeles.

“We related all that to our own families, friends -- and all of Los Angeles,” she added. “Then it hit me: Dang, that’s our story up there on that wall.”

An unveiling ceremony of the mural, which was funded by the Center for Biological Diversity’s Endangered Species Mural Project, will take place on Thursday, April 21.

On Tuesday, the group gathered at the mural to exchange high-fives and apply finishing touches of paint on the birds and self-portraits.

Photography by Tani Ikeda

Photography by Tani Ikeda


“This project required a lot of hard work and soul searching,” Ikeda, who founded an after-school nonprofit program for young women called ImMEDIAte Justice, said. “But it was worth it. We could not be more proud of what we’ve accomplished.”

Giving the students hovering over the gleaming images an approving nod, Chen added, “We’re telling a powerful story on t.his wall, and it will be here forever.

See LA Times article here: