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Pablo Martínez-Zárate, Ciudad Merced: A Community Self-Portrait

March 31, 2017

by Riley Hunt, Samantha Viotty, Jessica Weaver

Screening of Pablo Martinez Zarate’s Cuidad Merced

Pablo Martinez Zarate is a professor and artist in Mexico City whose work focuses on documentary filmmaking, photography, and design highlighting community, cities, and memory. This case study explores Pablo’s work on the Cuidad Merced intervention, a project of Pablo’s that explores city landscapes and community narratives produced through documentary film, and how his work fits into the civic media framework.

For years, La Merced had been covered by the mainstream media through narratives that reduced the story of the neighborhood to a crime-ridden ghetto — the perfect portrait of a dirty “back alley” of the Mexican government (given their geographic proximity). This story denied the local community members voice and agency. Pablo theorized that by engaging the neighborhood in constructing more asset-based, positive narratives about the neighborhood, perceptions would shift within the community and beyond its borders. More broadly, the project researched the concept that by activating youth voices from marginalized communities, the cultivation and amplification of their authentic stories would create new pathways for engagement and shift public perception, in addition to the storytellers building a sense of agency and the community developing a deeper sense of mutual belonging and pride.

Pablo Martinez Zarate

Critically, the primary beneficiaries of this project were the community members of La Merced. The youth and adults who participated in the workshops were able to see their visions and narratives realized in full creative form, offering a sense of agency and also community pride. Beyond the creators, La Merced as a community was able to celebrate the rich storytelling of its inhabitants, especially through the public screening and subsequent recognition of the film, which bestowed a sense of artistic legitimacy upon the community creators of La Merced. The intention is that through the amplification of these narratives, the mainstream media may adopt a more nuanced and hopeful stance towards La Merced as an area.

The Ciudad Merced film, created with the people of La Merced, being screened in the middle of the square for the entire community to see was the civic art intervention that empowered the community. Documenting 30 to 40 hours of film with the people of La Merced, Pablo and his team built strong links with the community through providing workshops to empower children and adults in seeing themselves in their community by imagining themselves as protagonists in a hero’s journey. In addition to the public screening, the final Ciudad Merced project included a research notebook, published in May 2012, a cinematographic documentary film in 2013, along with an interactive website showcasing the stories and experiences of the people of La Merced.

Pablo’s use of transmedia to highlight the history and people of La Merced was successful in bringing the community together. Instead of the crime and prostitution that the media had portrayed of La Merced, the Cuidad Merced film aimed to uncover the truth about the vibrant and hardworking community members. Information about the film’s reception and impact were collected, informally. This method was authentic to the experience of the project and an informal gage for how the film was received. While art impact is difficult to measure, the overall reception was positive and encouraging. Pablo and his team noticed a significant shift in the neighborhood itself after the public screening of the film and the commencement of the project. The project generated a sense of curiosity in the community, seeing La Merced as a place that is now “worth their time.” Since the screening, there has been a visible shift in the neighborhood with changed expectations of living in La Merced. Pablo expressed that the stories of the people in the film “kind of generated a sense of meaning and finding ways that they could impact.” This project shows the impact that transmedia storytelling can have on a community, its individuals and the way they envision themselves.

The Ciudad Merced film is currently being screened at festivals around the world. Three years after the film’s screening in the square, television programming has begun to more frequently and more positively cover the history of La Merced. The film inspired a more artistic culture, and fostered a deeper sense of community, belonging and pride in the richly historical district.

As an art piece, the project created a sense of community and changed media perceptions of the district. Continued interest and lasting change of the area would be the ultimate goal of a civic project using this approach. To evaluative long-term efficacy, Pablo and his team would have to keep in contact and revisit the area over a number of years.

Scaling a similar project to other communities requires a vast working knowledge of the community, and a great deal of time, effort and trust. The original project was iterative, with each new product springing from the last. However, the workshops and approach to gaining trust might work for other cities, cultivating trust and building relationships that last beyond the project itself.

This project highlights an important function of civic art, which is to give a community the imagination to see a better version of themselves. Unlike more practical interventions, this project gave an undervalued community a sense of pride, and an image to live up to. Scaling for a project in another location will deliver different results. This type of participatory art is deeply engrained in the community, taking months to years to complete. Projects like this require investment of time and in relationships and a deep understanding of the communities that these projects are rooted in. Cuidad Merced explores how transmedia art has the ability to uplift and empower.

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