Nyomi, an 11-year-old girl from San Antonio’s Eastside, has a story to tell.

“People who are less fortunate always have interesting lives, and most of the time they have more interesting lives” she said. “I want to talk about how you should be confident in yourself, and I just feel that my story should be heard even though I live on the Eastside.”

And she’s not alone.

Ten young girls from the Eastside, all participants in the Girl Zone summer camp sponsored by the Martinez Street Women’s Center, will portray their personal stories through film, photography, and poetry in a special exhibit titled “Girls Eye View: An Eastside HerStory” at UTSA’s Institute of Texan Cultures (ITC).

The exhibit, which will run from July 29 – Oct. 31, explores how girls ages 10-12 view and interpret their neighborhood, culture, and daily lives. It is the first summer youth exhibit at the ITC.

The exhibit’s opening reception on July 29 will be from 6-8 p.m. and will include food and drinks. Additionally, a few girls will recite their poetry to the public during the opening.

An acrostic poem written by Nyomi, 11. Photo by Scott Ball.
An acrostic poem written by Nyomi, 11.  Photo courtesy of Ernesto Olivo.

The handwritten poems the girls create will be framed and placed around the exhibit space. The footage they film around their neighborhoods will feature voiceovers of the girls reading their poetry, and the pictures they capture will adorn the walls.

“We’re treating it just like any other artifact we would have in the museum. Their work is as important as everything else we do,” said Alex Antram, ITC education specialist.

A neighborhood notorious for high crime rates, the Eastside is also home to vibrant, cultural communities rich with history and character – something many San Antonians are unaware of.

The Eastside’s demographic also is changing. Waves of new residents are moving in and restoring historic homes, while the City is planning to redevelop park areas and working hard to reduce crime.

Even though the goal is to better the community, Girl Zone art instructor Ernesto Olivo thinks there is danger in quick transitions. He said that changing a public space should take a couple of years of conversation with the community. Part of the ITC exhibit aims to document the lives of these girls so their stories don’t get lost and the area’s history is preserved.

“Their environment is changing, and the whole point of this is to document the history that is being made right now,” Olivo said. “We think it’s a very important thing that through writing, photography, and video we archive this time period of these young women’s lives. Where they live, their environment, how they’re growing up, what’s motivating them, what’s inspiring them – be it family, school, or the food culture.”

Antram agrees.

“I think this adolescent perspective is key in understanding these young lives and how they are forming on the Eastside and how they perceive themselves in their community,” she said.

Girl Zone Program

Ernesto Olivo instructs his small breakout group with ideas on creative ways to write poems. Photo by Scott Ball.
Ernesto Olivo instructs his small breakout group with ideas on creative ways to write poems.  Photo by Scott Ball.

Girl Zone is an after school program with additional sessions during the summer that teach girls to become powerful agents of positive change. The program fosters leadership development, community service, and provides girls with healthy meals as well as physical activities. Workshops and field trips enlighten young women on music, social justice, art, culture, STEM education, and more.

In total, there are around 75 girls participating in the Girl Zone program this summer, but only a few are participating in the ITC exhibit, Olivo said. The rest of the girls are all doing different artistic projects all over the city and holding similar receptions to display their work.

“We do a lot of field trips, and take them to places like San Antonio Pets Alive!, Gemini Ink, and several museums. We also work with Urban-15, where they teach girls about music, dance, and video,” Olivo said. “Every morning we do fitness for an hour such as yoga and Zumba and provide them with a healthy snack.”

Girl Zone not only provides academic assistance, but also emotional support that helps build self-esteem, he added.

The girls are encouraged to showcase their individuality and communicate through storytelling – elements that foster the overall mission of Girl Zone.

“Every day we do this thing called highs and lows with them. They share something great and not so great that happened to them. We all want to be aware of where we’re coming from and what we’re going through,” Olivo said.


A poem titled 'I am' by Nyomi, 11. Photo by Scott Ball.
A poem titled ‘I am’ by Nyomi, 11.  Photo courtesy of Ernesto Olivo.

The term “history” stems from the words “his story,” Olivo said. He often talks to the girls about how skewed history has been due to a biased perspective coming from men. In addition to the narrative being controlled by men, it also is the privileged who get to write history, Olivo added.

“This (exhibit) is about ‘her story,’ which is just as important,” he said. “It’s young women trying to tell their stories in their point of view.”

The Eastside is predominantly made up of Latino and black communities whose history comes from oppression, but who hail from a “strong culture of storytelling,” Olivo said. “They come from a whole different way of seeing the world.”

At its core, the artistic expression the girls take on during the program serves to empower them and make them understand that, regardless of their life situation, they are still their own person and they can still dream and set goals for themselves.

Some poems or pictures may be sad and deal with hard situations, “maybe they heard a shooting last night,” Olivo added, while other works may be more upbeat or deal with themes where they can talk about “how they collect things,” or “take a picture of their parents,” or “talk about hanging out with their friends.”

Although the girls are encouraged to write their poems in different forms, Olivo recommended they do an acrostic poem, focusing on the letters in their name to create a narrative and have each letter connect to a sentence in the poem.

During a brainstorming session, as the girls read initial drafts of their poetry out loud, many shared details about their favorite colors, their hobbies, or their pets.

Makayla, 11, said she would show the good and the bad side of her neighborhood in her poetry.

“The good things are lots of nice neighbors, the bad (are) that there are these people somewhere on my block that stole my bike,” she said. “(If I show) what’s good about it and what’s not good about it maybe they can improve what’s bad about it.”

“I’m going to write about my life, how I’ve been struggling, and how I have a big family that cares about me,” another girl said.

Why is important for us to hear these girls’ words?

Nyomi said it best: “Because I’m the future. I think they should put some effort into learning about me so they know who I am and my voice is heard.”

Adult tickets for the “Girls Eye View: An Eastside HerStory”are $10, seniors and children ages 6-11 get in for $8, and children 5 and under receive free admission. Individuals with UTSA or Alamo Colleges identification and museum members also have free admission.

ITC museum hours are Monday through Saturday 9 a.m.–5 p.m. and Sunday from noon-5 p.m.

For additional information, call (210) 458-2300 or visit the ITC’s website.

Makayla, 11, looks to Ernesto Olivo as she recites her poem. Photo by Scott Ball.
Makayla, 11, looks to Ernesto Olivo as she recites her poem. Photo by Scott Ball.

Top image: Evelyn, 12, reads a poem she recently completed.  Photo by Scott Ball. 

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