From War Zone To Melting Pot: How The International District Reinvents Itself Through Art

How The International District Reinvents Itself Through Art

Kristi D. Lawrence
5 min read
From War Zone to Melting Pot
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It was 1975. South Vietnam had just fallen to the North Vietnamese Communists, and thousands of terrified people were scrambling to escape. Five hundred of those refugee families were relocated by the US State Department to a place where the climate and culture were the exact opposite of everything they’d ever known—Albuquerque. And so began our city’s International District.

In the years since, the International District (ID), stretching from San Mateo to Wyoming and Lomas to Gibson, has been a haven to thousands from other nations and native New Mexicans alike. It is the state’s most diverse legislative district. Talk about a melting pot.

An event this weekend celebrates the ID in an unprecedented way:
ID Live! is a festival featuring the stories of ID residents told through art in all its forms, including sculpture, painting, mosaic, writing, photography, film and performance.

“The story of the International District is the story of New Mexico,” says Valerie Martinez, project co-director and founder of art nonprofit Littleglobe. “It’s home to New Mexicans whose families have been here for generations, immigrants who came 30 years ago and immigrants who have been here three or six months. The mix of people makes the ID one of the most interesting neighborhoods in the city.”

More than 100 ID residents came together every week for the last seven months to collaborate on art projects for the festival. Not a small feat—especially since they speak eight different languages.

“We had residents from Somalia, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Congo, Mexico, Vietnam and the US,” says Martinez. “The artist team developed a gestural language, and that is what we used to communicate.”

Hanh Nguyen, a Vietnamese immigrant and former ID resident, had no idea what to expect from the project.

“They would ask us to draw where we came from and to draw a picture of what it’s like to be here in Albuquerque, and they would ask us to sing songs from our country,” she says. “It turned out to be really fun.”

Nkazi Sinandile, an advocate for immigrants and refugees in the ID, lived in the district after leaving her home in South Africa to escape Apartheid. She says the project bonded residents.

“As weeks went by we started to become family,” she says. “Each time you come, people are hugging you, and you feel happy.”

ID Live! includes dozens of events and exhibits throughout the district. One of the biggest is a ribbon cutting for the International Art Garden on the northeast corner of Dallas and Bell. Residents transformed an empty lot there into a neighborhood park.

“It has a circular design, a mosaic, shade canopy and a bottle tree,” Martinez says. “The bottle tree is symbolic of beautiful, good energy. There are stone benches, places for people to stop and enjoy themselves.”

Another exhibit, a giant shade sculpture called Morning Glory, shows residents’ ideas of home and safety.

Block parties, an interactive children’s area, free mini-libraries, a pop-up art gallery and a community walk are also part of the fun.

But the most poignant event is Saturday night’s picnic and film festival in New Mexico Veterans’ Memorial Park. It features three large screens showing short films about the ID, along with live performances by residents.

Sinandile is one of the performers. “I see the energy and effect it has on me, even though I am an immigrant,” she says. “If somebody else is watching and listening, they will leave different than when they first came, unless they are hardened.”

The weekend festival is all about transformation, how art has begun to invigorate the ID’s landscape, and uplift and connect its residents as a community.
ID Live! organizers also hope the event will change many people’s perception of the ID as a “war zone.”

“The reality of the ID is that it has a very high unemployment rate, 34 percent in places. The infant mortality rate is high. Poverty is there, [and] there are a lot of empty lots, so along with this cultural wealth and richness, it is a neighborhood really struggling economically,” says Martinez. “So our project philosophy is when you bring beauty in the form of art to a neighborhood like this, it has the power to radiate outward, give people pride in their community and transform public spaces.”

If things go well, the revitalization won’t stop here.
ID Live! is phase one of a larger project called Stories of Route 66: The International District. Littleglobe joined forces with several other Albuquerque organizations and won a coveted grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to make this festival happen. Phase two of the project is the design, and ultimate construction, of a story plaza on Central Avenue inspired by the ID Live! project.

Once that is complete, Martinez hopes to win more grants to create a series of
Stories of Route 66 projects enhancing other areas along Central.

But for now, the focus is this weekend—telling stories that humanize the residents of the ID, reminding Albuquerque that these are real people, with real struggles and joys. They are part of us.

“Though we may speak different languages, look or dress different, or have different religions, inside when we cut our skin we have red blood coming out,” says Nguyen. “Anger, joy, humor, the emotion is the same in all people.”

“I wish people could just accept refugees and immigrants as part of the fabric of New Mexico,” Sinandile says. “We are all in this together. All they want is to be successful, work and grow their families, neighborhoods and communities, and live peaceful lives.”

ID Live!

Friday through Sunday, July 25 through 27

Throughout the International District

(San Mateo to Wyoming and Lomas to Gibson)

All events free and open to the public

For a complete event listing, see Calendar or go to

From War Zone to Melting Pot

Nkazi Sinandile and her granddaughter Thandiwe

photos by Littleglobe

From War Zone to Melting Pot

Imran Alkozai with adornments made during a Sunday community session

From War Zone to Melting Pot

Temporary table mandala made during a Sunday session

From War Zone to Melting Pot

Light shines through “Morning Glory” shade structure at Central and Alcazar.

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