Last year, when De-Bug Art Director Adrian Avila was teaching art classes at an alternative school in San Jose, he met a young man that would help him carry supplies, crack jokes, and loved to rap. Then last week he saw pictures of his smiling student in his news feeds — as a victim of a fatal police shooting. Here, Avila reflects on Anthony Nuñez as the student he got to meet doing art.
Growing up as a child in San José, I was surrounded by graffiti tags and murals everywhere I went, the colors and rare designs inspired me to take up art and design as my passion, my profession, and my career. This passion allows me to give back at times to the youth coming up on the same streets I grew up on. And it was through art that I met and got to know Anthony Nuñez, who was killed by San Jose police on July 4th.
Last year I had the privilege to work with local middle school and high school students attending alternative schooling institutions in San José. The schools had fewer students than traditional schools and had students that came from all over the city. I would go into these classrooms and share my knowledge of design and art with the youth. I taught about the screen-printing process, and soon we were turning plain white paper into unique works of art, all created by the youth.
One of these youths in my high school class was Anthony, a 17-year-old from East San José. He was one of the first students I met when I first started my weekly one and a half hour sessions. I can recall Anthony walking up to me with a cool, smooth walk, “What are you doing with all that stuff right there?” he asked as he pointed curiously to the art supplies I was carrying in clear plastic tubs.
I responded to him by informing him that it was a program put on by SV Creates and the Santa Clara County Office of Education to bring visual and artistic programming into classrooms like his. I will never forget the look he gave me — it was stone cold confusion. I simplified it a bit “We are going to be creating art,” and his face lit up. The smile that I am sure most people knew him for came out, a grin that reached from ear to ear. “For reals, yeah that’s what’s up, I like to rap,” he shared with me, full of energy.
From that day on Anthony was always a calm presence in my class. If I was walking on to campus and was carrying lots of supplies, he was the first to help me out. One session we were creating multi-color poster prints, I remember Anthony asking me how I got into printing and I told him that I always liked making something out of nothing, he made a joke out of it that had us all laughing, something regarding my height or lack there of. Laughter is a powerful tool when growing up in hard situations; it can allow you to escape. We never spoke about any issues he was facing either in school or at home, so I was never aware of any unhappy situations he might have had in his life. But I could tell Anthony really had a sharp sense of humor regardless.
The last time I saw Anthony, the school was having a celebration BBQ for the end of the school year. There was great food that the school staff brought, basketball, and music provided by the counselors. It was good vibes that day; summer had arrived, and Anthony and his friends had jumped on the microphone and with the DJ behind them the let their expressions go. I will never forget the look on peoples face after Anthony had got on the mic, people were in awe of his lyrical skill. Turn after turn the youngsters spit lyric after lyric, speaking on a system that is designed to keep them down, and how their freedom of expression can be bottled up by teachers who don’t understand where they come from.
I couldn’t help myself; I had to pull out my phone and capture the raw energy the youth were putting out. On July 5th, 2016, I saw a photo of an 18-year-old boy that was shot dead by San José police officers. Something inside me felt odd; it was Anthony. That same smile that I came to knew in the classroom was in my news feed as another victim to police shootings.
The video that I shot on the last day of class now lives on my computer at work, and when I found it and opened it up, I was reminded of a young man that had joy in his heart. A young man that laughed and told funny jokes, of a gifted young man that told stories through the use of his rhymes.
I didn’t know Anthony Nuñez for too long, but the time I did spend with him was impactful, and I hope that he is in peace and has found a new set of Angels to make laugh.
Adrian Avila is a designer and artist, Avila writes and posts articles and images that offer a window into the realities of a younger generation of immigrant America.