Manuela Guillén tosses paintbrushes in the air celebrating her t-shirt design being selected for Old Navy's Project We. (Photo: Credit Old Navy)

Manuela Guillén is a freelance painter, muralist, and digital illustrator currently living in North Philadelphia. Born in Miami to Cuban and Salvadorian immigrant parents, Manuela has always had a love for art. She has collaborated with local, national, and global art organizations such as PangeaSeed, Mural Arts Program, Fung Collaboratives, and 48 Blocks. Her murals can be found in both the U.S. and Mexico. Inspired by plants, tropical colors, and her cultural upbringing, Manuela aims to bring awareness to art education, sociopolitical and environmental issues. As an art teacher, Manuela hopes to inspire her students to be creative as she continues to bring communities closer together through art. 

What message or feeling do you want the Project We design to share?

“Viva la Vida” is an art illustration inspired by the Latinx dream, the love for the culture, and resilience. I was inspired by Latinx people I know deeply, the ones I admire from afar, and the ones I’ve only learned from in books. There’s something very special about Latinx people, like the many parents who come to this country with nothing, to give their children everything. Someone like my mother, who took that risk because her love knows no limits. The phrase “viva la vida” means “live life.” So, no matter what our community faces, we are resilient, and we embrace the joys of “la vida.” 

What does it mean for you to be chosen for Old Navy Project We?

Project We gave me the platform to share my story and to celebrate my culture using art. I believe there’s so much power in storytelling. My hope is by presenting my art and sharing my story and my community’s story it can invite the viewer into a moment of reflection. I believe art can be a tool for a better future. 

Manuela Guillén “Embracing Life through Art” 1
Manuela Guillén poses with the other two artists selected for Project We, Ruby Marquez (center) and Favianna Rodriquez (right).(Photo: Credit Old Navy)

What motivated you to start creating art?

I went to school for painting and art. It always felt very meditative and helped me cope with hardships. I was never really open about my past before, and the idea of having my work incorporate personal stories was terrifying; but when I was in college, I began to share my story, and art has always helped me express myself without having to use actual words. 

I use my art as a medium to facilitate discussions among children who are immigrants, so they have a platform to discuss their culture and identity. I use my art to bring awareness to art education, sociopolitical, and environmental issues. I want my art to hold space for healing, love, and resilience. My art touches on intimate desire to imagine a world that is better for one another.

What do you enjoy most about teaching at Esperanza Academy Middle School?

I love the kids and I see my younger self in them. I teach students to use art as a means of self-expression to feel proud of their identity, not to let themselves stray away from what makes them, them. I enjoy seeing their passion. The middle school has a strong sense of community, the school has become a place for students to escape the struggles they may have throughout the day, to grow, to embrace their identity, and to thrive. 

Manuela Guillén “Embracing Life through Art” 2
Manuela Guillén poses for an Old Navy photoshoot with her designed tee.
(Photo: Credit Old Navy)

How does your identity as a first-generation American born to Latin American immigrant parents shape you? 

The way I move through this world is influenced by my identity. My parents came undocumented to the United States. I always understand the risk they took for me to have opportunities. I put pressure on myself to always make them proud. My parents worked labor jobs and took many risks to provide for their families. I looked up to their work ethics, passion, and love for their family and community.  I don’t think I would have produced the art if it wasn’t for the influence and the support of my immigrant parents. 

Latinx people have a strong sense of community (also known as collectivism). It is one of the reasons why I decided to be a teacher and artist who advocated for community welfare. I especially use art and teaching to spark sophisticated content on identity, sociopolitical and environmental issues. 

While identity within itself is always multidimensional what I know to be true is that being a first-generation American born to immigrant parents set a foundation for me to be the person I am today. 

What does Latinx Heritage Month mean to you?

Latinx Heritage Month to me means to pause and honor all the wonderful Latinx people who have impacted our world. This month is a friendly reminder to actively listen and learn stories from your family, people in your community, people making history, and those who are in the books. And of course, any day in the year is an opportunity to discover more about your heritage, but even more, discover things about yourself.

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