Camas Culture Art Block, inspired by Hayes Freedom student, coming to downtown Camas

New art installation will be unveiled May 17; high school student art submissions due March 29

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When Maria Navarro Alejandres moved from Woodland to Camas five years ago, her friends warned her that the move might be difficult.

“My classmates told me that I wouldn’t fit in and that it would be extremely hard because I am a person of color,” Navarro Alejandres, 17, said of her move to Camas.

Once she made the move, though, something shifted inside Navarro Alejandres.

“I realized that there are many different kinds of people here — especially as I entered high school,” Navarro Alejandres, now a senior at Hayes Freedom High School, said. “This made me see that the people who think Camas has ‘no culture’ either aren’t’ from here, haven’t seen it for themselves or haven’t seen their community as it is.”

Navarro Alejandres wanted to highlight and celebrate Camas’ melting pot of cultures and believed the city’s public art should be more representative.

“Throughout my high school years, I have worked with (younger) bilingual students and some didn’t speak any English,” Navarro Alejandres said. “I became close to these students and realized they couldn’t see themselves in our community. They’re growing up here and should be able to see themselves — to know they’re noticed and loved.”

Navarro Alejandres’ parents, Mariela Alejandres and Joaquin Navarro, grew up in Mexico, but their four children — Maria, Bryan, Kevin and Keila — spent their childhoods immersed in American culture and customs.

When Navarro Alejandres was 4 years old and living in an Oregon community filled with other Latino families, she took traditional Mexican dance classes but didn’t fully appreciate them.

“My mom forced me to get in there,” Navarro Alejandres said. “I didn’t like it. She made me do it.”

Once she started to attend public school, Navarro Alejandres stopped dancing.

“I thought that if I didn’t speak English and act ‘normal,’ people would find me weird, so I stopped dancing.”

But then, a couple years ago, Navarro Alejandres said, the memories of those dance classes came back to her. She ordered a colorful Mexican folkloric dance dress and started practicing the steps she’d learned as a young girl.

The history of the dance, which originated in Mexico and was brought to the U.S. as a way to “build community between Mexican and American people,” Navarro Alejandres said, intrigued and delighted her.

On her father’s birthday, Navarro Alejandres decided to surprise him by dancing in her traditional dress. Her mother hired a mariachi band and Navarro Alejandres invited a bunch of Camas neighbors to come over.

“We’d never talked to (these neighbors) before,” Navarro Alejandres said. “They’d been here a long time and we were the new ones in the neighborhood.”

Undaunted, Navarro Alejandres invited the neighbors and danced for them and for her family.

“They were all so happy to see something new. A lot of the people got up and danced, too. They didn’t even know how, but they started dancing with me,” Navarro Alejandres said. “I felt so joyful and thought everyone should get to experience a bond like that.”

The experience reminded Navarro Alejandres that dancing — and other forms of art — can be a powerful means of connecting diverse communities.

“I feel there should be different groups represented in our public Camas spaces,” she said. “What better way (to do that) than through art?”

That’s where Navarro Alejandres’ art teacher at Hayes Freedom, Miranda Wakeman, came in.

“Maria wanted to do some sort of public art and was thinking about creating a mural,” Wakeman said.

Wakeman told Navarro Alejandres she would help her find the right space for the public art. First, though, the teenager would have to experience a few rejections.

“We had a few false starts, where we reached out to people and they liked the idea, but the landlord was open to it,” Wakeman said. “There were a lot of ups and downs for her. And it was emotional for (Navarro Alejandres) and for me as well to have someone in the community saying, ‘I don’t think your idea fits with the Camas community.’”

Navarro Alejandres’ idea for the public art piece was to capture the colors and movement of the folkloric Mexican dances in an image that could be displayed on the side of a building.

“I chose to title my art, ‘Release,’ because it goes from a sharp, still image to a blur of motions,” stated in the writing that accompanied her finished piece. “Looking at this artwork I feel that it captures the feeling of beginning a dance. Going from the feeling that everyone is watching and needing to be perfect, to letting your heart feel the music and doing what feels right. Allowing your energy and happiness to be released and reach the people around you, impacting them in a way that allows them to do the same.”

Wakeman photographed Navarro Alejandres as she danced and helped her convert the images into an expressive piece of art.

“One thing I really like about this artwork is that as you walk by it, the movement will begin and it is like you are beginning to go through a part of the dancer’s journey,” Navarro Alejandres explained. “I also really appreciate Mrs. Wakeman taking the pictures of me dancing, capturing my preferred form of art in a way that I could convert it into a frame for everyone to see.”

In their quest to find the perfect mural site, however, Navarro Alejandres and Wakeman discovered that the Downtown Camas Association had also been trying to find new ways of highlighting Camas’ diversity and of drawing a more diverse crowd to the city’s historic downtown area, especially during the DCA’s popular First Friday events.

“It started as an idea for a mural … but as we were talking to Carolyn Mercury and Carrie Schulstad, they showed us (a mock-up) of a building with metal panels for a semi-permanent display. The DCA had been kicking this idea around for the past few years, but were not sure what to do with it.”

Instead of just one mural, the idea was to highlight several pieces of art and be able to refresh the art regularly.

“Maria was just so overjoyed with that possibility of having this be something ongoing and having this contemporary connection to the people who live here now,” Wakeman said. “It really is a fresh way to attract more (diverse groups of people) into downtown Camas.”

The DCA is billing the semi-permanent art installation, which will eventually be displayed at the corner of Northeast Fifth Avenue and Northeast Cedar Street in downtown Camas, as the Camas Culture Art Block.

“The DCA, inspired by and in collaboration with Hayes Freedom 2024 senior Maria Navarro Alejandres, is establishing the Camas Culture Art Block in downtown Camas to increase representation and celebrate the many diverse cultures of people living in Camas through art,” the DCA recently announced on its website. “For this initial installation, high school artists in Camas are invited to submit artwork that highlights and celebrates their cultural background. The semi-permanent display will be updated periodically.”

Navarro Alejandres hopes the art submissions will encompass Camas’ many cultures.

“I’m hoping there will be as much diversity as possible,” she said. “And I hope that none of them will look exactly the same. That there will be a ton of different colors and mediums and differences. Because the more diversity there is in the crowd, the happier I’ll feel.”

High school students from Camas — no matter which high school they attend or if they are homeschooled — are encouraged to submit artwork to be considered for inclusion on this first installation of the Camas Culture Art Block display.

The specifications for the artwork submissions are available on the DCA’s website at and Wakeman is available to help photograph the artwork for submission. Students who need help photographing their pieces should email Wakeman at

The submissions are due by March 29. The final selections for the Camas Culture Art Block art installation, which includes six separate panels, will be announced April 19.

At 5 p.m. Friday, May 17, the DCA, along with Navarro Alejandres, will unveil the art installation and host a ribbon-cutting to celebrate the new Camas Culture Art Block.

Returning to folkloric dance has helped connect Navarro Alejandres to her own family and their shared Mexican culture. “Since finding dance, I have really started to feel like it’s bonding for my mom and I and even my dad,” she said. “I feel closer to them. When my mom is cooking, I’ll make the effort to go and learn from her. Before, I didn’t care. I’d just eat the food and didn’t ask how she made it.”

Now, she hopes that having a space to celebrate diversity and Camas’ many cultures in the heart of the city will show people how unique Camasonians really are — and how celebrating this diversity can connect the community.

“I just hope people will appreciate the event and what it’s about,” Navarro Alejandres said. “I hope they leave with a more open mind. The celebration is my favorite part. I hope everyone gets to celebrate and be included and that the community just becomes more seen for what it is. We have a lot of new people moving into Camas and a lot of them aren’t white. I hope they will feel welcome here, too.”