by Raul Menchaca
HAVANA, Sept. 24 (Xinhua) -- Turning dilapidated inner city walls into works of art has helped build a community in Luyano, one of the oldest neighborhoods in the Cuban capital of Havana.
The award-winning project, called Muraleando, or Making Murals, has brought residents together, generated a sense of pride in their environment and fostered an appreciation for art among the youths.
"The main protagonists of this change are from here, from the neighborhood ... they took part in the process of changing things both visually and in (community) spirit," resident and project leader Manuel Diaz Baldrich told Xinhua.
Diaz, 54, who has lived here his entire life, launched the project in 2001 along with three other artists.
"This is the neighborhood where I was born, where I grew up, played, studied, got married and where my children were born. And I always felt I needed to give back what it gave me," said Diaz.
Muraleando, which won the National Community Culture Prize in 2014, began with four "crazy" artists painting murals in public spaces and starting a painting workshop at a nearby school, according to Diaz.
The project got a boost in November 2010, after he discovered a giant century-old water tank, the kind used to supply steam engines, in an abandoned lot. Suddenly, Muraleando had a headquarters.
Today the tank serves as an art gallery and cultural center for craft workshops, music classes, recitals and screenings. It also hosts two popular bands and a rock group, all made up of neighborhood residents.
Part of the profits from the sale of artwork was donated to a community fund used to build space and buy musical instruments, tables, chairs and other material for free children's workshops.
Each Saturday, the tank bustles with kids attending workshops, as well as scores of senior citizens who take part in a craft workshop.
This labor of love has already seen first fruits: 10-year-old Anthony Williams recently won the third place in a national contest held by Cuban television show La Colmena TV.
Beyond the colorful murals and Saturday workshops, Muraleando transformed the community, which organized activities to clean up local trash dumps.
"It's a growth process and that is very important and beautiful," said Diaz.
Thanks to the project, local kids and teens have a productive way to use their free time, said Yudelmis Montero, whose 12-year-old son, who suffers from a mild mental disability, is learning to play the drums.
"In addition to painting and playing drums, the professors educate him, they show him how to interact with other children and that helps them prepare for life," Montero said.
Muraleando now draws tourists keen to see how art has helped transform a neighborhood.
Argentine wife-and-husband performing duo Nina Perrone and Jorge Baduy, who perform as clowns "Cala" and "Zulemo," have been traveling across Latin America for the past nine months.
In Havana, they stumbled across Muraleando and were impressed with the scope of the community project.
"Honestly, this project has surprised us very much because of its important social impact. We have not seen anything like it in any of the countries we have visited," Baduy said.
"You can tell this work has been going on for years, it is like a well-oiled machine. And to see so many people coming here on a Saturday -- and above all else so many children taking different workshops -- that's extremely exciting," Perrone said.