- Durham Public Schools
DPS Early College Graduate Uses Art to Advocate
DPS Early College graduate Antonio Alanis hasn’t forgotten the warm welcome and sense of belonging he and his family felt when they moved to North Carolina from Texas. He was only nine years old when the family came to Durham, an impressionable age that was even more so for a youngster who had been uprooted. But the support of his parents and a positive experience with Durham Public Schools helped him to settle into school and foster his dream of becoming a successful artist who uses his gift to promote social justice.
Antonio, who identifies as Latinx, attended Eastway Elementary and Chewning Middle (now The School for Creative Studies), and graduated from J.D. Clement Early College High in 2009. He said his parents were extremely supportive of his dreams, buying his supplies to encourage him. They also allowed him to be independent. His teachers supported his dreams as well, and he was convinced in elementary school that art was his life’s calling.
He started his professional career as a Spanish teacher, which served as a jump start to his lifelong pursuit of art. Now the former Spanish teacher is a visual artist who consults, serves as an artist-in-residence, and writes grants to bring resources to non-profits to fund social justice, health and education programs. As an entrepreneur, his work-- visual illustrations created with technology and multimedia painting-- is commissioned by art aficionados. His business, Antonio Alanis Art (found at AntonioAlanisArt.com), is rooted in social justice and uses art as a vehicle to center and uplift communities through the visual arts and non-profit development.
“I have always looked at education as a way to overcome obstacles as a liberation practice,” said Alanis. He believes that breaking down language barriers can provide healthy lives attuned to setting and reaching goals.
Alanis says he had a very positive experience as a Durham Public Schools student. “We met some of the most amazing teachers who without me speaking the language really opened up a space where I could feel welcome. I never felt ‘othered’ or like I didn't belong. It was such an important step for me to integrate into North Carolina coming from Texas without speaking English. It was definitely a rough position. I really relate to a lot of families who are just coming here.”
At Chewning, Alanis said he was able to form his identity as a Latino growing up in a new country, understanding where he fit. He still stays in touch with many of his teachers.
“I cannot tell you how happy I am to have attended Early College High School because it’s one of those things that prepared me,” he added. “It was a stepping stone to all of the wonderful things that I was able to create now as a professional. The academic rigor, the research, the writing was something I really identify with. I’m super grateful.”
He returned to Early College last year to participate on an alumni panel.
Alanis appreciates the educators who believed in him and names several of the educators he’ll not soon forget.
He remembers and continues to stay in touch with Dave Becker, his Social Studies teacher at Early College, because “he always met students and got to know them as people, not numbers. He would always greet everyone with a smile on the hallways and prepared all of us for success, to challenge, to question, to become life-long learners.”
Kimberly Evans, his ninth grade Spanish teacher, helped him to see his native Spanish language as a strength. He said she opened up the world of Spanish culture for him and taught the history and influence of Spanish language on the world. He also loved learning about literature from his English teacher Tatia Davis. Once he matriculated to NCCU, the professors integrated his culture and identity positively into the classroom.
He learned that “nothing was wrong with us even though the media portrayed us negatively. It was okay to be yourself and be fully present.”
A pivotal moment was a gift from a professor, Dr. Rachelle Gold, who bought him a book about Latino literature.
“It pains me that teachers are not adequately funded,” he said. “It’s just amazing all that they have poured into me.”
His artistic talent was nurtured as far back as elementary. He remembers one teacher allowing him to draw a painting instead of writing a paper for a final project.
“It was really a pathway for me to make sense. That was one of the biggest opening moments for me,” said Alanis.
He also learned that the “starving artist” trope is not necessarily true.
“There are successful artists and muralists. Exposure promotes questioning.
People are working very hard but it still puts food on the table,” he said.
After DPS, he began thinking of all the possibilities he had. While teaching Spanish, he decided that he could expand his reach to more than just the classroom, so he prepared himself for entrepreneurship. He opened his business, Antonio Alanis Art, in January 2022.
“Art is just a beautiful pathway to opening up so many avenues: murals, illustrations, grants, commissions. It’s really about following your passion.”
Alanis insists that networking is a key investment as well. “Meet people. That may be a little bit difficult but do your best to get as many opportunities as possible so that people will know what you do and who you are and what you stand for. I love people, working with families and students,” he said.
Alanis truly believes that “everyone has the ability to work in whatever they want to.” For him, art is a tool of activism that communicates a message of hope. His portfolio consists of uplift–images that tell stories about people’s roots and strengths. He says his art is meant to break negative stereotypes and ideas about Latino people, and to help students see themselves represented in an impactful way.
“Communication is a whole strategy. It's not just speaking or talking or opening your mouth. It’s about looking at the audience, looking at the message, looking at what moves people, motivates people, inspires them to make a change,” said Alanis.
That’s what Alanis aspires to be: moving, motivational, and inspiring, and this DPS graduate is already making his artistic mark.