Driving past the guardhouse into the stables of is a bit like crossing into another country.
Just off Interstate 80, and across from a on Gilman Street, perhaps 200 people, many from Mexico and farther south, live in simple motel-style rooms beside the stables of the racehorses they care for.
Many of the grooms and hot walkers (who cool down the horses after their morning workout), along with a few trainers, live together in relative isolation from nearby Albany and Berkeley, due, in part, to the geography, language barriers and lack of transportation.
The racetrack has worked to offer religious and sports programs, along with medical care. A trainers' organization on-site offers some entertainment and helps with a range of paperwork and workman's compensation issues. But, until recently, few social services were available to the small community.
That began to change several months ago when the city of Albany, led by , secured a grant from the city of Berkeley to run several counseling groups for underserved minority populations around Albany.
One of those groups began in March at Golden Gate Fields under the direction of social worker Belinda Hernandez Arriaga. (Though the racetrack itself is in Albany, the stable area is on Berkeley soil.)
"Working for many years with Latinos and mental health, I've found that traditional therapeutic approaches don't necessarily work," said Arriaga, who also works as a social worker in . "I like to use art as a way for people to tell their stories."
Arriaga said stigma often is attached to traditional talk therapy, which can be intimidating in groups, and for many is simply not an option, financially, in a one-to-one setting. Art therapy can be a way to build wellness and trust, not to mention a sense of community.
"They're able to tell their story of what they've suffered, from chronic poverty since they were little; feelings of isolation or loneliness; stories of loss and grief that they've never been able to share before," she said. "Through trust, through the relationship and through art, they're able to express themselves and feel safe about sharing."
Arriaga, along with artist Ellen Silva, ran a seven-week project that culminated earlier this year in a mural, which some 45 people worked together to create.
Many of the grooms, hot walkers and others who work in the barns at Golden Gate Fields come from families that have been doing this work for generations, said Pedro Muniz, a representative of a horse trainers' organization, whose office is in the stable area as .
There are many men living at the racetrack, but a number of women live on the grounds as well, Muniz said. Many come from villages and are illiterate, but all share a deep love of horses.
Some of the stable workers haven't seen their family members in years, said Chaplain Chris Belluomini, who has been working with the community for two years in his efforts with the Race Track Chaplaincy of America.
The new mural includes symbols of home and hope, and offers a connection to cultures, traditions, and families who reside thousands of miles away, said many who helped create the artwork.
Some of the participants drew, some painted, others suggested ideas for what to include. They came up with the color scheme and individual symbols to illustrate their stories. Some came up with possible names for the finished piece, and the group voted on the best one.
Jesus Medina, 21, came up with the winning title, "La Nueva Esperanza de Vivir" or "New Hope to Live." He said, through a translator, the meaning behind it was that, when the project came, "It gave us hope to do something more with our daily lives."
Medina, a groom, said the daily routine can be a challenge. Many people live alone at the track, without spouses and far away from family.
There's boredom, not to mention fatigue from a strenuous schedule that includes little time off. No matter what the weather, days start early, for some as early as 4 a.m.
Duties include feeding the horses and preparing them for exercises, watering and showering the animals and walking them to the front of the track for races.
Some people turn to drinking or gambling to stave off boredom, especially when there aren't more positive pursuits or entertainment available to help pass the time. The track has worked to stamp out booze and drug sales, but troublemakers do crop up from time to time.
The work can be lonely, with few chances for talking or sharing stories from the past, many said. But over the course of the seven-week mural project, participants began to share problems or memories, sometimes with each other, and sometimes with Arriaga.
Jose Salazar, a groom from Guatemala, said the mural "brings us together as a people. We're one here, even though we come from different places."
Salazar, who painted a Guatemalan flag on the mural, said it offered a break from the normal routine. Workdays often are followed by afternoons playing pool, watching soccer on television and, for some, little else.
"Every day we do the same kind of work, but coming here it was a joyful moment to experience, hoping to do something different," he said, through a Spanish translator.
Ramon Landeros, 50, said, in translation, that the mural gave the community something positive to focus on, "something for us to work on to fill our minds, to not think about bad things."
Landeros added images to the mural of the maguey plant, which his father farmed when he was a child.
Groom Irineo Serrano said the mural made it easier to talk about experiences that he couldn't otherwise share.
"What we can't think of how to express with words, we can say with art," said the 56-year-old, through a translator. "It's something really beautiful. We never thought we'd do anything like this."
Serrano's piece of the mural is a depiction of an experience he once had in Mexico, which he described in the third person: A man is walking, his shoulders heavy with problems. As he walks, he sees a cross in the distance. The weather begins to turn cloudy and starts to rain. In that moment, he hears God's voice tell him that everything will be all right, "and that's when he realized God is with him."
Serrano brought his vision to the group and added it to the mural; he said he hadn't told anyone before of his experience.
All of the group members credited Arriaga with bringing the project to them, and helping them bring it to fruition.
Pablo Camacho Loma, who worked at the track cleaning stables for about 10 years, said of Arriaga, "Belinda has come like an angel."
"Belinda has opened a door here at the racetrack, and that's why we did this project, because of her," he added, through a translator.
Golden Gate Fields General Manager Robert Hartman said the track has tried to bring in social service programs in the past, but none have taken off, or seen much participation.
"This is a community that's not always very trusting, so sometimes it's hard for people to really open up and get involved in new programs," he said. "Belinda has really been a godsend and has just connected with that community."
In addition to organizing the social service program, Arriaga, along with her husband, Gilbert, have been working to bring in more support from groups such as the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.
Gilbert Arriaga said he's been arranging to bring blankets, pillows and sleeping bags to those in need, along with food bags from the food pantry, and even some bicycles.
In a way, he said, the mural served as a gateway to finding out about the community's needs, and bringing in other resources to help.
The mural now hangs above two pool tables and a foosball table in the recreation hall where those who live in the barn area can relax on couches, watch soccer on a large flat screen television, play video games and buy food and basic items at a small store.
Mario Muñoz, 17, said it's a point of pride to see the mural hanging on what used to be a blank wall.
"There was nothing there before," he said. "Now, new people come in and say, 'Who did that?' And we say, 'Everybody.'"
Though the mural project officially ended in April, for Arriaga, with the support of Golden Gate Fields, the work has just begun.
Hartman said, for the summer, the racetrack has brought on four people, with Arriaga's help, to expand the social services available to those who live and work in the barn area. There are plans for everything from a musical program and meetings to general social services, he said.
Arriaga said she has plans to offer cultural activities each Wednesday, including Mexican folk dance, piñata making and guitar lessons, to help people "feel like they're connected to home."
Hartman said he's also spoken with the about bringing English classes to the stables, though plans have not been finalized.
"These are seeds that are starting to be planted," he said. "It keeps growing. It's hard to say what this program's going to look like in 2012, but the mural program is not going to be the end of what we do with this community."
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