He painted hands overflowing with grapes and pineapples. He painted tears trickling from palms, memories of his harder life in El Salvador.
Juan Diaz, his baseball cap slumped over his eyes, sweeps cream and purple over his portion of the multicultural mural on 12th Street and Constitution Avenue.
"Does it look good?" Diaz, 17, surveys his fellow teenagers in the early morning's steamy heat.
They're all taking part in Washington's summer job program. They're here to finish the Hispanic and Latin American section of a 2,400-square-foot "Multi-Cultural American Journey" mural that snakes around the former U.S. Interstate Commerce Commission Building.
"What?" shouts one of his friends. Construction workers are drilling craters in the street in front of the building. Their machines thunder. Juan repeats himself.
"Yeah," his friend calls back. "It's okay."
Diaz wears braces. Fuzzy hairs sprout from his chin.
He's young, but he doesn't need a lot of praise. To him the mural is more than a fun summer job or a jaunt into the world of art. It's a way to help his mother, a restaurant worker, pay the rent on their Northwest apartment. His 16-year-old friend, David Brown, worked last summer emptying trash and sweeping floors. Now they're here together for the $5.15 an hour paychecks along with the fun of paint.
The mural program is sponsored by Sign of the Times, a nonprofit organization that runs arts programs in Ward 7. Led by James Greggs, about 17 students from five high schools--14 of them from the city's summer jobs program--worked on the mural this summer. About 40 students worked on the project last summer, when the Native American, African American, Asian American and European American sections of the mural were painted.
In some spots the mural--although it is exhilarating--doesn't look perfect. (Brown admits that now and then his paint leaks outside the lines.) Sometimes the students can't remember the significance of the symbols they painted. ("What's the eagle mean again?" a student asks of the Native American section that she worked on last year.)
"I'm not an artist," says Ame Kuchta, an educator on the project, who wears sandals, shorts and sunglasses. "To me, it's more important that the kids learn self-confidence and motivation. And that they learn how to deal with people."
While they paint, Kuchta tries to encourage them to go to college. She brings a radio and shares her favorite music: Grateful Dead and Counting Crows. They play Lauryn Hill and ask questions about dorm life and financial aid.
"This is so much better than if they were sitting home and watching TV or working an awful job," Kuchta says. "This exposes them to another world."
The mural's theme was chosen by Greggs. He wanted to represent the country's ethnic landscape and to educate the students, many of whom are black or Latino, about other cultures.
"Washington is a multicultural city. It's probably diverse like San Francisco and New York City," Greggs says. "But here it's so segregated. The Latin Americans live in Adams-Morgan. The blacks in their neighborhoods. We wanted the students to learn about all cultures."
The mural is painted on construction boards that once stood blank and peeling in front of the Commerce building. Then Greggs spotted them and decided to start a project where the students' art would be visible to thousands of tourists.
Greggs wants the mural to serve as a bridge. Next year, he will invite private school students to paint alongside the teenagers from public schools. Private school participation will bring different life experiences and also a potential for new funding.
This year, the city's summer jobs program was cut from six weeks to five weeks by the D.C. Department of Employment Services. This summer's work on the mural cost almost $39,000, paid for by the city, private donations and Sign of the Times.
"Look, here," Greggs says, as he stands in front of the mural. He points to panels that display bright pumpkin orange, blood red and midnight blue colors swirling together to form Egyptian hieroglyphics, West African Adinkra symbols and European American quilts. The students spent more than a week in the public library researching the symbols for the Latin American section. They picked bullfighting, Latin musical instruments and ancient gods.
Diaz added his own images: a peasant farmer from his country and the hands dripping with tears.
"It's hard work," Diaz says, as the sun glistens and buses zoom by. "But it's also a really fun job. I can't complain."
CAPTION: James Greggs, director of the art program, stands before the "Multi-Cultural American Journey" mural at 12th Street and Constitution Avenue. Below left, Juan Diaz works on the mural, which was created by high school students in a summer jobs program. Below right, Racquel Lockett and David Brown clean brushes.