It’s a hot Wednesday afternoon in East Oakland. At the Fruitvale Village courtyard, elders of different nationalities patiently wait in line at an outdoor food distribution center. Above the courtyard, on the second floor of one of the buildings at the Fruitvale-San Antonio Senior Center, another group of about half a dozen seniors sits around a table, carefully painting small canvasses. 

Oakland artist Fred Alvarado is at another table, sketching images on a blank canvas for cards to be used in lotería—the Mexican game similar to bingo played with cards adorned with specific images like a rose or a bird—for the elderly women to paint. 

“Yo solo quería una rosa,” said Lucy Muñoz of the canvas she got from Alvarado, where he’d traced a rose and other images. So he starts over, quickly tracing just the rose for Muñoz to paint.

Muñoz has been coming to the center for the past 12 years, commuting daily from Berkeley and staying from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

“This is my first time painting,” she said in Spanish. “I was never afforded the opportunity to learn this.” 

Fruitvale Senior Art Workshop
Oakland artist Fred Alvarado sketches small canvasses for the seniors to paint. Credit: Amir Aziz
Fruitvale Senior Art Workshop
From left to right: Ofelia Salas, Francisca Velazquez, and Herlinda Osada are three of the seniors who attend the art workshop. Credit: Amir Aziz

Originally from Southern California, Alvarado moved to Oakland 22 years ago. “I live four or five blocks down from here. It’s an important space for me,” he told The Oaklandside when we visited the senior center. “This place is me. And I want to give a little bit back.”

Alvarado has been working on different projects with the senior center since 2008. That year, he painted a wall-to-wall mural that still embellishes the inside of the center. His work as a muralist has taken him all over the world, to places like Palestine and Ecuador. But he says he finds the most joy in working with people from his community.

“I don’t need to travel too far to find folks who are thirsty for creativity, activities, and engagement,” he said. 

Alvarado launched the weekly art workshop at the senior center last May as part of a larger mobile installation called International Space Station. Another local artist, Blanca Landa, led the workshops initially. She got sick in June, and the workshops were on hold until Alvarado took over in late July. He brings blank canvasses, colored pencils, and watercolors. 

The art supplies are costly, so Alvarado is always on the lookout for grants like the ones offered by the City of Oakland Cultural Funding Program, which is helping fund the current project. He wishes there was more public funding for the arts, which he says can help dispel people’s negative stereotypes about certain neighborhoods in Oakland. 

In 2010, Alvarado worked with students from ARISE High School, located in the same building as the senior center, to create a comic book called Memory Trace of the Fruitvale Village. The multigenerational project involved the youth interviewing and drawing elders from the center. A few years later, he again collaborated with students from the school and the seniors on a series of murals. 

Fruitvale Senior Art Workshop
Oakland artist Fred Alvarado at the Fruitvale-San Antonio Senior Center. Credit: Amir Aziz

More recently, during the pandemic, Alvarado worked on a project called Dream Roots: Tus Recetas, interviewing 15 elders living in senior housing, drawing their portraits, and collecting their favorite recipes to produce a cookbook. 

Herlinda Osada is participating in the current art workshop. She got to know Alvarado during the Memory Trace project, which she was also part of.

During the latest workshop, she proudly showed off a picture of a cat she’d sketched and painted. “She’s a natural artist,” Alvarado said. 

“I would love to take more art classes,” Osada said. “I can’t believe the workshop only has a few more sessions left.” 

For Nalleli Albarran-Cruz, the senior manager of senior wellness programs at the Fruitvale-San Antonio Senior Center, the time Alvarado spends with the elders is invaluable. Before the pandemic, the center served between 60-80 people daily. But over the past few years, Albarran-Cruz said the number has dropped by half. 

“People isolated for over two years, and their health deteriorated,” she said. “Not knowing what was going to happen took a toll on them. We have seen elders be scared to go out.” 

Although the center receives county and city funds, its programs are volunteer-run. Before the pandemic, it offered various classes and activities, from Tai Chi to computer literacy to English classes. But getting volunteers to teach classes has been a challenge ever since the pandemic, she said. Currently, the exercise classes are taken from YouTube, and other classes are only offered once a week.

Safety concerns are another reason why the center has lost participants, she said. Five shootings have occurred across the street from the center in the past few months. The last one happened the night of Aug. 23, hours after the art workshop took place.

Fruitvale Senior Art Workshop
The Fruitvale-San Antonio Senior Center at Fruitvale Village provides seniors with social activities like art workshops and playing bingo. Credit: Amir Aziz

“It isn’t safe,” said Osada, who takes the bus from 50th Avenue to get to the center. “Also, some people park their cars on the sidewalk, and that’s dangerous for elderly people like me who require a cane, a walker, or a wheelchair.”

Ofelia Salas has been attending the art workshop since it started. She lives close by and walks to the center every day. 

“I feel safe, thank God. Nothing has ever happened to me walking by,” she said. “The neighborhood has been violent, but it seems like things are getting better.” 

Another participant, Francisca Velazquez, also walks from her home on Congress Avenue to attend the workshop. 

“Lately, it’s been scary to walk because I’ve seen people fighting at the bus stop,” she said. “I also almost got ran over by a car that ran a red light.” 

Despite the challenges of getting to the center, all the women at the table praised Alvarado for providing the workshop. “It’s entertaining,” Velazquez said. “We get to talk to other ladies and forget about any stress.” 

Fruitvale Senior Art Workshop
From left to right: Ofelia Salas and Herlinda Osada working on sketches that artist Fred Alvarado put together for the workshop. Credit: Amir Aziz

The artwork created by the seniors from the center, alongside other pieces made by youth, can be seen at Alavarado’s International Space Station pop-up gallery and community workshop in the Fruitvale Market Plaza every Sunday through Sept. 10 (except Labor Day Weekend). The final Sunday event will include all of the artwork created by the seniors during the workshops. 

“This work has to be an everyday kind of thing,” Alvarado said. “This is what our community does. We are using our space and taking it over.”

Azucena Rasilla is a bilingual journalist from East Oakland reporting in Spanish and in English, and a longtime reporter on Oakland arts, culture and community. As an independent local journalist, she has reported for KQED Arts, The Bold Italic, Zora and The San Francisco Chronicle. She was a writer and social media editor for the East Bay Express, helping readers navigate Oakland’s rich artistic and creative landscapes through a wide range of innovative digital approaches.