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Sky-high in the World Trade Center, an artist shows love to Brown Skin Girls

Artist Cristina Martinez, of Seattle, stood with her 52-foot mural of Black and brown women, a sisterhood of resilience, growth, and the future, on the 79th floor of 3 World Trade Center in New York.
Artist Cristina Martinez, of Seattle, stood with her 52-foot mural of Black and brown women, a sisterhood of resilience, growth, and the future, on the 79th floor of 3 World Trade Center in New York.Jennifer S. Altman/for the Boston Globe

Black women, brown women. I look at us and see fresh, cut flowers. Plucked from our homes, we bloom where we are planted, stretching our arms out wide, and giving all the love and fight we have until we wilt.

And passersby are in awe of our beauty. They stop to stare. They take photos. They ask to paint us so we can star on the cover of Vanity Fair.

But will they water us? Or stand in our light? Or do they wait for us to wilt to show us love?

We are the flower and the roots for the world to grow from and trample over. And on the 79th floor of New York’s World Trade Center, a 52-foot mural pays homage to the way we bloom.

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“The Roots,” inspired by the resilience of Black and brown women, was painted by 33-year-old Cristina Martinez. She flew from her Seattle home to paint the project, starting in July and returning to finish it earlier this month.

When her manager reached out to her, Martinez had no idea the commission at hand would be for the World Trade Center. But when she learned, she knew what she would do. Black and brown women as flowers is a story she’s always told.

“The story is the same because it’s necessary,” she told me. “But my platform is growing. When I found out it was the World Trade Center, instantly, I was like ‘How can I put as many faces as possible on this wall?’ I want every person that looks at it to feel seen with an overwhelming Black and brown energy.”

Artist Cristina Martinez's 52-foot-long mural of Black and brown women, a sisterhood of resilience, growth, and the future, at 3 World Trade Center, on the 79th Floor in Manhattan.
Artist Cristina Martinez's 52-foot-long mural of Black and brown women, a sisterhood of resilience, growth, and the future, at 3 World Trade Center, on the 79th Floor in Manhattan.Jennifer S. Altman/For the Boston Globe

The women stand together, individual in their energy and expression, yet they lean on one another. They have green stems for necks, stretched long and blooming through every circumstance. A bouquet of Black and brown perseverance. A garden of sisterhood in a skyscraper.

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Martinez was raised by a family of strong Mexican women. Her mother was only 15 when she had her.

“I saw them fight for everything,” she told me. “Nothing they ever did was ever handed to them. My life was very different. On top of that, having a Black dad, I looked different from my Mexican family. I always knew the world saw me as a Black woman regardless if I was raised a Black woman or not. Those experiences have shaped me. My experience as a Black woman came from living my life and being a Black woman in America.”

And that is why she centers Black and brown women every opportunity she gets, especially when that means covering a wall in one of the tallest buildings in New York City.

Three World Trade Center, to be exact — one of the new buildings where the Twin Towers once stood. Almost 3,000 people were killed nearly 19 years ago when the planes that had taken off from Logan Airport hit the towers in a terrorist attack. We were forever changed.

Artist Cristina Martinez.
Artist Cristina Martinez.Jennifer S. Altman/For the Boston Globe

And now there is a wall bearing the faces of my sisters to remind people that we, too, have been survivors of terror. Generations of degradation. We’re still here, weeping for our dead, watering our living. Can you see us?

Can you see Megan Thee Stallion? She’s blooming. Don’t just love her when you’re dancing and taking in the deep bend of her knees and her sensual magic. Love her out loud. Love her like water and grow her, instead of laughing at her pain when she looks into the camera and says Tory Lanez shot her. He shot her in her feet as she was exiting a car. He shot her in her bikini after a pool party. And even as her feet bled the police demanded she walk backward toward them.

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Because we are not always safe in their hands, she told the police she cut her feet on glass, fearful the police might kill her abuser, scared they might kill her. Tory Lanez shot her and there was no battle cry for her justice the way we chant and cry and fight for the men.

“I see some of the things men are saying about Megan Thee Stallion and all of that is in my art, where the spotlight is on us,” Martinez said. “We deserve to be here, and what we are surrounded by is this idea that we are not important and in some cases hunted down and attacked and erased and diminished. It’s this thing. It’s this feeling in my chest.”

And when she paints her emotions, the story of us is one of women growing against all odds.

But who do we carry with us in our roots? Our sisters. We are dying of childbirth. I mean a health care system that ignores our humanity is killing us. We are dying of love. I mean domestic violence is killing us. And we are dying of justice. I mean the police are killing us, too.

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Who do we turn to? Each other.

“So many of my pieces are the story of women leaning on other women,” Martinez said. “Growing up, I personally don’t have a lot of experience where my protection or the person watering me came from a male figure. We have to be the people who are going to amplify each other.”

And it can’t just be in death that we see one another and say our names.

Breonna Taylor was killed in March. Louisville cops shot her not long after Ahmaud Arbery was hunted down in Georgia, two months before George Floyd’s life was stolen by Minneapolis police. Breonna Taylor was murdered in March and it took months for us to say her name. Now she’s on the cover of Vanity Fair, painted by the brilliant Amy Sherald. The brilliant painter responsible for Michelle Obama’s historic portrait — you know the former first lady whom Republicans called a monkey over and over? America didn’t deserve her grace.

There may never be justice for Breonna. We didn’t give any to Aaliyah, either. It’s been 19 years since she died in a plane crash on Aug. 25, 2001. And everyone is still dressing like her, singing like her, and begging to stream her music. But they never called her rapist a rapist.

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In 1994, R. Kelly illegally married her when she was just 15. He raped teenage girls for decades. And only now, dozens of Black girls later, did the system care in a meaningful way.

We carry Aaliyah and Breonna in our roots along with Vanessa Guillén and a floral conservatory of names of Black and brown girls we’ll never know. The world would rather sing Beyoncé‘s “Brown Skin Girl” without being bothered to ever protect them.

As a little girl, Martinez remembers telling classmates her favorite color was brown.

“Eyuw,” they said.

“That stayed with me,” Martinez told me. “Making art, I consciously make a point to use that color. I have turned that into something beautiful. I’m my mother’s only child. We laugh about how at one point I was her biggest challenge. Now I am the thing she is most proud of. Your biggest challenges can become your biggest blessings.”

Now, Martinez teaches her son and daughter to be proud of their brown skin.

Black women, Brown women. Oppression is burdensome. Your skin is not. You are a gift.

We are each other’s garden. In a system of supremacy, we’ve learned to be the flowers, the sun, and the water, too. Bloom.


Jeneé Osterheldt can be reached at jenee.osterheldt@globe.com and on Twitter @sincerelyjenee.