Scholar Spotlight: Mateo Manuel Vela (CU Boulder ’22) Talks About His Work in Bringing Arts Back to Underprivileged Students

On this edition of Scholar Spotlight, we talk with Mateo Manuel Vela and the way he’s using spoken word poetry to bring a creative emotional outlet to students in these very challenging times. Watch Below:

Aristotle famously said, “educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.” The spirit of that quote very much lives inside the work of Puksta scholar Mateo Manuel Vela. At the age of 20, he is already stepping up to create spaces and opportunities for high school students to freely discuss express their identities and thoughts on the environment in which they exist, through the art of spoken word poetry. While many schools are moving towards more STEM focused curriculums, Mateo is making sure that the arts don’t get left behind. Work like his is becoming increasingly important as the world gets more complicated with culture, politics, and society shifting in ways nobody ever expected. This “education of the heart” is especially crucial for the marginalized youth that Mateo is serving, who are often labeled and impacted by society before they even get a chance to negotiate their own self-image.

Growing up, Mateo was confronted with the social implications of being a Latinx first generation American growing up in a lower-income neighborhood. This, on top of an early battle with depression caused a great deal of confusion for Mateo as to who he was and where he belonged. Thankfully, poetry found him through a workshop in one of his sixth grade classes. “Honestly, poetry saved my life,” he says, “it gave me the opportunity to critique the world around me, and also articulate my place in the world.” This gift of creative expression gave Mateo the freedom and agency to begin answering life’s big questions and develop him to become the man he is today. Through poetry he has been able to compete with the DSP Slam Poetry team, and get the paid opportunity to perform on various stages, including the international Brave New Voices competition in Washington, D.C. Even more impressive than his competitive accomplishments, however, is his work as a leader in bringing poetry to students that are also from underprivileged backgrounds.

Today, Mateo serves as a board member and teacher for Sacred Voices, a Denver based organization that provides access to poetry workshops and open mics for high school students from underserved communities. The majority of his classes are centered around writing about identity, experience, and environment. At the moment, his workshops are supplemental education that isn’t budgeted or scheduled into regular school curriculums, but Mateo’s project is part of the push to change that. “Art is a very human aspect of our lives,” he says, “and if [students] don’t get the opportunity to do that, I fear that they’re missing out on a lot of emotional and social growth.” His dream is to see arts programs become an uncuttable part of public school curriculum, but he understands that this will be difficult to achieve. Until then, he is dedicated to making sure that he can provide this education to as many students as he can, and creating a model that can be adopted by schools in the future.