• Barrio's Living Library

MSC: Mateo Toro



In our continued efforts to tell our own stories and evaluate our impact, we have started using the Most Significant Change Framework. We implemented this framework in 2021 and in the first year we identified four domains of impact: personal transformation, leadership development, business/entrepreneur development, and community building.


Mateo Toro's story is one of the stories selected from the first round. His story highlights the Business/Entrepreneur Development domain. You can listen to the whole story in the video above.


Note: This is part of Barrio Alegría’s Most Significant Change process. The stories in this series share the stories of individuals in our community and the changes they perceive in their lives by being a part of Barrio. The interviews are designed to be heard or watched so that the listener hears the story directly from the storyteller. Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers and may contain errors. This transcript has been edited for clarity.


Jose: Tell me how you first became involved with Barrio Alegría and what your current involvement is?


Mateo: So, it's funny that we're recording this 16th of November 2021, because 10 days ago, when I was in Colombia, I got a memory [notification] on Facebook from five years ago, where I was recording a music video with my friend Manny Mezquita at Barrios one of their first locations at the tea factory, and that was five years ago. The story behind that video was that I was sitting at Penn State Berks, a college student, I forgot what class it was, but Daniel and Arleny came in to speak. They were talking about their space and talking about the programming. I think they were still doing a lot of dancing and not much of what they currently do now, which is the more, you know, transformative and important stuff.

They left. At the time, I was looking for a place to film a music video for my friends. And I didn't have a place, I didn't have a budget and I got nervous. I didn't ask them, but at that moment, I was like, “this is my only chance.” So, I left the room, I went up to them and I said, “Hey, can I use your location to film this music video? I don't have a lot of money but let me know what I can do.” They're like, “Oh, yeah, no problem, Papi.” That’s how Daniel speaks.


And a few weeks later, they let me use your space and come to find out when I get there- they're not even there. They had someone open the door for me. They weren't even surveilling the place. They didn't know me. They told me “Hey, you can lock up.” So that blew my mind because one, they didn't charge me to use the space, and they also weren't even there. They trusted me enough to use their space correctly, professionally and I was able to film a music video.


So then, fast forward three years, I started coming across Arleny and Daniel in their work. I don't remember exactly how, but one day I was sitting at Mi Casa Su Casa and Daniel, Arleny, and a few others sat down to eat lunch. They were across the room and Daniel, he just shouts across the room like, “Hey Papi, what are you doing this weekend?” And I was like, “I have nothing going on.” “Do you want to come to Philly with us for the weekend?” I'm like, “Sure. What are we doing?" Daniel was like, “oh, we're just doing like some workshops, visiting some art nonprofits in Philadelphia.”


And I don't know, I thought it seemed pretty cool. I just love to travel, and I came along with them. So I stayed with him in Philadelphia for two days, we visited a couple of different art nonprofits and I really got to bond and meet Daniel, meet Arleny, meet Val. Me and couple other people got involved, this is now three years ago, and ever since then I kind of just started tagging along. So, I never officially was a part of Barrio, but I always was helping them in different programs. The one year, I was part of the leadership cohort, I did a couple of different activities with them, and we did a free photo shoot for the community in different libraries, where I gathered a couple of different photographers, who volunteered. I just always been supportive of them because they were so supportive of by beginning and in many different ways. I can confidently say like, I wouldn't be where I am today, if it wasn't for Barrio, and they also let me use their place for a year as an office. That was such an important, important time for me because I was looking to grow, I was looking to have other people help me with projects, so I needed like a space professionally because I don't want to bring people to my house. So even the fact that they let me just use their place willingly, for free, for a year. It just was such a pivotal moment in my career.


In my current role now with Barrio, I'm not in the leadership cohort no more. Like I said, I've never been officially a part of Barrio, like as an employee, but I've always been volunteering, and they've hired me to do projects for them. They support me in so many ways. So now I'm just like a, I don't know what you call it, like a protégé, supporting member. And who knows, maybe I'll be on the board one day, I don't know if that's ever happened, but yeah, that's where we are now.


Jose: What do you think is the most significant change in your quality of life since you started working with Barrio- tell me a story that demonstrates that change?


Mateo: I think one of the most significant changes for me personally and professionally, it was- It's funny, I shared a tweet last night on my Instagram story that said, believing in someone is the ultimate currency. And I really truly believe that and the moment I read that, I immediately thought of Barrio. I mean, I thought of Daniel and Arleny. They just believed in me from the beginning. They do that with every single person that they meet, whether they have experience in art, whether they never picked up a brush, whether they don't have a camera, all the programs and projects that you do is literally just believing in people and giving them the opportunity to experiment too, to express themselves, to do some type of artistic activity and you never know where that can lead someone in their life later on. The fact that they, again, believed in me, let me use their space to shoot a music video, they let me use their actual office and gave me like a desk to be at for a whole year. That's believing in someone, and you don't know how far they can go. Just, literally, the thought alone it's like, “Hey, I believe in you. Hey, here's a free space. Hey, here's the camera. Hey, here's a project we're doing.” Whether they have talent or not, you just never know where that could lead someone.


To me, that has been, that was definitely the most transformative thing for me personally, professionally. And it's something that I always did myself with my friends and with my peers, and anyone I came across. So that aligned with me perfectly. And now, it's something that I deal with all the time to this day, like, “Hey, have you shot a video before? No? All right. Hey, I have a shoot. Help me shoot it. Hey, if you don't audio before? No? hey, let's do it. Hey, have you colored before? No? Let's do it.” So, I don't look at someone like based on what they've done. If I see the talent, the hustle, the ambition, or are they're just asking me like, “I want this opportunity.” Then I'm all on board and that, for me, was the biggest change, just believing in and supporting. And that's what Barrio is literally all about.


Jose: Why is this story significant to you?


Mateo: This story like my story? That's kind of a deep question. I think my story is significant to me. Barrio being a huge, huge part of it is due to the fact that, I grew up in Reading, my parents were immigrants, and they hustled every single day of their life, to create a better life for me and for my family in Colombia. I remember having to wake up, like I'm looking, I'm literally looking at where my parents' bakery used to be in downtown Reading. My parents didn't have money to pay for a babysitter, so I would literally wake up at three in the morning, in second grade, to go deliver doughnuts with my dad and then he would drop me off to like second grade. So I would literally be up three in the morning as a kid hustling with my dad, because they didn't have the money for a babysitter. I think of all those things that I've been through in my life, growing up in Reading, seeing so many different things, experiencing so many different things. I feel like I never had the time to really dream bigger, or I never thought that stuff was possible because I just saw my parents were able to do. You know, society tells us to not do art, not be artists, not chase your dreams, and to go the traditional route. I don't think you really need to, if you have a passion, and you have a work ethic.


My story is significant, and Barrio’s involvement is huge, because three years ago, I was shooting $150 videos, as many as I could just to pay my bills. Because again, starving artists, I didn't know how to price myself, I didn't know how to pitch myself, I didn't know how to create a team or how to do bigger things. Three years now, you know, I'm getting ready to shoot a movie, you know, internationally. I'm getting ready next year to be able to invest in my own projects. If Barrio didn't give me a space to use for free, for a year, I don't know if I'd be in that position because maybe I would have to came out of pocket to have like a little office space and I would have not been able to use that to reinvest into my craft. So, you never know who you would support or who you believe in, where they are going and who they're going to end up supporting and believing in. I think that's just kind of like a full circle moment. You know, one day I told Daniel, this is maybe a year ago or two ago, I want to be one of their biggest funders, out of my own pocket, writing checks to support Barrio like they supported me, but now they can support many others.


So again, it comes full circle. Barrio supports every single person that they come across. They're endlessly generous, they never have like a limit on their generosity, and you can see that in all the different individuals that I've been a part of and different projects with my body or how they speak about who I am, what it's done for them. So, I think my story is significant because it's Barrio's story. It's what they set out to do: to transform the arts, inspire and pave that path.


Jose: Well, if I've ever heard a 'most significant change' story this definitely one of them. I want to thank you, Mateo, for being a part of this interview. And we look forward to working more in the future, with you.


Mateo: Absolutely.





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