Multicultural Stew

Ric Orozco uses lowriders and a controversial take on Hispanic history to excite his art students. The Isaac School District wonders whether he's teaching art, or culture or either.

He continues nevertheless, driven by his mission and encouraged by the promising results he sees. "That's the whole philosophy," he'll say. "Make 'em feel successful. I get put down because I'm not doing freehand art. Those people don't know what they're talking about."

In his summer-school class, he now asks the third graders to pull out their folders, and they do--green construction paper folded in half and reading "Hispanic Culture. Mr. O." Inside are their completed drawings of Aztec deities like Tonatiuh and Tezcatlipoca.

"I have a new one," Orozco announces. He pulls out black-and-white copies of a majestic face as complicated as a subway map, eliciting audible gasps of wonder from the kids.

He says, "This is Tonansi. Mother Earth. Madre Tierra."
A kid in a green shirt is ready to roll with his pen. "Can you write it?" he pleads.

Now come the pieces of white butcher paper, one side waxy, one side coarse, easy to see through. The paper is folded in half and the pictures are placed within. The kids trace the image and then, using a key chart of Old English type, spell out the deity's name in English, Spanish and Nahuat, the language of the Mexica.

Orozco hands out gum erasers as the students work, bigger and better than the pink nubs on their pencils. A pretty, round-faced girl with cascading black hair says to him: "I told my mom about this art. She said it was nice."

"Nice?" He smiles at her, and to himself.
"Yeah," he says, "we need to do more of this."

Teaching was supposed to be a stopgap for Orozco, a medical-equipment salesman whose market had been glutted. The son of Mexican immigrants in Fontana, California, he took up teaching eight years ago, about the same time he and his wife divorced.

"Maybe I come off a little strong," Orozco says over Bud Lights and tacos one hot afternoon in June. "I may be a little bit ahead of my time, I think."

A little strong? Maybe. To begin the meal, he toasts to "Mexica tiaui," or "people forward" in Nahuat. It's hard to watch TV anymore, he says. The other night a PBS documentary about gold referred to 1492 as if it were opening day at a 99-cent store, and he just flipped out. It frustrates him that he must use Spanish, the language of the invaders; now, when he is required to indicate his race on forms, he crosses out "Hispanic/Latino" and scribbles in "Mexica."

It was "500 Years," Orozco says, the taped lecture by Daniel Osuna, that made him see life through new lenses. Osuna, who shook off a rough Los Angeles upbringing to embrace Chicano nationalism and grassroots organizing, delivers his motivational messages through a Phoenix-based outfit called The Positive Revolution.

Osuna maintains that the Americas' colonization has bred among Latinos and indigenous peoples a mentality of victimization that casts blame but takes no responsibility for solving problems. "We look at ourselves as inferior," he has said. "They no longer need to have chains on our ankles. The enslavement is mental. And we perpetuate it."

In "500 Years," Osuna's strong, staccato voice booms in messianic proportions, detailing the European invasion that led to the destruction of native civilizations like the Mexica and Incas. Tenochtitlan, an engineering marvel of a city, was buried in dirt; atrocities were committed in the name of religion and gold; in some places, he says, elimination was so complete that African slaves had to be shipped in to replace the decimated indigenous populations.

Understand your history, he says. It, too, has been decimated. He does not promote hatred, he says, but personal responsibility and change in how a society crumbling from the inside deals with its problems and raises its children.

Orozco decided it was time to shake off the chains. In Pomona, fellow Latinos looked at him like he was supremely loco when he talked about the sweat lodges and the indigenous diet. Aren't you dwelling too much on the past? they would ask. No, he would say, look at the conditions that still exist, look at the mindset. People think they have to assimilate to be accepted.

"People don't want to hear that stuff," he says now, between feisty chomps of chips and salsa. "It's too strong. They don't understand what I'm talking about. They don't understand what a sweat lodge means. It just shows the amount of noninformation they have about their own culture."

His 27-year-old girlfriend, Leticia Rivera of Nogales, Sonora, whom he met as a pen pal, admires his intentions but worries the repercussions will eventually claim Orozco's paycheck. His 93-year-old father also worries.

Loud Mexican music blares from a speaker above. "I want to be a good employee. But there's this desire in me, this need for me to express what I know. These things I cannot forget. The past is real important to me."

He tried starting a Chicano Pride Club at Isaac. He trundled carloads of students, a load at a time, to Aztec dance workshops sponsored by Tonatierra, a community organization committed to indigenous peoples' issues. But he was forced to disband the club, he says, after a parent questioned the "hocus-pocus, the sweating and peace pipes" at some Tonatierra functions.

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