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.

Tonatierra's Tupac Enrique was sorry to see Orozco's efforts end. "I think it was obvious that there was an area of educational services that were not being delivered to Chicano and Mexicano youth," Enrique says. "They were not being given the cultural reinforcement regarding their identity, except superficially."

Orozco now confines his crusade to the classroom, where he introduces near-teenagers to images of Latino history while urging them to be proud of the images they now know as lowrider arte--souped-up cars, the painted smiles of clowns, the busty pachuca women, the silent pachucos with their bandannas.

To start, he taught basic art fundamentals. Then, using a commercial artist's philosophy, he taught with three things in mind--time, technique and final result.

"So," he says, "one thing I've been exposed to is copying. Now, 'copying' can be a dirty word. But as an artist, I feel it's okay to be copying at the beginning. All the great masters copied each other."

This notion is echoed in artist Jeffery Camp's Draw: How to Master the Art. Almost every great artist, Camp writes, copied as a way of learning the craft, of looking through someone else's eyes--Manet mooched off Titian, Mantegna and Rembrandt; Michelangelo copied Giotto; Matisse sat around the Louvre and mimicked fine art, often selling his copies; van Gogh copied Delacroix and Gauguin; everyone copied.

Unfortunately, what Orozco encourages in his class isn't copying. It is tracing, which is hardly as challenging an exercise as copying the masters, even if it can aid artistic development in some ways.

He sifted through Lowrider Arte magazine, an offshoot of Los Angeles' Lowrider magazine, for images his junior high students could carbon-trace onto another surface and color or design. Images could be mixed and aligned to achieve an overall vision. One piece Orozco is fond of showing depicts a kneeling Aztec warrior and antique lowrider bordered in Aztec design.

Orozco is not alone in asserting the artistic value of tracing.
Says Valley sculptor Jose Benavides, who recently used license plates to fashion a 17-foot-tall Virgin Mary attached to a 1979 pickup truck: "Tracing can build up positive feedback. Even though they traced it, they created the image. . . . And if a person is inspired enough by that, they might say, 'Hey, if I can do that, I can do this.'

"A lot of murals that you see on garage walls in L.A. are combined images in different proportions. By doing these types of collages, you develop an artistic eye toward what works and what doesn't."

Lorena Nalin, president of the Arizona Art Educators Association, agrees: "Artists have a long history of appropriating other people's images. If you can only do it one way, then you're not creatively thinking. But if you're doing a montage, or a collage, and you trace in a cactus here and a lizard there, reorganizing the final product, then you're moving into creative problem-solving and analyzing, and making a new product."

And Orozco's students have come to be lowrider-tracing aficionados.
"At first, I didn't think I was gonna learn anything," says Arturo Tinajero, 15, a prize-winning former student of Orozco's now at Maryvale High. "But we started doing art that we really identified with, you know, like cars and lettering."

"I drew an Aztec calendar and a lowrider truck together," says Maribel Vega, a 14-year-old honor student from Mexico who still struggles with her English. "He [Orozco] puts you to trace. It makes you better to draw with free hand."

As Orozco taught his combination of lowrider art and colonial history, the former medical-equipment pitchman found himself besieged before and after school by students asking for more. "Everybody, as soon as we got to class, would start drawing," says Vega, who will be a freshman at Carl Hayden this fall. "If they [students] didn't have anything to do, they would go up to his desk and get more."

Orozco's student art was displayed in Isaac Junior High hallways to mostly favorable reviews.

The kids were eating it up.
So, too, was Orozco. Though he gave his students a smattering of other art projects--string art, mobiles, and so on--the majority of his class time was spent on traced lowrider art, at the expense of the district's art curriculum. After all, he was on a mission.

For about a dozen years, the Isaac School District has sponsored an annual arts festival; this year's show took place on March 13 at Carl Hayden High School and featured art and music from the district's junior high and five elementaries.

This year, instructors chose as their theme "It's a Small World," one of those hackneyed catch-all notions common to public education. A month or so before the event, they met to discuss logistics. But before long, Orozco says, it became apparent that art of the Chicano lowrider subculture had no place in Isaac's small world.

The gathering was moderated by event coordinator Simon Gaona, a district music teacher. According to Orozco, "He said, 'Oh, we don't want any lowrider art stuff, no gang-related stuff, no Old English lettering, any of that, in the show.' And I thought that was a rather strange comment. I felt that comment was directed at me. . . .

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