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.

"I said, 'Wait a second--what about Old English lettering?' And one teacher said, 'Old English lettering is considered gang-related. Even my fourth graders say that.' I said, 'This is an art form. How come when they use it on diplomas, or on the Los Angeles Times, it's okay, but when kids use it, it's to be stomped on?' And they didn't have anything to say."

The edict had been birthed the year before, when two of Orozco's students brought lowrider art to the show at the last minute, apparently enraging some teachers. "This year we didn't hedge," says Gaona. "We said it was not acceptable."

Although lowrider subject matter was a concern, Gaona says the art instructors' objections focused primarily on tracing. "We specifically mentioned that we didn't want any traced art," he says. "We were trying to get kids to use their imagination, to use their motor skills. It's important to build self-confidence without having to trace."

Watercolors, oils, clays, even crayons were fine, he says, as long as the artwork was original and fit the "Small World" theme. For instance, teachers had bamboo paintings representing Japan, medieval weaponry reproductions representing England, and some Native American-themed art.

Despite the guidelines, which had been adopted over his objections, Orozco spent the morning of the show setting up about 40 pieces of lowrider art his students had created.

Asked whether he should have known better, Orozco sighs and says: "When they said no lowrider stuff, I didn't abide by it because I thought it was unfair. And so I demonstrated that. I thought it was a conspiracy. I broke an oral guideline; I guess I did. But . . . that's all the work I had. It's all I'd been doing."

Orozco says he had heard nothing about tracing being disallowed. "But that's along the same lines. I think that's a cruel thing to say. What's wrong with tracing?" he says. "Even if they had said it, it wouldn't have made any difference."

Later that afternoon, Orozco went back to the Carl Hayden auditorium foyer to make sure everything was in order and found his kids' art on the floor. "I was shocked," he says. "I thought maybe there was a mistake or something."

He, his girlfriend and two students spent a couple of hours putting it back up. With just enough time to take the students home, he and Leticia returned as the show was beginning and parents were milling around. The art was back on the floor.

On the floor, he says. On the floor. "My jaw dropped. I couldn't believe it. I said, 'What do we do?' And all I could think of was to gather up all the art, put it in my trunk, and go home. It probably stayed there for two or three weeks. I was so ashamed."

Not until the next day did Gaona explain his decision to Orozco, but he traveled to Isaac Junior High to do so.

"I took a beating from my peers in the art department," Gaona says, "because they'd worked hard to teach different techniques, and yet we have someone who comes in with traced art. That may be a way to teach art, but it wouldn't be the only way--you wouldn't spend a year doing that. You have to progress beyond it . . . I don't know how drawing lowrider cars furthered the kids' education. They're exposed to that continually."

The students never knew the details of the dispute. They just knew that one day Mr. O walked in and said there could be no more lowrider art.

Soon afterward, Orozco sent a letter to Lowrider Arte magazine along with about 25 pieces of his students' art.

"Please understand," he wrote, "that I am a credentialed art teacher in both California and Arizona with a master's degree in art education from Pepperdine University . . . What caught my attention in my arte instruction is that our young gente prefer Lowrider Arte subject matter over European-based art. Their nationalism and love for Mexico bursts at the seams to be expressed, with little or no opportunity for those feelings to be stated."

In recounting the festival incident, he wrote: "What a disgrace! In ALL the art history that I have studied, NEVER EVER was there a moment recorded where 'opposing' artists from other 'schools of art' threw down on the floor someone else's art!"

Lowrider Arte magazine, says editor Armando Avila, receives an average 75 pieces of art a day from around the country; 50 to 60 percent of them are traced. Kids take vehicle outlines and add their own shadows and patterns, Avila says. It's a style, he says, that he uses himself.

Of Orozco's students' art, Avila says: "For the age of the kids he had, it was really good. You could see they put some effort into thinking what they wanted to do with it."

Lowrider Arte plans to run a story about the festival incident in its September issue. Avila questions the exclusion of tracing from such an art show.

Arturo Tinajero, Orozco's former student, expresses similar sentiments: "When they have their art up, nobody messes with it. Myself, I think it's kind of ugly. But, still, I respect it, because it's their kind of art. And I think they should respect us, too. We spend all kinds of time on it, and they should know what it means to us.

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