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.

"We express ourselves with art, and for them to put it on the ground, I don't think that's a good thing."

The state's guidelines for visual arts instruction are being revised this year for the first time since 1988. At the time the guidelines were created, multiculturalism was only beginning to flower; concepts of multiple intelligence (which holds that there are areas not measured in standardized testing, including the arts, in which students can be "intelligent") and of at-risk students as a group needing special attention are nowhere to be found in the document.

As they stand now, the standards call for instruction in three areas--artistic expression, aesthetic assessment and art in cultural heritage. The standards grant teachers freedom in how they convey that knowledge. The standards do suggest, however, that by the end of middle school, students should have covered art history and forms from a variety of cultures, acquired a useful art vocabulary and learned how artists generate and develop ideas.

Teachers are encouraged to play to their strengths and interests. Orozco chose Chicano and lowrider art because it interests and motivates some students, says Isaac superintendent Jose Leyba. But whether Mr. O's students are receiving a sufficiently well-rounded arts background by concentrating on a particular subculture, Leyba says, is another issue--one which Orozco was cautioned about in a May 30 memo.

The memo, from assistant superintendent David Santellanes, reads: "While we realize that the majority of our students are Hispanic, students from a myriad of other cultures attend our schools. Therefore, it is important that art from other cultures be introduced to them."

The memo also informed Orozco that he had violated district policy by sending students' art to Lowrider Arte magazine without parental permission.

Despite his overindulgences in regard to cultural pride, Orozco has found a way to excite students who have been excited by very little at school. You can see it in the eyes of third graders gripped by a fascination that few of us can remember in grade school.

"In this community, what they're looking to right now is the gangs," says Martha Aguilar, the third-grade teacher at Sutton, where Orozco is teaching this summer. "That's their role model. But there's other ways to express themselves, such as through the arts. Like Jose--he does have a lot of influence from his older brother, who's in with the gangs, but he's been asking for extra paper, extra erasers. We're not pushing him to do this; here's this little child that on his own is asking for more. His energy is on the art that Mr. Orozco is doing."

Tinajero, Orozco's former student, remembers: "Sometimes, teachers used to take our art away from us. They just didn't like it. They used to say it was gang-related."

But with Orozco's encouragement, Tinajero entered an art contest in downtown Phoenix. He drew a lady, freehand, a pachuca, a three-dimensional image with Aztec symbols in the background. He won the first-place prize of $200, and bought himself an airbrush.

"If it had been gang-related," Tinajero says, "I don't think it would have won." At Maryvale, he says, "I still do cars, culture and stuff--things that express the way I feel."

It is unclear how many Tinajeros Mr. O will inspire in the future. Isaac has assigned Orozco as the art teacher at Coe, its new middle school, set to open this fall. But Orozco says he's not sure how much longer he'll stay in public education, given the conflicts between what he sees as his mission and the norms of Arizona schooling.

"This might sound weird," Orozco says, "but in a way, I thank the Isaac School District for letting me do what I've done so far.

"This is my last spurt, man. I want to make it meaningful. I don't want to retire after 20 years and get a pen or whatever. What does that mean?

"I like what I get from the kids, today."

Barbara Luna, a 13-year-old eighth grader, sits at a small kitchen table with her mother and father, Florene and Gavino, in a modest home on 47th Avenue in Phoenix.

At first, Barbara says shyly, the art assignments Mr. O sent home with her were too much. Tracing, she explains, takes longer than you might think.

"Actually, I spoke with him [Orozco] about it," her mother says. "She was bringing home three or four at a time."

Initially, Barbara's father also questioned the value of the complicated tracing. "It takes a lot of patience," Gavino Luna says. "I've seen her sit there and do all the detail. At first I said, 'What are you gonna benefit from transferring all these pictures?' But she was getting good grades in it."

Florene Luna says her concerns disappeared as her daughter's interest in school flowered. "She felt better about herself. She's not one for a good report card, but when she started doing well in art, she started doing better in her other classes."

Isaac has its problems, Florene Luna says in significant understatement. Young children, searching for self-esteem, have been lost to gangs. Barbara would see kids smoking weed in the hallways, never mind the campus police. Fights are commonplace at school.

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