Four girls and four boys are lined up on either side of a short table, their gazes fixed on a projection screen in a classroom at Sutton Elementary in Phoenix's Isaac School District.
The drawing projected there depicts the everyday life, a dinner scene maybe, of people indigenous to Mexico who now are known as the Aztecs. Above the scene are the words "Aztec Town."
Ric Orozco, a junior high art instructor during the regular school year, adjusts his glasses, thick wisps of hair covering his balding head like a netting. "But 'Aztec' is not the right word," he says in Spanish to his summer-school third graders. "Who knows what the correct word is?"
A wiry little boy in a white shirt thrusts a hand into the air. "Mexica," he says.
"Mexica," repeats Orozco. Me-SHEE-ca. They remember. "Very good, Jose." Mexica, he has told them, was the true name of their ancestors, the people of the Valley of Mexico. And though his own true name is Orozco, he lets the kids call him Mr. O.
"Cuando paso este? When did this happen? Yesterday?"
"No," the children respond in chorus.
"No. More than 500 years ago. Look at the clothes. Look at the bird. What kind of bird is this?"
"Un perico," Jose answers.
Orozco's manner is gentle, narrative, sentences rising and settling into a comforting lilt when he says something one would say only to a child of 8 or 9. He is 52. His white shirt is well-pressed; his black, tasseled shoes are shiny and scuffless. He shuffles from room to room at Sutton, incorporating cultural history into the art he teaches to a mix of migrant and local summer students.
"Un perico," he echoes, after Jose. "A parrot. I have a parrot. He doesn't talk. I might have to get a new parrot."
Later come references to the Stone of the Fifth Sun, better known as the Aztec calendar, and the story of Huitzilopochtli--the god of war and of the sun, the protector of the Mexica.
"You like this story, boys and girls?"
"You ever heard this story before?"
No. Not at home, and certainly not at school. Orozco knows this is the case. Only recently did he himself learn much of it, and it would change his life.
Ric Orozco's transformation occurred about four years ago, spurred by a videotaped lecture titled "500 Years," by Phoenix-based speaker Daniel Osuna. At the time, Orozco was teaching art in Pomona, California, and the presentation awoke him to what Osuna terms "a neglected side of history"--the colonization and resistance of the Western hemisphere's indigenous peoples.
Understand your past, Osuna says, or you cannot legitimately direct your future--more important, you cannot legitimately teach society's future, its children.
Inspired, Orozco threw himself into all things indigenous. He attended sweat lodges, traditional ceremonies of self-discovery in which participants spend hours in unlighted shelters heated by a constant supply of fire-warmed rock. He tried an indigenous diet of potatoes, beans, squash, chili and corn tortillas. He studied Mexica history.
And then he came to Phoenix, recruited by the Isaac School District, a 7,500-student district of gang-infested neighborhoods where more than eight of every ten pupils are Latino. Students from Isaac go on to the Phoenix Union High School District, where barely half of those who attend ever graduate.
Orozco felt his mission was clear: to teach his junior high students what he had not been taught, to give them pride in their cultural history and to link it to the present, where they see so few positive images of themselves.
To do that, Orozco has drawn from a unique palette of history, culture and art to raise the self-esteem and performance of his students. Though his methods have yielded results that appear to be promising, his zealous, single-minded adherence to those methods has also put him at odds with the very people who hired him.
Those methods use "lowrider art," also known as pachuco art, as subject matter, and tracing, rather than freehand drawing, as technique. As an educational tool, pop art clearly has its uses. Just as clearly, tracing can help young children begin to appreciate artistic composition and collage.
And students and parents alike applaud Orozco for his ability to inspire interest in learning where gangs, drugs and apathy had reigned supreme.
But Orozco has taken his art and culture program to a crusadelike extreme, teaching little of the standard art curriculum. He is like a writing teacher obsessed with one chapter of a novel, a football coach calling an end-around on every play. Some Isaac administrators and art teachers believe Orozco has shorted his students educationally. Others grumble that lowrider art is too reflective of the gang activity that haunts the Isaac district.
Friction began to peak in March, when Orozco defied set guidelines for the district's annual art festival. In the festival's wake, he claimed his art had been singled out for discrimination--a claim soon to be made very public in a national lowrider art magazine.
And the controversy simmers through the summer, threatening to wash away both Orozco's accomplishments and his excesses.
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.
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. . . .
"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.
"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.
But Mr. O's class turned the tide, just a little bit, Barbara Luna's mother says. Instead of causing trouble and distracting other students, problem kids began actually paying attention.
In neighborhoods like those of the Isaac School District, inspiring that sort of interest is a huge accomplishment, an accomplishment that may matter more than whether little Joel or Valerie learns to make pinch-pots this year.
"They need him there, you know. If out of 30 kids, he can get six interested in art, rather than being out there lookin for trouble . . ." Gavino Luna says.
Then he turns to his daughter and suggests, "Show your stationery."
Barbara, never one for a good report card, retrieves her creations. They are sheets of white paper, detailed in various designs. There are ornamental vines and fleur-de-lis and straight lines for writing. She created the designs not for class, but for herself.
Never, her proud parents say, had she been so sure of her abilities before.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Phoenix, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.