Multicultural Stew

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.

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Marc Ramirez