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The Hartford Courant
Celebrating Diversity Through Art
By LORETTA WALDMAN, In the Schools New Britain
June 11, 2004
It's called piragua, and it's one of Michael Vasquez's favorite treats. The Italian ice-like confection served in paper cones and drizzled with coconut, passion fruit or cherry-flavored syrup was something he enjoyed often in Puerto Rico, where he lived before moving to New Britain four years ago.
When asked to paint a symbol of his homeland, that's what popped into his head, said Michael, now 14 and an eighth-grader at Pulaski Middle School. His depiction of one of the wooden carts used by piragua peddlers is one of many symbols crowding the colorful, four-panel mural created by him and other students in the school's bilingual and bridge programs.
At an unveiling ceremony at the school Tuesday, Michael pointed to the image proudly. More of his handiwork - a blue river winding through a shaded grove - adorns another panel.
"I liked this project," he said as his beaming mother looked on.
To complete the mural, students worked two or three days a week, for five weeks.
Assisting them in the effort was Ana Davila, their teacher and a visual artist. Humberto Castro, a visiting artist hired with a grant from the Greater Hartford Arts Council, also helped.
The undertaking was intended to help the Spanish-speaking students, who come from a multidude of regions, understand the importance of their heritage and varied cultures.
"So they can feel proud and know how important it is to follow traditions and keep them alive," said Davila. "That's what makes us special."
Students huddled behind the waist-high mural as school Principal Ann Carabillo pulled away a dark fabric drape. The crowd of parents, teachers and central office administrators gathered to watch in the school's media center snapped cameras and clapped.
Where it will hang has not been decided, Carabillo said. It will likely be the media center or the front foyer of the school, she said.
Creating it involved more than just mixing paint.
Students had to measure, read and do research on the Internet.
"It was not just an art project, "Carabillo said. "It embodied all the skills we think our kids need to be good citizens."
After posing for a picture with Castro, Josue Valentin, 13, excitedly showed his mother his contribution to the mural. An amapola - a hibiscus-like flower with floppy red petals - is a favorite in Puerto Rico.
Josue came to the mainland just six months ago, explained his mom, Wanda Vega. He has been drawing since he was a boy, she said, and someday hopes to be an illustrator.
El Moro, a landmark fortress in Puerto Rico, dominates the lower half of the same panel. A coqui - or native tree frog - adorns another panel. A vejigante - a stylized mask worn by folkloric dancers on the island commonwealth - glares out from yet another.
Besides Puerto Rico, students have come from Mexico, Equador, Peru and Colombia. Aztec calendars, Mayan temples and a mission were among the symbols they chose.
While they share a common language, not all Spanish-speaking regions are the same, said Davila. In addition to appreciating their own cultures, she hoped students would come away with a better understanding of others.
"So we can see that we are all parts of a puzzle," Davila said. "That we need each one of us to make a whole."