Students create cultural mural

MAY 8, 2024

A new painting rich in symbols and colors and abundant with promise, family solidarity, and roots traced six centuries into the past will soon hang in a central Illinois Valley Community College corridor near a popular student gathering spot.

The 13-foot-by-10-foot canvas, completed by IVCC’s Hispanic Leadership Team and conceived by its president, Ariana Benitez, is now on display in the hall leading to the Student Life Space in time to be noticed by graduates and adult learners at commencement ceremonies.

Benitez’s central figure, The Graduate, wears an oversized graduation gown and is being cradled by a large pair of hands. The gown symbolizes “all the possibilities you can grow into.” The hands stand for “all the hard work of our ancestors to make us what we are now,” she said.

Draped over The Graduate’s shoulders is a scarf in rainbow colors like a traditional serape, and behind the figure is a sunny disc featuring flags of the Latin American region. The figure’s mortar board tilts over its eyes in Benitez’s nod to muralist Diego Rivera’s spirit of universality and timelessness.

Classmates spent the school year completing the mural, stopping in for an hour or two between classes to surround Benitez’s centerpiece with scenes framed in triangles. “We did it in sections to give everybody a way to contribute. You feel what you feel and put it on canvas,” she said.

Elements range from an Aztec calendar and a temple to familiar musical instruments, a dancer, foods, national sports like soccer and boxing and familiar plants like cactus and agave. The popular game loteria is represented, as is a tree with multi-colored leaves symbolizing family. Aztec influence and traditions carry over into modern day Mexico.

The minor elements are as important as the central character and carry on the theme that “this mural only works because of the help of others,” Benitez said.

Plants, foods and scenery so rooted in Hispanic cultural and physical landscape reminded Yair Santiago of when he was a child and moved with his family back to Mexico briefly. “Everything’s so familiar,” he says as he studies the painting and recalls how family ties made adapting to and learning about that new culture enjoyable.

The small Illinois village where Ashton Watkins grew up didn’t expose him to a variety of cultures, but HLT and IVCC supplied plenty of diversity. “I always wanted to travel, and HLT helped me learn about other cultures.”

“We embrace and celebrate different cultures wherever we come from,” Advisor Sara Escatel acknowledged Watkins’ statement. “We pass on our appreciation of our culture and make sure people are proud of where they’re from.”

HLT’s launch less than 14 years ago opened a welcome committee and a support system for incoming students as Hispanic-language enrollment started to rise, Escatel recalled. The organization had 19 members this year.

Aseret Loveland remembers needing the role models and peer models who emerged. “I only knew Sara. I didn’t see many people who looked like me,” the Project Success counselor recalled of her student years.

Many students may be first-generation college students competing with cultural expectations and not knowing how to reach their graduation or career goals, Escatel said. Benitez remembers when she started college last year feeling “super alone. It was hard to engage.”

Since then, she’s raised her visibility on campus and found a voice, though “I’m not outspoken and it’s still a struggle,” she says. Art provided an outlet and a solace, and she wants to pursue it as a career.

Through a career in art therapy, she hopes to “help people use art the way art helped me. I’ve been into drawing and painting for a long time, and it’s still my career path, but from another direction. I want to help people and children to express themselves when words don’t help.”

Benitez had always wanted to create artwork for a school she attended to memorialize her time there, and now that dream has come true too. “I’ve done that now with friends and a community that made it all possible. We’ve left our mark here!”

The art doesn’t yet have a title, but a brief brainstorm across the table yielded a possible one. The quote from civil rights activist Cesar Chavez -- “Si, Se Puede!” -- has become a slogan in Spanish culture, Escatel said.

It means: “Yes, it can be done.”