IVCC students create Hispanic cultural mural

Painting incorporates symbolism about cultural history and education

The Hispanic Leadership Team at Illinois Valley Community College exhibits a newly completed cultural heritage mural Wednesday, May 1, 2024. The mural is now displayed in a hallway leading to the Student Life Space. Presenting the artwork are (from left) Emily Tran, Ashton Watkins, Emma Coss, Ariana Benitez, Jennifer Cortes, Allayna Elnicki, Azul Flores and Lynn Keyt.

A new painting rich with symbols and colors will greet passersby in an Illinois Valley Community College corridor near a popular student gathering spot.

The 13-by-10-foot canvas – created by IVCC’s Hispanic Leadership Team and conceived by the group’s president, Ariana Benitez – is on display in the hall leading to the Student Life Space.

The Graduate, Benitez’s central figure in the mural, 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,” and the hands are symbolic of “all the hard work of our ancestors to make us what we are now,” Benitez said.

Draped over the Graduate’s shoulders is a rainbow-colored scarf like a traditional serape, and behind the figure is a sunny disc featuring flags of the Latin America region. The figure’s mortar board tilts over its eyes, which Benitez said is a 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,” Benitez said.

Cultural elements featured in the triangles include an Aztec calendar and a temple to familiar musical instruments, a dancer, foods, national sports such as soccer and boxing, and familiar plants such as a cactus and agave. The popular game loteria is represented, as well as a tree with multicolored leaves symbolizing family. Aztec influence and traditions carry over into modern 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 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,” Santiago said as he studied the painting.

He said family ties made adapting to and learning about that new culture enjoyable.

Ashton Watkins said the Illinois village where he grew up didn’t expose him to much variety of cultures, but HLT and IVCC have supplied plenty of diversity.

“I always wanted to travel, and HLT helped me learn about other cultures,” he said.

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

When HLT was established about 14 years ago, it opened a welcome committee and a support system for incoming students as Hispanic-language enrollment started to rise, Escatel said. The organization had 19 members this school year.

Aseret Loveland, a counselor for Project Success, remembers needing the HLT role models and peer models who emerged during her student years.

“I only knew Sara [Escatel]. I didn’t see many people who looked like me,” Loveland said.

Escatel said many students may be first-generation college students competing with cultural expectations and not knowing how to reach their graduation or career goals.

Benitez said she 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. Art provided an outlet and a solace, and she wants to pursue it through a career in art therapy. She said she hopes to help people use art the same way it helped her.

“I want to help people and children to express themselves when words don’t help,” Benitez said.

The painting doesn’t have a title yet, but a brief brainstorm among its creators yielded a possible one. A 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.”

Have a Question about this article?