GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (GRPS) — Erick Picardo stood in front of Sung Pak’s fifth-grade class at César E. Chávez Elementary, the smile on his face as bright as his colorful jacket (part of a new venture called Wearable Art by Picardo).

“We’re celebrating,” he said. “We’re celebrating something important this month. What is it?”

Several student hands shot into the air, and Picardo pointed to one eager boy.

“Yes, he said. “What is it?”

“Hispanic month,” came the answer, and Picardo’s smile grew even bigger.

“Yes, yes,” he exclaimed. “And what is this school’s name?”

More hands shot in the air and without prompting several students said in unison: “César Chávez.”

“César Chávez is a legacy,” Picardo replied. “He’s someone we celebrate this month and here, every month. But we’re putting together a wonderful idea today, we’re going to celebrate you and us, our heritage, our culture. I want to encourage you to know your history with pride and embrace your culture. And today, I want you to work on some art that says something about who you are, your identity.”

With that, Pak’s 28 students began to draw on canvases with pencil and then after that to explore further with brushes and paints. The room settled into a rhythm as Picardo, Pak, EL Coach Kelly Desouza and EL parent liaison Karrie Roy went from desk to desk and student to student, offering encouragement and praise and advice as the students quietly set about the task before them.

Later Picardo, a Grand Rapids-based visual and performing artist who hails from the Dominican Republic, talked about the magic of art, and its ability to help a whole classroom of fifth-graders quiet down and get busy.

“I truly believe in the power of art,” he said. “Art encourages fine motor skills and problem-solving. Kids love arts. It’s a fact. I always want them to learn new things, especially from their own roots, culture and history. And one of the things that I like is that I feel very young when I work with them.”

Pak, who has been a GRPS teacher for 26 years, said she was thrilled to have Picardo with her students.

“I loved that Erick, a successful artist, shared his work, time and talent with my scholars,” she said. “It was extra-special because Erik brought his love of his culture and people and embedded it into his art. This allowed my students to think about who they are, the possibilities of what they could be and how they could contribute to society.”

Picardo’s time with Pak’s class at César E. Chávez Elementary was one of eight classrooms he visited over a two-day period as part of a month-long celebration in GRPS schools of Hispanic Heritage Month.

At Sibley Elementary, where he worked with enthusiastic second-graders, the time began with a conversation about the importance of music in Hispanic culture, followed by the distribution of acrylic paints and cardboard guitars for Sibley scholars to customize.

Some began painting with the colors of the Mexican flag, and others experimented with mixing colors to create new ones.

After scholars brought their colorful guitars to the drying rack, they finished their workshop with a dance party and then cooled down with a soothing, breathing exercise. 

Like Pak, Sibley teacher Bernice Wisnieski loved what Picardo brought to her class.

“His thoughtful gift to our kids was the opportunity to express their hearts through art,” she said. “It was a unique experience that enriched all of our lives.”

Kay Smith, the English Learner Coordinator for GRPS, noted in addition to the hands-on art projects, Picardo also provided a Latin drum assembly at Innovation Central High School.

In addition to Picardo’s in-person visits, Latino authors F. Isabel Campoy and Duncan Tonatiuh were part of the GRPS Hispanic Heritage Month celebrations virtually.

Tonatiuh presented from his books, Separate Is Never Equal and The Princess and the Warrior, virtually to elementary school students at Sibley and César E. Chávez Elementary. Campoy present virtually from her book “Yes! We Are Latinos,” which features poems and prose about the Latino experience, for students at Dickinson Academy and Burton Middle School.

Tonatiuh is an award-winning author-illustrator who is both Mexican and American. 

His artwork, Smith added, is inspired by Mesoamerican art and his aim is to create images and stories that honor the past, but are relevant today, especially to children.

Campoy is an author and an educator specializing in the area of literacy and home school interaction, topics on which she lecturers nationally.

Smith said her presentation focused on the importance of literacy and on having an awareness of cultural identities.

Read more about the Hispanic Heritage Month activities at GRPS with Southwest Elementary Academia Bilingüe's celebration.