A small but growing University of Wyoming program is taking undergraduate learning outside of the classroom to increase students’ understanding of a particular culture on local and global levels.
As UW undergraduate students file into Room 255 at the Laramie Plains Civic Center on Thursday, their heads all turn to the brightly colored, three-paneled mural that spans almost the entire width of the wall. Clustered depictions of Latinos from the history of Albany County, Wyoming and the nation comprise the mural that adorns of the wall of the bilingual radio station KOCA 93.5. The students were stepping off the UW campus for the morning to engage in an interactive visual learning assignment.
Cecilia Aragón, UW associate professor and director of the Latina/o studies program, said the idea of the exercise is to help the students intimately understand Latino culture and the role is has and does play in Wyoming.
“We fear what we don’t know,” Aragón said. “This will give the students the cultural competency of a different culture outside of the dominant, mainstream Anglo culture in Wyoming.”
The mural, Walls that Speak, was painted by Laramie native Steveon Lucero and illustrates the history of Latino communities and leaders in Wyoming’s history. Some of the depictions are of non-specific unidentified characters, such as agricultural workers, while others are of specific individuals, including Albany County Clerk Jackie Gonzales.
Aragón said the mural is a “prime resource” for anyone doing research on Latinos and Latinas in the Rocky Mountain Region. With a fast-growing population in Wyoming, Aragón said it’s important to emphasize the role art plays in that culture, which is why the visual art portion of the first year seminar course Latino Popular Culture.
“It becomes really important for students to see Latinos represented in a different form,” she said. “It’s not just about reading a book or another document, because this is actually seeing a narrative in visual form.”
There are about 20 students enrolled in Aragón’s seminar course and approximately 15 in the Latina/o Studies program. But as she enters her 13th year as the program’s director, Aragón said it’s growing in numbers.
“I keep meeting with students every day who are wanting to become part of this program,” she said.
The program focuses on Latino culture through a study of humanities, arts and social science, Aragón said.
In addition to informing students about an under-appreciated part of Wyoming’s history, Aragón said she thinks the program helps students of all backgrounds identify with Latino culture, making for more whole-rounded graduates, and studying the arts is an effective way of tapping into that understanding.
“It’s about understanding what the human spirit is about,” she said. “It’s about developing compassion for others who are different and have differences instead of becoming a divisive society. Instead of engaging in divisive politics, I’m hoping this teaches our young people how to practice compassion.”
Tumasie Hellebuick is originally from California, but came from Salt Lake City to attend UW. Before making the decision to attend classes at UW, the College of Business major said he wasn’t aware there was a Latino studies program. Knowing the university is experiencing budget cuts, Hellebuick said he was hesitant to come to UW because he feared programs focusing on cultural diversity would be on the chopping block. Today, Hellebuick is studying for his minor in Latina/o Studies.
“I think that this class is important because it helps bring back up how diversity is important to the state of Wyoming,” he said.
Hailing from Gillette, Erica Rives is an Elementary Education major and hopes to teach in a dual immersion setting. She said the course is an opportunity to engage with her cultural background.
“I wanted to learn more about Latino culture because, in my town, it’s very small and they really don’t teach us a lot about our past, of Latinos in Wyoming,” Rives said. “This class opened my eyes to Wyoming having a lot of Latino culture and how it’s still growing.”
Rives said she thinks there are people in Wyoming who could stand to benefit from learning about Latinos in a way that visually connects them to the culture, as displayed in the mural.
“There are people who don’t know about Latinos; how much we struggled and went there to get where we are now,” Rives said. “I really liked how they expressed a lot of our culture in it, like the baptism and first communion. It was cool to see they have Vicente Fernández — a really awesome musician — it just focuses on everything in Latino culture. ... It brings a realistic view where you’re actually living it by seeing the pictures and imagining yourself being there.”
Jackson native Laura Perez, a Psychology major with a minor in Spanish, said the visual element added intrigue to the subject matter a textbook likely couldn’t provide.
“You can see the history right there rather than reading from a textbook — reading from a textbook is kind of boring,” Perez said.
Though several of Aragón’s students do have a Latino background, she said her students for the course are predominantly Anglo. This semester, two of those Anglo students are Ben Nathan and Talmage Peden. Both are spent time in Central America while performing missions for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Nathan said he didn’t even anticipate he would learn to speak Spanish, impeding his ability to relate to people in a foreign country. But during the time, he said his experience taught him people are people.
“After maybe two months, people would say, ‘You’re a cool gringo, you’re just like a Latino; even though you’re white, you act just like we do,’” Nathan said.
During his mission, Peden became engaged to a Peruvian woman, which led in part to his interest in the course. While learning about his fiancé’s cultural background, Peden said visual learning elements such as the mural enhanced his understanding of the struggles minorities can face in Wyoming and the U.S. With many of the characters representing real Wyoming Latinos, he said it was easier to identify with the humanity of their experiences.
“It does help to visualize, because it’s not just a general representation,” he said. “There are names to the faces that contributed to the Latino culture and community.”
Given the current political and social climate in the U.S., Aragón said she thinks diversity education is more important than ever.
“The demographics of the U.S. are changing rapidly, and can just see our presidential candidates are pandering to a diverse group of people,” she said. “Diversity is very, very important to the changing demographics of the U.S.”