By Andrea May Sahouri, Des Moines Register
Melissa Perez was pumped when she learned her Spanish Heritage class would be painting an El Chapulín Colorado mural for East High School.
“He’s a very positive character, a you-can-do-anything type,” Perez, 16, said of the character. El Chapulín Colorado — or, in English, “The Red Grasshopper” — is a superhero character in the 1970s Mexican comedy television show with the same name.
Like many generations of Latinos, Perez watched the show when she was little.
“He’s very inspiring,” she said. “This mural is something that represents Latino culture in the community. We’re showing that we were always here, and we’re making ourselves heard more.”
Nearly half of East’s student population is Latino and/or Hispanic, according to Des Moines Public Schools enrollment data.
This year has been full of tragedy, particularly impacting its Latino community. In March, a drive-by-shooting outside of the school left one Latino teenager dead and two others injured. In April, Ema Cardenas, 14, a Latina freshman at East, was fatally struck by a car near the school.
Still, the students at East are strong, said Ruby Herrera, East’s AP Spanish and Spanish Heritage teacher. She said she wanted to do something that reminds students of their strength.
So, Herrera worked with local Latino artist Seso Marentes.
“We wanted to capture the hope, the love, and the strength that lives everyday in our hallways,” Herrera, 42, said.
When discussing what images represent those qualities, “Seso was like ‘Boom! Chapulín.’ El Chapulín Colorado is our hero, and through any tragedy, he always reminded Latinos to laugh, to bring joy. Laughter is our remedy,” Herrera said.
“There’s a hero in every Scarlet. I needed them to have that visual.”
‘Not everyone is able to experience this’
About 140 students from Herrera’s AP Spanish and Spanish Heritage classes helped paint the mural in mid-May.
At first, Marentes was nervous. The artist had never worked with that many teenagers before, he said, and worried about getting them engaged.
But when he asked the students to write their names on the back of the mural, which was designed on a large square wood canvas, he also asked them to make one wish.
“Once they got those markers in their hands, and made their wish, the engagement was there. Every time I busted that marker out,” Marentes, 39, said.
“It was a crazy experience. It was awesome.”
Carols Guerra, 15, said he felt the importance this mural has on Latino representation at East and made sure every one of his classmates participated.
“Not everyone is able to experience this — working on a mural that represents the community, the Latinx community, at this school,” he said.
The mural’s design is part of the artist’s “Iowa Series,” a self-identification project. To show that Latino history and culture is also American history and culture, it features an image of El Chapulín Colorado in red and blue, with red and white stripes in the background. And to show that Latinos belong in Iowa, a bridge — like the ones designed on Des Moines’ flag — was drawn to the left and to the right of El Chapulín Colorado.
The work is getting early kudos.
“I think it’s beautiful….It is a great way to lift up our presence and our community, to raise awareness and think of the contributions we make to the community. But most importantly, it’s a great way to remind our kids that the potential that we have is limitless,” Maria Alonzo-Diaz, an at large Des Moines school board member, said.
Just by listening to students and interacting with them, “I know a lot of these students relate to the same issues that I had growing up in Iowa,” Martenes said.
“Kids want community. That’s what they’re saying.”
Herrera agreed. “The kids were saying, ‘We want more of this.’ You can see that they are craving it,” she said.
Soon, the mural will be displayed at East, possibly in the school’s front entrance or its cafeteria, Herrera said.
And when students look at El Chapulín Colorado, the one they created, Herrera said she hopes they see this: “It’s us. We know who this is. This is East. This is joy. This is hope.”
Andrea Sahouri covers social justice for the Des Moines Register. She can be contacted at [email protected], on Twitter @andreamsahouri, or by phone 515-284-8247.