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Art museum camps lets kids connect to roots

Updated: September 7, 2012 11:37AM

On a recent visit to the National Museum of Mexican Art, I saw adults of all ages quietly studying murals with steady eyes.

In a nearby stage room the vibe was electric as children awkwardly and excitedly tried to nail the steps of an Aztec folkloric dance to the pace of a beating drum.

This is how the museum operates in the summer, showcasing Mexican art in quiet, pristine displays in its gallery while devoting six hours daily Monday through Friday to 7- to 12-year-olds at its bilingual summer camp housed in the same building on West 19th Street.

“We don’t force Spanish on them,” said Montsserrat Hernandez, the museum’s education outreach manager. “But we speak it constantly.”

The children were mostly second- or third-generation Latinos whose families get caught in a tug-of-war of languages. Parents want their children to master English without losing Spanish.

“I’m looking for different ways to have Spanish in my son’s life,” said Rocio Calderon, whose son Edgar, 9, is a first-timer at the camp. “The bad thing is when a [Latino] child grows up and says, ‘You didn’t teach me Spanish.’ ”

English is the primary language for campers, evident by their chatter. One month of summer camp will not make them bilingual, but it gives them an appreciation for the language and art.

That’s why Dan Binderg brings son Carlos, 10, from a nearby suburb each weekday in July. Binderg’s wife has Cuban and Colombian roots, but “Mexican culture is more accessible” in Chicago, Binderg said. “It’s important that he gets that influence and connects with Latin culture. We want him to develop a broad range of cultural interests.”

The camp is in its sixth year and has 28 children enrolled, up from 25 last year. That’s all a small educational staff of nine and three interns can handle.

The museum doesn’t even have a marketing team, Hernandez added.

The nonprofit relies on grants and donations for its programs.

Word has spread about the individual attention students receive at the camp. Enrollment filled up this year within a week of the March 1 sign-up date.

There are many returnees, such as Kasha Wisniewski, who at 13 is now a camp counselor. “I’m Polish, Irish and German,” Wisniewski said. “But I can understand some parts of Spanish. The first year was kind of weird. There was so much Spanish. Now it’s normal.”

The camp costs $275, a pretty good deal if you break it down by the hour, yet it’s still too much for the neediest families. The museum’s educational staff is trying to remedy that.

Thanks to state and federal grants, the museum has been implementing after-school programs at a handful of Chicago Public Schools. Some schools allow teaching artists to incorporate art in their curriculum during the school day.

There is usually resistance from principals initially, but once the programs are launched, administrators are pleased, said Jose Luis Gutierrez, the museum’s associate director of education.

“We need the Chicago Public Schools to have a buy-in,” Gutierrez said. “There is competition against academic improvement because of the emphasis on standardized tests rather than learning from one another.”

In many ways, art is no different from sports.

“It’s the same sort of challenge,” Gutierrez said. “It’s students working together for an exhibit and pooling their talents like athletes do for a big game. It takes the same type of rigor to draw as it does to shoot a free throw.”

And it takes a lot of practice. There is no better place for that than summer camp.

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