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Puerto Rican Arts Alliance Brings Community Together Through Art

Art Educator Lauren Ball-Wirsum's classroom

Carlos Hernandez, moved to the Humboldt Park neighborhood 30 years ago and fell in love with the community. In 1998, he started the Puerto Rican Arts Alliance (PRAA), an art and culture organization which was originally met in his basement.

Though initially without much of a structured curriculum, the organization has remained dedicated to its mission to educate Chicagoans about Puerto Rican culture and cultivate pride through art, said Hernandez. Today the PRAA programs currently serve metropolitan Chicago and the Midwest and draws followers from as far as New York and California.

“Our mission is what drives the organization,” Hernandez said.

Digital Media Graphics and Arts Manager Daniel Perez has been a member of PRAA for the past three and a half years. Growing up in Humboldt Park, he recalls fond memories of  the neighborhood’s “togteherness” and being with his family. Perez also remembers the music played from passing cars. He described it as “the sound of Puerto Rico.”

“Now as an individual of my community, I try to take my memories and share them with the youth through art,” Perez said.

Many Humboldt Park residents feel the gentrification in their neighborhood, and Perez said he believes embracing culture and holding on to who you are is even more important for that reason.

“I want the youth to understand and remember their culture and the new residents to be aware of Puerto Rican culture,” Perez said.

Although the organization is solely based on Puerto Rican culture, as an art education organization, PRAA welcomes everyone to get involved, said PRAA Art Educator Lauren Ball-Wirsum. PRAA programs are ideal for students who are serious about building a portfolio as part of an advanced art curriculum, said Wisrum.

“As an art educator, their art is paramount to us,” Wirsum said.

Wirsum focuses not only on arts education, but also contemporary art. She designs a lesson plan for her students, gives her students space to channel their creativity and has them display their work for a class critique.

During the critique, students gather around their pieces presented at the front of the classroom. Each student discusses what they like about each piece, what they did not like and possible suggestions for the piece.

PRAA has not only allowed the youth of the community to embrace Puerto Rican culture, but to maintain their individuality and become comfortable with who they are.

Chicago Bulls College Prep student Ken Aquino described himself as withdrawn before becoming involved with PRAA’s art program. But the program has helped him come out of his shell: “Everyone interacts with each other, everyone knows each other. It’s a friendly atmosphere. Art brings everyone together.”

Schurz High School student Arlo Andino describes Wirsum’s class as a second home, a  “getaway” and “three hours of freedom.”

“The class gives me more time to work on art and inspires me to improve,” Andino said. “I have all the equipment here I can use, and I can finish my homework.”

Andino says he created his first painting at the program, which was a new experience for him. The program allows him to escape from the stress from school work and personal issues.

The surge of a students’ confidence from their work not only impacts the student, but the staff members of PRAA as well.

“Seeing a lot of students coming in with a lack of confidence and leaving more confident is a memorable moment for me,” Perez said.

Executive Director and Founder Hernandez said his favorite memory at PRAA was looking at an exhibition conceived and created by students in the art program. That really demonstrated for him the program’s success and its impact on students, he said.

Maria Garcia, Humboldt Park resident and mother of three, originally heard about the organization through her children’s school, Jose de Diego. All of her children attend the art program in Humboldt Park, while she attends violin classes at PRAA’s Logan Square branch.

Garcia said that many people seem scared of her neighborhood and are oblivious to the many great programs available to Humboldt Park youth. The educators at PRAA are extremely attentive to their students, she added.

“If children don’t show up, teachers usually call home,” Garcia said.

PRAA also holds many events throughout the year.

“Loíza in Chicago” is a traveling exhibition held at the beginning of the year.  It explores the West African and Spanish history of the Vejigante tradition of Puerto Rico. The exhibition features the art making of Caribbean costumes and masks, complemented by the sounds and rhythms of Afro-Caribbean drums and dances that are fundamental to the annual carnival celebration in the town of Loíza, Puerto Rico.

“Cuatro Festival” is PRAA’s biggest event and is held annually for the past 13 years. It’s PRAA’s largest fundraiser and has become a tradition for many people throughout Chicago. Local artists are invited to perform and share their music with thousands of Chicagoans.

The Visiting Artist program is an end of the year exhibition that takes places once a year in Logan Square. Wirsum is in charge of the event and will display her students’ art for the whole city to see.

“I’m so excited to show the students’ work,” Wirsum said. “This will truly be stepping out of the community.”

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