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 Feature Article: For Art's Sake - Using a Museum-on-
 Wheels to Teach Mexican-American Children Ancient
 Values and History


by David Garlock

Many people in Texas volunteer their time to help children adapt to a difficult world, but few reach out to Mexican-American children in South Texas with the passion, panache and cultural fervor of Debbie and Ricardo Backal.

They introduce Mexican-American children to museum-quality art through  their  “Museum Goes to School” program, coordinated with the La Joya ISD in South Texas.

With six children of their own, ranging in age from 8 to 25, the Backals own Half Spoon, a McAllen, Texas organization that promotes art from Mexico and South Texas and features traveling exhibits aimed mainly at children who have had very little or no contact with art and museums.

They began work in Texas in 2006, emphasizing  a  family tradition of collecting, studying and promoting art. “Our main goal is to bring art to as many people as possible, especially students of all ages in order to preserve art (and) preserve history,” Ricardo states.

The outgoing Ricardo, with piercing blue eyes and a full, well-trimmed beard, is a dynamic personality who matches well with his wife, who is more reserved yet shares the same vibrancy and passion for the subject.   “Many of these children are seeing a museum for the first time,” Ricardo explains. “Children hold art in their own hands. It is no longer something they only read in books,” he says.

Ricardo has a bachelor’s degree in architecture from the National University in Mexico City and comes from an educated family. He credits his architect father, who is also an art collector, for spurring his interest in art. His mother has a Ph.D. in history and it shows in his conversation and thought process.

He also participates in Imagekind, a commercial website that prints and sells his print-on-demand images to the public. It also includes a social networking and marketing site for artists and customers.

Debbie is also well educated, holding an English teaching degree from the National University in Mexico City and is currently finishing her studies in Jewish education in Gratz College in Philadelphia.

You can ‘Touch’ the Paintings

The Backals museum-on-wheels for South Texas children features a rotating exhibit of some 30 calendar paintings, both in oil and canvas, their family has collected over half a century. Knowing few museums allow visitors to touch actual paintings, the Backals’ took the opposite approach, encouraging children to touch and feel them at will --- not to mention the silver, coins, classic piggy banks and other examples of art they bring with them. “We trust them and they see that,” Debbie explains. “They will remember having it in their hands.”

They approach a class with the idea it is a two-way street more than lecturing, Ricardo explains. “When they arrive at the classroom they see something they have never seen before. We are not like regular teachers with a blackboard behind us.”

That is an understatement.  It’s logical to assume these children, many from one of the poorest areas in Texas, have never experienced anything like the ‘Team Backal’ method before. The Mexican couple prepares to show a full art and Mexican Calendar painting exhibition, and more subtle --- but no less important --- elements of Mexican culture and history, plus the values of hard work, pride and self-esteem.


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