Inspiration can strike at any time. For Yaritza Morris’s Spanish II students at North Point High School, it often does when they are studying Black history of Cartagena, a Colonial city in Columbia.
It started during the pandemic when Morris was tasked with teaching virtually. “Because things were so different that year, I thought ‘OK, we’re going to do something in addition to what we typically do,’” Morris said, adding that Spanish II focuses on introducing students to the people, customs and cultures of whose language they are studying. “I wanted to do something a little bit more artistic to give the kids an outlet,” she said.
Students could sing, play an instrument, perform a regional dance, write a poem, complete a research project or draw or paint something that stood out to them about Cartagena.
“I was amazed at some of the stuff that came back,” Morris said.
Among the artwork were drawings and paintings of historical landmarks, of street entertainers who perform traditional and contemporary dances, and of las palenqueras — women wearing colorful traditional dresses who sell fruit, often balancing oversized bowls of watermelon, bananas and pineapple on top of their heads.
Morris was so impressed with the art; she shared some on the Fotos Antiguas de Cartagena — Old Photos of Cartagena — Facebook page. The page houses photos of Cartagena where visitors can post and view images related to the city and its residents, past and present. Morris posted during the pandemic because “everybody was home, everybody could have used a smile,” Morris said. “I posted pictures of the artwork with a message, ‘Sending love from Maryland. My students made these wonderful projects, and I loved them so much, I figured you guys would love it too.’”
Then came the 800 likes and more than 100 comments. Among them — “It makes us very happy that many people know our beautiful culture,” Zurelly Romero posted. Ariel Martinez Arteta added, “What beautiful drawings, very representative of Cartagena and its culture.”
Some posters asked if the work was done by students studying art in college. Morris let visitors know that the work was done by young high school students — freshmen and sophomores. The projects were part of a Spanish class assignment, completed by students who haven’t traveled to Cartagena or knew much about it before.
On familiar ground
Morris is familiar with Cartagena as her mother is a native. Morris grew up spending summers and holidays in the historic city. “I’m no stranger to Cartagena. When we started doing these projects on connecting Black history to Hispanic culture, I felt I could talk about Cartagena,” Morris said.
At one point in its history, Cartagena was the largest port of enslaved people arriving in South America after they were forcibly taken from Africa, Morris said. In the early 17th century, about 25 percent of the city’s population was made up of enslaved persons from Africa. Columbia abolished slavery in 1851. “Even now, Cartagena has a predominately Afro-descendant population, so I felt like I could talk about that and could answer questions that the kids had, because the kids always have really good questions,” Morris said.
If she couldn’t readily answer, Morris would research to find it even reaching out to the international relations office of the University of Cartagena and the city’s Ministry of Culture for resources.
Following the success of the project, Morris continues to assign it leaving it up to her students to decide if they want to sing, dance, draw, paint or research a paper.
“After learning about the history and seeing how the city has grown and how beautiful it is — it just changes your whole view,” Kennedy Griggs, a junior, said.
Morris was invited to speak at the University of Cartagena during its International Week earlier this year. Morris also brought along three canvases and 14 drawings submitted by her Spanish II students for inclusion in the university’s “What is fascinating about the Caribbean,” art show, overseen by Elkin Paternina, media center specialist at the University of Cartagena. Works featured in the show were culled from artists throughout the Caribbean. The submissions from North Point students are the only ones from the U.S., Morris said.
Davion Gross, a North Point junior, submitted a painting of the exterior face of the Hotel Santa Clara. When Morris saw it, she wondered why out of all the subject material, he chose a hotel. She didn’t have to wonder long. Gross expounded in his artist’s statement that had to be written in Spanish as part of the assignment. Now the Hotel Santa Clara, the structure was built in the early 1600s as a convent that housed Poor Clares, an order of cloistered nuns. Where the hotel pool now stands, was once the nuns’ gardens. Hotel guests can visit an on-site crypt that was unearthed during an excavation in the late 1940s. After the nuns were evicted from the grounds in the mid 1860s, the building was used at various times as a prison, hospital and medical school.
“Some of the buildings have been there for centuries. Most of them have big history about them that we didn’t learn about fully in class but were mentioned,” Gross said. “To be able to do research on them really painted a big picture. There’s a whole other world out there that we didn’t know about.”
Las palenqueras were a popular subject for the North Point artists. The fruit carrying women are a central part of Cartagena culture and represent the influence of African culture on the Caribbean coast.
North Point junior Hope Betts painted a fruit carrier wearing a colorful dress standing against a gray background. By choosing a subtle shade for the base of the work, “I thought it would make the color of the fruit ‘pop’,” Betts said.
Viewers of Betts’ painting on display in the art show through September had different interpretations. Some saw the gray representing the oppression of the subject’s enslaved ancestors or view the woman as “rising from the ashes.”
During Morris’s visit to the University of Cartagena, she took part in two lectures and a panel. She also spoke to students and faculty about expanding the scope of diversity in world language classrooms. “They asked me, ‘How does one teach culture in a way that doesn’t seem like a caricature,’” Morris said. “The answer is — with honesty.”
Charles County Public Schools provides 27,598 students in grades prekindergarten through 12 with an academically challenging education. Located in Southern Maryland, Charles County Public Schools has 37 schools that offer a technologically advanced, progressive and high quality education that builds character, equips for leadership and prepares students for life, careers and higher education.
The Charles County public school system does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, age or disability in its programs, activities or employment practices. For inquiries, please contact Kathy Kiessling, Title IX/ADA/Section 504 Coordinator (students) or Nikial M. Majors, Title IX/ADA/Section 504 Coordinator (employees/ adults), at Charles County Public Schools, Jesse L. Starkey Administration Building, P.O. Box 2770, La Plata, MD 20646; 301-932-6610/301-870-3814. For special accommodations call 301-934-7230 or TDD 1-800-735-2258 two weeks prior to the event.
CCPS provides nondiscriminatory equal access to school facilities in accordance with its Use of Facilities rules to designated youth groups (including, but not limited to, the Boy Scouts).