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Eighth-graders Sever Menez (from left), Andrew Vargas, Cristal Palmeros and Jonatan Barahona and the new mural at Madero Middle School they helped create in collaboration with students in Rwanda,
Eighth-graders Sever Menez (from left), Andrew Vargas, Cristal Palmeros and Jonatan Barahona and the new mural at Madero Middle School they helped create in collaboration with students in Rwanda,
James Foster / Sun-Times

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A world apart, students from Little Village, Rwanda come together through art

They exchanged artwork including their handprints and words urging resilience that now adorn one school in Chicago and another in the central African nation.

The swaths of fabric are painted with children’s handprints and emblazoned with messages of resilience. Over the past three years, students in Little Village and Rwanda exchanged them.

Now, the artwork of each group is part of a mural that hangs outside the other’s school, a daily reminder of the struggles for justice and peace that unites them across continents.

At Francisco I. Madero Middle School, 3202 W. 28th St, a mural on the east side of the school building depicts dozens of colorful butterflies flying from a barren tree with thick roots.

A new mural at Madero Middle School that was created in collaboration with students in Rwanda.
A new mural at Madero Middle School that was created in collaboration with students in Rwanda.
James Foster / Sun-Times

A blue ribbon stretches around the school, bearing the words “Building Hope” in English and also in Spanish and Kinyarwanda, one of Rwanda’s four official languages.

Some of the butterflies were painted by students at the Golden Drop School in Rwesero, a small town an hour outside Kigali, the central African nation’s capital city.

Essentially, the students paint on the fabric, which is highly durable, able to be affixed to an outdoor wall and to survive winters and wall washes with occasional touch-ups.

Priya Shah, founder and executive director of The Simple Good.
James Foster / Sun-Times

Golden Drop serves 60 students from 3 to 7 years old. Their parents are survivors of the 1994 genocide that saw ethnic Hutu extremists slaughter more than 800,000 members of the minority Tutsi community and moderate Hutus — about 12% of the country’s population — in less than four months.

“Learning about Rwanda and what those students have gone through was important,” says Sever Menez, an eighth-grader at Madero. “We wanted to show them we cared, too.”

Madero and Golden Drop students were brought together through The Simple Good, a Chicago not-for-profit organization founded by Oak Park native Priya Shah whose aim is to empower marginalized kids across the globe through public art projects.

Rita Márquez, an art teacher at Madero Middle School who got the mural project with Rwandan children started by contacting The Simple Good.
Rita Márquez, an art teacher at Madero Middle School who got the mural project with Rwandan children started by contacting The Simple Good.
James Foster / Sun-Times

“When students learn about the struggles in a different part of the world, it puts their own obstacles into perspective and makes them want to do something about it,” Shah says. “Engaging through the arts fosters a sense of empathy and understanding that they can carry with them for the rest of their lives.”

In the 1970s, Shah’s family and more than 70,000 fellow South Asians were expelled from Rwanda’s neighbor Uganda, where many of their families had lived for decades. Shah’s family fled to India and moved to the United States a few years later.

“My mother was born in Uganda and lived there up until her 20s,” she says. “The reason why I started The Simple Good was because I saw the different forms of resilience in my family and around the world.”

Rita Márquez, who has been an art teacher at Madero for more than a decade, had heard about The Simple Good and contacted Shah.

Hector Duarte and the mural that adorns his home in Pilsen.
Hector Duarte and the mural that adorns his home in Pilsen.
Rick Majewski / Sun-Times

“I wanted my students to have something to focus on, instead of all the negative news you sometimes get out of Little Village,” Márquez says.

She got Héctor Duarte, the well-known Pilsen artist whose works have included turning his own home into a giant mural, to give her students a master class on muralism and help them mold the project from start to finish.

“I started with them from scratch,” Duarte says. “We came together to really understand what this project really means to them and the community. The students were the ones that chose the symbols. It was all very democratic.”

The blue ribbon bears the words “Building hope” in English, Spanish and (right) Kinyarwanda, one of Rwanda’s four official languages.
The blue ribbon bears the words “Building hope” in English, Spanish and (right) Kinyarwanda, one of Rwanda’s four official languages.
James Foster / Sun-Times
The new mural at Madero Middle School that was created in collaboration with students in Rwanda.
The new mural at Madero Middle School that was created in collaboration with students in Rwanda.
James Foster / Sun-Times

When’s Shah’s organization first got Golden Drop involved, she didn’t know that the school in Rwanda didn’t have a proper classroom in which its students could work on the mural. So The Simple Good built two classrooms for them.

The project involving the two schools has been in the works since 2016.

Márquez hopes to keep adding to the mural over the years, so that ultimately it will wrap around the rest of Madero.

“This was such a big step for all of us to work on something this big at a young age,” says Cristal Palmeros, a Madero eighth-grader. “I’m happy more students will get to share that opportunity.”

Students at the Golden Drop School in Rwanda.
Students at the Golden Drop School in Rwanda.
Cam Be
The mural that students at the Golden Drop School in Rwesero, Rwanda, did in collaboration with the Little Village students.
The mural that students at the Golden Drop School in Rwesero, Rwanda, did in collaboration with the Little Village students.
Cam Be

Click on the map below for a selection of Chicago-area murals

Carlos Ballesteros is a corps members of Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster Sun-Times coverage of Chicago’s South Side and West Side.

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