A toddler touches the cactus bloom in the mural of Our Lady of Guadalupe in South Park in Billings, Montana at its dedication on June 1, 2024 (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick).

By Darrell Ehrlick for Daily Montanan

 

Ysabelle Ruiz told classmates that her name was Bella Smith.

That was just easier.

It was easier not to explain the spelling of her name (yes, it begins with a Y, followed by an S).

It helped avoid conversations about the last name Ruiz, too. Those things often led to a conversation about her Mexican heritage and some of the associated hostility that goes along with that.

And her experiences weren’t so different than those of her fellow students who gathered before the unveiling ceremony at Billings’ South Park on Saturday.

They all told similar stories of students and residents making snide comments.

Of the five students, all said that someone has threatened to call Immigration Services on them. Several had been told the border wall at the southern U.S. border is meant for them.

However, on Saturday, students gathered to offer a different perspective to the community, including on the south side of Billings, which has been home to Hispanic families for more than a century. They literally put their mark on South Park, a popular gathering place. The students of Raza Unida, or united race in Spanish, created a mural that depicts Our Lady of Gudalupe with symbols that represent the experience of Chicanos and Latinos in Billings.

Raza Unida is a club in Billings Public Schools meant to showcase the diversity and culture of Hispanic students.

Billings, which is Montana’s largest city, is home to a large Hispanic community and celebrates the state’s oldest Hispanic cultural celebration and fiesta, dating back more than a century. Still, despite its history, these students talk about either being invisible, or even worse, targeted as “illegals” or lumped into a category of “Mexicans.”

The group hopes that creating the mural, which was brought to life through the painting of south Billings resident Elyssa Leininger, that people will see the depth of the Hispanic culture, which spans the western hemisphere. Even though Leininger said she’d never created a mural of Hispanic culture and is not a Latina, she grew up and still lives on the south side of Billings and said it was about creating more community in her neighborhood.

That’s the same for Alyssia Nava, the organizer of Raza Unida, who is part of the support staff at Billings Public Schools. She originally formed the group when she was a student to raise awareness and understanding, and restarted the group recently. Skyview High teacher Brooke Stone stepped in to become the advisor, saying even though she was not Hispanic, there was no way she’d let the group disappear because other teachers didn’t take an interest.

“It’s empowering for them to show their heritage and for other students, it helps them understand,” Stone said.

Billings Public School Superintendent Erwin Garcia-Velasquez, himself an immigrant from Colombia, was there to celebrate the moment and support the students on the day after school concluded for the year.

“It feels right that our students should have this,” he said.

Nava said the mural is a good first step for all students, and that even those who are unfamiliar with Hispanic cultures can begin a conversation.

“It’s truly been amazing to hear that they have the same passion. We stand by our Chicano and Latinos who are the future of this nation,” she said. “The more recognition we can get, the easier it will be for them to be OK as a Mexican-American or a Puerto Rican. We have done a great job with Indian Education for All, now it will be easier to get somewhere with this.”

Our Lady of Gudalupe holds particular importance because it symbolizes peace and transcends one particular country or identity. Flags from countries both in Central and South America, as well as the Caribbean, border the mural, and other symbols from Montana are incorporated into it just as the students have become part of the Billings community, the students said.

The students said that they wanted to choose a place in South Park because that’s traditionally been home to Hispanic families. They said they wanted to place the mural there as a symbol of pride, turning what is sometimes used as a putdown — being from the south side — to a point of pride.

“We wanted to expand people’s knowledge of Hispanic culture,” said Cecila Aarness.

For example, there is farming and sugar beets, a reference to the farmworkers who originally settled in northern Wyoming and throughout eastern Montana to work the back-breaking labor of tending and harvesting sugar beets.

Cecelia Aarness also pointed to the low-rider as something that demonstrates pride in an aspect uniquely Hispanic.

Ruiz explained the importance of the monarch butterflies to Mexicans in Montana — they journey from Mexico back to Montana, and have come to symbolize the spiritual connection between the two places and the generations who lived in both.

“This is a positive response to being called a ‘border hopper,’” Ruiz said. “Rather than just getting into an argument this is way to help form a positive reaction.”

Treyannah Lewis said including things like low-riders or Our Lady of Gudalupe is a way of claiming with pride the symbols of the culture, rather than downplaying them.

“This tells Hispanic people that they matter. It’s a big deal,” Lewis said.

Aarness said that most people associate Our Lady of Gudalupe with the ubiquitous candles used in many Roman Catholic homes.

“This brings her outside, into the world. It’s a main representation in Hispanic culture,” Aarness said. “This brings her outside, into the light.”