By Raymond R. Beltran
It’s been thirty four years today, March 23, 1973, since the first mural was resurrected along Logan Avenue in Barrio Logan, introducing a park that is today nationally registered as a historical piece of land.
With a vibrant array of colors that shocked a community at the time, images of revolutionary figures like Emiliano Zapata, Frida Khalo, Cesar Chavez, and The Brown Berets were painted on the off-ramp wall at the foot of the Coronado Bay Bridge by a band of self-proclaimed Chicano artists, who ultimately initiated a 1970s mural renaissance in Chicano Park.
But today, the paint that was applied to the bridge columns is submitting to age, weather, sun exposure, and passing automobiles, and there are now twenty murals out of the forty that are fading into dilapidation.
“Not only was it poor technology, but people painted them without regard for doing it in a professional manner,” says Salvador Barajas, one of the original artists who is involved in the efforts to restore the murals this summer. “So, the question is, ‘how much have we learned since then?’”
Barajas and three multifaceted artists (Victor Ochoa, Jose Ramirez and Manuel “Memo” Cavada) answered that question in creating the Chicano Park Mural Restoration Technical Manual, a recently published text book for restoration artists that was funded $25,000 by Caltrans.
Many techniques went ignored because artists at the time had neither the resources or know how, they say. Cleaning the cement pillars with muratic acid, killing micro-organisms inside the concrete pigments, sealing cracks in the cement and waterproofing the surface before applying primer were steps not taken and it shows.
Large pieces of murals are flaking off the wall because of poor adhesion to the concrete, paint is blistering and peeling and “sun exposure and the elements have caused excessive discoloration” reads the manual.
“The artists’ needed to express their emotions that day, so they weren’t thinking of how it was going to look twenty years from then,” says Memo Cavada, an international photographer who took photos for the manual. “They said, ‘I have to make a statement and I want to see it today.’”
The technique of artists in the 70s only guaranteed their work a ten year life span, so, many murals are far beyond their life expectancy already. Original artists Victor Ochoa and Barajas say that they mainly need to be cleaned, repainted and sealed, and in some more unique instances, parts of murals need to be coated with an acrylic resin called Acryloid B 72, a solution that restores murals to their originality by eighty percent and increasing their life span by thirty more years.
Restoration has been a question for some fifteen years now, since CalTrans was doing a statewide bridge-retrofitting project in the early 90s that included covering the park’s murals with cement to reinforce the bridge.
The community expressed outrage at the loss of murals, an issue that earned itself a mural along Cesar Chavez Boulevard reading, “Save Our Murals, No Retrofitting.”
Ultimately, the politically charged images were saved by methods of strengthening the bridge at its bases, but artists began to notice their work deteriorating, and in 2001, the Chicano Park Steering Committee, a volunteer group who facilitates activities at the park, was granted an unbelievable $1.6 million Transportation Economic Assistance Grant (TEA Grant) through Caltrans to begin the two year project.
The first endeavor is complete, the technical manual that was a mandatory step by Caltrans before restoration could start.
They decided to grant the CPSC the project after seeing the prototype by Barajas, who also owns his own designing company, Motivational Designs.
People who’ve seen the manual are disappointed that it isn’t for public consumers, but unless one is an artist, it would be merely a collection piece. In essence, it’s an instruction manual with 106 pages of brightly colored photos by international photographer Manuel Cavada.
“I think it shows that CalTrans didn’t know that there are some very qualified people here,” says Barajas. “You can tell by the (manual’s) quality, they’re going to look at us differently, with more respect.”
Caltrans and the Barrio Logan community have often found themselves in a ‘lumpy’ relationship, according to anthropologist Martin Rosen, who works in the Cultural Resources Studies Oversight Department of Caltrans.
The construction of Freeway 5 and the Coronado Bay Bridge, which ultimately became mural canvases for artists, cost the homes of 1,500 families when they were resurrected, according to a 1997 Historic Resource Evaluation Report by Caltrans. An influx of industrial businesses followed, but it was the city’s plan to build a police station under the bridge that led to the 1971 stand-off between developers and the community over the land that is now Chicano Park.
“The building of the Coronado Bridge and the Freeway 5 in the middle of Logan Heights is the most racist efforts against this neighborhood,” says Ochoa.
The disappearance of those residents is an issue that artists now want to raise in a second edition of the restoration project’s technical manual. Barajas is hoping to create an academic piece with more history about the barrio with interviews with long time residents, but he says it won’t be complete until the murals are restored.
“Nobody is doing anything like this,” says Rosen, who wrote the original TEA Grant proposal. “All I can say is that the murals mean a lot to me and I want to help preserve them.”
He also sees himself as somewhat of a watchdog between Caltrans and the community and some artists agree. He’s currently writing the second grant to see the academic manual come to fruition as well.
“Let’s just say that when we came in initially, it was very lumpy,” he says about Caltrans and the community. “But back then, that stuff was being done all over the country.”
And throughout, the murals have recorded the issues. “Varrio Si, Yonkes No!” is a mural that reflects a time when junkyards and auto shops were swallowing up residential land. “All the Way to the Bay” is a banner of a mural that reminds residents that Chicano Park was originally supposed to extend out to the bay front. And throughout the park, there are painted images of heroes like the family health center advocate Laura Rodriguez and most recently the late Chicano activist, Corky Gonzalez.
The restoration project is supposed to begin in July this year and will take two years. Caltrans is currently tasked with finding a project manager to oversee the artists and their work. No names have come to mind just yet, but the project calls for all original artists to restore their own work. Finding the artists, Barajas says, is a task for the project manager.