Mario Torero: The ‘Artivist’ Who Changed the Face of Chicano Park

By Alexandra MendozaTorero

While most people could not pinpoint the exact date in which they discovered their mission in life, Mario Torero remembers it very clearly.

On January 1, 1970, the now-renowned muralist had a brush with death which left him in a coma. When he awoke from his ordeal, he started to assess many parts of his life. One thing was very clear: He would take advantage of this second opportunity to transform his activism into “artivism.”

“I looked at myself, looked at my family, looked around me, and asked myself ‘what am I doing here?’ I died, so there must be some purpose. It was then that I started talking to God,” recalls the artist.

Mario Acevedo Torero was born in Lima, Peru in 1947. His passion for art started in the cradle, Mario’s father, Guillermo Acevedo, was a famous artist. Mario and his family migrated to the United States when he was 12; since then, he has called San Diego home.

His father’s influence, and being constantly surrounded by art, led to Mario Torero finding painting as the vehicle through which to convey his message of social justice, influenced by the fact that he grew up in Barrio Logan.

1970 marked a turning point in San Diego’s Chicano movement. Mere days after his near-death experience, Mario Torero met Salvador Torres, another artist and muralist with whom a few months later he would co-found – along with other artists – the Centro Cultural de la Raza in Balboa Park.

On April 22 of that same year, Torero was among the Chicano activists who occupied Barrio Logan’s Chicano Park in order to keep it from being turned into a California Highway Patrol (CHP) station.

They won the fight, and today the park has become an icon for Chicano, Latin American and Mexican-American culture in the United States. Once the community took over the space, the effort began to turn it into a place where art could converge.

Mario Torero recalls how difficult it was in the beginning to find Latinos or other minority groups in museums, galleries, or any other art centers in San Diego. So, he decided to bring art closer to these communities through murals.

Three years after Chicano Park was founded, he painted the first of what is today dozens of murals. From there, the Congreso de Artistas Chicanos en Aztlán, an art collective whose membership includes Torero, took on the mission of covering the rest of the park in murals that showcased Latin American culture and history.

For the Peruvian painter, the murals are a reflection of  Barrio Logan’s essence, which has slowly morphed into an arts district, as evidenced by the new galleries opening their doors in the neighborhood.

“The hood needed to heal, and it was the artists who brought the healing,” shared Torero, who is also an activist. “That’s the way it was when we started the movement, and that’s the way it is to this day.”

In 2013, Chicano Park was added to the National Registry of Historic Places, thus it is now protected from any attempt to change its structure.

Today, U.S. Representative Juan Vargas – together with Chicano activists – is looking to have the park named as a National Historic Landmark. The nomination was unanimously approved this month by the National Historic Landmarks Committee, and was recommended to Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell for her final approval, shared the Congressman in social media.

“For the first time in our lives, we are starting to feel like we’re winning,” expressed the artist regarding the nomination. “They wanted to take the park from us from the beginning. They tried to destroy it several times, but [the park] is here to stay, and it is not just standing still, it is growing.”

Chicano Park is not the only place to find the art of Mario Torero, who is also a professor. His murals can also be found on the campuses of both the University of California San Diego (UCSD) and San Diego State University (SDSU). Although placing the artwork on these campuses was no easy feat, as they required a series of negotiations.

In the case of his mosaic at UCSD, it was originally supposed to be a temporary installation. However, as soon as Torero’s mosaic was complete, students started a petition for it to remain permanently.

The struggle happened amidst racial tensions within the campus, after a group of white students held an event teeming with racial stereotypes during African-American History Month.

The incident led to the creation of UCSD’s Principles of Equity, Diversity & Inclusion, which in turn led to the creation of several centers that foster these three principles – including the Raza Resource Centro – as well as to the request to have the mosaic mural remain permanently, recalls Torero.

Mario Torero has no shortage of plans for the future, among these to publish a book that will tell the story of his father, from his early life in Peru until his arrival in the United States.

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