Revitalization not Restoration: A People’s Art
July 15, 2011
By Gail Pérez and David Avalos
Chicano Park is … sacred space—literally—where significant rituals and ceremonies are performed and where the murals, like the stained glass windows in medieval churches or the frescoes of Teotihuacan, teach history, myth and spirituality.
Gail Pérez, La Prensa San Diego, July 8, 2011
As defined in the Chicano Park Mural Restoration Technical Manual restoration not performed by an original artist requires a conservator whose work “must be strictly limited to returning the mural to its known earlier or original state.” But as Yermo Aranda, one of the original Park muralists makes clear: “You cannot bring the murals back because you cannot go back – our skills are different now.” The Manual understands situations where artists themselves are repainting murals and respects “changes … as long as the community does not object, and as long as the changes are not so great that the community and public see it as a new mural.” Aranda states emphatically that artists will “revitalize” rather than “restore.”
According to conservator Dr. Duane R. Chartier, murals like these “cannot be simply dealt with in modern western conservation practice.” He favors “restoration” approaches such as that of “temples and shrines in Japan where ritual repainting or restoration and community involvement are essential factors in the maintenance of works of cultural property and its ongoing relevance.” Chicano Park should be understood as a sacred power spot of cultural and political forces in contention and a living shrine to a community’s ongoing commitment to peace and justice. The murals’ revitalization is a ritual repainting and reaffirmation of that commitment.
In most cases artists are redoing their own original murals using technical skills learned in the intervening decades. Working to revitalize the people’s art of 30 years ago has reawakened strong feelings and memories. The artists’ commitment to the spirit of Chicano Park is expressed in their own words below.
Guillermo Rosette came of age as a member of Los Toltecas en Aztlan, the multidisciplinary artists collective founded in 1970, a time when Chicano and Third World movements developed cultural arms to “awaken people’s minds” and do revolutionary, as opposed to commercial, murals. Los Toltecas, who founded the Centro Cultural de la Raza, painted on the first Park murals in 1973. Though profoundly influenced by Mexican muralists like David Alfaro Siqueiros, Chicano artists like Rosette participated in a movement unlike any other. Their art encouraged people of the barrios and campos to take an active part in defending the existence of their neighborhoods as well as exploring their own cultural heritage and identities.
Both these strands are evident in the mural Rosette is repainting: the Chicano Park Takeover completed in 1978 by him, Felipe Adame and Octavio González. On the bottom panel an Aztec runner carries a torch with orange flames, the color of awakening. It is reflected in the top panel’s orange sky where two eagles symbolize the spirituality guiding the residents who plant seeds, raise the Chicano flag, and most importantly, unite to establish Chicano Park on April 22, 1970. The runner is on a leg of an actual 1976 journey carrying a fire lit in Cerro de la Estrella, a sacred site near Ixtapalapa, Mexico. That “torch of conocimiento (knowledge)” is now buried in the Park.
The indigenous philosophy of Los Toltecas is key to understanding the indivisibility of art, spirituality and right action that both created the murals and their subject matter. “You can’t just paint anything stupid,” Rosette explains. “It should have guidance, a protective code of health to animate the community.”
Felipe Adame was chosen to redo the Aztec Archer mural originally completed by the late Vidal Aguirre in 1980. “I was his mentor and art teacher, this is a way of honoring him,” Adame explains, also crediting Aguirre with the design for The Founding of Tenochtitlan mural on the park kiosko’s ceiling. Aztec Archer is the companion to Adame’s towering Cuauhtémoc mural. All three images are deeply romantic illustrations of Aztec history and reflect the influence of Mexican artist Jesús Helguera.
According to Adame, a Helguera calendar print of Cuauhtémoc was one of a few items salvaged along with “a little cot, an army blanket and a deck of cards” after his father’s home in Mexico was flooded in 1976. At the younger Adame’s request his father gave him the calendar and Felipe painted Cuauhtémoc in his honor. For Adame, of Yaqui descent, Cuauhtémoc has a special significance as the Aztec warrior who resisted Cortés in 1521. “I have been studying Helguera for thirty years,” Adame explains, and he unapologetically embraces this style, beloved by lowriders and all who have such calendars in their homes.
Adame discusses his work in terms of his spirituality and activism. “We were reactivating, giving life to the culture,” he explains. As he worked with Aguirre on the kiosko mural, they taught local students the history of the Aztec migration from the north to the Valley of Mexico. As one of the first counselors to set up a heroin detoxification program in Logan Heights, he is concerned with the power of culture to transform a “cholo” (youth) to an “Azteca” from “shooting the needle up” to doing “healing and spiritual cleansing.”
Victor Ochoa explains that everything about the Varrio Logan mural reflects his definition of community-based muralism or people’s art. It was part of the 1978 Mural Marathon that sought to engage local youth in positive action. The sweeping tail of the mural’s monumental peacock duplicates a tattoo of one of the participating youth who said it reflected his orgullo (pride). A young man and woman are depicted Atlas-like holding up the world. And now Eddie Galindo and Juanillo Luna who painted on the original (with Ochoa, Alvaro Millan, and the Barrio Renovation Team) are back to revitalize it along with younger artists Hector Villegas, David Ortiz, and Stephanie Cervantes. Ochoa emphasizes the need to involve the community in muralism: “The artist expresses himself and gets feedback from the community. That makes you a stronger individual.”
Ochoa sees the overall repainting project as an important reminder that the issues of bilingual education, immigration, and barrio violence continue to challenge Latinos. The revived mural renews commitment to facing those issues and the art memorializes the historical links between the activism of the 1970s and the marches and rallies organized in Chicano Park today. “I always felt that art was a weapon for change and an instrument of revolutionary consciousness.”
Graffiti too is an issue linked to the need to involve youth. Ochoa has worked with graf writers on the Park’s Lowrider mural. Some graf writers see it as a point of honor to “put their piece over an historic mural.” He insists that the current project must continue the dialogue with youth about their connection to the history and struggles depicted in the murals. They must once again see the walls as mirrors (indigenous symbols of knowledge) and not mere surfaces reflecting only individual self-promotion.
Ochoa is clear that Chicano Park is not fading. “A Chicano turns crap into beauty and energy,” he says reassuringly. If that is the case, we have a bright future.
Norma Montoya recalls when Charles “Gato” Felix enlisted local youth to paint Los Angeles’s Estrada Courts murals (1973-1979) and recruited her to work with the girls. “The girls,” Norma makes clear “wondered why the painting was a guy thing, they felt just as able.” When she met artists from Chicano Park in an artistic exchange, she noted similarities. Both groups were willing to paint for free and to use art to tackle the “horrible conditions” in both communities. “There was so much talent,” she remembers, “and no programs for kids in East LA.”
Not surprisingly, Los Niños del Mundo (1975) symbolizes the “future of the new generation.” Giant mushrooms, metaphors for imagination, spring from the ground level while arrows carry their energy up through children holding books and palettes, finally reaching the feathered serpent of learning, beauty and knowledge, Quetzalcoatl, whose two heads represent the imagination and reason of the right and left brains.
Thrilled to bring Niños back to life, Norma reveals that she thinks of the deceased Felix, who painted the original with her, and hopes “he is satisfied.” “I pray for his strength to keep safe on this scaffolding.” She recalls that the veteranos (street wise elders) at Estrada Courts believed she should thank them for “making me tough.” Whether that is true or not, she has the courage and openness to engage Logan Heights’ residents with her people’s art. “You must show respect to anyone who approaches the mural,” she says. “That’s a big part of the philosophy.”
Michael Schnorr uses the watercolor drawings that he transformed into the Undocumented Worker mural in 1979 to guide his repainting. He made them after watching an Afghan immigrant in Italy cleaning windshields of cars stopped in traffic, a ritual he had seen often at the San Diego/Tijuana border. He realized that global migration had made for “a small world” and he determined to “paint a mural dedicated to immigrant laborers everywhere.”
On his return to the USA he went to Chicano Park searching for the right bridge pylon on which to transfer his drawings. When he saw one with “Migra No” splashed red on its raw concrete base he knew he had found it. After securing the approval of the Chicano Park Steering Committee he proceeded, paying for all of the equipment (scaffolding included) and materials and working for free. “It’s the most satisfying mural I ever painted,” he said, adding that he did it at “the right time and the right place.”
The time was during the administration of Jimmy Carter who authorized the construction of razor-wire-topped fences along the border, fences that one contractor claimed would sever the toes of anyone trying to scale them. Carter launched the contemporary era of fence frenzy. Schnorr’s original drawings did not include an image for the top of the mural so he added the figure of a woman smashing a wall with a hammer, and at the mural’s base he wrote:
“Barriers, walls and fences must be moved, must be broken down; between countries, between people, between neighborhoods.”
Meditating on the mural revitalization, Michael Schnorr feels more strongly than ever that it is still the “right time and the right place” to break down barriers between people.
Gail Pérez is a Professor in the Ethnic Studies Department at the University of San Diego. David Avalos is a Professor in the Visual and Performing Arts Department at CSU San Marcos.