Local Students Honor Chicano Leaders Through Art
May 3, 2018
By Marielena Castellanos
A pencil sketch of Tomasa “Tommie” Camarillo, a longtime protector of Chicano Park, was recently completed by Monserrat Becerra, a sixth-grade student at King-Chávez Preparatory Academy, located not far from Chicano Park.
The sketch shows Camarillo kneeling down holding up a giant shield to protect her from people who were against the creation of the park. The idea came to Becerra after learning how Camarillo stood with others before bulldozers to stop the construction of a highway patrol station on the land where Chicano Park now sits.
Her classmate, Gabriela Flores, also drew a portrait of Camarillo.
Flores met Camarillo during a field trip to Chicano Park as part of research for a recent art exhibit allowing sixth, seventh, and eighth-grade students to draw their inspiration from four community leaders of Chicano Park and Logan Heights.
“I liked how she never backed down, and when we went to the park she was helping clean and picking up trash,” Flores said of Camarillo.
Hector Villegas is the students’ art teacher and it was his idea to organize the art exhibit. He explained when you want to honor someone, you do something to show you are grateful. He wanted to honor Camarillo, who did not want the recognition.
“She is the glue keeping Chicano Park together. If it wasn’t for what she has done all these years, I don’t know where the park would be,” Villegas said.
Honoring leaders is just one part of the motivation behind the exhibit for Villegas, who also emphasizes the need to teach the local history of Chicano Park and Logan Heights.
“The history of Logan Heights is not known by the students. It’s not a part of the students’ regular curriculum. I worry that Chicano Park’s history will die out. Right now, it’s not important for anyone to know who these people are,” Villegas explained.
Villegas is a committed community voice, who is a first generation Chicano from Barrio Logan and is among the new generation of muralists and leaders of the community. He was an apprentice in 2011 during the restoration of Chicano Park, working on six murals alongside a number of artists and original muralists of the park, and he later painted three of his own murals there.
“There is so much to learn here. Schools take kids to Old Town, to camps, but I don’t see them taking them to Chicano Park, and it’s an acclaimed national landmark. I get more phone calls for tours of the park from schools outside of the community than I do from schools within the community,” Villegas said.
“I’m an art teacher, but I’m teaching the students art and history— the history of the park. The majority of the students at the school are Mexican-American Chicano students. It’s our culture, part of our history, painted images, part of what we’ve been a part of—telling stories through art for thousands of years.”
“A lot of the people that have taught this class before focused on people who have no cultural relevance to the students, on the lives of people that were not from here—people who are not even from this continent,” Villegas said.
Chicano painter and muralist Victor Ochoa was another of the featured leaders in the art exhibit at La Bodega Art Gallery in Barrio Logan, and he was also among those who years ago helped stop the take-over of the land that now makes Chicano Park.
Villegas considers Ochoa a mentor and wanted the students to learn more about him.
Eleven-year-old Jose Meza, who had never heard of Ochoa, created a mosaic of the muralist.
“I consider him a hero because he protected the park. He would stay at night to make sure no one would come to take it over,” Meza said.
Villegas also chose legendary Chicano musician Ramon “Chunky” Sanchez, who died two years ago. Sanchez was known for singing and writing songs about the Chicano civil rights movement.
Sanchez is also the focus of a new documentary, “Singing Our Way to Freedom,” by local film producer and director Paul Espinosa. Sanchez was also the artist in residence at King-Chávez Preparatory Academy at one time, and he is still remembered today by the students.
Andrew Maciel did his art piece on Sanchez because he remembers how Sanchez would sing during school assemblies, and he felt Sanchez cared about everyone.
His classmate, twelve-year-old, Hector Leetonway also picked Sanchez as his art subject.
“My mom listens to Chunky’s music a lot, I asked her one day why she liked him and she said she thought he was a good singer and a great person,” Leetonway said.
Students also created art pieces on the late Laura Rodriguez, who with a group of community members took over a building in the 1970’s, which later became the Logan Heights Family Health Center, the flagship clinic of Family Health Centers of San Diego.
“The kids, they go to the clinic and they don’t know a woman is responsible,” Villegas said of Rodriguez, whom he knew and considers the matriarch of the community.
Eleven-year-old America Carrillo chose Laura Rodriguez.
“I think it’s cool to learn about someone I didn’t know. Laura did a lot of things for Chicano Park and actually made the clinic,” Carrillo explained.
Villegas also wants his students to feel confident about their work. He tells his students they can never make a mistake.
“It’s only paint. People get scared, they start criticizing their work, they start not to like the work. I tell them, just paint, you can’t make a mistake, you can correct it. If you do, never be scared, just do it,” Villegas explains.
Villegas adds his goal also is to give his students a complete art experience.
“It’s exciting. It’s been a pretty intense process at the end of the day, we put in a lot of time, did the research, reading, then we came up with the concepts. Now, they have completed their projects, we had the exhibit, and the students also put a price on their artwork. It’s a full experience from beginning to end. I’m not just teaching them little art projects. This is a community-based project, learning about our community and who helped mold it,” Villegas said.
Villegas also contributed an original piece on Camarillo and Ochoa, and artist Mode Orozco created one on Rodriguez and Sanchez. Over 100 students also contributed original works of art with the help of several other teachers working on the same project, including another teacher Jeannette Sherlinee.
During the exhibit, students from the school and their parents came together with Camarillo, Ochoa, and family members of Rodriguez and Sanchez. The grandson of Sanchez, Tre Simmons, was also there to recite songs of his grandfather Chunky.
The exhibit also included a performance from the charter school’s Dance Geekz, group along with short films and documentaries made from students with the Art Media Entertainment Class (AME), music from DJ Rambo, and food donated from La Central Market and Los Tito’s Taco Shop.
Villegas plans to hold another art exhibit in the future. He said he has a long list of community names he wants students to know.
“I don’t want Chicano Park and the community of Logan Heights to be something that happened and now its ruins remain and Chicanos are no more,” he said.
Villegas relates it back to the Mayan civilization. He said they used to be here, where did they go, and what happened, adding the Mayan people are still there, but they don’t live in the temples anymore.
Ultimately, among Villegas most important goals is to inspire his students to be active members of the community.
“This is what’s important to pass on to them. This community is rich in art and history. We have over 50 years of Chicano Art and an activism movement still living. For me, my purpose is to get the students involved in their community, learn the history and keep it alive. Fifteen years from now, what I want is for the students to still be involved in the community, for them to remember they were a part of this class.”