Mujeres Muralistas: Chicano Park Female artists

By Rita Sanchez

Editor’s Note: In this article Rita Sanchez proudly recognizes the women who have contributed to the Parque and its murals. She features women who have designed, supervised and painted murals since 1973, as well as women who participated in the creation of the Parque. With media attention devoted mainly to the men working on the repainting, her article is a needed reminder of the significant role of Chicano Park women.

Women’s Mural: “Female Inteligencia” or “Women Hold Up Half the Sky,” 1975, painted by the women of the RCAF: .Celia Rodriguez, Irma Lerma Barbosa, Antonia Mendoza, Rosalina Balaciosos, Barbara Desmangles and community volunteers

Previous La Prensa articles on the restoration of the murals in Chicano Park show the amazing result of a historical moment in San Diego, the survival of a people’s park since 1970 and the mural masterworks that resulted. If some observers do not understand the unique story of the park, the La Prensa articles serve to educate the public on this ‘historical preservation [to] improve the quality of life of a city.” In the National Register of Historic Places, Chicano Park, one writer says, it is “a landmark recognized for it’s . . . value representative of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement in California.” Other writers refer to the park as a sacred space. For many the park is sacred space because it is filled with personal memories. My son, Pablo Acevedo, was born on Chicano Park Day, the exact date April 22, 1980 of the park’s tenth anniversary. Driving home from the hospital, we stopped by the park and took photos with the murals as backdrop. And so the art in the Park welcomed my son into the world and the photos are now part of a historical archive.

The Park is also about women.

Two years before, in 1978 I had announced the coming birth of my daughter, Lucia Acevedo. Her father, Mario Torero, a Chicano Park artist, photographed me with child holding a rose. As a result, I became a model, of sorts, for the Virgin of Guadalupe image that he painted on one of the pillars. So for nearly forty years, a female icon, La Virgin de Las Americas has watched over the park. Perhaps all these years she has been acting as a protectress for women’s voice and actions.

Whether as artists or contributors to the spirit of the movement, women have given much to Chicano Park and its history. One La Prensa article (July 8 2011) by Gail Perez identified some of these women. One was Norma Montoya who painted with Charles “Gato” Felix; the others were the women of the RCAF. The story goes, after one of the women, Rosalina Balaciosos attended the International Women’s Conference in Mexico City, she passed on her enthusiasm; the women felt empowered and began painting on their own without waiting for the men. “Tantamount to treason,” one of the men, Jose Montoya, recalled. Hundreds of women had worked for change during the Chicano Movement, expressing their actions in various ways. Women participated in the takeover of the park or their efforts also found expression in various other ways.

Tomasa “Tommie” Camarillo, Chair of the Chicano Park Steering Committee (CPSC), promotes the future vision of Chicano Park. Her support and persistence has taken the Mural Restoration Project from dream to reality and helped further the legacy of this Chicana/o sacred space. (Photo: David Avalos)

Today their voices resonate in the park as a result of their actions. One woman has given her life to maintaining the murals, Tomasa “Tommie” Camarillo, who chairs the Chicano Park Steering Committee and who participated in the 1970 park takeover. Another woman, Laura Rodríguez, has come to be known as honorary grandmother of Chicano Park because of what she has contributed. The Chicano Park film tells her story. In the spring of 1970, Laura Rodríguez, a mother and longtime San Diego resident, was going to the grocery store in Logan Heights when she saw a group of people gathered to prevent the construction of a Highway Patrol substation and demand the creation of a park instead. In the film, she recalls, “I was going to the grocery store. I saw young people in a circle [and] joined in. I never went back home from the store. I brought them some food and spent the day there. I went every day after that.” When workers tried to use their bulldozers, she recalls proudly, “We just stood there and let them roll over us if they wanted.” Laura Rodriguez, now deceased, has since had a school named after her and her image has been painted in the park as a monument to her.

During those early days Yolanda Lopez, now an internationally known artist, worked with high school girls to paint a mural despite the discouragement they got from male muralists. A strong community advocate and professionally trained artist, Lopez became an adviser to the girls; now young women: they were Julietta A. García-Torres, Cecilia de la Torre, Rosa de la Torre, and Eva Craig who designed and painted the mural “Preserve Our Heritage,” calling themselves Mujeres Muralistas. Their advocate, Yolanda Lopez was born in San Diego’s Logan Heights neighborhood where the park is located. She graduated from SDSU with a drawing and painting BA, and earned a Masters in Fine Arts at UCSD. Her art has appeared in national exhibitions since 1970. She is nationally known for portraits of her elderly grandmother skinning a rattlesnake, her mother sewing an American flag, and herself in running shoes. All three paintings include the aura, garments and cherub associated with La Virgin, but honor real women instead.

Artist, singer, and composer, Charlotte Hernandez Terry, a single mother of six, was the first woman to paint a mural in Chicano Park in 1973. She was commissioned to paint the Chicano Park Logo on one of the pillars, an image conceived by Rico Bueno, who had left San Diego. Charlotte gained the technical skills she needed in a largely male drafting class, one of two women in a class of twenty men. Then she painted it herself on the pillar. From a small design on paper, it now stands seven feet tall today, a homage to the first woman to paint a mural in the park, signifying tangible evidence of women’s contributions to Chicano Park.

There were many other women. In 1975, Sacramento artists collective, the Royal Chicano Air Force (RCAF), had a contingent of women who painted in the park; they came to San Diego from Sacramento and left behind beautiful examples of their work and a strong message about women under the Coronado Bridge. Besides Rosalina Balaciosos, there was Celia Rodríguez, Tina Lerma Barbosa, Antonia Mendoza and Barbara Desmangles, along with community volunteers. Together they painted “Mujer Inteligencia” (Women’s Intelligence). The mural presents five women in a variety of costumes holding up the sky, alluding to the work’s alternative title, “Women Hold up Half of Heaven.”

Glory G. Sanchez’ restoration project participation is a dream come true. She’s honored to be painting in a place where she came of age. “Chicano Park in my blood for life,” she declares. A team member on Aztec Archer in 2011, she is currently on the team revitalizing Mujer Inteligencia (Women’s Intelligence) aka Women Hold up Half of Heaven. (Photo: Todd Stands)

Another woman, Gloria Robledo Torres painted in Chicano Park and her hard work is also evident on others walls in San Diego. Her vibrant colors represent life in “Young Mother Earth,” painted in the park in 1990, and in the Kelco Community mural in Barrio Logan that she helped complete with her husband in 1993. It has been called an “evocative historical account of contributions by the people of Logan Heights.” Like Yolanda Lopez, Gloria grew up in San Diego, drawing and painting her whole life. Gloria’s marriage to one of the park’s founders, Salvador Roberto Torres, on October 11, 1987, in Chicano Park, formed a union of two distinctive artists, once called “the keepers of the park” for the loving care they gave to it.

Slides from the on-line archives of the Centro Cultural identify other women who worked on murals in Chicano Park. In 1974, Laurie Manzano painted “Colossus” with Mario Torero and Mano Lima. In 1975, Rosa Olga Navarro with Victor Ochoa painted “Los Niños Son el Tesoro del Barrio.” Recently noted in La Prensa, in 1975 Norma Montoya painted with Charles “Gato” Felix “Niños del Mundo.”

In 1978 other female artists painted in the park. Ana Tellez helped paint the Michael Sch-norr designed “Rocks to Huelga Progression.” Susan Yamagata designed the mural “Coatlique” and painted it with Schnorr. She also painted “Death of A Farmworker” with Michael Schnorr.

That same year Dolores Serrano Vélez designed and painted “Chicano Park Horoscope.” Also in 1978, Socorro Gamboa’s work, “Sueño Ser-pentino” was added to a list of female contributors. She designed the mural herself and had four male assistants to help execute it. In 1997, Berenice Badillo designed and painted “Feminine Form” that nearly filled a 60 foot high pillar.

The Chicano Park Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Catalogue acknowledges women who were active in the making of Chicano Park in 1970, including Tommie Camarillo and Laura Rodriguez. Others are: Gloria Bartlett, Rosario Gallardo, Maria Gerard Guzman, Marta Hurtado, Margarita Ledesma, Carmen Lopez, Irene Mena, Gracia Molina de Pick, Rosa Olga Navarro, Graciela Romero, Gloria Sanchez, Isabel Sanchez, Josie Talamantez, Charlene Valencia, among other unnamed women, including several students from Maya and MeCHA.

Since those days women continue to play center stage. Chicano Park Steering Committee Chair, Tomasa “Tommie” Camarillo continues to advise the restoration project, “helping to identify the murals most in need of help,” for example. She has directed the celebration of Chicano Park day for many years and has served as a leader in the CPSC. She has repeatedly described the urgency and the years of effort it has taken to maintain the park and the art. She also reminds us, “Chicano Park is a clear example of how through struggle, self-determination is possible,” affirming Gail Perez’s description of the park as “community victory” and “a monument to the power of ordinary people to force the city to fulfill a broken promise.”

These are but a few of the women activists and artists, notables in the story of Chicano Park’s mural history. We need to insure that their work does not go unrecognized in print so that it may also be preserved in paint and in history. Being under the protection of La Virgin de las Americas the Park’s female heritage will surely be affirmed.

—Source references credit articles by Gail Perez, Professor in the Ethnic Studies Dept., USD (La Prensa, July 8, 2011); by Maria Curry, Historic preservation specialist (La Prensa, “Commentary/Opinion,” March 9, 2012); by Gail Perez and David Avalos, Professor in the Visual and Performing Arts Dept at CSU, San Marcos (La Prensa, July 15, 2011).

Rita Sanchez, a professor of English and Chicana/Chicano Studies at Mesa College. She is married to Richard Griswold del Castillo, Professor of history, SDSU Chicana and Chicano Studies.

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