By Gail Pérez
In 1970 when the Chicano community took over the land under the Coronado Bridge and demanded that a long-promised park finally be constructed in the Logan Heights neighborhood, park activist José Gómez announced to the world that anyone attempting to take the land from the community would have to “wade through our blood.”
On any given day in Chicano Park, his words sound far away. The park is mostly quiet—a flock of elementary students following their teacher to playground swings, so-called homeless folks relaxing on benches, and José Mendoza tending the remarkable stand of roses at the base of La Virgen de las Americas mural. Many of the most historic murals from 1973-1975 like Women Hold Up Half of Heaven are fading and damaged. But on June 20, 2011 five of the original artists—Felipe Adame, Victor Ochoa, Norma Montoya, Guillermo Rosette, and Michael Schnorr—put paint to concrete and began the most ambitious restoration project in the park’s history. After eleven years of wading through bureaucratic red tape, a $1.6 million federal grant, approved in 2002, has finally been implemented with the cooperation of the Chicano Park Steering Committee.
Guillermo Rosette, restoring the Chicano Park Takeover mural, defines this moment’s importance: “In history, we are the first artists to restore our own murals.” Rosette worked on the very first murals in 1973, and he brings the memory of that time to restore not only the vivid orange sky of the mural but also its significance and energy. Unlike other important mural projects in Mexico during the Revolution and in the US during the New Deal, Chicano Park muralism is grassroots; yet it has become one of the most important sites in the world. The people power that Rosette’s mural memorializes—the community’s direct action to take the land—is the same spirit responsible for the artwork.
The murals are inseparable from the community struggle that Victor Ochoa calls the “Chicano democratic dynamic,” the collective process that has guided the preservation and now restoration of the park in spite of inevitable conflicts. As Felipe Adame asserts, “In the 1970’s, we were giving life to the culture. We were making a link between past and present. It was a cultural renaissance.” The presence of these original artists involves not only a new coat of paint, but also a deeper understanding of the ongoing need to preserve the community, understand our history, and maintain our culture. Those who visit the park during the yearlong restoration period will have a remarkable chance to learn from these artists/activists.
The long story of this Federal Transportation Enhancement Activities grant, should be viewed as the latest chapter in the struggle for a working partnership between community and city and state authorities that began as early as the re-zoning of Logan Heights for “light industry” and junkyards in the 1950’s.
During the Golden Days of Logan in the 1940’s, 20,000 residents enjoyed a vibrant and self-sufficient neighborhood. This memory, contrary to the usual negative stereotypes of ethnic barrios or “ghettos,” has driven the residents to preserve their community: many of the murals depict these conflicts, but also mirror the beauty of a Chicano neighborhood now most vivid in the minds of the elders.
The story of Barrio Logan is a familiar one to hundreds of inner city neighborhoods nationwide that have suffered urban renewal and now gentrification. Barrio Logan has withstood the rezoning in the 1950’s that brought in often-toxic industries, the construction of Interstate 5 in 1963, and the construction of the Coronado Bridge that displaced at least 1500 families. After the twelve-day takeover of the land that is now Chicano Park, residents like artist Salvador Torres conceived of converting the massive gray pylons of the bridge into an “outdoor museum.”
Since that time, three phases of mural painting have made the park one of the most important mural sites in the state. The first phase in 1973 produced murals such as Quetzalcoatl, located on Logan Avenue. The second phase, from 1974-75, involved artists from all over California, especially Sacramento and Los Angeles, including Norma Montoya now restoring Los Niños del Mundo. Ten of the twenty murals slated for restoration are from these first two historic phases. The third phase from 1977-1980 included the “muralathon” organized by artist Victor Ochoa and the work of other artists. Four of the murals currently being restored in this first rotation of artists are from this phase.
The unprecedented community involvement that created Chicano Park endures in the current project. The all-volunteer Chicano Park Steering Committee (CPSC, founded in 1970) is a partner with Caltrans and the Parks and Recreation Department, City of San Diego. The CPSC insured the protection of the murals during the Caltrans earthquake retrofitting project in 1996 and has defended the park from the agency’s attempted censorship of the word “Aztlan” in 2003. Prodded both by community outrage and by the advocacy of Martin Rosen and James Fisher within Caltrans, the agency devised a method of retrofitting the pylons with minimal damage to the murals. Both workers and residents, however, commented on the deterioration of older murals.
In 1999 Rosen and the CPSC applied for the current grant that was approved in 2002. It faced many bureaucratic road blocks, including the need to publish a Chicano Park Mural Restoration Technical Manual, completed in 2006 by Salvador Barajas and Victor Ochoa. Finally in 2008 after being stalled in Sacramento committees, Ricardo Duffy, Roberto Delgado, and the Ghirardelli Corporation applied as a team to manage the project. As project manager Duffy says, “It was the first time Caltrans had ever done anything like this. It never happens. To push this through the bureaucracy is an accomplishment in itself.”
CPSC Chair Tommie Camarillo credits Caltrans’ advocates like Rosen and Laurie Berman, and explains her community organization’s role in helping to identify the murals most in need of restoration, in locating the artists, and in deciding which artists might be tapped to restore murals that were often the collaboration of students, residents, and artists. All of this has required sensitivity and persistent diplomacy since Caltrans as an agency has at times resisted community demands.
While there was an earlier restoration project in 1991 when the city’s Commission for Arts and Culture granted $60,000 to restore eleven murals, the scope of this project is extraordinarily remarkable. Chicano Park is more than a park and more than an “outdoor museum.” For many it 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. The murals tell the story of the forces that have disoriented and displaced the community—urban renewal, revolution, and the exploitation of workers. But they also celebrate the community’s vitality and perseverance and serve as the ombligo or sacred center for all who visit so that they may be re-oriented. As Felipe Adame explains, the idea was “to use culture to give strength to the community and to an individual. That’s what this park is. You come here and you look at it for the first time and you will not be the same person when you leave the park.”
Next week Part II: Revitalization not Restoration: A People’s Art
Gail Pérez is a Professor in the Ethnic Studies Department at the University of San Diego.