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Artists restore Chicano Park murals, symbols of '70s political struggle

Todd Stands

More than 40 years before Occupy protesters camped in New York's Zuccotti Park, Oakland's Frank Ogawa Plaza and elsewhere, Chicano activists in San Diego wielding paint and primer transformed a bleak urban netherworld into an epic work of art.

On April 22, 1970, this turbulent piece of ground in the shadows of the San Diego-Coronado Bridge became a conduit for a displaced community’s rage. That day was the beginning of a 12-day occupation by residents of Barrio Logan, the historic heart of the city’s Mexican American community, which resulted in Chicano Park: a seamy underbelly of massive gray concrete freeway ramps and pylons re-imagined by muralists as dazzling public art.

“Our idea was always to paint this place,” Mario Torero, one of the park’s original muralists, recalled on a recent Saturday. “We told the story of the colors and dreams of our ancestors, painting new faces of our sad and glorious history on the pillars and screaming in full rage.”

But over the decades, the 72 or so murals, created in the heat of political struggle and maintained by volunteers, had begun to show their age. Considered a major example of the Chicano mural movement – which flourished in California between 1969 and 1975 – the park’s concrete canvases were deteriorating, the pillars subject to 40 years of vibrations from five lanes of traffic carrying some 85,000 cars a day across the bridge.

After a decade of dealing with red tape, restoration of 20 murals by their original artists has finally begun, with the first stroke of paint by Torero and other artists applied this past June.

“We’re the only artists in history who come back to restore our own murals,” said Guillermo Rosette, a member with Torero of Los Toltecas en Aztlan, the artists collective that created the park’s first mural in 1973.

The restoration is being financed with $1.6 million in federal transportation enhancement money. Although funds were approved in 2002, they did not become available until this year, mired in details like lead abatement, development of a technical manual and copyrights for the mural artists so that restoration would not have to be outsourced.

“Caltrans is in the business of building and maintaining transportation systems,” said Martin D. Rosen, the agency’s former senior environmental planner and cultural resource specialist and a champion of the park. “Clearly, mural art is not something they knew how to deal with.”

The murals are a powerful blend of politics, myth and history – looming images of Mayan ruins, triumphant Mexican heroes, contemporary themes like farm labor and poverty. In “Colossus,” an early mural by Torero and others, the figure of Atlas appears to be straining under the weight of the Coronado Bridge.

“This is our movement symbolically represented, embodying the tremendous effort of the community,” Torero explained.

With restoration now under way, a festive mood resembling a barn raising is inhabiting the park. On a recent weekend, working artists, some hoisted on boom lifts to reach the tops of pillars, were joined by hip-hop dancers, families eating carne asada and men listening to scratchy Mexican romance music on an old record player teetering on a plastic stool. 

Among the artists was Rosette, who now lives in Taos, N.M., and has just finished restoring “Chicano Park Takeover,” a three-month effort that included three weeks of cleaning the concrete by hand. He noted the tools of his trade – paints, gels and sealants – have made big technical leaps since the 1970s. 

“It lets us turn up the volume,” he said of the mural’s new vibrancy. “It’s just like Santana and ‘Black Magic Woman.’ ”

Patricia Leigh Brown/California WatchGuillermo Rosette recently restored this mural, "Chicano Park Takeover," which depicts the story of the park's creation.

The park’s history is worth retelling: The bisecting of the Barrio Logan neighborhood by I-5 and the Coronado Bridge, resulting in a concrete “roof” supported by massive gray pillars, displaced at least 1,500 families. With a population of 20,000 in its heyday in the 1940s, the historic neighborhood was rezoned as industrial in the 1950s, ushering in junkyards, auto-wrecking operations, plating and chemical companies, and today, a legacy of environmental and air quality issues.

In 1967, community leaders began demanding a neighborhood park under the bridge. When the California Highway Patrol started building a substation there, hundreds of residents formed a human shield to stop construction. They displayed signs in Spanish with statements like, “More houses, less junkyards,” and they hoisted a Chicano flag from a telephone pole. 

The use of murals as a tool of political resistance is a long Mexican tradition. “Imagine the park without murals,” said Tommie Camarillo, chairwoman of the Chicano Park Steering Committee, who has been volunteering at the park for 41 years. “It would look like a concrete jungle.”

The park has had its share of controversies – among them an attack by white supremacists in the late ‘70s and proposals for a seismic retrofit that would have destroyed the murals. But today, as Gail Perez, an ethnic studies professor at the University of San Diego, noted in La Prensa San Diego newspaper, Chicano Park serves as the ombligo – or sacred center for all who visit – its murals inseparable from community struggle. 

“It’s the Sistine Chapel of California,” said Rosen, the former state Transportation Department official. “I have a feeling of reverence every time I go there.”

Patricia Leigh Brown/California WatchThe park continues to inspire spontaneous new artistic creations, such as this Papier- mache Day of the Dead altar that 36-year-old Danlive Urbina constructed earlier this month to honor his parents.

California Lost is an occasional series examining challenges facing neglected communities around the state.

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