Sometime in October, workers whitewashed a Mexican-themed mural in Santa Ana that had adorned the two-story offices of Spanish-language weekly Excelsior for more than a decade. It was a simple—even trite—thing, really, purporting to depict a day in the life of this most Mexican of cities: a mom with a baby stroller, fruit vendors and a student reaching for the sky, with everyone walking in front of yet another mural showing baile folklorico, a soccer player and a mariachi.
Hundreds of thousands of people saw this untitled mise-en-scène as they drove on Grand Street over the years. It became part of their daily landscape, so taken for granted that no one really noticed anything amiss until the Weekly broke the story in early November. Public shock, sadness and outrage followed, all hurled at the building's current owner, mega-developer Mike Harrah . . . and then, nothing.
Such is the sad state of Chicano murals in OC. They've been up since the 1970s and '80s, painted with much fanfare at a time when Republicans hadn't yet demonized public-funded art, when city officials blessed them as community projects that beautified barren walls in working-class neighborhoods. From Anaheim to Placentia, Irvine Valley College to Capistrano Beach, dozens of pieces dotted la naranja—some adorning garages, others spanning hundreds of feet.
And they're now slowly, collectively disappearing.
The elements and time remain the most obvious enemy, but a far more pernicious foe has emerged in the past 15 years: indifference. Few people care about fundraising to preserve the Chicano murals, assuming they'll stand forever. New developments level the buildings and walls that offered a home, as a new generation consider the faded relics blighted. More ominously, politicians, police officers and landlords now decry these once-accepted landmarks as divisive, seeking to have them criminalized—or just destroyed.
Enough's enough. It's time we collectively care, collectively treasure OC's Chicano murals. Love your Wyland whales, your apolitical street art, your elementary-school pastorals or the many walls depicting Orange County's past through nostalgic, false pastels. But Chicano murals are an indelible part of our history, public documents of a time and place that is fast disappearing. There's about a dozen once-majestic, now-peeling beauties left. No one cares about them—so all of us should before it's too late.
Chicano murals entered Orange County in the 1970s at the height of el movimiento. Academics praised the works that popped up in barrios; the murals tackled everything from police brutality to indigenous tropes to Mexican history to the agricultural workers that once served as OC's de facto slaves. Despite the touchy subjects, politicians funded artists with city grants, asking they solicit community input and help to document neighborhood pride. Speaking about a five-part collaboration on a wall in the Santa Nita barrio, Santa Ana High School's student newspaper, The Generator, commented in 1991, “[The mural] stands with pride knowing that four young men from the neighborhood had the courage to beautify their neighborhood expressing their talent. People of all ages . . . know that the mural represents their past and their future.”
The Chicano mural movement became part of OC's art life. The Bowers Museum held workshops on the genre through the 1980s; at UC Irvine, Judy Baca trained a generation of artists while continuing work on The Great Wall of Los Angeles, a half-mile-long masterpiece in Los Angeles thought to be the longest of its type in the world. The monied set respected the scene enough that Orange Coast was moved to write in 1989, “As a strong [Latino] middle class emerges and basic needs are no longer of immediate concern, a community starts to pay more attention to the finer things in life, including its cultural and artistic growth.”
Natural wear and tear inspired fully funded restoration projects in the early 1990s, usually done by the original artists. But it was all a façade. Fact is, Orange County has a long, nasty history of fighting Mexican-themed murals. In the late 1930s, trustees with the Fullerton Union High School District ordered a WPA-commissioned mural in the city's Plummer Auditorium painted over, deeming it “vulgar” for showing a big-bosomed Mexican woman. And by the beginning of this century, those old ways were in full force.
In 2002, Fountain Valley officials tore down a wall that featured a 600-foot-long installation painted by legendary Mexican artist Sergio O'Cadiz, arguing the wall was an earthquake hazard. Three years later, business owners in Old Town Placentia succeeded in erasing a 70-foot-long mural that had just been unveiled by Cal State Fullerton's MEChA chapter. Titled Cultural Self-Determination Prevents Youth Incarceration, it depicted Latino students working on their education and the grim future for those who didn't: a pair of shackled hands behind bars. But angry shopkeepers complained it promoted gangs, and the mural got a coat of white paint.
The war against Chicano murals has only escalated since. In 2008, then-Fullerton City Council member Shawn Nelson (now an OC Supervisor) said during a council meeting, “We need to get rid of that crap, like, right now,” referring to a Lemon Street overpass filled with pachucos, lowriders and a woman in a sombrero. Nelson claimed they promoted gangs—never mind that the mural was painted in 1978 as a project by an anti-graffiti initiative or that a council member at the time told the Fullerton Tribune, “This is one of the happiest days of [my] life, where the . . . community can organize and get together to make their community better.” In San Juan Capistrano, a mural originally painted in 1994 to promote solidarity between Mexican and white students after a spate of racist incidents became a flashpoint for parents and anti-immigrant activists fighting the district's Latino outreach.
Even more preposterous was the campaign against Emigdio Vasquez, OC's most famous muralist and someone whose works decorate everything from Anaheim City Hall to an old bus terminal in downtown Santa Ana. In 2009, when the Orange County district attorney's office tried to impose a gang injunction in Orange's Cypress Street barrio, they claimed his mural, Tribute to the Chicano Working Class, was a gang symbol.
Prosecutors relied on a report by the Orange Police Department that claimed the mural promoted “rebellion against a perceived oppressive government.”
And those are just the famous cases. Others have disappeared with little fanfare: another Vasquez mural that adorned a Mexican restaurant that stood across the street from Glover Stadium in Anaheim, destroyed early last decade. One depicting Aztec mythology at Tustin High School, painted in the late 1970s by the school's MEChA chapter, mysteriously disappeared last decade. Those that remain are a collection of flakes and chips; Vasquez's magnum opus, Memories of the Past and Images of the Present, which stretches across the outside of a liquor store in Anaheim and was created to commemorate the Little People's Park Riot of 1978, is little more than ghostly outlines now. And just this year, El Patio in Capistrano Beach planted bushes that will obscure a mural dating back to the 1970s featuring a UFW flag, an Aztec pyramid and more (poor Emiliano Zapata's face is now covered by what resembles a spruce).
Some people care. Emigdio Vasquez's son Higgy successfully restored the Cypress Street mural that the district attorney's office tried to criminalize. The daughter of O'Cadiz, Maria del Pilar O'Cadiz, has started lecturing about her father's oeuvre (see “Sergio O'Cadiz: El Artist,” Oct. 4, 2012). Community groups have reignited the mural movement in Santa Ana, although most of their results are defanged of any radical meaning. And the California Historical Society is researching a proposal to host an exhibit on Southern California's contested Chicano murals, an initiative they've asked me to weigh in on (my words to them: 'bout damn time).
But those are just individual efforts—or, in the case of the Historical Society, outsiders who appreciate our heritage more than us. So what to do? The reality is money: restoring and upkeeping outdoor canvases costs tens of thousands of dollars—each one. None of OC's art patrons has ever expressed particular interest in preserving Chicano murals, and the county's Latino upper class considers them déclassé. Crowd-funding efforts never work; city councils are loathe to commit money in an era of tight budgets. Maybe hit up OC's museums or millionaire artists? Wyland? Please—and he has to fight to keep his own stuff around.
Really, all we can do is be vigilant. The Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990 requires landlords who wish to destroy public art give the artist 90 days notice; violation of that can lead to legal action (in a famous LA case, the creator of a nine-story-tall mural depicting the artist Ed Ruscha won $1.1 million in 2008). Protect them from desecration, from vandals rich and not.
Or, at the very least, know your Chicano murals. Check out OC's more endangered murals, like the ones here, in person. Visit the neighborhoods that house them, talk to the natives. Know your OC history—whether you're Mexican-American or not, they're part of our narrative.
Most important? Care.