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Chicano Park

and its Wondrous Murals
By Martin D. Rosen

It was a cool, clear fall day in 1995 when I first laid eyes on the murals in Chicano Park... and thus my life was changed forever.

Located in southwest San Diego some 17 miles from the United States-Mexico border, Logan Heights was once a predominantly upper middle class community known as the East End. It is one of San Diego's oldest communities and the location of one of the longest established Mexican-American (Chicano) communities in Southern California. Barrio Logan quickly took on a separate community flair with a distinctive Latino identity and came to represent a major center for Chicano culture and social activities. After World War II, San Diego revamped its zoning laws and Barrio Logan changed from strictly residential to mixed use, allowing the influx of auto junk yards and wrecking operations and other light industry. The cumulative effect of these land use policies resulted in the dislocation of families, business closures, and the construction of transportation facilities that gobbled even more land in the area. In the early 1960s, the construction of Interstate 5 (I-5) severed Barrio Logan from the larger community of Logan Heights. Then the San Diego-Coronado Bay Bridge (SR-75), constructed between 1967 and 1969 and sited in an east-west direction to link with I-5, further bisected the barrio.

The Handball Court mural (1996) was created by Alvaro Millan and guests; this vibrantly colored mural depicts themes of Hispanic heritage and culture from Mesoamerica.

Chicano Park is a 7.4-acre park located in Barrio Logan beneath the east-west approach ramps of the San Diego-Coronado Bay Bridge, where SR-75 intersects I-5. The park's main section is bounded by I-5 to the east and National Avenue to the west, with a smaller panhandle section extending from National Avenue to Newton Avenue and flanked to the south by Dewey Street. SR-75, whose east end terminates at I-5 in Barrio Logan, represented a penultimate moment for the local citizenry. The final culminating moment came when it was announced that Caltrans had plans to allow construction of a California Highway Patrol substation under the five eastern ramps. This was viewed as the ultimate insult to a people and community who had long suffered because of prejudice, hatred, and indiscriminately applied zoning laws. The Chicano people rose in protest and formed human chains around heavy equipment ready to grade the land for a substation. They then immediately began to create their park, a "people's park," Chicano Park. They laid sod, started to plant trees, grass, flowers, and create a sacred garden and kiva for ceremonies. Later came the Kiosko (Kiosk), which has become the epicenter for park activities. Then in the early 1970s the first murals were painted. April 22, 1970 is recognized as the "takeover" of the land that was being prepared for the CHP substation. Since 1970, Barrio residents have made extensive use of their new park for social and political events, and annually on the Saturday nearest April 22nd, the community commemorates the founding of Chicano Park with a daylong festival, featuring ethnic foods, dancing, and music.

Left Community activists protesting a proposed State plan to build a California Highway Patrol substation under the State Route 75 bridge ramps, circa early 1970, source the San Diego Union. All other photos are by Martin D. Rosen. Right Chicano Park Day poster from April 20, 1996, rallying the community to save the murals from proposed State seismic retrofit activities.

Colossus (1974/1989), metaphorically holding up one of the bridges in Chicano Park, was created by Mario Torero, Mano Lima, and Laurie Manzano.

Chicano Park is distinguished by approximately 40 prominent murals painted on concrete pillars and abutments sited throughout the park. The murals and their iconography depict images of Mexican pre-Columbian gods, myths and legendary icons, botanical elements, animal imagery, the Mexican colonial experience, revolutionary struggles, cultural and spiritual reaffirmation through the arts, Chicano achievements, identity and bicultural duality as symbolized in the search for the "indigenous self," Mexican and Chicano cultural heroes and heroines such as La Adelita, Cesar Chavez, Father Miguel Hidalgo, Che Guevara, Pancho Villa, Emiliano Zapata, and scenes based on contemporary Chicano civil rights history.

Mural making in Chicano Park began in earnest on March 23, 1973, when two teams of Chicano artists began to apply paint to the concrete abutments of the bridge's off-ramps flanking the east and west sides of Logan Avenue. They were executed over an extended period of time and in three main phases during the 1970s. To quote Salvador Torres, longtime Barrio Logan resident, artist, and community activist, the first phase of mural making, 1973-1974, emphasized pre-Columbian motifs and the "dominance of Chicano nationalism and spontaneity in the imagery portrayed." The second phase in 1974-1975 included invited artists from communities throughout California, most notably Los Angeles and Sacramento. An infusion of new ideas resulted from this period, and resulted in a number of murals. The third phase, 1977-1981, celebrated a resurgence in community pride by, for example, questioning the inordinate number of junkyards in the barrio and their visual and auditory impacts on the quality of life. Marked by a 20-day mural marathon organized by local artist Victor Ochoa in 1978, this third phase utilized the skills of some non-Chicanos and placed emphasis on educational and historical themes.

Left Coatlicue (1978) represents the Aztec Goddess who gave birth to the moon and stars, among other interpretations; she was created by Susan Yamagata and Michael Schorr. Middle The Aztec Warrior (1978), a classic image, was created by Felipe Adame. Right Virgen de Guadalupe (1978), created by Mario Torero, depicts the Catholic icon of the Virgin Mary. According to the traditional account, the image appeared miraculously on the cloak of Juan Diego, an indigenous peasant, on the hill of Tepeyac near Mexico City on December 12, 1531. A small shrine has been erected at the base of the mural.

Unlike the creation of the majority of the murals in the 1970s, the few done in the 1980s and early 1990s were accomplished under the criteria of need, ability, subject matter, and the availability of funding. By early 1984, a group of artists led by Salvador Torres and Mario Torero and members of the Chicano Park Arts Committee began the work of touching up the murals. Due to the fact that mural life is only about 10 years, maintenance is paramount. It was the vision of individual artists and others that initiated the painting of murals on the huge, sterile columns that dominated the park site. They envisioned "a seemingly endless canvas, stretching to the waters of the bay four blocks away," an opportunity to transform and "personalize" the dreary concrete landscape. The artists would crystallize David Siqueiros' description of murals (cf. "Art of Revolution", 1975) that they must be "monumental and realistic," and the Chicano Park murals would be "bigger than life itself." By the late-1970s nearly every major Chicano muralist in California and the Southwest, by invitation and inclination, had participated in the creating of Chicano Park murals.

After the disastrous Loma Prieta (1989) and Northridge (1994) earthquakes, Caltrans entered into a massive seismic retrofitting program that encompassed almost every type of bridge in California. One of the most challenging projects involved the retrofit of the San Diego Coronado Bay Bridge and its approach ramps. Because the seismic retrofit project had to comply with federal and state laws regarding its impact on significant cultural resources, part of the process for this undertaking required researching and evaluating Chicano Park and its murals. Based on the research by then Caltrans Historian Jim Fisher, the park and murals were found eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places due to their critical association with the Chicano Civil Rights Movement and the growing recognition of the significance of muralism in mainstream art endeavors. Chicano Park was placed on the California Register of Historical Resources on January 31, 1997, and has also been landmark listed by the City of San Diego. Eventually, Caltrans found a way to retrofit the bridges without impacting the murals on the columns.

Left Varrio Si, Yonkes No! (Neighborhood yes, junkyards no!) (1977/1989) was created by Raul Jose Jacquez, Alvaro Millan, Victor Ochoa, and Armando Rodriguez to express community concern for the junkyards that infiltrated the community after freeway construction. Right Nacamiento del Parque Chicano (n.d.) was created by Dolores Serrano-Velez to celebrate the founding of the park on April 22, 1970.

In late 1999, through Caltrans I applied for a 1.6 million dollar federal transportation enhancement grant to restore approximately 20 murals in the park. The money has been awarded, the mural restoration guidance manual has been completed, and it is hoped that restoration of these significant works of art can commence soon.

All photos courtesy Martin D. Rosen, except where noted otherwise.

About the author Martin D. Rosen is a Senior Environmental Planner at Caltrans District 11 in San Diego, and has been a cultural resource professional for 37 years.

Volume 42 - 2011


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From the Editor

Warner-Carrillo Ranch House

Santa Ysabel General Store

The Hawaiian Connection

San Diego's First Chinese Community

Temple Beth Israel

Archaeological Myth Busting

Chicano Park & its Wondrous Murals

Sleeping Porches & Suffragist Banners

Most Endangered List of Historic Resources

Windemere Cottage

People In Preservation Winners

In Memoriam

Preservation Community

Recent Acquisitions

Save Balboa Park

Lost San Diego

Strength in Numbers

Donations 2010-2011


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