Talking with Pete Galindo

The resurgence of street murals is exciting, but their popularity may come at a steep price.

peter galindo
Rafael Cardenas

Fernando Corona and Alonso Delgadillo, members of the South El Monte Arts Posse, unveiled a new mural earlier this month during an event called “Bringing Muralism Back to the Valley Mall.” Teeming with historical references and nods to previous artworks that were whitewashed by the City of El Monte, the wall painting at the Valley Mall celebrates the enduring spirit of the local Latino community and its triumph over a 1977 moratorium banning murals—a popular art form among Chicano artists throughout Los Angeles County.

Unlike earlier murals in El Monte, this one received high praise, including from the city’s mayor, who applauded the artwork on Instagram, and the Los Angeles Times, which wrote favorably about the return of public art.

The positive feedback pleased Pete Galindo, the new director of the Social and Public Art Resource Center’s Great Wall of Los Angeles Institute. He recognizes it as part of a larger movement sweeping the nation—one that embraces new and previously disregarded art forms.

Pete Galindo joins Alta Journal associate editor Ajay Orona for Alta Live.

Galindo’s job includes overseeing a half-mile addition to the 2,754-foot-long painted history of California in the San Fernando Valley that his institute is named for, designed by legendary artist Judy Baca. While he welcomes the newfound enthusiasm for public wall paintings, he cautions that blind acceptance risks weakening the art form as a whole.

Galindo points to three new murals in Boyle Heights, his home neighborhood, that were sponsored by food delivery service DoorDash. The company claims that the art was meant to celebrate the mostly Latino community, but Galindo remains skeptical about DoorDash’s intent, wondering how much agency was actually given to the artists.

Alta Journal caught up with Galindo via a phone call to discuss the state of murals in California.

Los Angeles is known for its murals. What is the history behind this?
There’s a huge legacy of mural work in Los Angeles, but the history of murals didn’t begin in the 1960s with the Chicano Movement. Some of the first outdoor murals were painted in the 1930s, some by Mexican artists and others through the Works Progress Administration. One in particular was painted by David Alfaro Siqueiros on Olvera Street. Siqueiros is known as one of the best grandes in Mexico along with Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco. These artists are recognized as the most important mural painters in Mexico, and [Siqueiros and Orozco] brought their talents to Los Angeles. Later, in the mural movement, I would say that Judy Baca and Willie Herrón are key figures. There are other folks, of course, but not many more. And if you look at one of the first murals of the movement—when you talk about mural production—you’re looking at The Wall That Cracked Open.

[Herrón painted The Wall That Cracked Open in 1972 in response to his brother’s near-fatal stabbing by a rival gang. Herrón was hanging out with members of Asco (a Chicano arts collective whose name means “disgust” or “vomit” in Spanish) when he learned of the attack. He painted the mural in the same East Los Angeles alley where he found his brother bleeding.]

How did you first get involved in the art scene?
Well, my father actually helped Willie Herrón paint [his next] mural after The Wall That Cracked Open. La Gente Newsmagazine at UCLA wrote about The Wall That Cracked Open, and people started really talking about this work, and people started reaching out to Willie. This one guy who ran a dropout prevention program out of Cal State L.A. reached out to Willie and asked whether he would be willing to paint a mural in Ramona Gardens. Well, Ramona Gardens is the housing project where the gang that stabbed Willie’s brother was from. Yet Willie actually decided that it would be a good idea to work there and create a dialogue through making art that would bridge the two communities that were separated by the 10 freeway: Ramona Gardens and City Terrace. So that’s what motivated Willie to paint the first mural of Ramona Gardens. My family lived in Ramona Gardens, so that’s how my dad ended up being part of that program. And that’s how I ended up gaining a real deep appreciation of the arts and its power to transform.

Years later, when I was working as a teacher’s assistant for Judy Baca at UCLA, I tracked down Willie when The Wall That Cracked Open got painted over during the Clean and Green program. Willie came to our classroom and spoke, and he and I have been friends since.

While overseeing the Social and Public Art Resource Center’s (SPARC’s) Great Walls Unlimited: Neighborhood Pride Mural Program in the early 2000s, you worked with many young artists. How did you select them?
We were looking for artists who were comfortable being socially engaged or comfortable working with community members. The Chicano mural movement of the 1970s had laid the foundation for how murals were going to be painted throughout the country. It was the first of its kind in the country aside from the WPA murals, [but] the WPA murals were not grassroots. These 1970s murals would speak to issues inside of neighborhoods and communities to transform them and to challenge what was happening. They were free media when television wasn’t telling the stories of Mexican Americans living in Boyle Heights or African Americans living in South Central. Those stories weren’t being told, and if they were being told, they were being told from the perspective of what was basically a white supremacy narrative. And so these murals sought to challenge that narrative. We were looking for artists who were willing to learn the stories of those neighborhoods. But the current crop of murals from DoorDash aren’t challenging anything. I know that these steps take time, but I’m looking at them from a larger historical perspective.

Will we see more corporate-sponsored murals in the greater L.A. area?
It depends on the success of the DoorDash campaign and what that yields for them. When activists and artists are producing murals, they’re not looking at cost-benefit. They’re thinking about the idea behind their work and the message they wanted to communicate. And that’s enough. They’re not trying to measure engagement or get “likes.” They’re not looking at people’s responses. I do think we may see a proliferation of these types of [artworks]. And I would say that corporations could do a lot more good if they were to give more latitude to the artists to really say something. One of the things that people and activists in neighborhoods like Boyle Heights are really talking about is clean living and access to healthier food and wellness and people taking care of themselves at the workplace. So why couldn’t DoorDash, a company that is all about food, actually talk about these things or let the artists explore these issues?

Where can someone learn more about L.A. murals? Are there tours or good routes to walk?
There is a lot of information out there, and of course, there are classes you can take. There are mural tours that we have, but nothing yet that is very consistent. But of course, that’s what we’re hoping to achieve with the Great Wall [of Los Angeles] Institute and SPARC. We’re a repository. We have 60,000 slides of murals produced all over the world. One of our biggest goals right now is to make that archive accessible. We’re working with an archive group at UCLA, figuring out how to actually make these murals accessible.•

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