Murals with Chicano themes — Zapata, Che Guevara, or just brown people enjoying life — are common up and down California, but are in constant danger of disappearing.
¡Murales Rebeldes! L.A. Chicana/Chicano Murals Under Siege, a gorgeous exhibit at the California Historical Society in San Francisco (with accompanying coffee-table book), preserves these artworks, at least in photos — and reminds us that they are not just essential for art and history lovers, but prophecy.
¡Murales Rebeldes! focuses on seven case studies from SoCal—all gorgeous pieces on their own that faced censorship, desecration or outright destruction for merely existing. The photos are simultaneously inspiring and stomach-churning. Who would want to sully such beautiful things?
Roberto Chavez’s sprawling “The Path to Knowledge and the False University” was whitewashed under a gringo administration at East Los Angeles Community College and remains hidden today under a Chicano one, showing Mexicans can hate themselves even worse than Donald Trump. “Resurrection of the Green Planet” is still around, but quickly deteriorating — are there no Latino millionaires in Los Angeles who care to chip in a couple hundred thousand dollars to save it?
Orange County, unsurprisingly, provides two egregious examples. “La Historia de Adrentro/La Historia de Afuera” actually stood without incident for nearly 15 years in Huntington Beach. But because it apparently didn’t worship surfing enough, the powers that be let a new landlord paint over it without alerting the artists. Meanwhile, Sergio O’Cadiz’s 600-foot-long “Fountain Valley Mural” — which depicted an Orange County far nastier than the Disneyland-and-housewives image that OC boosters would have you believe is the norm — got the wrecking ball in 2001 after new residents in the old Orange County barrio that housed it said it was an eyesore and—unbelievably—posed a seismic risk.
An even more maddening fate befell Barbara Carrasco’s “L.A. History: A Mexican Perspective.” Commissioned to celebrate L.A.’s 1984 Olympics, this mural made up of dozens of removable panels spent most of the past three decades in a Pasadena warehouse because no one has ever ponied up enough money to give it a permanent home.
But the most poignant artifact in ¡Murales Rebeldes! has to be the photo of the ruins of “Filling Up on Ancient Energies,” a large mural painted on a gas station wall by the East Los Angeles Streetscapers in 1980. Shell Oil knocked it down in 1988 to make way for a parking lot without letting the artists know; they only found out after friends called them the morning of their artwork’s execution. Chunks were all that the Streetscrapers could salvage from the wreckage — but the artists used them as evidence to sue Shell and win a landmark civil case that gave public art more protection. If you see the exhibit at the California Historical Society, you’ll see an actual chunk of the original mural — a reminder of how endangered Chicano murals are, and how only we can save them by remaining ever-vigilant.
¡Murales Rebeldes! — L.A. Chicana/o Murals under Siege
- The California Historical Society, 678 Mission Street, San Francisco
- (415) 357-1848
- Through Sept. 16. $10, Free for members
- 192 pages, Angel City Press, $40