History in the Painting

A new Judy Baca mural honors UCLA’s past, present, and future.

judith baca, ucla professor emeritus of chicana and chicano and central american studies and a professor of world arts and cultures, at the unveiling of her mural la memoria de la tierra ucla
Don Liebig/ASUCLA

“This is art that is coming to the people,” declared California state senator Maria Elena Durazo minutes after Judy Baca’s new nearly 78-foot mural was unveiled on April 1, 2022, at UCLA in honor of the school’s 2019 centennial.

This essay was adapted from the Alta newsletter, delivered every Thursday.

Permanently installed on the Wescom Student Terrace, on the first level of the Ackerman Union, La Memoria de la Tierra: UCLA (The memory of Earth: UCLA) consists of three panels that capture the past, present, and future of UCLA and celebrate the institution’s legacy while offering a vision of UCLA spreading knowledge and compassion into the world. Baca’s long career as an artist, an activist, and a professor has been devoted to cataloging public memory and empowering the next generation, using murals as a teaching tool.

The focal point is the central panel featuring three women: professor and Black Panther Angela Davis, civil rights activist Dolores Huerta, and Tongva shaman Toypurina, who led an uprising against the Spanish at the San Gabriel Mission in 1785.

Forming a large oval behind Davis, Huerta, and Toypurina are over 70 UCLA changemakers from the past century—Tom Bradley, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Kelly Lytle Hernandez, Jackie Joyner Kersee, Jackie Robinson, Arthur Ashe, George Takei, Juan Felipe Herrera—along with icons who participated in campus protests, like Martin Luther King Jr., Maria Elena Durazo, and John Lewis. These dignitaries are shown rallying as if at a protest. Nine social actions are depicted, including the 2020 Black Lives Matter student protests, the 1993 UCLA hunger strikes, and rallies against the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 1970s.

“Many of my heroes are in this piece,” Baca said at the unveiling. “These are the people who showed me how to conduct my life.”

Baca, who taught at UCLA for 32 years before her recent retirement, is a prolific muralist, best known for her 2,754-foot-long Great Wall of Los Angeles in the San Fernando Valley.

For this piece, which took three years to complete, Baca collaborated over Zoom with the UCLA Centennial Committee, Associated Students UCLA (ASUCLA), the Digital Mural Lab at the Social Public Art and Resource Center (SPARC), and UCLA urban humanities students, who assisted with historical research.

The first panel represents UCLA’s prehistory, showing indigenous flora and fauna (including grizzly bears, which lived in Southern California before being killed off), the Gabrielino-Tongva people, and the Los Angeles River, which once flowed just south of campus. The final panel portrays a future vision of UCLA where the school and its landscape are in harmony with the natural surroundings.

“This mural,” Baca explained, “is a piece of the land in memory that honors the original peoples and gives a hopeful insight into the future.”

At the unveiling, Jazz Kiang, a member of the ASUCLA board of directors, spoke: “I myself was one of Judy’s mural-making students seven years ago.… I remember the course titled Beyond the Mexican Mural, where we learned, designed, and painted at the SPARC studio in Venice. So to be part of this project seven years later—to commission a mural for our student union building in partnership with a former teacher—is truly full circle.”

Another full-circle moment came as Desirae Barragan, a current UCLA student and a direct descendant of Toypurina, addressed the crowd with her ancestor’s image behind her.

At 75, Baca shows no signs of slowing down. The Museum of Latin American Art (MoLAA) in Long Beach presented a major retrospective of her career that closed in March, and the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) will be featuring Baca’s collaborative, portable mural The World Wall: A Vision of the Future Without Fear this September. The J. Paul Getty Museum is presenting Judy Baca: Hitting the Wall, spotlighting a mural Baca created for the 1984 Olympics located on the 110 freeway underpass by Fourth Street that was totally whitewashed in 2019 as part of a graffiti-removal campaign. Baca sued LA Metro and Caltrans, and in 2021, the mural was fully restored.

“Judy Baca understands the imperative to create sites of public memory,” says Alessandra Moctezuma, a Mesa College professor of art who curated the MoLAA show. “She knows that history has to be rewritten by everyone, not just those in power, not just by the victors or colonizers.”•

Mike Sonksen, a third-generation Angeleno, is a poet, an essayist, and the author of Letters to My City.
Advertisement - Continue Reading Below
More From Alta Newsletter