The Mural is the New Chicano

At the Dedication of the Haramokngna Mural in Highland Park

Before Facebook and Tweets rallied protesters to public space, murals occupied the walls. The painted images spoke for those who could not, say the advocates of traditional murals found in the barrios of Los Angeles.

Now the roles have been switched. Today's Mexican-American Angelenos, once active during the Civil Rights era and now having gained political and social influence, are letting the walls that once represented their point of view suffer. Like Chicanos in the 1960s and 1970s who looked to their past to cement an identity, the ethnic mural is an art form trying to find its place without compromising its heritage.

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The art that spread the messages of neighborhood truths is now the one that has been disenfranchised, downtrodden, and suspect of being part of a larger criminal element. It is even on the cusp of being overshadowed by street art, sometimes considered to be the center of the current mural revival.

With emotional public comments during city council committee meetings, and during the ongoing community meetings reviewing proposed ordinances, Latino artists and stakeholders have voiced criticism about being excluded from the initial think tank shaping the new rules allowing works to be placed on private property.

Many are emerging artists, who like those raised in the neighborhoods in the last few decades, have the memory of art in their neighborhood. They have been waiting to be a new generation to join the Los Angeles legacy, and include Latino issues, like immigration policy, that will expand beyond a Chicano portfolio.

Yet those original murals, filled with civil rights activism and neighborhood identity, are recalled and reinterpreted in the current Departures installment about Highland Park. The gathered spokespeople in Reclaiming the City define murals as works with distinct pointed social messages, and a major source of creativity that pushed Los Angeles to start a national reputation as a center of art.

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Preserving Murals: Judithe Hernandez addresses the shift in attitude toward public art in L.A.

"[It was] the very thing that put Los Angeles on the map," says Judithe Hernandez. "This kind of art that came out from the eastside of the city, to the ocean."

Although the Los Angeles Art Squad in Venice was also creating works as early as 1969, Eastside murals have a cultural pedigree that goes back 100 years.

In 1913, Gerardo Murillo of Guadalajara is credited for painting the first modern mural in Mexico, during a time when Mexican President Victoriano Huerta appointed Alfredo Martinez to lead reform through public art in order to carve out Mexican identity from its history. The application of this movement, which became a voice for the dispossessed, was led by José Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros, even as they worked on commissions in the United States.

The art form was quiet until Mexican-Americans looked to their history for an authentic identity. In the farmlands of California's Central Valley, Antonio Bernal's 1968 mural on the wall of Teatro Campesino's building in Del Ray, a nod to the Mexican Mural Movement earlier in the century, is credited as the first Chicano mural.

As more took on the walls throughout Mexican neighborhoods in California and the Southwest, murals becoming cultural identifiers. That modern mural movement thrived in East Los Angeles, Boyle Heights, Lincoln Heights, and Highland Park, and expanded to all ethnic groups.

Los Angeles is also home to the full cycle of creative spirituality. As "Chicano" and murals began forming an identity in Los Angeles in the late 1960s, Siqueiros' 1932 "America Tropical" at Olvera Street had reappeared into public consciousness, out from a decades-long whitewash.

This modern Mexican-American mural movement, that had burst in Los Angeles, was not missed by historians. "Community murals have a distinctive relationship to social change: they are concrete public expressions of a community's values, problems, or goals," wrote James D. and Eva S. Crockcroft in a 1978-issue of Radical America, describing how the works had "intense community involvement" and were filled with the embodiment of political commentary.

There is an irony today's politics of mural content: some insist authentic murals should always carry social, if not political messages, to the masses. That makes a restrictive, and not viable, definition of mural.

But the defense for the ethnic mural will go on, even with street art gaining influence.

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A Social Movement: Guillermo Bejarano explains the role of public art in the marginalized Hispanic community of L.A.

"I see graffiti as an extension of individual expression," says Guillermo Bejarano. "But there are older painters who look at graffiti artists who are destroying some very important Chicano art. We don't feel that's right. They should learn to respect art, and not destroy art."

The early murals, now considered a document of history, first carried urgent messages calling for change.

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Tackling Social Issues: Patricia Parra speaks about how artists & organizations in Highland Park worked for a better quality of life.

"It provided a launching pad for people later," Patricia Parra tells Departures, looking back on that activism. "Here we are now, able to make film, and write books, and be the thinkers that we should always have been acknowledged to be."

And that is something else that modern Mexican-American murals share with those who refer to themselves as Chicano: A sense of self.

Watch all their mural stories in Reclaiming the City, a hotspot in Departures: Highland Park

Photo by flickr user Waltarrrrr used under a Creative Commons license.

About the Author

Ed Fuentes is an arts journalist, photographer, graphic designer, and digital muralist who covers a variety of topics and geographies in Southern California for KCET.
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