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Chicano Artist Manuel Cruz: A Diamond in the Rough

Sonya Fe is a painter and muralist long affiliated with the Chicano(a) Art movement in Highland Park. She directed the screen printing workshop at Mechiano Arts Center and contributed to The Great Wall of Los Angeles. See her profile page for videos of interviews conducted for Departures: Highland Park.


When one speaks about the Chicano Art Movement of the '70s, one must not forget Manuel Cruz from East Los Angeles. He is the Godfather, el Don of the Chicano Art Movement. Many of his ideas of Chicanismo have been incorporated into what we know today as Chicano Art. I first met Manuel in 1976 at the Mechicano Art Center in Highland Park. I was in my early 20s and Manuel was in his mid 40s.

Murals by Manuel Cruz
A list of his murals via the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles

Homeboy, 1970
648 South Indiana (between Princeton and Hubbard streets)
Plaza Community Center, exterior south-facing wall

To Ace Out a Homeboy, 1973-1977
1974 Mechicano Arts Center
2871 Lancaster Avenue

Scene of Native American Life (Untitled), 1979
4000 Whittier Boulevard (mural on Gage Avenue)
Yaqui Food Products (and Tortilla Factory), exterior

Moctezuma, 1980
3277 Brooklyn Ave. (mural on Bernal Ave.), Boyle Heights
El Moctezuma Cafe, exterior

Reflextions, 1986
1711 West Montana (between Sunset and Montana), Echo Park
Logan Street Elementary School, exterior playground

Three Images of Brazil (Untitled), 1991
207 Ocean Front Walk (near Rose)
On the Waterfront Cafe, interior

Manuel was always working on some kind of an idea to promote or to manufacture. His ideas were good, but he wasn't very good at implementing them. When new generations of Chicano artists speak of Chicano Art, they more or less bring up the old masters from the past. However it was Manuel Cruz who had the vision for many of the things that these young Chicano artists are now enjoying. Manuel was a lone wolf, a diamond in the rough. He was from the old school of hard knocks. Manuel was a very dark Chicano, and back in those days he experienced more bigotry than any of us can imagine. Maybe he had a big chip on his shoulder because he had encountered more discrimination than the rest of us. He was sometimes mean and always loud, but nonetheless he was the Godfather, el Don of the Chicano Art Movement.

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A Chicano Christmas Story by Manuel Cruz was published in 1980 by Bilingual Educational ServicesManuel Cruz's temper over time worked against him; he was never recognized for his creative genius. Manuel was the most creative person I have ever met. He wrote a children's fairytale called, "The Chicano Santa Claus". He told me "You don't see things like these for our children," and he was right. Back then you couldn't find stories written for Mexican American children. This was a great story but he couldn't or didn't know how to get it published. Many years later I saw something like it on TV and I have seen it in comic books. Another thing, which Manuel envisioned, were these little sculptures of Cholos and Cholas. He showed me the prototype of one that was really cute. You know the kind, those "Cuties" figurines you buy in Hallmark? Well again he didn't get the right kind of backing and most likely didn't know how to go about promoting his creation. Again years later, you could buy miniature gang bangers figures in the Gumball machines at the liquor stores, food marts etc.

Manuel was way ahead of his time as he wrote a song called "Cholo writing on the Wall." The song was popular among Chicano activists. Manuel in many ways had opened the door for my generation and in turn opened the door for the future generations to come. I don't know where Manuel is today, but for us to not mention artist Manuel Cruz of East LA in the Chicano Art movement of the '70s is the worst kind of injustice, a wrong doing to a Chicano by Chicanos, because you see, Manuel Cruz is Chicano Art.

Manuel Cruz with Corky Gonzalez, Ramses Noriega and Rudy Salas, with Chicano Moratorium organizers at a fundraising art show in Boyle Heights in the summer of 1970. Image courtesy of Rosalio Munoz.

Top photo: Manuel Cruz's mural "To Ace Out a Homeboy" at Ramona Gardens, by Flickr user Lisa Newton used under a Creative Commons license.

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