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Seven Books to Help Understand Judith Baca’s Great Wall of Los Angeles and L.A. Itself

Recently, I wrote the poem “Whose Story Do We Tell?” as a homage to the muralist Judith Baca and her magnum opus, the 2,800-foot-long mural, Great Wall of Los Angeles. Located adjacent to Coldwater Canyon Avenue in the Valley Glen neighborhood of the San Fernando Valley, the Great Wall of Los Angeles is a 10,000-year history of Los Angeles that pays special attention to underrepresented stories and lesser-known ethnic history. 

Painted over five summers between 1976 to 1983, the mural’s extensive history and how Baca conceived of the project is told masterfully in the book, “BACA: Art, Collaboration & Mural Making.” Edited by Mario Ontiveros, the book includes essays by Ontiveros, Baca and four other writers. Inspired by the work of Mexico’s Los Tres Grandes — the three greats — José Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros — Baca’s oeuvre carries on the spirit of these pioneering mural makers and takes it further by collaborating with hundreds of international artists and mentoring hundreds of students. 

Baca has painted scores of murals all over the world. The Neighborhood Pride program she started under former Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley helped in the painting of over 105 murals across Southern California. In 2010, the Los Angeles Unified School District named an elementary school after Baca. The Judith F. Baca Arts Academy is on 89th Street and Compton Avenue in the Florence-Firestone neighborhood just north of Watts. She visits the school often and attends graduation ceremonies there every year. 

Baca believes in the educational power of murals and her 50-year career testifies to this. In 1976, she co-founded the Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC) which still operates to this day. Carlos Rogel writes, “Establishing SPARC gave Baca a means to share institutional knowledge, document progress and improve complex art programming.” 

SPARC’s method for developing art curriculum and its philosophy of mural production has influenced public art programs around the world. One of the hallmarks of Baca’s career has been her ability to share cultural authority. Rather than having a top-down perspective, she empowers all voices, whether those are from younger students or from forgotten history.  

In the foreword of Ontiveros’ book, Baca writes, “I am a political landscape painter. My landscapes have become murals, the sites of public memory. I’ve learned to listen to the land, to hear the story hidden there. The land has memory — I have been learning to put my ear to the ground to listen and to understand the spirit of place.” And she is right; Baca’s ability to capture the spirit of place and its underlying narratives is phenomenal. 

The title of my poem, “Whose Story Do We Tell?” comes from Baca’s seminal 1996 essay about public art titled “Whose Monument Where? Public Art in a Many-Cultured Society.” In this piece, Baca discusses public art and what role it plays in a multicultural society. She asks many questions such as: “How can we as artists avoid becoming accomplices to colonization? If we chose not to look at triumphs over nations and neighborhoods as victories and advancements, what monuments could we build? How can we create a public memory for a many-cultured society? Whose story shall we tell?”

Baca’s life’s work answers these questions because she has created a public memory for our multicultural society. Over the last few years, I have taken many of my classes from Woodbury University to the Great Wall because it is such an interdisciplinary method for communicating Los Angeles history, the power of art and civic engagement simultaneously. Before we visit the Wall, I have them read Baca’s essay about public art, quoted above. 

I see Baca as a visionary painting people’s history. She paints a public memory that is inclusive and truly representative of multicultural Los Angeles. Her work as a muralist parallels other pioneering social historians like Dolores Hayden, Howard Zinn, Laura Pulido, Grace Lee Boggs, Ronald Takaki and Mike Davis. In the context of this essay, social history, public history and people’s history have overlapping meanings. Before going further into her work, a discussion of public history adds further insight.

What is Public History?

Judy Baca and the Great Wall.jpg
Judy Baca and the Great Wall

“The rise of social history as a field of study in the 1970s,” writes Andrew Hurley, “along with theoretical advances in the disciplines of cultural geography and urban sociology, gave scholars powerful conceptual tools for making the past meaningful to diverse populations and empowering previously marginalized groups.” Baca’s massive mural undoubtedly makes the past meaningful to diverse populations (two other books that offer incredible examples of public history include Dolores Hayden’s “The Power of Place and “A People’s Guide to Los Angeles by Laura Pulido, Laura Barraclough and Wendy Cheng).

The Great Wall and other Baca murals epitomize the spirit of public history. “Public history,” Hurley writes, “encompasses all history delivered to nonacademic audiences.” Hurley’s book, “Beyond Preservation: Using Public History to Revitalize Inner Cities,” even goes as far to propose that the ethical use of public history could even be an antidote to gentrification because it allows inner city residents and local stakeholders to be involved in creating the historic narrative, aka the production of knowledge. 

Baca’s wall adheres to this. More than 350 inner-city youths between the ages of 14 and 21, who are mostly low-income and people of color, assisted her in painting the Great Wall. One of her mottos is “collaborate first, then paint.” 

Learn how Miles "Mac" MacGregor uses the streets as a way to continue the tradition of portraiture on "Artbound."

One more note about public history, Hurley states that it “contrast(s) to the traditional emphasis on statesman, military heroes and prominent intellectuals, the new social history aspired to tell history from the bottom up. Ordinary people acting through formal organizations and informal networks took center stage as the critical actors in historical dramas. Fresh scholarship began to explore the role of labor unions, women’s groups, mobs, civil rights organizations, neighborhood associations and ethnic societies in shaping everyday life and changing the course of local and national events. Class, race, gender and ethnicity emerged as the categories of analysis through which historical conditions and processes were charted and understood.” Baca maps all of this in the Great Wall of Los Angeles. This is why I see her as a visionary painting public history.  

Healing the City

“I saw the mural as the history of California,” Baca states in the foreword of the Ontiveros book. “A giant narrative telling the stories of the people who lived here, and of those who, like birds or water, traveled back and forth across the land freely before there was a line that distinguished what side anyone was from. The murals’ purpose not only would be to tell the forgotten stories of people, but also speak to our shared human condition as temporary residents of the earth.” 

The Great Wall is located in a liminal area where North Hollywood, Valley Glen and Sherman Oaks intersect and the mural itself is painted on the concrete walls of the Tujunga Wash riverbed. Born in 1946, Baca grew up in Pacoima just a few miles north. She attended Cal State Northridge and the mural was her master’s thesis. She traces the beginnings of her career as a political landscape painter to growing up along the Los Angeles River. 

“To me,” she writes, “the concreting of the river represented the hardening of the arteries of the land, and the result was disease in the land. The river no longer brought nutrients to the soil, no longer replenished the aquifer and the concrete rushed pollutants to the sea.” 

Initially the environmental and social injustice of the concrete angered her, but then she imagined the possibilities. “I saw a space,” she states, “where at-risk kids could be safe and together in an environment where we could work on interracial harmony, creating an endless wall for an ongoing narrative. I saw how a mural could transform the concrete into the vibrant, untold stories of ethnic communities that could in turn bring people back to the river’s edge and heal them — and heal the river.”  

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In the years after the Great Wall was finished, healing the river is a process that was started by the Friends of the Los Angeles River in the late 1980s. Several sections of the river now include pocket parks and other restoration efforts. Baca saw this possibility earlier than almost anybody. The Great Wall itself is framed by green. A lush greenbelt with a nice walkway makes viewing the mural a sublime place to stroll, exercise or even sit and journal for a while.  

Siqueiros’ Polyangular Perspective 

In 1977, shortly after the first section of the Great Wall was finished, Baca travelled to Cuernavaca, Mexico for a residency at El Taller Siqueiros where she studied mural painting in the workshop of the recently deceased muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896-1974). As Andrea Lepage writes in “Baca: Art, Collaboration & Mural Making,” Baca had already been painting murals for several years when she enrolled in the residency. 

Lepage states that though Baca admired the work of Siqueiros and Los Tres Grandes, her inclusive, community-based working method differed from “the Los Tres Grandes model, [in which] the man takes the lead and tells everybody what else to do.” Nonetheless, though as both Lepage and Anna Indych-Lopez write, Baca did learn valuable aesthetic methods during her residency, namely Siqueiros’ polyangular perspective theory.

Siqueiros’ polyangular perspective, according to Indych-Lopez involves “the adaptation of architectonic spaces into new realms of pictorial representation. Siqueiros was particularly interested in breaking up the space of the wall in his quest to take into account the movement of the spectator when viewing a mural, he therefore was careful to transform the spatial experience itself through aesthetics.” Another way of saying this is that the images on the mural painted using the polyangular perspective look different depending on the angle and position you are viewing them.

The sections of the Great Wall that were painted after Baca’s residency incorporate the polyangular perspective, making them more dynamic in terms of space and composition. Simultaneously, as Indych-Lopez asserts, “Siqueiros’ polyangular perspective allows her to animate the compositions of the Great Wall. But she also uses that dynamism strategically to challenge the legacy of Mexican muralism and to represent forcefully the historical dissension embodied by the challenges of feminism.” 

Siqueiros’ polyangular perspective proved to be the perfect method to articulate the historic tensions that Baca was painting. The images of Rosie the Riveter, Jewish Holocaust victims and Mexican Americans being repatriated show distortions of scale that reflect the intensity of their historic moment. This is why the visual strategies Baca learned during her residency gave her even more methods “to engage the viewer and to communicate historical ruptures and disjunctures,” writes Indych-Lopez.      

In addition to Mario Ontiveros’ book on Baca, seven other books informed my poem and understanding of the Great Wall. Most of the books below mention the Wall but a few don’t. Those that don’t still have a relevance to the Wall, simply because of points they raise. One of the first is by Eric Avila. 

“Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight” by Eric Avila 

Great Wall of Los Angeles
Great Wall of Los Angeles

Avila features the Great Wall of Los Angeles on the book’s cover and his narrative arc spotlights several key segments of Los Angeles history presented on the Wall from the Second World War to the next three decades. Avila’s segments on Disneyland, Dodger Stadium, the rise of the freeway system and film genres like noir and science fiction masterfully show how 1950s popular culture reflected the political and social changes that happened in Los Angeles in the mid 20th century. This landmark book demonstrates how “the reconfiguration of the American city initiated the decline of both the new mass culture and its urban context and inaugurated a new paradigm of race and space.” 

Avila sheds light on how the Great Wall depicts this destruction and urban renewal in its images. In the section of the mural titled ‘Division of the Barrios,’ Avila writes, “a Chicano family is divided — mother and son on one side, father and daughter on the other. A writhing freeway enforces their separation, imposing a wide gulf between the family crashing down on their barrio community. Not unlike its depiction of Dodger Stadium as an alien invader, Baca’s mural presents an ominous vision of the Los Angeles freeway, conveying its constriction of family and community and its destructive impact on postwar Southern California’s increasingly fragmented landscape.”         

“Collisions at the Crossroads” by Genevieve Carpio

Carpio’s book focuses on the evolution of the Inland Empire and how restrictions on free movement created segregated neighborhoods and shaped identity as well as racial hierarchies across the eastern suburbs of Los Angeles. The book’s subtitle “How Place and Mobility Make Race,” is especially relevant to the Great Wall’ sections on the Chinese Massacre, Mexican American Repatriation, the rise and fall of the orange groves and transition between Route 66 and the construction of the Federal Highway System.

Carpio zooms in on the idea of “selective tradition,” in regard to the history of orange groves and their influence on the development of the Inland Empire. Selective tradition is a concept first explicated by Raymond Williams in his seminal book “Keywords.” Williams is one of the most influential scholars in the field of Cultural Studies. He unpacks selective tradition by writing, “In a society as a whole, and in all its particular activities, the cultural tradition can be seen as a continual selection and re-selection of ancestors. Particular lines will be drawn, often for as long as a century, and then suddenly with some new stage in growth these will be cancelled or weakened, and new lines drawn.” In this context, selective tradition is essentially the idea that as time goes on, groups will remember what they want to remember and forget the history that they do not want to remember. 

This is similar to the idea that history is written by the victors. In the context of Carpio’s book, she shows how the Riverside Historical Society and many of the Inland Empire’s Route 66 historians manipulate their region’s history by remembering what they want to remember and ignoring some of the other history. Carpio shows how this was done with the navel orange.  “The selective tradition of the navel orange,” she writes, “lent legitimacy to citrus production and deliberately connected the region’s history to white migration and American capitalism while sweeping away alternative modes of production, as well as the people who exercised them.” 

Selective tradition is especially relevant in the Great Wall because Baca intentionally spotlights history in the mural that has been overlooked or not made central in many historic narratives. At the time of the mural’s conception in the late 1970s, the idea of public history or people’s history was only emerging in popular culture. Reading Carpio’s book and her focus on selective traditions during my pilgrimages to the Great Wall made the scenes come to life even more.   

“Whitewashed Adobe” by William Deverell

Great Wall of Los Angeles by Judy Baca © and SPARC
Detail of the Great Wall of Los Angeles by Judy Baca and SPARC

Selective tradition is also prominent in “Whitewashed Adobe” written by William Deverell. Deverell’s narrative shows again and again how Los Angeles has remade its Mexican history. “Los Angeles matured,” Deverell explains “at least in part, by covering up places, people, and histories that those in power found unsettling. Los Angeles became a self-conscious ‘City of the Future’ by whitewashing an adobe past, even an adobe present and adobe future.” 

Deverell notes that early Angeleno boosters celebrated adobe, the Mission History and the Spanish past selectively as “a way by which white Angelenos created distance (cultural or personal) between themselves and the Mexican past and the Mexican people in their midst.” Deverell’s book builds on Carey McWilliams’ idea of Southern California’s fantasy Spanish heritage and how city leaders reframed the Mexican past by calling it Spanish to make it more glamorous and then selectively using this history to sell the city with pageants, plays and sites like Olvera Street. The book “Ramona”played a critical role in this. Deverell’s book also has a great chapter on the 1924 Plague on Los Angeles’ Eastside and the quarantine efforts used to stop the epidemic then. 

The term whitewashed has extra relevance to Baca as well because in 2019 her mural painted in 1984, titled “Hitting the Wall,” along the 110 freeway in Downtown L.A. was inexplicably whitewashed. Furthermore, there’s always the story of David Alfaro Siqueiros’ Olvera Street mural “America Tropical,” that was whitewashed in 1932. Siqueiros is an important influence for Baca and his legacy played an important part of her evolution as an artist.

“Art in the City” by Sarah Schrank

Sarah Schrank’s 2009 book “Art in the City” tells the entire story of why Siqueiros’ Olvera Street mural was whitewashed. Schrank reveals that the great muralist actually had two murals whitewashed in Los Angeles in 1932. The other one was a mural he painted at Chouinard Institute called “Workers Meeting.” Both of his whitewashed murals included subversive imagery critiquing American imperialism.

His murals were the perfect vehicle for his political beliefs. “Siquieros saw the act of producing the mural,” Schrank writes, “to be as significant and political as its content was. Its value was in its collectivity, its size and public accessibility.” America Tropical was 82 feet long and 18 feet high on the second-story wall of the Italian Hall on the westside of Olvera Street. This large space gave him the perfect public canvas to express his vision.

“He thus painted a tropical jungle whose roots are portrayed as thick as flesh,” Schrank states, “and as lithe as serpents as they surround an ancient temple. In the upper-hand right hand corner of the mural a Peruvian Indian and a Mexican campesino prepare their firearms for an attack on the American imperial eagle perched about the mural’s startling centerpiece: an Indian tightly bound to a double cross. Temple ruins and pieces of statuary litter the ground. Siqueiros’ point was not subtle; nor did he intend it to be.” 

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The mural was purposeful and in the context of the time, Siqueiros was responding to American economic exploitation and what he saw as the legacy of imperialism. There were also thousands of Mexican Americans in Los Angeles being repatriated back to Mexico during this time and most of them were American citizens. Siqueiros himself stated about America Tropical: “It is the living symbol of the destruction of past national American cultures by the invaders of yesterday and today. It is the preparatory action of the revolutionary proletariat that scales the scene and readies its weapons to throw itself into the ennobling battle of the new social order.”

Needless to say, this was all a little too radical for the 1930s, let alone the overall conservative spirit of those times. Therefore, as Schrank writes, “as well connected as Siqueiros became in Los Angeles, his supporters were unable to keep the mural from being whitewashed, nor could they prevent his deportation in November 1932.” The political spirit of Siqueiros is definitely something Baca carries forward along with his “polyangular perspective” on mural making.  

Schrank actually begins her book with an anecdote about Baca’s public artwork in Baldwin Park, “Danzas Indigenas.”  The 1993 piece includes a quote from the seminal “Borderlands” author, Gloria Anzaldua. The Anzaldua quote reads: “This land was Mexican once, was Indian always and is, and will be again.” Schrank reports a 2005 incident when a vigilante group called “Save Our State” came to protest the art and to force its removal. A heated confrontation between the protesters and counter protestors ensued but the protestors were told to go home and by the following month Baca was honored by the city of Baldwin Park and given a written statement from city leaders that the artwork will remain intact and protected in the future.

Schrank’s book circles around the idea of cultural authority. In the case of Baca’s Baldwin Park piece, “Save Our State organizers,” Schrank explains, “clearly overlooked the fact that the city of Baldwin Park had commissioned an artwork popular with residents and taxpayers who resented the incursion of an outside group attempting to rile up anti-immigrant hysteria in their own neighborhood.” 

Schrank masterfully uses this incident to show how the intersection of art, public space and cultural authority can collide and produce political friction. In addition to Baca and Siqueiros she spotlights a century of similar incidents involving the Watts Towers, the Venice Beats, early Angeleno boosters and the era of the Red Scare to show how the cultural politics within art have always been a site of struggle between conflicting political factions. 

Schrank heralds Baca’s ability to share cultural authority and rally the people. “For Baca,” Schrank asserts, “1970s murals in Los Angeles challenged the civic and political invisibility of different cultural groups who, whole demographically significant, lacked socioeconomic power.” Baca’s ability to share cultural authority and empower her viewers is a major factor in her longevity and why the Great Wall is as relevant as ever. Generations of Angelenos have been inspired by her, including many graffiti writers.

“Going All City” by Stefano Bloch

Judy Baca and Carlos Rogel of SPARC and UCLA restoring the Great Wall of L.A., which is a best practice for monuments celebrating diversity along the River | Photo: The City Project.
Judy Baca and Carlos Rogel of SPARC and UCLA restoring the Great Wall of L.A., which is a best practice for monuments celebrating diversity along the River | Photo: The City Project.

Prolific graffiti writer turned cultural geographer and professor, Stefano Bloch, aka Cisco, the author of “Going All City,”lived across the street from the Great Wall while he was in high school in the early 1990s, and it played a major role in his shifting fortune. Bloch would walk along the wash and stare at the panels. “I didn’t understand the historical content of the mural,” he writes. “But this was, counterintuitively, a turning point for me. I could not understand the anguished faces in the panels depicting what I later understood to be Chinese laborers, Japanese internment and mass Mexican American deportation. I couldn’t understand it yet, but I was moved, captivated by masks worn by gay men sitting at a bar in Silver Lake, the Native American man’s long braid being cut off with oversized white sheets in the Mojave Desert, the sinister face of Joseph McCarthy holding his typewritten blacklist.” Bloch’s walks along the Great Wall were a big part of his awakening. 

Bloch came of age in the heyday of Los Angeles graffiti culture and grew up poor in the San Fernando Valley. His memoir published by the University of Chicago Press in late 2019, recalls his youth as he ran around the San Fernando Valley going “all city.” Writing graffiti from his very early teens, Bloch eventually went to Los Angeles Valley College, UC Santa Cruz and then to UCLA’s Urban Planning School for his master’s and then the University of Minnesota for his Ph.D. in Geography. As a graffiti artist in his teens he knew the city intimately, so it's not really a stretch that he eventually excelled in geography. 

Bloch’s memoir is an autoethnography. An autoethnography goes beyond an ethnographic accounting because it includes the author in the story. Deborah E. Reed-Danahay explains, “Autoethnography is a form of self-narrative that places the self within a social context [and] entails the incorporation of elements of one’s own life experience when writing about others.” Bloch’s autoethnography is not only one of the most compelling books ever written about writing graffiti, it is one of the best memoirs of someone growing up in the San Fernando Valley. His family moved from apartment to apartment throughout his childhood constantly from Burbank to North Hollywood and other pockets of the Valley. There is never a dull moment, from Bloch being hit by a car on the freeway to being chased by police to narrowly escaping getting killed by gangsters. 

Raised by a heroin addict single mother, Bloch’s story accomplishes several feats. His redemption story is the most obvious, but he also offers a poignant window into how economic restructuring affected Angelenos in the late 20th century and provides an insider’s view of the everyday events of a graffiti writer. He chose the autoethnography form because he feels “making scholarly work personal makes it approachable and therefore effective in bringing about a greater understanding of complex structures and, ultimately, empathy.”    

“I’m a scholar now,” Bloch writes. “I debate theories in seminar rooms about urban deprivation and dispossession. But I wasn’t always able to generalize from personal experience. The constant stress, insecurity, and anxiety of poverty were too much to bear. Deferring to the language of social science has always felt simultaneously alienating and enabling.” This is another realm where Bloch’s book connects to Judy Baca’s Great Wall and her life’s work. 

Like the Great Wall, “Going All City” is a people’s history of the San Fernando Valley. Simultaneously it's a history of the 1980s and ‘90s, graffiti art and his own coming of age. Like Baca, he is sharing cultural authority and empowering his readers in the same way that Baca’s mural empowered him. Walking along the Great Wall was a part of his own healing. Now his insider tales of growing up as a graffiti artist evoke a similar empathy while seamlessly mixing reality and theory. Stefano Bloch is carrying on the spirit of Baca and showing us the city beneath.

“The City Beneath” by Susan Phillips 

“The City Beneath,” written by Susan Phillips, is a history of 100 years of Los Angeles graffiti. Phillips does indeed show the city beneath and what makes this book so astonishing is that it opens up the lens on the sheer breadth of what graffiti really is and all the many different types of people who write it. Phillips records this alternative written record in the built environment within “the infrastructure of railroads, bridges, storm drain tunnels, harbors, and rivers ... This vernacular history is inscribed mostly on concrete with rocks, chalk, charcoal, pencil, spray paint, and sometimes railroad tar. It is a chronology of presence,” she writes, “mostly names and dates.”

Phillips spent over 25 years collecting the stories and images. She was in the storm drains, climbed under the bridges and drove to every corner of the metropolis. Her analysis combines “elements of ethnography, art history, urban history, ecology, and archaeology. The approach includes a focus on materiality, a contemplation of urban ruins, and a critical view of the city as an archive,” she says. Moreover, she adds, “the project’s method involves something I think of as uncovering rather than discovery. Uncovering is the opposite of a colonial project. It resists multiple layers of erasure by drawing attention to the destruction of neighborhoods, the whitewashing of people’s experiences, the promotion of patriarchy, the insularity of blue-collar labor, and the development and demise of subcultures.” Phillips respectfully uncovers the story behind the graffiti she records.

The 16 chapter titles alone show how thorough her work is. The chapters in order are: “Hobos, Queers, Kids, Prisoners, Pachucos, Enlisted Men, Railroaders, Surfers, Radicals, Killers, Cholos, Punks, Grips, Explorers, Seafarers, Taggers.” Beginning with hobos who write graffiti while they were hopping trains in the 19 teens, all the way up to taggers in South Central in the 1990s, Phillips shows how “Graffiti is a mode of community building and self-affirmation, a way to anchor wandering and to relieve oppression.” She reminds the reader that Los Angeles’s history has been rife with violence and exploitation and that “graffiti’s placement alongside the infrastructure of L.A.’s development is an assertion of belonging within complex, often hostile circumstances.”   

Phillips’ book looks at Los Angeles history from a different perspective. The book’s title is appropriate because she does indeed look at “the city beneath.” “The city beneath,” she writes, “produces different conclusions about how stories, lives, and places are connected. Graffiti is an underexplored way of writing history. People often produce graffiti in isolation, in communal circumstances deemed illicit, and in contexts that are blatantly illegal. Studying graffiti prioritizes a vernacular history, and often includes the experiences of people who remain underrepresented or unrepresented in sanctioned history.”  

Reading “The City Beneath” during the time I was making frequent trips to the Great Wall of Los Angeles further cemented my understanding of both the Wall and Los Angeles history simultaneously. The final three sentences in Phillips’ book are relevant on so many levels: “A century of Los Angeles graffiti communicates the city’s foundation of inequality. Writing can cement ground-level exclusion. But it is also where people continue to fight oppression through expression and transform even the most interstitial spaces into new venues for cultural identity.”

Conclusion

Great Wall Project Hero
Detail of the Great Wall of Los Angeles

This brings us back to the Great Wall of Los Angeles and Judith Baca’s lifetime of work. Her oeuvre of painting public history is a testament to using interstitial spaces as a venue to fight oppression through expression. Whether it be the 2,800 foot mural along the riverbed, a Metrolink station in Baldwin Park, the hundreds of other murals she has either painted or inspired, or now the hundreds of students attending the school named after her, Baca has used murals and public art as a method to unite the city and celebrate cultural identity.

Shortly before I finished this essay, I coincidentally met Franco Mendoza, who is now a senior in high school. Mendoza attended the Judith F. Baca Arts Academy and shared some of his experiences at the school with me. When he was in the sixth grade he participated in a mentor program at the school where students got to paint a collaborative mural. “She gave really great tips on how to paint,” Menodza says. “I was actually really excited because I got to meet her. It was a great experience and I felt really honored to have a painting of myself surrounded by things I liked and things that represented who I was. I was honored to have been mentored by our mentors and to have been in the presence of such an influential person. She really resembled what true hard work and resilience were.”

Mendoza counts this experience as one of the highlights of his young life. “After the mural was done, I saw her once again at my culmination ceremony when I graduated from sixth grade from the Judith F. Baca Arts Academy. As I got my diploma and was walking down she was the last person I shook hands with. I was really honored to have met Judith Baca not only that but to have been part of her program. I found this picture of me and my friend from elementary that I found on the Internet of us talking to our mentor during the project. I am the on the left sitting on the stage.”

In the foreword she wrote for the book edited by Mario Ontiveros, Baca exclaims: “A mural sings gospel from our streets. And preaches to us about who we can be, what we fear, and to what we can aspire. At their highest moments, murals can reveal what is hidden, challenge the prevailing dialogues, and transform people’s lives. Murals exercise our most important right of free speech. And, indeed, murals can be the catalyst for change in difficult times.”   

Top Image: An image from "Great Wall of Los Angeles."

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