Chicano Mural Conversation Extends Across East L.A. Corner


There is a corner in East Los Angeles where a mural torch was passed in the early 1970s. To the northwest is "Our Past, Our Present, and Our Future," a 1966 mural depicting Mexican history and its place in the U.S. Across the street "Story of our Struggle" stands as a direct response -- an aesthetic effect by regional artists extending and reinterpreting that indigenous identity.

This study in How to Speak a Mural Language is still a blueprint for ethnic-based art.

To properly survey "Story of our Struggle," the Johnny D. González (a.k.a. Don Juan) designed mural on the former First Street Store, which is now at risk of being removed to make room for a Charter School, one must view its relationship to the East Los Angeles street and neighborhood it has watched over since it was installed in 1974.

The mural's design connects to a larger idea that González saw in plazas in Mexico that anchored human pageantry. While the foot traffic near the mural is a trickle compared to its peak decades ago, there is still a hum of activity that has you understand the artist's romanticism of this public space.

Jesse Torres and Johnny D. González.
Jesse Torres and Johnny D. González.

As González first proposed, his design of arches extend the 1966 murals that front the Pan American Bank. When you stand on the northwest corner of East First Street and South Townsend Avenue, you feel the perspective. In a deliberate theatrical use of street space, "Struggle's" main panel is accented by the marquee of the Unique Theater across the street, a building now housing a swap meet. A classic neon sign reading "1st Street Food Center" bumps up against the east edge, the beginning of the "Struggle" timeline.

Two panels, the end of a timeline that marks infinity, wrap around on Townsend.

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Mural field trip in East Los Angeles

Back on the northwest corner, the murals of Pan American Bank, slightly larger in scale, adorn the walls. "Our Past, Our Present, and Our Future" was completed in 1966 by Mexican artist José Reyes Meza (recently passed away on Oct. 30, 2011), considered a contemporary of David Alfaro Siqueiros, Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and Rufino Tamayo.

Pan American Bank acknowledged the murals' 45th anniversary in 2010, and rightfully credits its ethnic themes as an influence to social dialogue in Chicano murals.

Now the local debate is how East Los Angeles, and the extended cultural familia of Boyle Heights, can respond to the swell of intellectual circles recognizing the importance of these murals that mark a time of social and political upheaval and ethnic discovery.

"We need to make sure that as a community we preserve not only our murals, not only the murals of the First Street Store, but murals across our community," said Jesse Torres, President & CEO of Pan American Bank, while standing on the corner with González. "It's a lost art in a sense. It's our responsibility to remind the new generations of their past, of their heritage, so that they can appreciate through these images where we all came from."

The mural movement itself is at an ironic stage. Mexican muralists moved their work to public space during the early 20th Century to reject a perceived elitism of gallery presentation. Now Los Angeles murals are in constant negotiations to be produced, restored, or -- in the case of "Struggle" -- to exist, while they are being celebrated and discussed in seminars and panels, such as in the current Pacific Standard Time exhibition "Transforming Public Art: Chicanos in the '80s" at LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes.

There may not be many shoppers on this strip of East First Street, but there is a different kind of visitor. After Don Juan and CEO Torres talked to each other about the two sets of murals, they shook hands and left to continue their day. Soon after, a supervised contingent of high school students arrived to visit the murals as a class project. They gathered at the feet of warriors, whipped out camera phones, then moved on to the former First Street Store.

The two series of murals, one a cultural sampling of another, have become a tableau vivant of Mexican-American and Mexican muralists in visual conversation. On this morning, one saw how the conversation continues with a few clicks and a tweet.

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