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Iconic Hispanic Angelenos in History: Judy Baca

In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, September 15 through October 15, join us as we celebrate the Hispanic individuals that have influenced culture, social justice, and progress in Los Angeles and, in some instances, the nation. Check back often as we highlight a new iconic Hispanic Angeleno throughout the month.

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Today we celebrate Judy Baca:

Renowned muralist and activist Judy Baca was born in Watts in 1946, living there in an all-female, Spanish-speaking household until the age of six. When her mother remarried and the family moved to Pacoima in the San Fernando Valley, the mostly-white suburban neighborhood seemed like a completely different world for Baca. Her new stepfather did not allow her to speak Spanish in the household, nor was she allowed to speak her native language in the classrooms.

In a way, this struggle with language opened her up to the world of art, where the language is universal. Because of her upbringing in a household where going to a gallery was never considered, she wanted to create art that was accessible to the public -- not locked away behind glass. She wanted to bring art back to the communities she was raised in.

After earning a Bachelors and a Masters degree in art from Cal State University, Northridge, Baca began teaching at her old high school. When she saw that her students weren't exactly getting along, she put the students to work: to create a mural on the school's walls. By forcing the students to communicate with each other, the mural making process allowed them to work out their differences peacefully. This proved to be the model for her career of using art as a form of social action.

When Baca and several other teachers were found to be present at protest rallies during the Chicano Moratorium, the principal fired them, citing a need to separate the school from any activist teachers.

Baca soon began working with the Los Angeles Parks and Recreation Department, where she organized community members and students from East L.A., teaching them ways to tell their stories through murals -- essentially creating the city's first mural program. Baca once again ran into trouble with her bosses -- the stories the community wanted to tell through the murals were not what the city wanted to see. While the community embraced both the good and bad aspects of their history, the city only wanted to see the "good" side.

Baca eventually joined forces with painter Christina Schlesinger and filmmaker Donna Deitch to create SPARC -- the Social & Public Art Resource Center. As director of the program, Baca finally was able to bring public art to the community without censorship. As a beautification project proposed by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1974, SPARC began planning one of its biggest projects: the Great Wall of Los Angeles. Located in the Tujunga Wash (a tributary of the L.A. RIver) next to L.A. Valley College, the half-mile long mural is the longest in the country. It tells the story of Los Angeles from the point of view of those who had little say in its official history: native americans, women, and minorities. Baca worked with youth, mostly from low income backgrounds, to create the mural (hear some of their stories here). Beginning in 1976, the Great Wall was created over several summers, with the final 350 feet seeing completion in 1983. The Great Wall saw a major restoration in 2011, and SPARC currently has plans to extend the mural, which now only tells the story of Los Angeles up to the 1950s.

In the years since the Great Wall, SPARC has completed over a hundred murals, both in collaboration with local communities and solely by Baca. This year SPARC celebrates their 35th anniversay, and everyone is encouraged to give a nod to Judy Baca and her tireless work in using murals as a tool for social action, bringing communities together through art.

  • Founded L.A.'s first mural program in 1974, completing over 105 murals in its 10-year existence
  • Designed the Great Wall of Los Angeles -- the longest mural in the world
  • Advocate for using digital technology to bring the mural tradition up to the 21st century
  • Fired from a high school teaching job for participating in the Chicano Moratorium
  • Currently Senior Professor in the UCLA Cesar E. Chavez Department of Chicana & Chicano Studies and the UCLA World Arts and Cultures Department
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