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'Peasant Saint' In Little Tokyo a Spiritual Mashup


What began as a protest of forgotten culture becomes a footnote in Little Tokyo's portfolio of public art.

"Peasant Saint" is a 2001 mural by Norma Montoya and daughter Yamilette Montoya Duarte tucked away on the rear wall of historic Little Tokyo's buildings along East First Street. A humble preacher faces the parking lot that fronts The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, an unarmed spiritual revolutionary standing tall against a blue sky. His brown hands reach out, and his eyes peering to beyond, is slightly smaller, and gives the mural a subtle perspective. Geometric shapes cross the figure with no spatial relationship to the hands, giving "Peasant Saint" a symbolic encasement within the wall, crossed with patterns that invoke religious glass stained windows.

The saint's sandaled feet are wrapped, or stepping on, a snake near a cactus, confirming its place as a Chicano Art piece. The building's two small window don't disturb the image, and the worn fence adds to the cluttered ground. Neither snake nor chain link fence will deter this Saint on his mission, whatever that may be.

Yamilette with Peasant Saint in 2001 I Courtesy of the artist

Yamilette designed the mural, and both mother and daughter wanted to note the Spanish, Jewish, American-Indian, and African-Americans that lived in the area that became Little Tokyo.

That idea, and the mural, came from a chance meeting of the artists with Tony Sperl, the owner of the building who commissioned the piece in 2001. His forebears built the building in 1882 as a blacksmith shop, and the Sperl Building is the oldest on the block. In downtown Los Angeles, only a handful are older, including the Avila Adobe (1818), Pico House (1870), and St. Vibiana Cathedral (1876).

That chance meeting came when Sperl was standing by Little Tokyo's Aoyama Tree with his dog, which caught the eye of Norma and Yamilette who were heading into MOCA, clothes spotted with paint. "We explained to him that we are muralists," recalls Yamilett "His eyes lit up and asked us if we would do a mural on his building. His concept was a Mexican Jesus."

To Sperl, the mural was his response to the CRA sponsored public art project, Omoide no Shotokyo (Remembering Old Little Tokyo), a well-done timeline embedded in the sidewalk of East First Street, completed in 1996. Still, for someone with family history as part of the neighborhood for generations, it felt incomplete. "I was fuming over the sidewalk," said Sperl, who contributed to the oral history research and felt the project left out the area's history pre-Little Tokyo, including the time when it was still a republic of Mexico. "In 1892, there were holdovers," said Sperl, as he talked about those from Mexico who helped cleared the land of Wolfskill's citrus groves...We need to recognize the people who were here."

From chance meeting to completion of the mural was quick, says Sperl. "In 30 days, we had a mural."

"It's (also) meaningful to us because we really worked hard to finish it in two weeks. This was the first mural I think that challenged us as a team," says Yamilette. After the set of initial sketches were approved, they took to the wall. "Mom and I wanted the figure to feel realistic, so I had a friend, who had large hands, model for me," she says, adding that the hat serves as a halo, and the white from the bandana and clothes, and serape, are also recurring Chicano Art symbols. A "Jesus" reference is also seen if you look closer, she adds, by the stigmata in his palms.

It was a fortuitous meeting. Norma Montoya is embedded in Los Angeles mural scene, having begun painting outdoor works at Estrada Courts in the early 1970s. Around the same time, with the late Charles W. Felix "Cat," Montoya teamed with San Diego's Victor Ochoa and Mario Torero for "Ninos Del Mundo" (Children of the World), a mural on a freeway concrete pillar in San Diego's Logan Heights that gave Boyle Heights a presence in Chicano Park.

It's a mural that seems out of place, yet has been part of Little Tokyo for over a decade, and remains unmarked. "It turns out the Japanese video store owner liked the snake for it's Asian symbolism," said Yamilette.

"Peasant Saint" is at the rear of the Sperl Building, at 337-339 1/2 1st Street in Little Tokyo.

Photo by Helen Ly
Photo by Helen Ly

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