The young, ponytailed woman at the forefront of a new mural in El Monte knows her city's history. Her image is dotted with references to lesser-known local history. She carries a book with the Flores Magón brothers on the cover, a nod to famed Mexican anarchist
Ricardo Flores Magón’s visit to El Monte over a century ago. The crucifix on her shirt references murals that once stood in the area. Then there's Godzilla on her shirt sleeve. The famed movie monster might seem like a curious detail, but, back in the late 1970s, a proposed mural featuring the fictional beast was a response controversy over murals in the city. The piece never came to fruition and El Monte imposed a moratorium on this form of art.
With the moratorium came the literal whitewashing of a history of creative activism in the area. While murals in Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles were celebrated, El Monte's contribution to the movement disappeared. Decades later, a loose collective of local artists, writers and educators known as South El Monte Arts Posse (SEMAP) uncovered this secret history and have translated the knowledge they gained through archival research and interviews into a new mural situated on the side of a Cricket Wireless shop at El Monte's Valley Mall.
The story of the mural, though, begins about two-and-a-half miles away from its location, in the basement of the City Hall for neighboring South El Monte, where SEMAP co-founders Carribean Fragoza and Romeo Guzmán and their cohorts gathered historical materials for the archive they had been building. That's when they came across a film reel documenting an award-winning series of programs that South El Monte implemented in the 1970s.
"One of the things that we noticed in the film reel was that there were young people, like teenagers, painting murals," says Fragoza on a recent video call. "That was the first time that I had ever seen a mural being painted, or signs of murals being painted, in that neighborhood, in the community of South El Monte."
For Fragoza, who grew up in South El Monte, the footage was a revelation. "That was a clue that something had taken place around the arts, where I didn't know that anything had happened around the arts in our city," she says.
Over the next few years, Fragoza pieced together the story, which she would write about in SEMAP's essay collection, "East of East: The Making of Greater El Monte." She met Ron Reeder, now a professor at Rio Hondo College, who participated in a similar program in the 1970s organized by the city of El Monte, where he worked with at-risk youth to paint murals. "That was seen as quite a success," Fragoza explains. With grant money, El Monte was then able to expand its arts programming and brought in established artists like Harry Gamboa and Gronk for projects around the city.
It was a mural of the Adelita, a female Mexican Revolution fighter wearing a sombrero and holding a firearm, by Gronk that initially sparked controversy. A 1977 article in the Los Angeles Times documented the uproar, with one detractor quoted as saying, "What art is there in a machine gun girl?" But, as Fragoza points out, the Adelita was a popular image during the Chicano Movement of the era. "She was a figure of female empowerment and revolution and social change. So, she was quite a common image of the time," she explains.
The removal of the Adelita mural, which came to be called "Señora with a Gun", Fragoza says, "made the relationship between the city and the artists very contentious." According to writer Ed Fuentes, El Monte unanimously passed a four-month mural moratorium, while debates raged between shop owners, civic leaders and community members about the role of murals in the city. Shortly thereafter, Reeder proposed a mural depicting Godzilla ready to destroy the city, a cheeky response to the heated climate in El Monte and a call for unity. "They immediately decided not only to strike down this mural project before it started, but it motivated the moratorium on any future murals following that," Fragoza says of the city's reaction. The ban was extended for eight more months after the Godzilla incident.
A little more than four decades after, on a Saturday afternoon in October, a small group of volunteers gathered just off of Main Street to paint "She Brought Her People With Her," a mural that was designed by artists Alonso Delgadillo and Fernando Mendez Corona, who had previously collaborated with SEMAP on a mural in South El Monte. It was the second day of what would be a five-day process, bringing together about 15 collaborators, both adults and children, some of whom would spend eight-hour days on this project.
It's a site-specific mural, Romeo Guzmán explains, and one that is "referencing the whitewashing of both history and specific murals" in the area. He points out a book held by the ponytailed young woman in the mural; the figures on the cover represent the Flores Magón brothers. Ricardo Flores Magón, the famed Mexican anarchist, once gave a speech in El Monte. "He actually wrote a couple letters to his brother, Enrique, while he was in El Monte," Guzmán says.
Elsewhere, there are images pointing to the convergence of art and activism in the city. There's a portrait of local resident Gloria Arellanes, a Chicana and Tongva elder who had been a Brown Beret.
On the side of the mural closest to Main Street is the outline of a woman, her face and hat just beginning to take on color. Next to her is an arm holding a roller of white paint. This is a direct reference to Gronk's "Señora with a Gun," one that's taken on a secondary meaning.
"We really wanted to include the Adelita image as a way of addressing that whitewashed image from the '70s and also that motivation, that impulse of resistance, and making radical art," says Fragoza, on our video call, which took place after the mural was completed.
In the finished mural, the woman isn't dressed in the recognizable style of a revolutionary fighter. It's a case of history nearly repeating. While SEMAP's mural was not funded by El Monte's current mural program, they did need approval to paint and officials objected to the Adelita's rifle.
"We disagree because that's not what the image represents and that's not what the local community would recognize in looking at this image of an Adelita, which is a classic, iconic image of empowerment and cultural pride and resistance, not as a symbol to incite violence at all," says Fragoza. "We decided to work with the city, at least on this one component, and so we removed the gun and any symbol that represents a weapon."
QR codes on the mural will lead people to SEMAP's archive, where they'll find the group's documentary about El Monte's murals, as well as supporting historical documents. It's all part of their greater mission to reveal El Monte's rich local history.
"We were really invested in re-telling the history of the city," says Fragoza. "Instead of telling the story of white pioneers who came here to colonize the area, instead of celebrating that, we really wanted to tell the story of people of color, Indigenous people, of Chicanos, of a multi-racial city that also has a history of organizing and of political movement."
Through public-facing art, SEMAP has found of way of communicating this previously obscured history with a wide range of locals. "It's a way of editing that history that we feel doesn't represent the community of El Monte and has been living in El Monte for many generations," says Fragoza. "It's a kind of storytelling that we feel is important to do and it's a way of recovering these lost images, lost stories and making them public again."
SEMAP will be hosting a bike tour focusing on El Monte's arts and pop culture history on November 6. Find more details about this event.