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Santa Barbara Left Beloved Murals Out of a Park Plan. Neighbors Are Fighting to Keep Them Around.

A vibrant mural painted on the side of a public restroom structure depicts three farm workers bent over rows of corn. Behind the silhouetted farmworkers is a bright yellow sun with red-orange rays emanating from the center. Behind the sun is an Aztec eagle with its arms outstretched to the sides, the official symbol of the United Farmworkers Union.
"Campesinos" (1979) by Manuel Unzueta is one of 15 cultural murals at Ortega Park in Santa Barbara. The piece was recommended to be preserved in place or relocated according to a mural report conducted in July 2021. | Camille Garcia
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Three campesinos (farmworkers) loom large on a mural near the basketball court at Santa Barbara's Ortega Park.

With the large, blazing sun at their backs, the farmers are bent over and carrying out their day's work, their bodies casting long shadows along the rows of crops to which they're tending and picking. Two mature stalks of maiz (corn) frame the image, with the official symbol of the United Farm Workers union — a wide-reaching Aztec eagle — in the background against a blue sky.

This piece — titled "Campesinos" — is just one of more than 15 cultural murals in Ortega Park, completed by local and international artists and neighborhood kids throughout from 1970s to present day. The colorful pieces depict Aztec and Chicano themes, as well as those of the Chumash, the Indigenous group native to the Santa Barbara region.

A mural is painted on a concrete half-wall. Above, black steel bar fencing is bolted onto the wall. The mural depicts Chumash imagery, featuring four Indigenous people with long Black hair flowing in the wind.
A mural is painted on a concrete half-wall. Above, black steel bar fencing is bolted onto the wall. The mural depicts Chumash imagery, featuring four Indigenous people with long Black hair flowing in the wind.
1/2 The "Cosmic Unity" (1979) mural by Armando Rascón was recommended to be relocated according to a July 2021 mural report.
A short wall topped with black steel bar fencing features an intricate mural piece. The top and bottom of the wall is lined with intricate patterned borders. Every few feet, panels are divided by a criss-cross patterned border. In each panel are Indigenous imagery.
A short wall topped with black steel bar fencing features an intricate mural piece. The top and bottom of the wall is lined with intricate patterned borders. Every few feet, panels are divided by a criss-cross patterned border. In each panel are Indigenous imagery.
2/2 "Codex Cospi" (1979) by John Russell was recommended in a July 2021 mural report to be re-envisioned and repainting by local artists through Santa Barbara Arts Alliance guidance and community arts organizations. The recommendation was determined due to the "deteriorating" state of the piece and its detachment from the "local history and culture" respective to the surrounding murals. | Camille Garcia

Powerful imagery of the Aztec goddess Coatlicue and the Rainbow Quetzal bird, sacred in Mayan and Aztec culture, also border the park's basketball court. Around the swimming pool are underwater scenes of sea animals and pieces entitled "Aztec Chumash Solstice," "Codex Cospi" and "Cosmic Unity," among others. Depictions of locals skating and playing soccer and baseball in "Deportes" — on the restroom structure — speak to the park's longstanding recreational history.

A sense of spirituality, history, pride and community is palpable in this collection of public artwork, and in Ortega Park itself.

"[The park and murals] are what connect me to my city," said Andi Garcia, a local Chicana whose family has lived near the park for decades.

To me, it's a very, very sacred space.
Andi Garcia

This point became even clearer for Garcia and other residents when the murals' longevity was recently threatened by park redevelopment plans. The initial draft of the city-funded Ortega Park Master Plan called for the removal of all of the park's murals in order to redevelop the space and incorporate new amenities there, such as a heated swimming pool, a skate park and sports fields.

Most neighbors, activists and even some of the original muralists are not against renovating the park, but have called on the City of Santa Barbara to include more of the community in the design process; a number of people feel the ambitious plans reflect the desires of outside interests and may further isolate the Eastside's largely Latinx population already battling gentrification and displacement.

The community also asked the City to redraw the proposal to include the cultural murals to be locally redone or safely relocated and preserved.

For Garcia, who has been involved with the grassroots preservation efforts, this issue is about much more than urban development or design; it's about honoring the wishes of the community who have deep ties to the space.

"[The city] doesn't get to say what can be [in the park] and what cannot," Garcia said. "The neighborhood gets to say, and the people who grew up with those murals get to say."

Ortega Park is located on Santa Barbara's Eastside, an area that's historically been home to Latinx, Black, Asian and Italian communities, many of whom worked downtown or in the nearby harbor. For many Eastsiders, Ortega Park has long been a gathering space for birthdays, barbecues, sports and swimming in the summer.

"Rainbow Quetzal" (2015) by Lena Zerlav at Ortega Park in Santa Barbara
"Rainbow Quetzal" (2015) by Lena Zerlav is a mural at Ortega Park in Santa Barbara. The mural was recommended in a 2015 mural report to be documented, re-envisioned and repainted by local artists through Santa Barbara Arts Alliance guidance and community arts organizations. | Camille Garcia

The murals helped make it a welcoming and safe spot for neighbors, Garcia said, especially Latinxs.

"The murals made [enjoying the park] a better experience, because they made it ours," she said.

The pieces were implemented through collaboration between the City and neighbors in the late 1970s, to combat growing vandalism and promote unity, cultural pride and peace within the community.

Muralists Armando Vallejo, Manuel Unzueta and Armando Rascón led the charge, recruiting the help of local youth to help paint the pieces and make history. This was at a time when Chicano muralism, stoked by the Chicano Civil Rights Movement, was taking off in Southern California, increasing public access to Chicano history, mythology and artwork.

Garcia was one of the youth painters. She used to hang out with her friends on the street, and remembers when Unzueta — now a world-renowned artist and local cultural arts educator — literally put a paint brush in her hand and asked for her help with the murals.

"That was a real pivotal moment for me," she said. "When you get someone inviting you to something that large scale…it really affected my life in a very positive way,"

A mural painted on a short column slab at a park. Behind the mural is open green grass and various trees.
"Coatlicue" (2007) by Carlos Cuellar was re-envisioned by Miguel Rodriguez in 2015. The piece was recommended to be relocated in a July 2021 mural report, citing the mural's extraordinary importance to the community and the difficulty in repainting the technically intricate work. | Camille Garcia

A number of community members have been protesting the potential removal of the murals. They have spoken at City Council meetings, held door-knocking campaigns to raise awareness and, in recent months, some — including Garcia — have been activating the park with open events and educational tours. They even hosted a bilingual event in April, where about 150 people came to the park to advocate for the murals' preservation and encourage more community involvement in the planning process.

Their efforts have not gone unseen.

The Ortega Park renovation is moving forward, but was halted earlier this year to complete a comprehensive review of the murals and determine which pieces could be saved, redone or relocated. Experts would also determine which murals were too damaged and, thus, should be photographed and memorialized before their removal.

According to the report, eight murals were recommended to either be preserved in place, relocated or repainted by local arts organizations and possibly the original muralists. The report recommended four murals to be "re-envisioned by repainting" and another five murals to be documented and removed.

A welcome sign reads, "Ortega Park." The letters are painted yellow on a dark brown placard. The sign is fixed on a low wall that is painted with decorative symbols, using red and green paint over a white background. The symbols appear pre-Colonial in nature.
Decorative symbols line the low walls by the park sign and entrance were designed by Armando Vallejo and are the only surviving paintings by his hand found at Ortega Park. The three colors used refer to the Mexican flag and the symbols were created by Vallejo to appear pre-Colonial in nature, according the July 2021 mural report. | Camille Garcia

The City will form and work with a Murals Advisory Group in 2022 to "develop a mural implementation plan for the park… [which] will be integrated into the park design," said Santa Barbara Parks and Recreation director Jill Zachary.

Garcia's mural that she created with Unzueta in Ortega Park was eventually removed around 2008 before the plans for Ortega Park's renovation were on the table, she said, and she had no idea until it was too late. She's determined to not let it happen again to the park's remaining artwork.

"I don't think in terms of what's gone," she said. "I think in terms of what's going to be missed if we don't preserve our cultural heritage, that park, that space."

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