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The Unforgotten Wall of Coachella

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Shady Lane mural wall in the City of  Coachella
Shady Lane mural wall in the City of Coachella

There's a street in Coachella that uses a long set of murals as a cultural beacon that rose from a neighborhood. Its origin dates back to the beginning of the California mural movement, and conceivably sends a defiant statement from local artists that they are also a source for the region's creative reputation, not just the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival.

The Shady Lane mural began in 1979 by "Artistas Del Barrio," a group of neighborhood artists who started painting on a visible wall and completed a few feet entering the early 1980s. It never got close to the idealized vision of filling the space with Chicano history. The original set of murals only took up a very small section of the six-foot high wall that runs just over 1,000 feet long. Years later, the wall began to crumble and sections fell to the ground, said Ruben Gonzalez, who with other neighborhood leaders pushed to restore the idea of a long wall with history that showcased local artists. The city agreed to help. "We got people together when the wall was to be taken down." Gonzalez said, and who now coordinates the new version of the same mural project, and takes the lead in looking for funding, securing donations of paint, and plans themes that replace the first set murals that were unsalvageable.

Ruben Gonzalez | Photo: Ed Fuentes
Ruben Gonzalez | Photo: Ed Fuentes

Through "Culturas Music & Arts," the project was really revived and, after seeking out volunteer artists from Coachella Valley, working partners The Coachella Valley Arts Alliance, The S.C.R.A.P. Gallery and City of Coachella had an open house in 2010 to show the ideas for first round of concepts by artists. But despite what idea an artist may have, the new mural timeline had to be "respectful to the original idea and the original artists from over 30 years ago," according to Gonzalez. The mural is designed to be an educational lab, including the local schools within walking distance. "It beautifies and educates."

"It's an important part of the city," says Eduardo Garcia, Mayor for the City of Coachella, eager to have the town's growing art presence reflect ethnic existence and experience, which is different from easel-sized passive desert landscape that the region is known for, works that shout resort, not working class. "And did you see The Coachella Walls," asks the mayor. That's the new collective of murals led by home based Armando Lerma and Carlos Ramirez, who make up Date Farmers Art Studios. Working with Medvin Sobio as curator, the Date Farmers, with support by the city of Coachella's public arts fund, created a mural program that had its first round of large-scale street art installation include works by El Mac, Nunca, Saner, Albert Reyes and Vyal Reyes. The murals on the walls of buildings in Downtown Coachella's Historic Pueblo Viejo District, which speak for the anonymous farmworker, hit a right note and become a hybrid of two worlds; the Chicano art tradition represented by the Shady Lane mural, and the highly visible subculture of contemporary street art. The new works present Latino imagery with new context and you see each individual piece the message is activism used as rich subtext, and allows the murals to work as a project that lightens the social lecture and converts it to thoughtful cultural commentary.

Shady Lane mural in Coachella | Photo: Ed Fuentes
Shady Lane mural in Coachella | Photo: Ed Fuentes

The Date Farmers Art Studio also mark a prominent spot at the Shady Lane mural with "Chicano Music Wave," which includes music from Richie Valens to Lalo Guerrero, visual nods to the soundtrack of a social movement that surround a beating heart. Also on another section of the Shady Lane mural is a section portraying Mexican Artists Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, Jose Cemente Orozco, David A. Siqueiros, and Rufus Tamayo. Other panels have traditional tropes, the Zoot Suit Riots (and the play and movie that grew out of it), Cesar Chavez and The UFW, and Chicanos in Vietnam. There are also older themes of Pre-Columbian history, Colonization, the wars of independence, and in mosaic tile an Our Lady of Guadalupe watches over the wall.

Kelia Cupil at the Shady Lane mural in Coachella | Photo: Ed Fuentes
Kelia Cupil at the Shady Lane mural in Coachella | Photo: Ed Fuentes

"I was raised out here. It feels cool to have something that I have be part of the history of Coachella," said Keila Cupil, an artist in her mid-20s, while standing next to her segment on Latino film stars. "After growing up here and hearing stories about the place, it's like finally having a story that is mine."

"There was people I didn't know, so I learned a lot," she adds. "I didn't have a chance to take a Chicano history class in school - the schedule didn't let me."

But the Shady Lane mural did, a benefit of content requirements that make it a period piece, a throwback, a direct descendant from that first lost mural that has a place in local history. It's also a direct link to the California Chicano Mural movement when you consider that form migrated from another rural farm region, the Central Valley, where the Del Rey Mural painted in 1968 by Antonio Bernal on the offices of El Teatro Campesino opened up visual ethnic storytelling in California. The dialogue began in 1932 with "America Tropical" by Siqueiros that, in the late 1970s, was a ghost that returned to barrios in the west, which later led to a 2,754 feet post civil rights apogee in Judy Baca's "Great Wall of Los Angeles."

Veterans honored on the Shady Lane mural in Coachella | Photo: Ed Fuentes
Veterans honored on the Shady Lane mural in Coachella | Photo: Ed Fuentes

Here, along Shady Lane, across from Dateland Park, a short hop on Baghdad Avenue to Highway 111, or Grapefruit Blvd, that is framed by vestiges of fields the neighborhood has their masterpiece, a Great Wall of Coachella.

"All within this one block is Dateland Park, the skate park, the field, and now the mural. It really brought this street to life," said Gonzalez. Then he looked down Shady Lane where another 1,000 feet of cement brick sits with quiet blankness. That wall is not city owned but in his eyes you can see he is making plans.

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