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The Moratorium that Stomped El Monte Murals

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Untitled mural by Roberto Gil de Montes with Gronk | Photo: ©1978, Harry Gamboa Jr. from M0753 Gamboa Papers, Box 13, slide 83. Courtesy of Department of Special Collections, Stanford University

The tale of El Monte murals that were stomped by a moratorium in the 1970s could perhaps best be told with a corrido, or a traditional narrative folk song. The civic ban stopped the momentum of public art in this part of the San Gabriel Valley, which could have rivaled two other post-civil rights mural movements coming out of Los Angeles: the Westside's large-scale realism based on European forms with a California beach accent, and the Eastside's update of the Mexican mural tradition voicing the inner city. El Monte almost became a mural city where those two styles fused together, with work by artists from the two different edges of region and practice.

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El Monte may be remembered fondly for its music at Legion Stadium, recently documented in a mural commissioned by Metro. That piece at El Monte Station, and other work from local art collectives, are currently raising the city's cultural cache, restarting what began decades earlier when painters were ready to push El Monte towards having a broader cultural influence in the Southland.

Though El Monte currently has no official cultural spaces, a group of artists once operated a community art gallery out of the El Monte Service Center. From this gallery, the Center's program director Dan Flaming administered the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA), a Federal program that provided workers with training and jobs in the public sector. CETA was an extension of the Works Progress Administration from the 1930s.

"The idea was to work with the youth of the area by painting murals," recalls Ismael "Smiley" Cazarez, one of the artists who was hired as part of the CETA program. "I had a crew of about a dozen to paint a mural behind the community center ... We were instructed to come up with ways to present art to the community."

Mural by Ismael Smiley Cazarez in El Monte (1976) | Courtesy Ismael Smiley Cazarez
Mural by Ismael Smiley Cazarez in El Monte (1976) | Courtesy Ismael Smiley Cazarez

Flaming hired qualified artists like Ron Reeder, a recent graduate with an MFA, along with others who were just starting out but showed promising skills and had local reputation, like a young Gronk, Harry Gamboa Jr., Barry Scharf, and William Bejerano, according to Cazarez. Together they made up an informal collaboration between Westside and Eastside methods of mural making.

One of their first works was a small mural by Robert Gil de Montes and a teenage Gronk ("I was just learning to paint then," he says) of a lone soldadera, a woman armed for rebellion, posed in a visual reference to La Adelita, the historical revolution figure heard in many corridos. The Mexican peasant soldier woman was painted in 1976 on the side of a shoe store in the Valley Mall, El Monte's de facto downtown area, with her bandolier reading like a beauty queen sash across her chest. In one hand she firmly held her rifle with the barrel pointing to Heaven; her other hand softly grasped a red rose, the petals and stem slightly bleeding while pointing back at earth. Under the sombrero was an inner city Chicana gaze cast toward the downtown street.

The mural came to be known as "Señora with a Gun," though it did not have a proper title, according to Gil de Montes. "And yes, it was my idea," he says. "Simple, not offensive, but still caused problems because of the gun."

Even back then it was understood what the figure represented in terms of feminist progression. It was about women being strong and not passive, said Flaming to the Los Angeles Times in December, 1976. Speaking as the program coordinator, he knew that "often times women fought with their men for independence in those days." 1

Businessmen and civic leaders balked, afraid of what else it could symbolize -- like an invasion of another culture. Then-mayor Jack Crippen had to soothe complaints from business owners offended by the image of the armed Latina. The public was "turned off by the subject matter of the murals. A lot are just opposed to murals," he told the Times. "I think the mural represents an eyesore," said then-Councilman Thomas Keiser at the time. 2

"Señora with a Gun" quickly lost the stare down from the wall of the Red Wing Shoe Store. The city quickly and unanimously passed an emergency ordinance that imposed a four-month emergency mural moratorium so that existing policy could be reviewed. It also allowed time to ask shop owners what role murals should have in the business district. (The shoe store's owner was Latino and liked the mural.)

Doyle Stoops, manager of the mall's JC Penney, believed that the community would be better off "not having murals in our business area if they're going to create a controversy." Responding to the criticism, Flaming stated that the purpose of the murals was to "show El Monte going through changes that are affecting its identity. Our program basically is educational. The city is very close to having a majority population of Mexican-Americans." But Stoops did not believe that the mural "gives any message to the average person." 3

The Los Angeles County Art Project, CETA program in 1977 I Photo courtesy Ismael Cazarez
The Los Angeles County Art Project, CETA program in 1977 I Photo courtesy Ismael Cazarez

An early poll by the Downtown El Monte Businessmen's Association showed a split opinion. Henry Rosenthal, the Association's president at the time, was convinced that murals should have a place in the downtown business district. "There's more to business than just ringing the cash register," he said. "It is my feeling that the purpose of the murals is to educate the community." 4

Despite the president's support of murals, the ban was extended for eight more months in March of 1977, and longtime city leaders hoped the policy would blanket the rest of the city. "I hope I never see the day when we have murals all over the downtown shopping area," said Elmer Geronisn, who at the time was a former mayor and still had influence over the district's image. He said murals "have no business in a downtown business district, or anywhere else." 5

"Señora with a Gun" was painted because there was no screening process, admitted Flaming. As a solution he suggested creating a committee that would provide a "checks and balances" system for murals, so that they could continue be created. Though Ron Reeder recalls that "it was easier to outlaw than regulate."

Flaming, to this day, still defends the murals as voices coming out from the neighborhood. "It was the community reflecting back to itself," Flaming says, while reflecting back to 1970s El Monte. "They were very influenced by what was happening in East Los Angeles."

 

Godzilla vs. El Monte

To avoid a complete ban on public art in the city, Reeder and fellow artist Joseph Janusz worked up a new proposal for the approval of El Monte's businessmen. They presented an alternative mural: Godzilla trashing the town in the spirit of science fiction. According to Reeder, who himself had witnessed the early mural work of Jane Golden, Kent Twitchell, and the Fine Arts Squad in Santa Monica and Venice, it was a concept that had two worlds in the state of cultural affairs collide with Dada-like commentary, not far from the affectionate subversion coming out of the Westside mural scene at the time.

Designed for the El Monte Theater, "A Fantasy Encounter With Godzilla" was introduced to the public in a February 1977 exhibition.

Godzilla concept I Courtesy Ron Reeder
Godzilla concept I Courtesy Ron Reeder

El Monte council members and businessmen failed to see this vision, commentary or humor. It was rejected, remembers Reeder. "It wasn't seen as something that would drag people into their stores. It was the straw that broke the camel's back. "

With the exception of the Metro-commissioned works at the bus station, no mural or public arts programs have been implemented in the city of El Monte since the moratoriums were put in place.

"Yes, El Monte could have been more welcoming to artists," says Gil de Montes. "There was resistance from the city ... a local newspaper did not like our city projects."

The mural soldiers of El Monte moved on. From that CETA program, artists formed a non-profit contemporary art institution that is still active today. "The group of artists that were hired to bring art to El Monte left soon after that," said Gronk. "We started LACE on Broadway in downtown."

Joseph Janusz, left, with Ron Reeder | Courtesy Ron Reeder
Joseph Janusz, left, with Ron Reeder | Courtesy Ron Reeder

Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE) was founded in 1978 and has long left downtown Los Angeles, now operating from their gallery on Hollywood Boulevard as "the impetus for dialogue about contemporary arts and culture for over 30 years."

Gil de Montes has also been changing the Latino art landscape as a professor of art at UCLA and as part of the exhibit "Hispanic Art in the U.S.: Thirty Contemporary Painters and Sculptors," which toured the U.S. in the late 1980s. In April 2014 Gil de Montes had a solo show at Bergamot Station, and has been awarded numerous Metro commissions.

Reeder still paints and exhibits his work, and the lifelong educator is currently full time studio art faculty at Rio Hondo College.

Gronk is the long-time artistic flare of downtown Los Angeles, and completed another backdrop for drama in February 2015 with the National English Opera London set for "The Indian Queen," with director Peter Sellars. He was also a member of ASCO, the L.A. Chicano collective with work in the New Whitney Museum opening exhibition, which also includes works by Gil de Montes and the prolific Harry Gamboa, Jr.

Daniel Flaming is now President of the Economic Roundtable, an independent research organization that works on social and economic problems. "It took entrepreneurship and pluck to get murals up," said Flaming, recalling his memories of El Monte murals.

As for "Señora with a Gun," such Chicano iconography of a soldadera would perhaps be seen as antiquated today, unless layered with new context. And it has, as Nao Bustamante explores in her recent exhibition at Vincent Price Museum at East L.A. College. The exhibition, named simply "Soldadera," looks to give "speculative reenactment" of women soldiers of the Mexican Revolution, according to co-curator Jennifer Doyle.

The almost forgotten El Monte mural controversy did not leave behind much evidence except for what's been hidden in the archives. The destruction and banishment of the murals placed the city within a bigger Los Angeles tradition, anchored by David Alfaro Siqueiros' "America Tropical," which was quickly whitewashed after its completion in 1932. Despite dissension from the public of the messages depicted on the walls, the action of the artists continued to push forward the conversation of what art on public walls can mean.

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1 "Senora with a Gun shoots down murals in El Monte" Los Angeles Times, December 2, 1977
2 Ibid.
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid.
5 "El Monte Mural stirs ban move" Los Angeles Times, March 10, 1977

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