It was one of the oldest surviving murals in San Jose.
Painted in 1985 by an artist named Jose Mesa V. and an ensemble of East Side youth, the intricate wall art depicted the history of Chicano people, from the Aztecs of old to the laborers led by Cesar Chavez. The detailed pictorial covered the side of Payless ShoeSource at Story and King roads, the epicenter of the low-rider movement and the civil rights marches that spawned the United Farm Workers union.
â€śMural de la Razaâ€ť is gone now.
Sometime before dawn Wednesday, a handyman slathered a thick coat of gray paint over every part of the panorama except for a small icon of the Virgin de Guadalupe. The next day, she disappeared, too, under the same drab veneer.
Jose Valle says heâ€™s heartbroken by the loss.
The founder of Souleros Ballâ€”a group that aims to preserve Chicano and indigenous cultureâ€”says the montage acquainted him as a kid with the faces of legends, revolutionaries, artists and activists that he would later read about in books: Pancho Villa, Emiliano Zapata and San Jose-raised playwright Luis Valdez.
â€śA lot of Chicanos growing up in East Side got their first pair of shoes at Payless before they could afford brand names,â€ť Valle says. â€śThatâ€™s probably how I first got to know the mural. Itâ€™s a pretty damn big wall, so youâ€™re forced to take it in.â€ť
When Payless closed its East Side shop in 2017 after filing for bankruptcy, Valle and several other concerned residents began reaching out to the property management firm, CBRE, and City Hall. But the company stonewalled them.
The office of Vice Mayor Magdalena Carrasco, whose council district encompasses the East Side, had no better luck. But activists say her office kept them out of the loop. Even if Carrascoâ€™s staffers didnâ€™t manage to reach the buildingâ€™s owners, community members say they wouldâ€™ve liked to know that some effort was made in the past year.
Communication has improved now that the muralâ€™s gone for good, they say. And while itâ€™s too late for the Payless wall art, there may still be some recourse.
On Thursday, Carrascoâ€™s team met with Valle and San Joseâ€™s Director of Public Art Michael Ogilvie to talk about how to respond to the sudden loss of the Mural de la Raza. Though thereâ€™s no saving the visual history and cultural way-finder, Valle learned that the community might have some recourse.
Under federal law, the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990, and state law, the California Art Preservation Act of 1979, muralists have some rights to the walls they painted. The overlapping statutes prohibit the desecration, alteration or destruction of public art without giving the artist at least a three-month notice.
Valle and the city officials he met with today are unsure if the property owner did thatâ€”or if the artist is even alive. â€śWeâ€™re still trying to figure this out,â€ť says Frances Herbert, the vice mayorâ€™s chief of staff.
She says the CBRE-managed property is in escrow, but sheâ€™s not yet sure whoâ€™s buying it. This morning, she plans to meet with the Santa Clara County Assessorâ€™s Office to see if she can track down the person behind the LLC so she can send a legal notice about the rights of the artistâ€”or, if the artist is dead, to his next of kin.
Carrasco, who majored in Chicano art studies in college, says she feels as heartbroken as Valle about the muralâ€™s unceremonious erasure. â€śI am devastated like many in our community about the loss of Mural de la Raza,â€ť Carrasco wrote on Facebook Thursday.Â â€śMy family and I recognize the importance this mural has had on our understanding of this area and our history. It is unacceptable to lose our understanding of Chicano art and culture in our precious East San Jose.â€ť
Herbert says it may have been on private property, but there are certain protections that should have been upheld. â€śItâ€™s really unfortunate that they tried to destroy something thatâ€™s been on that wall since 1985,â€ť Herbert says. â€śItâ€™s a huge loss.â€ť
Valle says he feels protective of the Chicano murals in San Jose, many of which have disappearedâ€”including one that adorned the side of Chaparral Supermarket by Roosevelt Park. Though not an artist himself, Valle maintains a mural painted outside Popâ€™s Mini Market by an old friend, Frank â€śPanchoâ€ť Torres, who helped Mesa V. complete Mural de la Raza decades prior.
To Valle, what happened to Mesa V.â€™s work has been a wake-up call. â€śWe need to stand up for our culture and our history,â€ť he says. â€śWe canâ€™t just let our murals disappear.â€ť