Thursday marked one year since East San Jose lost El Mural de La Raza.
In its stead stands a blank wall in multi-shades of gray surrounded by a tarped fence, unequivocally telling neighbors to stay away. Residents and concerned members of the community have rallied to insist the mural be restored and to preserve the remaining Chicano murals in San Jose.
Unfortunately, murals by prominent Latinos are suffering a similar fate throughout California. Judith F. Baca’s “Hitting the Wall” disappeared in March in Los Angeles. This trend is alarming, and it even sparked an exhibition called “¡Murales Rebeldes! L.A. Chicana/o Murals under Siege,” which chronicles the rise of Chicano murals in LA and their gradual disappearance. Those interested in preserving the remaining historic murals rich with cultural significance must continue to advocate for their protection.
These murals are worthy of being protected. Community-based murals stand as beacons of light for the neighborhoods that surround them. They validate the existence of the community they represent. A mural where Latinos can see their reflection sends a powerful message, especially at a time when the Latino community is constantly vilified and threatened by racist rhetoric and policies coming from the White House.
The Latino community is under siege; they face harassment simply for speaking Spanish in public and are told to “go back” to where they came from. A mural representative of their culture sends a message of solidarity. In contrast, the whitewashing of such murals also sends a very strong message under this political climate. It only exacerbates the message: you are not welcome here. Like these murals, you can be erased.
This is why murals are more than just paint on a wall to our community. They serve as the community’s canvas, a place where we can see our history and culture, a place to express our hopes and dreams; it is a reflection of who we are.
On Sept. 4, 2019, El Comité for the Preservation of Chicano Arts, comprised of local community activists, will advocate before the San Jose Historic Landmark Commission to add several Chicano murals to the city’s Historic Resources Inventory. According to the city’s website, the Historic Resources Inventory aims to document San Jose’s “historical and architectural heritage.”
While inclusion in the Historic Resources Inventory is a noteworthy first step in giving these murals recognition, it does not confer upon them historic landmark protection nor does it ensure they won’t suffer a similar fate as the beloved Mural de La Raza.
The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors established a historic grant program to celebrate the untold stories and underrepresented communities. The county grant program will give out $5 million for projects that fulfill this purpose. Hopefully, those selected projects include restoring these murals and creating new ones that reflect the values and culture of the residents of San Jose.
After El Mural de La Raza was painted over, some city leaders took to social media and expressed their sadness immediately after the incident. Besides that, however, little action has come from City Hall.
Contrast that with the response of our city leaders after the Orchard Hardware Store sign disappeared. City and county leaders stepped up to track down its whereabouts. While the vintage commercial sign was ultimately found, the incident triggered local leaders to seek a historic inventory of commercial and roadside signs. Indeed, commercial signs have received historic landmark protection in the past by the city of San Jose.
To my knowledge, none of the historic Chicano murals in our beautiful city of San Jose have prompted such concern or received a protected status.
Perhaps San Jose leaders can learn from Orange County and the cities of Atwood and Santa Ana. Recently, a mural painted by Latino artist Manuel Hernandez-Trujillo in 1977 was painted over in Atwood, California. In response, the OC Board of Supervisors moved swiftly to restore the mural with the community’s input. The mural is expected to be restored in October. Last month, a mural by Mexican American artist Sergio O’Cadiz Moctezuma, a prominent painter in Santa Ana, was whitewashed by the owner of the property. In response, the Santa Ana City Council and its arts commission agreed to draft a mural policy, and to discuss it during their October meeting.
There also needs to be more education on the artists’ rights to their works. A colorful mural that paid tribute Cesar Chavez was painted over in San Jose just a few days ago.
To the leaders of San Jose, seeking to make the city a pioneer of the future, I ask you to do more. Consider adopting a mural policy that protects the remaining Chicano murals that are so meaningful to residents. New development is slated to come in to the Alum Rock area. Please consider including a requirement that new development include community-based murals, murals that are designed to represent the neighborhood’s rich culture. These are small, but powerful ways to promote inclusion through public art.
Enedina Cardenas is an attorney based in Cupertino where she represents artists and protects their artistic endeavors. She is one of the attorneys for muralist Jose Meza Velasquez, whose mural “El Mural de La Raza” in East San Jose was painted over without notice. Their lawsuit seeks to enforce Mr. Velasquez’s rights under the Visual Artist Rights Act and the California Art Preservation Act. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of San Jose Inside. Send op-ed pitches to [email protected].