More than 40 years before Occupy protesters camped in New York’s Zuccotti Park, Oakland’s Frank Ogawa Plaza and elsewhere, Chicano activists in San Diego wielding paint and primer transformed a bleak urban netherworld into an epic work of art.
On April 22, 1970, this turbulent piece of ground in the shadows of the San Diego-Coronado Bridge became a conduit for a displaced community’s rage. That day was the beginning of a 12-day occupation by residents of Barrio Logan, the historic heart of the city’s Mexican American community, which resulted in Chicano Park: a seamy underbelly of massive gray concrete freeway ramps and pylons re-imagined by muralists as dazzling public art.
“Our idea was always to paint this place,” Mario Torero, one of the park’s original muralists, recalled on a recent Saturday. “We told the story of the colors and dreams of our ancestors, painting new faces of our sad and glorious history on the pillars and screaming in full rage.”
But over the decades, the 72 or so murals, created in the heat of political struggle and maintained by volunteers, had begun to show their age. Considered a major example of the Chicano mural movement – which flourished in California between 1969 and 1975 – the park’s concrete canvases were deteriorating, the pillars subject to 40 years of vibrations from five lanes of traffic carrying some 85,000 cars a day across the bridge.
After a decade of dealing with red tape, restoration of 20 murals by their original artists has finally begun, with the first stroke of paint by Torero and other artists applied this past June.
“We’re the only artists in history who come back to restore our own murals,” said Guillermo Rosette, a member with Torero of Los Toltecas en Aztlan, the artists collective that created the park’s first mural in 1973.