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Saving a Slice of Chicano Park : Art on Bridge Pillars Is Suffering From Age and a Lack of Funding

Times Staff Writer

Of all the places to make a stand in 1970, the unlikeliest of spots was the hard, barren dirt under the soaring San Diego-Coronado Bay Bridge. But then, the people of Barrio Logan didn’t pick it.

Divided by construction of Interstate 5, displaced again by the building of the massive bridge, disgruntled by the proliferation of junkyards, the community felt both disenfranchised and under siege.

When bulldozers arrived in April, 1970, to break ground for a new California Highway Patrol station under the bridge, it was the final insult--the culmination of many slaps in the face.

In a spontaneous protest, a band of young Chicano activists--joined by older residents who had passively and dejectedly watched the transformation of their neighborhood--surrounded the tractors and occupied the turf beneath the massive concrete bridge pillars.

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Birth of a Park

The group refused to budge, demanding that the land be turned into a park. “We are ready to die,” shouted a lean and angry neighborhood artist named Salvadore Torres to the confounded gathering of state and city officials. Two weeks later, the authorities finally gave in, and Chicano Park was born.

The huge, sterile columns that dominated the site represented to artists such as Torres nothing less than a seemingly endless canvas, stretching to the waters of the bay four blocks away--an opportunity to personalize and humanize the dreary landscape.

Beginning in earnest in 1973, Torres and other Chicano artists started painting murals on the pillars. It was as if color had exploded onto the walls.

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The art reflected the times, with revolutionary themes and the artists’ interpretations of the rising Chicano social consciousness then sweeping California. Symbols depicted the Chicano struggle and culture, from the Aztecs to Cesar Chavez.

It was vivid. It was eye-catching. It was emotional.

And in a conservative town unaccustomed to such displays, it was controversial.

One Pillar After Another

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Dedicated volunteer artists continued to paint there for several years, one pillar after another. In time, the murals grew in stature, as the entrenched bureaucratic resistance to them subsided. The city of San Diego has recognized the murals as public art and designated them as historically significant. They have received attention in National Geographic and in publications in Europe and most Spanish-speaking countries. A documentary about the park was aired on public television.

It is now common to see Anglo artists, tourists and busloads of schoolchildren visiting this netherworld beneath the bridge to see the paintings close-up.

But there is also a problem today, one no one anticipated nearly two decades ago: The murals are deteriorating. If nothing is done, they will flake away and “one of the most important public-art contributions in the country,” in the words of Victoria Hamilton, executive director of the San Diego Commission for Arts and Culture, will be lost.

In the ‘70s, when most of the murals were painted, the emphasis was on creativity. Far from thought were mundane matters such as whether the paint would withstand the salt air, or whether the surface of the pillars was properly prepared, or pigeon droppings, or the park’s irrigation sprinklers.

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Artists such as Torres became aware of the problem several years ago, prompting him and others to attempt to restore and save the earliest murals. But the effort suffered from lack of money, a specific plan for the murals, a shortage of volunteers, and competing and fragmented views of what was best for the park. Despite the best of intentions, the result was a piecemeal remedy.

And something else happened. The very productive period of the first several years had, by the early ‘80s, dissipated. “The energy started to fade . . . everyone started getting older and getting jobs,” said Mario Torero, one of the early Chicano Park muralists who today owns a San Diego art gallery.

As a result the painting of murals has been at a virtual standstill for the last few years. There are about 50 paintings on about two dozen pillars, with scores of the supports left blank.

“Chicano Park has been asleep in a certain way,” said Victor Ochoa, another of the early muralists who today is a practicing artist with a fellowship at the Centro Cultural de la Raza in Balboa Park. “This is not just unique for Mexicans and Chicanos . . . there is a different momentum, particularly with the last presidency. We got swallowed up, all activists. But, really, the issues remain the same, the issues murals speak of--bilingualism, immigration, police relations.”

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At a New Stage

Call it reality, call it sophistication, call it maturity, call it natural evolution, but the effort to save and expand the murals has entered a new stage, and, ironically, it involves the entity that all those years ago was considered the enemy: City Hall.

Artists, Barrio Logan community leaders and others saw the need to organize in some professional manner to give an underpinning to the park and its murals. With the help of the city’s fledging Commission for Arts and Culture, the Chicano Park Murals Committee was recently formed.

Composed of about 20 members representing a variety of neighborhood viewpoints, plus advisory representatives from the mayor’s office, Councilman Bob Filner’s office, other city departments and Caltrans (which maintains the bridge), the challenge of the new group is to fashion a master plan for the park and, perhaps most importantly, find financing for it.

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The committee is co-chaired by Torres. More than any other artist, his colleagues say, he has committed himself to Chicano Park and the murals.

His personal and emotional ties to the site are strong. His family’s home was removed to make way for the bridge. He was one of the leaders who led the takeover of the land. He lives with his wife, Gloria, a block and a half from the park, in an apartment decorated much as the park is, with murals on the walls and ceilings.

Highly respected in the neighborhood for his devotion to the park’s artwork, he acknowledges that his commitment--some would say obsession--has detracted from his own art.

“I have this beautiful dream, this vision,” he said. “People have told me, ‘Sal, you’ve done enough. Don’t do it anymore.’ I’ve fallen off the scaffolding. I’ve hurt myself. But, when I’m up there, I can see through all the columns to the bay. It kind of takes over me.

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“I know my own art has suffered. I want to be a self-sustaining artist,” said Torres, a 52-year-old graduate of the College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland and a portrait painter. Because of sickness, including a severe bout with tuberculosis, Torres was unable to repay his government-sponsored college loans and lives on Social Security disability checks, a subtle factor in his preoccupation.

“This is my way of showing my responsibility to my government and to my city . . . a payback.”

‘Major Mission in Life’

“I think the park is Sal’s major mission in life,” says his friend, Torero. Others liken him to a “spiritual guru” and a “barrio idealist.”

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Torres says one committee goal will be to create criteria to assist artists in contributing creations at the park. The idea is not to limit or censor artists, he said. Instead, he says, there should be more emphasis on the “sensitivity and knowledge of the bridge structure,” such as lighting, color combinations and acknowledgement of a general plan or motif to the murals, including identifying the best materials and how to use them.

Torres envisions using computer graphics to help artists, so that future murals can take advantage of all sides of a column instead of only focusing on one side, as has been the case up to now. “I know and respect the eccentricity of artists,” he said. “We don’t want to censor anybody, but at the same time, let’s do it right.”

Although Torres and others have their artistic visions, they know they lack the ability to work the system, to fashion a professional proposal and funding plan that may require a million dollars or more. To that end, they are pinning their hopes on the talents of Linda Sheridan, who was elected with Torres to co-chair the new committee.

Sheridan, who owns the firm of Sheridan & Associates in San Diego, is a professional lobbyist with a deep interest in the arts. “My interest in this project is that it’s not only important to that area, but the whole city of San Diego,” she said. “To the extent it hasn’t been recognized by people in the city, the city has missed out.”

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She and others recognize that images in some of the murals have intimidated some people, leading to a lack of understanding. Torres, for example, tells an amusing story about one mural that proclaims in large letters “Raza Si! Yonkes No!” Many Anglos have misinterpreted the message to mean, “Down with Yankees.” The mural actually protests the intrusion of junkyards into Barrio Logan, as the scene behind the letters clearly illustrates. “Yonkes” is Chicano slang for junkyards. In a few months, Sheridan says, the committee should be finished with its preliminary work--the master plan for restoration and future murals, which will be the basis for making funding proposals. The plan’s success rests with getting money to carry it out.

Among potential sources are public and private foundations, such as the National Endowment for the Arts and the city, which has few dollars for the arts and many demands, and the San Diego-Coronado Bay Bridge fund.

Growing Surplus

The fund, generated by bridge tolls, today has a surplus of about $19 million and is growing at the rate of $6 million to $8 million a year, according to Jim Larson, Caltrans’ San Diego-area spokesman. The bonds used to construct the bridge were paid off about two years ago, and the California Transportation Commission last year changed its policy and no longer uses tolls to cover bridge maintenance.

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Instead, tolls pay the salaries of toll takers and cover capital construction projects on the bridge, expenses that are more than covered by use of the busy bridge, resulting in the surplus. Others, however, are also after the money.

The city of Coronado has submitted to the commission a traffic mitigation plan, which would utilize all of the surplus to help relieve traffic congestion caused by cars crossing the bridge to get to North Island Naval Air Station. A decision to allocate money from the surplus for Chicano Park and the murals would have to be made by the commission, Larson said.

If the drive by the Chicano Park Murals Committee is unsuccessful, the city risks losing something “that has become a part of our heritage and more and more a part of our consciousness,” said Mary Beebe, director of the Stuart Collection, a permanent outdoor display of contemporary art at UC San Diego.

For others, what’s at stake is more visceral.

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“We can’t think of Chicanos in San Diego without thinking of Chicano Park,” Torero says. “It is the main evidence, the open book of our culture, energy and determination as a people. One of the main proofs of our existence.”


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