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Mural Restoration Begins : * Art: Six-month program to clean the Chicano Park paintings, hailed as the largest collection of its kind in the country, includes $60,000 from the city of San Diego.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When the first murals were painted in Chicano Park in 1973, members of the Logan Heights community sold their own blood to buy the paint. No better example can be found of the community’s commitment to the park and the depth of its bond to the mural project.

Now, nearly 20 years later, those murals have again become the focus of community efforts. Last week, local artists began a six-month program to clean and restore the murals, hailed as the largest collection of Chicano art in the country. The San Diego City Council has allocated $60,000 from its Public Art Fund to cover the project’s expenses. No blood is being sold, or shed, this time around, but passion for the park still runs deep, and even the city-sponsored restoration program has ignited a touch of controversy.

“The restoration is long overdue, but it’s only a small concept of this park,” said Salvador Torres, a local artist who was instrumental in the development of Chicano Park and in the restoration proposal, although he is not one of the 11 artists who will be restoring the murals. “Sod needs to be cultivated, the water in the bathroom hasn’t been on for a year, the lights don’t go on at night, the benches are broken. All of this should be part of the restoration.

“Mural painting is intended to stimulate critical thinking,” Torres said, linking the highly charged political messages of Chicano solidarity and neighborhood pride in the imagery with his current campaign for improvement of the park.

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Torres and the other artists involved in the project hope it will be only the first phase of a larger scheme. Recommendations for the project are contained in a report made to the City Council by the Chicano Park Murals Committee, a group of local artists and activists who began meeting in 1989.

Only 10 of the park’s several dozen murals are slated for restoration in this phase and, as Torres points out, they are not necessarily those most in need of repair. They were selected by members of the Chicano Park Murals Committee on the basis of their visibility, historic value, and, in part, the extent of their damage. If restored successfully, the results should serve as a good example to other funding sources and to the city for continued assistance and sponsorship.

The city’s involvement in the present program reflects a substantial shift from officials’ attitude toward the park 20 years ago. The building of Interstate 5 in the mid-1960s displaced thousands of families in the Logan Heights neighborhood it traversed. When the Coronado Bay Bridge was erected in 1969, city officials added insult to injury by planning construction of a Highway Patrol parking lot beneath the bridge, in a space that the local community had long requested be turned into a park.

Bulldozers began clearing the land, but Logan Heights residents gathered and physically prevented them from continuing their work. The “takeover” of Chicano Park became complete over the next few years with the raising of the Chicano flag, the planting of the land and the painting of murals on the pillars of the bridge, murals with vibrant and monumental images of Mexican history and Chicano solidarity.

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According to Victor Ochoa, director of the Centro Cultural de la Raza at the time and one of the park’s original muralists, efforts were made to seek approval for the murals from the city and state entities with legal claims to the land.

“We made some large sketches, went to meetings, showed what we wanted to do, answered questions. We did that for at least six months to show that what we were pursuing was in the vein of the Mexican muralists, not graffiti artists. But nobody really knew how to handle this. There was no public art board or commission. They were just postponing us from one meeting to another. We felt we had done our bit in trying to work with the system, but we decided to just set up and start.”

More than 300 people showed up to participate in the first wave of mural painting in 1973, and small groups of artists have added to the collection sporadically over the years. Now, the city has made it a priority to keep the murals in good condition, a decision based on external recognition for the murals as much as on their intrinsic value, says Gail Goldman, Public Art Coordinator for the city’s Commission for Arts and Culture.

“The murals have been featured in publications all over the world. Now there’s a perspective on the Chicano Park movement and a sense of history, a recognition of the historic value of the murals. It’s now designated a historic park.”

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Many of the artists who originally painted the murals are returning to work on their restoration, as are a group of students from Sweetwater High School, which many of the original workers attended. Few other aspects of the program have such continuity with the past.

“When these murals were created, there was a level of spontaneity, it was a radical motion,” Goldman said. “Now, issues of safety and liability are major concerns and we have to be very careful about coverage. That’s been a major priority for the city.”

The scaffolding is not as makeshift and shaky as it was two decades ago, the artists say, and they no longer have to scrounge for money to buy paint. This time around, both the artists’ time and their materials are being paid for by the city.


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