For 12 years, public artwork near the Baldwin Park Metrolink station never caused a stir.
But when a Ventura-based group that opposes illegal immigration got wind of what was inscribed on the artwork this month, they organized a protest that garnered attention when it was announced on the “John & Ken Show” on KFI-AM (640).
By Saturday, activists on both sides of the immigration issue mobilized, resulting in a sometimes chaotic confrontation in the San Gabriel Valley community.
Members of Save Our State, a 7-month-old organization, say they are offended by “anti-American” inscriptions that read, “It was better before they came” and “This land was Mexican once, was Indian always and is, and will be again” on the 20-foot-high arch.
“I find it incredibly offensive,” said Joseph Turner, the group’s executive director. The quotation “is seditious in nature. It essentially talks about returning this land to Mexico.”
Turner said he wants the offending quotations removed before the Fourth of July.
The artwork, “Danza Indigenas,” was commissioned by the city and created by artist Judy Baca, who was asked by residents for a structure that evoked the historic San Gabriel Mission and reflected the community’s heritage. Baca said the structure is a “layered history piece” that honors the Native Americans, immigrants and others who have lived over the centuries in what is now Baldwin Park.
Other inscriptions on the artwork include, “Use your brain before you make up your mind” and “The kind of community that people dream of rich and poor, brown, yellow, red, white living together.”
The irony, Baca said, is that Save Our State’s complaint about the quote being a Latino lament over the coming of Anglos is wrong.
“It was better before they came” was uttered by someone Baca described as “a white man from Arkansas, a civic leader” who was lamenting the influx of Mexican immigrants after World War II.
As a Chicana, she said, the remark offended her, but she was also intrigued by it.
“When it went on the arch, its ambiguity became profound,” she said. “The ‘they’ could be any ‘they.’ ”
Most of this nuance was absent at the rally, which quickly descended into a heated face-off for over two hours at Pacific and Downing avenues. Protesters on both sides hurled obscenities and taunts, and at times argued face-to-face before police arrived.
Opponents of Save Our State consisted mainly of young adults who said they sent e-mails to Latino and immigrant worker advocacy groups. Many were politically active teenagers and college students who skateboarded to the scene.
“People from Ventura are coming to our town demanding we take down artwork? That’s just ridiculous,” said Joe Lozano, 23, a Baldwin Park resident.
By 1:20 p.m., police in riot helmets formed a line in front of the Save Our State group, whose 40 supporters seemed outnumbered 10-to-1 from all sides. Streets were closed off and an officer informed Turner at one point that they could not guarantee the safety of him and his supporters.
“They’re calling reinforcements,” said Turner, 28, who grinned at the counterprotesters with his arms folded.
Randy Selenak, 56, of Orange, was carrying the Stars and Stripes and wearing a T-shirt with red, white and blue that read, “These Colors Will Not Run.” The Save Our State supporter said that going to Baldwin Park -- where 70% of its 80,000 residents are Latino -- was “like going into the lion’s den. I just want to get out of here in one piece.”
Police were called in from other departments, including Arcadia, Covina, El Monte, Glendora, Irwindale and West Covina, as were deputies from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
An elderly woman standing on Save Our State’s corner was allegedly hit by a thrown water bottle, and required medical attention at the scene.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said the woman’s friend, Robin Hvidston of Upland.
Baldwin Park police said there were no arrests or injuries.
By 2:20 p.m., police carrying batons and shotguns escorted the remaining Save Our State protesters to their cars.
Turner said he was emboldened by the experience.
“I love it. It’s great,” he said, looking at the angry counterprotesters.
“They’re communicating my message better than I could because Americans see them and reject them. They’re basically a bunch of socialists.”
Preston Wood, a member of the antiwar and anti-racism group ANSWER LA, said the protest reminded him of rallies against Proposition 187, approved by state voters in 1994, which barred illegal immigrants from receiving some public services. A court later struck down the proposition.
“It has the same feel,” said Wood, 60.
“This is a real grass-roots mobilization of people who are outraged over racist ideology in Los Angeles of all places.”
Many of the Latino organizations that came to protest said they were familiar with Save Our State, which has confronted day laborers at Home Depots in recent months.
Opponents of Save Our State started the day with a rally in front of the arch with Mayor Manuel Lozano, other elected officials and Baca, the artist.
“This project will be here 20, 30, 40 years so your grandchildren will enjoy it,” Lozano said, eliciting a large cheer.
A troupe of traditional Azteca dancers then performed near the corner where Save Our State supporters were confined by a city permit.
City Councilman David Olivas said members of Save Our State have “created an atmosphere of hate” and that he and other Baldwin Park officials have been inundated since their phone numbers and e-mail addresses were posted on the group’s website.
“The e-mails I’ve received are bordering on hate crimes,” said Olivas, who added that the messages would be sent to the district attorney’s office.
Turner said that when people describe him as a racist, “usually they are projecting their own racism.”
As to the claim that his group is anti-Latino, Turner said it has Latino members.
The artwork cannot legally be altered without the artist’s permission, city officials said.
Baca said she has no plans to change it.
She said the work was not simply a personal artistic statement but a collective one that resulted from “a democratic process, an inclusive process” involving members of the community.
“What is at stake is a community’s right to express itself,” Baca said.