To the extent that Leydi Garcia has a reputation at Garfield High School, it is not for being a rabble-rouser. A 17-year-old now in her senior year, she's better described as quiet and studious. "She's never been one of those students who's really visible on campus," said one of her teachers, Arlette Crosland.
That was before they started messing with the murals.
Garfield High, in the heart of East L.A., has long been known for its murals. Whole sections of the school are alive with them, with scarcely a wall left blank. There are murals celebrating the Mexican Revolution, murals documenting the history of Los Angeles, murals dedicated to Aztec myths, murals -- lots of them -- of bulldogs, the school mascot. Sometimes the themes are combined, as in the one of a bulldog sporting an Aztec headdress in the colors of the Mexican flag, with the United Farm Workers logo added on.
So when Los Angeles Unified School District maintenance crews started painting over murals late last year in the course of a much-needed campus-wide face-lift, people at Garfield took notice.
Leydi Garcia, for one.
"I'm going through some problems right now," said Leydi, who is hoping to attend the University of Redlands in the fall, "and when I see those murals, they give me confidence to do things. I'm not sure [why], but like, that's just the way I feel."
In particular, she said, a mural depicting a clash of meteors in outer space "made me feel like I could go over the limits, not just reach my limits but go a little higher."
Yolanda Roura feels strongly about the murals too. An art teacher at Garfield for 16 years, she has guided the students who painted a number of them. She took special pleasure every morning when she saw a mural of dancers on the wall opposite her classroom. She doesn't know how long the mural had been there, but it had more tenure than she had.
Then, one morning last November, she found herself facing a white wall.
"When I came up the stairs and I saw the mural gone, my heart sank," she said, standing in the hallway where the mural had once been. "I thought, 'Oh, my God, they've done it.' "
That was the first mural to go. Later, the painters covered over a bulldog and a large portion of the outer-space mural.
In all, four murals were painted over, with more expected to vanish.
Principal Guadalupe Paramo explained that the murals targeted for elimination have been those on walls that have suffered structural damage. In order to repair the walls, she said, the murals had to go.
Still, she acknowledged that the decisions are not being made in an aesthetic vacuum. There was the space mural, for instance.
"I don't know what that represented," Paramo said. "An explosion? Rocks?"
Far from beloved, Paramo said, the mural drew complaints from students who thought it was ugly.
She said that only some of the damaged murals are being replaced. Some of the best ones will be restored.
"I love the art," she said. "I love the murals. But there were some murals here that were not, I would say, first-quality. The ones that are still around are ones that are of nice quality."
When Leydi Garcia saw the murals being painted over, she did something that surprised even her: She started a petition campaign demanding a halt. When she had close to 200 signatures, she took the petition to Paramo. It wasn't easy.
"Usually in class, I'm like the really quiet one. I just do my work and don't talk to anyone," Leydi said. "To talk in front of a class is really hard for me."
"Actually," she added, a bit shyly, "when I was talking to her about the murals, on the inside I was feeling like I wanted to cry."
When asked why the murals were important to Garfield, several students gave similar answers. Said Myrna Sandoval, the editor of the campus newspaper, the Garfield Log: "I think the murals bring a lot of life and color into the school, and they tell us where we're from.... It differentiates [Garfield] from other high schools."
Also, Sandoval and others said, the murals help deter tagging at the school. Students respect the murals, they said. The only people likely to spray graffiti on them are pranksters from rival Roosevelt High.
Sixty years old last year, Garfield has a storied history among Los Angeles high schools. It was immortalized by math teacher Jaime Escalante and the movie "Stand and Deliver." And it has a central place in the history of modern American murals, having produced several of the country's most prominent mural artists. In the late 1960s and '70s, it helped nurture a blossoming of Mexican American pride and creativity that is still palpable on the campus today.
Among the artists to emerge from Garfield in the early 1970s were four students -- Willie Herron, Harry Gamboa Jr., Patssi Valdez and the single-named Gronk -- who together helped splash the East L.A. Chicano mural scene onto an international canvas. Diane Gamboa, Harry's sister and another acclaimed Eastside artist, once said the turning point of her career came in the early '70s, when a mural she created as part of a Garfield art project was whitewashed for not being "Chicana" enough. She channeled her outrage into a renewed focus on her art.
In the course of writing about the murals for the Garfield paper, Sandoval got in touch with Gilbert Ortiz, a former Garfield art student who had painted several murals in the mid-1990s, including the Aztec bulldog that dominates an outdoor corridor, and an indoor silhouette of President Garfield, for whom the school is named. Paramo had said the bulldog might have to be painted over. Ortiz was appalled.
"That drawing, the Aztec one, it means a lot to me," he said. "Because my father left us when I was young -- he was never there for my parent conferences or anything. And the first time he went to Garfield, he saw that mural and he was proud of me, and that meant a lot to me." The mural, he added, was always very popular among students.
Ortiz recalled that a professional muralist once saw his work at Garfield, handed him a business card and told him to get in touch when he graduated. But Ortiz left Garfield without graduating, and he was never able to pursue the career of his dreams. Now, at 28, he drives a truck for a waste hauler and has a family. He deeply regrets dropping out of school.
"If I could have one wish," he said, "I would go back and start all over again. And trust me, it would be a lot different."
Leydi Garcia's petition drive did not accomplish all its goals. Paramo did not agree to stop painting over murals. Moreover, Leydi said, it seemed to her the principal didn't want students to paint murals at all anymore. "I got the impression that she wanted murals that were more professional," Leydi said.
Paramo said she was misunderstood. She wants students to continue to paint murals at Garfield -- there are, after all, more blank walls to paint them on now. But, she said, "they need to be guided by professionals. They need to look professional, they can't just put something up on the walls."
The principal said she would like to form a committee -- consisting, perhaps, of students, teachers and parents -- to decide what murals will be painted where. And in that, at least, she and Leydi seem to be on the same wavelength.
"The school isn't hers," Leydi said, a touch of defiance in her soft voice. "It's the community's."