Save the murals
While Los Angeles County celebrates Chicano art with the fabulous “Phantom Sightings” exhibition at LACMA, Orange County deals with its own brown Botticellis the way it always has: with dismissals, ignorance and a can of paint thinner.
Last week, Fullerton City Councilman Shawn Nelson stated during a council meeting that the city should remove a set of 1970s-era murals on a pedestrian overpass spanning a stretch of Lemon Street just south of Valencia Drive. Nelson claimed that the depictions -- classic lowriders, sultry girls in sombreros and fedoras, stylish pachucos and the Virgin of Guadalupe -- might make people think Fullerton sanctions gang activity. The words “The Town I Live In,” currently emblazoned on a stairwell, are also dangerous, Nelson said; he’s seen gang members sporting them as tattoos. Rubbing out those murals, Nelson insisted, would help the city combat juvenile delinquency.
Nelson’s colleagues haven’t decided whether to act on his laughably misguided recommendation. Personally, I doubt decades-old drawings of gleaming Chevrolet Fleetlines influence crime rates the way, say, poverty does. And “The Town I Live In”? That’s the title of a soul ballad immortalized by East Los Angeles legends Thee Midniters. But the councilman’s argument isn’t what interests me so much as the way Nelson embodies Orange County’s long-standing hostility whenever its Chicano communities try to commemorate their long-neglected past via public art.
Although Orange County can’t match the diversity, number or aesthetics of Los Angeles’ lively Chicano art scene, we’re also no Fresno. Orange County’s Chicano murals are spread across multiple cities, but almost all suffer from neglect. Across the street from Anaheim’s new Muzeo museum, which is currently exhibiting Cheech Marin’s collection of Chicano art, an epic mural depicting Mexican history from the Aztecs to assimilated Mexican Americans is flaking away to reveal its grocery store brick-wall canvas. In Placentia, a 240-foot panorama incorporating everything from Mayan gods to Mexican laborers picking oranges stands forgotten next to a drainage ditch. A garage in Orange hosts a mural created by famed Chicano artist (and Orange County resident) Emigdio Vasquez. Each debuted with much fanfare years ago but nowadays are as forgotten as the Coppertone billboard that once loomed over Interstate 5.
The Fullerton murals are some of the slighter entries -- simple scenes concentrating on single subjects, with little historical scope. But they’re still important in reminding county residents of its Mexican American past, one that saw immigrants anonymously harvest O.C.'s lucrative citrus crop while being forced to live in segregated neighborhoods, an aspect of county history that’s largely absent from any official narratives. That legacy created the overwhelmingly Latino barrios around the Lemon Street murals -- but today’s residents are mostly recent arrivals with no idea about that area’s past. The murals seem to survive only as a landmark on the way to the AMC Fullerton 20 megaplex.
If Fullerton does paint over the Lemon Street overpass murals, it would unfortunately only be following county precedent. In 2001, Fountain Valley bureaucrats destroyed a Chicano mural in the city’s Colonia Juarez barrio after residents with no ties to the neighborhood’s past complained about its decaying state. In late 2005, Placentia officials ordered a mural in the small town’s Placita Santa Fe neighborhood whitewashed because they thought that it promoted non-assimilation -- this despite its images of Latino students in graduation robes clutching diplomas or working on computers.
Orange County’s frescoes face other challenges. City coffers are bare, and mural maintenance is costly. At the same time, Los Angeles’ Chicano intelligentsia can’t imagine anything of Latino importance in la naranja, and thus don’t lend their considerable resources to us. And the documentation of O.C.'s Chicano murals -- heck, anything Latino that’s post-Mission era -- has never been a passion of county historical societies that would rather play dress-up or organize tours of their refurbished homes.
In a county where we too often value spic-and-span history over the ugly stories that litter our past, Orange County’s Chicano murals deserve reverence, not gang smears. If Nelson truly cared about combating crime in Fullerton, he’d pick up a paintbrush and begin restoring the Lemon Street collection. But I don’t hold out much hope for that.
Better charge your digital cameras and travel down to Fullerton soon if you want to see another part of Orange County’s Latino past before it joins the proverbial dustbin.
Gustavo Arellano is a contributing editor to Opinion, author of the book "¡Ask a Mexican!” and a staff writer for the OC Weekly.