Protesters fail to save mural by famed Chicano artist from demolition at San Diego school

Despite protests, construction crews tore down building with artwork by muralist Salvador Roberto Torres.
Despite protests from community members, construction crews tore down a building with artwork by muralist Salvador Roberto Torres at Memorial Junior High School in San Diego’s Logan Heights neighborhood Wednesday. The mural has been documented and will be recreated at the new school campus.
(Eduardo Contreras / San Diego Union-Tribune)

The mural was painted by influential artist Salvador Roberto Torres, who helped create Chicano Park and Centro Cultural de la Raza.

Community members tried unsuccessfully to stop the demolition of a 32-year-old mural painted by a renowned San Diego Chicano artist at Memorial Prep Middle School in the Logan Heights neighborhood.

The school building bearing the mural was torn down Wednesday afternoon despite Encanto resident Monica Bernal holding a sit-in protest for about an hour before she was taken away by police.

The muralist, Salvador Roberto Torres, an influential artist who helped create Chicano Park in 1970, wrote to school district officials this week trying to enforce what he said was his right to remove the mural before it was destroyed.

San Diego Unified officials said the mural could not be saved because it was painted on a classroom building that contained asbestos. Breaking into the wall to preserve the mural would have released the hazardous material, officials said.


Muralist Salvador Roberto Torres speaks to the press.
Muralist Salvador Roberto Torres speaks to the press about efforts to save a mural he painted that was demolished at Memorial Junior High School.
(Eduardo Contreras / San Diego Union-Tribune)

District officials said the mural has been documented and will be re-created at the new school site.

Still, community members saw the destruction of the mural as a loss for Chicano culture and the community’s history.

Bernal, who went to Memorial Prep, said she sees it as another form of erasure of history and culture in an area that is being gentrified.

“It’s an erasure of who we are,” she said. “Those murals are who we are. They tell our history.”

The mural was painted around 1988 by Torres, who co-founded the Centro Cultural de la Raza and spearheaded a murals project at Chicano Park starting in 1973. The park now holds the largest collection of Chicano murals in the world, according to the UC Santa Barbara Library.

The mural featured a diverse group of Memorial students and graduates, veterans of World War I and Sharon “Christa” McAuliffe, the teacher who became an astronaut and who died in the 1986 space shuttle Challenger explosion.

“It’s a joyful, important, colorful mural that I enjoyed making,” Torres said at a press conference Wednesday morning in front of the demolition site.

A member of the San Diego Police Department speaks to a woman sitting in building debris.
A member of the San Diego Police Department’s psychological emergency response team speaks to a woman sitting in building debris who was trying to stop the demolition of the mural.
(Eduardo Contreras / San Diego Union-Tribune)

There are at least three other murals in addition to Torres’ at Memorial Prep: two by Sal Barajas and one by Mario Torero. Torero’s mural, located in the school library, is the only one that could be saved because it was painted on removable panels.

“We want to take some control of our community through our art,” Torero said. “It’s history.”

Over the course of an hour Wednesday, police spoke with Bernal and tried to convince her to leave the site. She refused. Police then handcuffed her and carried her off site, she said, and gave her a misdemeanor ticket for failing to disperse.

San Diego School Police Capt. Joseph Florentino said the last thing police wanted to do was put their hands on a peaceful protester. But he said Bernal endangered herself and others by being so close to the building, which was already partially demolished and was close to collapsing.

“It’s tough when a historical community landmark goes away. We respect that,” Florentino said. “It’s a tough one for everybody.”

The murals have been documented in high-resolution color and black-and-white photos in accordance with the Historic American Buildings Survey, said San Diego Unified spokesman Samer Naji. The photos will be housed at the San Diego Central Library, the San Diego History Center and UC Santa Barbara Library Special Collections, which houses historical papers on Torres.

San Diego Unified School Board Vice President Richard Barrera said he thinks replicating the murals is a better way to preserve them. He said the murals were painted on old, deteriorating walls, and the murals would deteriorate, too, if the district did nothing about it.

“These murals cannot be preserved forever,” Barrera said. “The way to actually preserve them is to replicate them onto spaces that can be preserved.”

The demolition is part of a massive renovation that will transform the Logan K-8 elementary school and Memorial Prep middle school into a complex that will serve children from infants to high schoolers.

The project will build Logan Heights’ first public high school, along with a Montessori program. The complex also will offer athletic fields, a health and wellness center, access to legal representation, counseling and dental services.

“We know that this is important to the community, and we know that the artist is really invested in this,” Naji said. “We really tried to look at every alternative, but this project really is so critical.”

Taketa writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.