East L.A. murals come to life in school plays

Monterey Continuation High School students Christopher Lizarraras, center, and Jose Herrera, right, participate in a play about the East Los Streetscapers -- muralists Wayne Healy and David Botello -- during a performance at the Plaza de la Raza's Margo Albert Theater.
(Katie Falkenberg / Los Angeles Times)

In East Los Angeles, murals are as common and overlooked as clouds in the sky, but both take shape and significance when looked at through a different lens.

A group of students from Monterey Continuation High School learned this lesson recently by writing and performing one-act plays about the wall art in their neighborhood and the muralists who put them there.


About…Productions oversees the Young Theaterworks program at the school and encourages students to communicate through the arts.

“We’re realizing there’s a living history that the students don’t know about,” said Rose Portillo, associate director of About…Productions. She and artistic director Theresa Chavez arranged for the students to meet with muralists Barbara Carrasco and Yreina Cervantez, and with Wayne Healy and David Botello, founders of the East Los Streetscapers, a public art studio.

Students gathered information during a brief but intense interview with the muralists and, with the help of mentors, wrote the plays based on each of the artists and their work.

“These Walls Tell Stories” focuses on a group of artists who rose through the Chicano civil rights movement of the late 1960s and documented the history of their city, the barrio and its people by putting paintbrush to stucco. The murals brought to life in the plays are mainly in East L.A. but the artists’ work has been featured across the country. Carrasco’s rendition of union organizer Dolores Huerta is used on a Girl Scout badge.

Students gave life and personalities to the characters in Healy’s mural “Ghosts of the Barrio.” In the painting, men sit on the stoop of a house in East L.A. and, in the play, they are discussing the current gang culture.

“It’s very humbling because we’re still working with the community and the youth,” Cervantez said. The professor of Chicana/Chicano art at Cal State Northridge said she liked the artistic license the students took with pieces of her story.

A prominent figure in her work — the jaguar — was used in the students’ narrative as a type of fairy godmother, transporting the actress playing Cervantez through time to show the events that shaped her art and explain some of its mythology.

“I appreciate that they did this because some of my own students don’t know their history,” Cervantez said.

Those who wrote the plays admitted being unaware of the murals’ symbolism.

“Before, I would pass by them without thinking. Now I stop and pay attention to what the murals are trying to say,” said Jessica Miranda, 20, who is completing her credits at Monterey, an alternative school on the Garfield High School campus.

The program has opened the students’ eyes to opportunities in a creative field, whether in theater or other art forms, Portillo said.

“This shows them that having a creative inclination can lead to a career,” she said. “Some of the brightest artists are in continuation high schools because they don’t function well in regular settings. Here, we can balance that out.”

The exposure to history, art and culture is an invaluable gift to both the students and the muralists, Carrasco said. Her daughter is a playwright and remembers only having Shakespeare classics to perform in high school.

“This is something not everyone has. It’s great that our story continues and that this can be shared with others in the future,” said Carrasco, whose strong friendships with union organizers Cesar Chavez and Huerta were depicted in one of the student plays. Her battle with lymphoma and her family life were also main story lines, much to Carrasco’s pleasant surprise.

“It really took me back,” she told one of the students as she wiped a tear from her eye. “I was really fighting for my life for my daughter.”