'¡Murales Rebeldes!': These Disappearing LA Murals Mirror Their Community
In the Los Angeles neighborhood of Boyle Heights, on the corner of Soto Street and Cesar Chavez Avenue, a brightly colored mural masks the wall behind a bus stop. At the center of the image, a woman sings proudly. She's surrounded by men playing musical instruments and a couple dancing in swirls of bright colors.
The mural is called El Corrido de Boyle Heights, or The Ballad of Boyle Heights. It was painted in 1983, and it's one of thousands of similar murals that started popping up in 1960s — murals that portray Chicano culture and heritage. The images speak to the Chicano political movement, which animated many Mexican-Americans in LA, and to the broader issues of their time: the Vietnam War, environmental degradation, education, civil rights.
But El Corrido de Boyle Heights has started to fade, and graffiti obscures parts of the scene. Other murals like this one have been whitewashed or destroyed, torn down or covered up by the city or new businesses moving into the neighborhood. A new exhibition in downtown LA aims to call attention to the murals, both those that remain and those that have disappeared.
Erin Curtis is the curator of "¡Murales Rebeldes! LA Chicana/o Murals under Siege." She says, "Some murals have been painted over as neighborhoods change; other murals have been censored or contested because of their political content."
Curtis says LA was once viewed as the mural capital of the world. And yet, at a time when street art is more revered than ever (works by the English artist Banksy go for more than $1 million at auction), the Chicano murals of LA aren't given the same respect.
Curtis says, "It speaks to the collective value that we place on artworks based on who is making them. ... Within this community, this work is valued, but often outside this community it's not seen in the same way and not regarded in the same way. There are methods, like this sort of communal work, that Chicano artists were doing years before it became popular in the broader art world."
LA's Chicano muralists fought back against this very culture of exclusion: They weren't let into museums, so they made art where they could.
"Chicano muralists really worked on breaking down those distinctions between high art and low art," Curtis says. "They often worked outside of museums because institutional spaces didn't welcome Chicano artists at that time. So they forged their own paths and started to work in a different style. They worked on walls outdoors; they did these murals with the input of the local community."
El Corrido de Boyle Heights was created by a collective called East Los Streetscapers. They also created the Boyle Heights mural Filling Up on Ancient Energies (1980), which Shell Oil commissioned for one of their gas stations. Today, the gas station is a car wash and the mural is nearly destroyed. East Los Streetscaper Wayne Healy, 71, says the original artwork tied global themes to the neighborhood.
"You'd see dinosaurs sinking into the muck of eons of time, converting themselves into fossil fuels. You'd see a refinery. You'd see low riders, which is a car culture of East LA, and they'd be getting filled up. You'd see a car full of guys and a car full of girls flirting at each other as they're cruising down Whittier Boulevard."
The mural took up a wall that was 6 feet tall and more than 20 feet long. Today, just a small section of the mural remains. It depicts two Mayan deities and a jaguar (the cat, not the car), and it's mostly obscured by a rack of tires. Shell tore down most of the wall in 1988 without notifying the artists. East Los Streetscapers sued Shell and won a settlement, which paved the way for a state law: the California Art Preservation Act.
Healy acknowledges that when someone commissions a work of art on private property, there's no guarantee it'll stay there. "The law doesn't say you're stuck with our mural. The law says: Give the artist a chance to remove the mural, take pictures of the mural or do nothing with the mural. Just give them 90 days."
He says that, all along, his goal was to paint a positive picture of and for Chicano people — and the community took note.
"One of the things that was motivating that was negative images that were always heaped on us in the movies," Healy says. "You know, you go to the curio shop and you see the Mexican asleep under a cactus — stereotypes like that. ... I wanted people to look at the mural and think of it as a mirror. They would see themselves in it and feel good about themselves. ... I can recall a time when I [was] painting and some lady looked down and she's crying. She's saying, 'You're telling our story.' "
Hundreds of people walk by the murals in Boyle Heights every day on their way to school, work and errands. Rita Chavez, 85, is a longtime Boyle Heights resident who has observed the murals for years. She says they've left a deep impact on her and how she views her community. "You can look to any place and see murals, and it will tell you what you see in the mirror."
She looks at El Corrido de Boyle Heights and explains how it reflects the community around it. "What I see here is that this is kind of a poor area, or middle class. ... It's trying to tell you the past, what they've been through, and what they're going through now. ... You'd be surprised what these murals will tell you, you know? They'll tell you a lot, just staring at them."
Jolie Myers edited this story for broadcast. Nicole Cohen edited it for the Web, and Claire Harbage edited the photos.
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