Massive tribal warriors fortify highway support pillars and the neighborhood that benefits from their beauty. . . Pieces of history unfolding in paint that give local residents a much needed feeling of security. That’s what I discovered in Chicano Park, a regional landmark that I came upon while taking the free shuttle from my hotel to the San Diego Convention Center during the 2012 edition of Comic-Con last month. The tourist-filled bus whizzed past this maze of colors, cacti and classic cars every morning on the way to the day’s activities. It amazed me that I seemed to be the only person impressed, probably due to my personal interest in street art and graffiti. However, the story this park full of murals tells is much more complicated than talented street artists being given a green light to create. I could tell that by just by looking at the content of the paintings.
So on the last day of Comic-Con, and using a car that me and my wife rented for the day, we drove to the area known as Barrio Logan to visit Chicano Park. We found an oasis filled with energy that stemmed from the residents that frequent its hallowed grounds, who seem to have an ongoing dialogue with its marvelous, color-filled creations. I had the opportunity to speak with some of the residents, who graciously took the time to tell me their personal stories, as well as what they knew about the park’s history.
The neighborhood where the park resides originally stretched all the way to San Diego Bay, with waterfront access for its residents. This access was denied beginning in World War II, when Naval installations blocked local access to the beach. This denial of beachfront access became the initial source of the community’s resentment towards the government and its agencies.
That resentment grew in the 1950s, when the area was rezoned as mixed residential and industrial. Junk dealers and repair shops quickly sprang up, creating air pollution, noise and aesthetic conditions unsuitable for a residential area. Resentment continued to grow as the barrio was carved in two by Interstate 5 in 1963 and then further divided in 1969 by elevated onramps of the San Diego-Coronado Bridge.
At the time, Mexicans were accustomed to not being included in discussions concerning their communities and not being represented by their officials. This attitude began to change in the turbulent decade that brought the demands of African-Americans, women, and other oppressed peoples seeking equality and full inclusion in American society, to the forefront. A variety of campaigns coalesced under the banner of the Chicano Movement, including groups led by César Chávez and Dolores Huerta of the United Farm Workers, Dr. Hector P. Garcia of the American G.I. Forum, the student group MEChA, as well as others, leading to increased political awareness and a sense of empowerment in Barrio Logan.
Community residents had long been demanding a park and city officials had promised to build one, in part to compensate for the loss of thousands of homes and businesses removed for the construction of the freeway and bridge, as well as for the aesthetic degradation created by the forest of gray concrete support pillars. In June of 1969, the park was officially approved, but no action was taken to implement the decision.
The final straw came in 1970 when a construction crew and bulldozers appeared on the site designated for the park in order to build a parking lot next to a building that would be converted into a California Highway Patrol station. Since the community had many grievances with local police and law enforcement in general already, the act was considered a slap in the face. In response, Mexican-American high school students walked out of class to join others who had already congregated at the site. Some protesters formed human chains around the bulldozers, while others planted trees, flowers and cactus. Construction was called off after a 12 day occupation and Chicano Park was finally created on nearly 8 acres of land.
At a meeting on April 23, 1970, a young artist named Salvador Torres, who recently returned to the barrio from the College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, shared his vision of adorning the freeway support pillars with art work, leading to what has become home to the country’s largest collection of outdoor murals dedicated to the cultural heritage of the community.