The streets of Barrio Logan are full of traditional sounds and smells as residents play Mexican music, cook traditional food, rev the engines of their low riders and celebrate lavish Quinceaneras. What connects all these people lies in the heart of the barrio: Chicano Park.
Chicano Park is a 7.9 acre park located beneath the San Diego-Coronado bridge. It is home to more than 80 outdoor murals and other architectural pieces that explore the heritage of the predominantly Chicano community.
The land is a representation of civic empowerment, fought for and built by resident volunteers over three decades ago.
The history of the Chicano Park takeover
After World War II, big changes were made in Barrio Logan. The neighborhood full of Chicano families was rezoned and junkyards and metal shops took over the area. Soon, Interstate 5 and the Coronado bridge were built in the middle, separating the neighborhood that was once a community. A huge asphalt freeway with 40 foot high cement walls was constructed, forcing families out of their homes.
Residents asked policy makers for a public park in exchange, but instead construction workers tried to build a parking lot. Local activists, students and families rebelled and congregated in front of the bulldozers, stopping the construction and taking over the land that is now Chicano Park.
“The creation of Chicano Park was an important chapter in the history of the Chicano movement in San Diego and nationally,” said Isidro Ortiz, a Chicano Studies professor at San Diego State University.
But locals continued to make it their own. Muralists formed a committee to organize their ideas and negotiated with public officials to use the pylons of the bridge as art space.
“Chicano Park is like sacred ground here. It is rare to see any destruction of the murals,” said Sera Galarza, a visitor picnicking with relatives. “They’re enjoyed by many generations of my family.”
What started as street art turned into massive murals depicting the issues surrounding the park and history of Chicano culture.
“The park is basically telling the story of a people for thousands and thousands of years,” said Hector Villegas, a Barrio Logan native.
Villegas is one of few artists entrusted to restore the original murals that cover the pillars intersecting the park and also create murals of his own.
But, similar to the creation of the park, it wasn’t easy to get the resources to repair the historic murals.
The Chicano Park Steering Committee proposes mural restoration
The Chicano Park Steering Committee, a grassroots organization made up of volunteers who that want to preserve the initial meaning of the park, took on the project to redo some of the murals originally done in 1973. Weather conditions and the retrofitting of the bridge destroyed some of the artwork and the group’s goal was to uphold the vision of the first artists.
Tommie Camarillo, the current chairperson for the Chicano Park Steering Committee, says the original artists were not paid to create the murals so they used whatever they could find. This meant paint from under their kitchen sink or mixed in a garage.
She has been part of the committee since the takeover and is passionate about the mural restoration project.
“Everything is community based,” she said. “We are all volunteers. We are not funded.”
The committee petitioned the Public Arts Advisory Board to recommend to the city of San Diego the preservation and expansion of the murals. This required the agreement of the Parks and Recreation department, which owns the land, and CALTRANS, which owns the pillars.
Both the directors of the Parks and Recreation department and CALTRANS agreed that the murals deserved restoring, but wanted the maintenance and finances to be the responsibility of the Barrio Logan community.
The Chicano Park Steering Committee then wrote up a 10 point plan to ask the city for help, trying to convince officials that the murals mean something to the community. After 13 years of proposal writing and convincing, the Commission for Arts and Culture decided to donate $60,000 to the project.
This money was used to buy materials, pay artists, and even bring some of the original artists back to San Diego.
“Not just anybody can go and restore a mural. It had to be the original artists,” Camarillo said. “They’re all stories. Stories of different issues. Not just issues in the park but issues of the Chicano community all over the south west, the history of Mexico.”
Villegas was chosen to help Victor Ochoa, one of the original artists, go over their murals with brand new paint and clear sealer.
The money was able to help restore 20 of the murals in just one year, but the committee wants to continue to add history to the park through continued restoration and the addition of new murals.
VIDEO:Every year the birth of the park is celebrated at Chicano Park day. People from around the country come to see the murals and commemorate the take over of the park.
The story of the park is important to the Chicano community.
“It was a successful struggle by Chicanos to implement one of the major principles of the Chicano Movement, the principle of self-determination and the strategy of community control,” said Ortiz.