For my first quarter UCLA, I was one among 800 eager students who was able to squeeze myself into the highly demanded course- Chicano/a Studies 10A taught by Professor Genevieve Carpio.
First off, what is a Chicanx (gender-neutral term) person? Well, that’s tricky because what it means to be Chicanx varies between individuals. For the sake of simplicity, however, the umbrella definition is this: Any person of Mexican origin or descent who resides in North America.
Professor Carpio approached the vast field through three segments- history, culture, and visual art. Guess what my favorite part was? Visual art? Wow, how did you know? Those are some wild psychic powers.
Anyway, I just wanted to share a little blip of studies on Chicano muralism’s relation to urban renewal programs and how it relates to the field as a whole.
Chicano murals are some of the most beautiful types of street art I have ever seen, but there is still more to them than meets the eye. The meanings behind each are about as layered as an onion. Chicano muralists don’t draw only from an aesthetic standpoint, but reach back deep into Chicano history, depicting specific moments or narratives that have shaped the Chicano experience. One such event consists of urban renewal.
Urban renewal describes a set of programs that took place during the postwar period which were intent on developing “blighted” areas, yet often let to the displacement of Chicanx communities. Urban renewal impacted many Chicanx communities by creating physical barriers within the barrios (or destroying them completely) which resulted in the division and fragmentation of those preexisting communities, limiting their access to resources and to one another. It took shape under various forms including the construction of freeways or total remodeling of poorer communities.
Freeways: In 1963, the Interstate 5 bisected a Chicano barrio in Logan Heights, San Diego at a site that had been set aside to serve as a park for that community. However, Chicano murals began to appear on the pillars of the freeway almost a decade later. Now the park consists of a colorful blasts of pigment decorating the concrete pillars. Many of the murals reference claims to self-identity by conveying strong links to heritage, race, and ethnicity- whether it be Native American, Spanish, American, or other roots. (Click on images for detail).
Chavez Ravine: The incident of Chavez Ravine during the 1950s serves as the archetype for expressing the idea that urban renewal fragmented, displaced, and destroyed Chicanx communities. The government targeted the interracial and populated Chicanx area known as Chavez Ravine for complete neighborhood remodeling and forced the locals to vacate the area. However, plans fell through when the main architect, Frank Wilkinson, became preoccupied with accusations that he was a communist and the project was abandoned. Instead, the land was sold to the Dodgers and the Dodger Stadium parking lot now sits atop the homes of the Chavez Ravine residents who were promised an improved built environment Multiple interviewees within the PBS documentary “Chavez Ravine: A Los Angeles Story” explain that the attempted urban renewal of Chavez Ravine caused disconnection between countless Chicanx families and friends who were displaced and moved away from one another.
Judy Baca’s LA mural Division of the Barrios & Chavez Ravine offers strong commentary in unveiling the destructive effects of urban renewal on Chicanx communities.
The mural features a looming Dodge stadium, bulging aggressively forward from the hill on which it sits; the hill that was once home to a neighborhood of mixed races- one being Chicanos. A family is broken up, mother and son on one side and father and son on the other, and constricted by the freeway. The adults desperately reach out to one another, yet fail to connect. The children, however, look at one another with skepticism, refusing to reach out. Baca demonstrates how urban renewal isolated younger Chicanx generations from one another.
The family symbolizes the greater Chicanx community and, as explained by Avila in his essay “The Folklore of the Freeway: Space, Culture, and Identity in Postwar Los Angeles,” the destructive division that an urban renewal project like that of the Chavez Ravine brought upon communities.
Through her work, Baca refuses to remain silent or overlook the ordeal and creates a powerful counter point that insists on the resurfacing and recognition of an event that profoundly altered Chicanx barrios through fragmentation, isolation, and even total destruction. Judy Baca’s massive mural reveals Baca’s denunciation of urban renewal and insist on exposing the isolating effects in bore on Chicanx communities.
Chicanx murals like these brim with the painful history marked by urban renewal, a narrative often overlooked by educational institutions or mainstream Anglo society.
I don’t know about you, but I sure didn’t know any of these things impacted the Chicanx community until now. Why did it have to take 16 years of education for me to be exposed to this history?
This is why these murals are important- they serve as a wider form of education. Next time you see one, stop and look twice. Look extra hard. You never know what hidden meanings are encased within the shapes, words, and colors.
Header image: Teocinttli Mural, East LA