Chicano Park, A National Historic Landmark Celebrates 50 years, A Look Back

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From: SanDiego.org Photos by Joe Contreras, Latin Life America Media (see photo gallery below)

Chicano Park San Diego 2013 (4)Visitors come from all over to see the monumental murals, arching overhead like an outdoor cathedral to community activism. Chicano Park is the geographic and emotional heart of Barrio Logan, located in Logan Heights, San Diego’s oldest Chicano neighborhood.

The park is home to the largest concentration of Chicano murals in the world with more than 80 paintings on seven acres dotted with sculpture, gardens, picnic tables and playgrounds. Throughout the year, it hosts festivals of music and Aztec dance, the biggest being Chicano Park Day held each April. Additionally, it’s the hub of an emerging arts district, with galleries, boutiques, brewpubs and craft coffee shops nearby.

In the early 20th century, the area had been a sturdy middle-class neighborhood, a place where families gathered for parties and children played at the beach.

Chicano Park San Diego 2013 (2)Things changed when World War II broke out, and the neighborhood lost its beach to the Navy and defense industries. In the 1960s, the California Department of Transportation built the I-5 freeway through the area, demolishing homes and splitting the neighborhood in two. To compensate, residents were promised that the land under the Coronado Bridge would be turned into a park, something the community had wanted for years. More time went by, but no park appeared.
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On April 22, 1970, residents learned that the promise had been rescinded and the land would be used for a California Highway Patrol station. The local community rallied quickly to halt construction. Hundreds of men, women and children converged on the site, forming a human chain around bulldozers. They occupied the space for twelve days, attracting the attention of government officials.

Chicano Park San Diego 2013 (97)Months of negotiation followed as city and state agencies argued questions of land use and ownership. Residents, led by the Chicano Park Steering Committee, kept up pressure. The artist Salvador Torres proposed to transform the bridge’s massive concrete pylons into a towering canvas for expression in the spirit of the Mexican Mural Movement.
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The formation of Chicano Park was signed into law in 1971 and mural painting began two years later. At first it was an exuberant, unconstrained explosion of color as hundreds of people “attacked the wall with rollers,” according to Torres. He, together with many local artists including Guillermo Aranda, Yolanda Lopez, Victor Ochoa and groups such as Toltecas en Aztlan and Congresso de Artistas Chicanos en Aztlan, continued to guide the aesthetic development. As years passed, more artists from across California were invited to contribute, producing a range of Pre-Colombian, colonial, modern and contemporary imagery.

In 2011 and 2012, almost two dozen murals were restored with federal funding. Many of the original artists did the work themselves, aided by friends and family. The restoration received a Grand Orchid award from the San Diego Architectural Foundation, which called the revitalized project “stunning.” It also received recognition from the California Office of Historic Preservation, Save Our Heritage Organisation, and the San Diego City Council and Mayor.

The Chicano Park Steering Committee maintains a map of the murals on their website, along with details about the artwork and Chicano Park Day. The free, annual family-friendly celebration features beautiful costumes and cultural pride of performers like Danza Azteca Calpulli Mexihca, along with live bands, a lowrider car show, art workshops for kids, and food and craft vendors.

Chicano Park San Diego 2013 (96)Chicano Park is best seen in the daylight to appreciate the vibrant color of the murals, but the surrounding area has nighttime offerings too. As with all urban parks, use common sense when it comes to safety after dark. Enjoy a beer and dinner at local favorites ¡SALUD!, Iron Fist Brewing Company and Border X Brewing; catch an art opening at La Bodega Gallery, Chicano Art Gallery or CM Curatorial; and browse the works of local artists and authors in the shops along Logan Avenue between South Evans Street and Sampson Street.

Chicano Park San Diego 2013 (8)Plans are underway to capture and share the history of the park and adjacent Logan Heights. Chicano Park Museum is currently virtual but contains an extensive archive of photos and stories. Until the museum is up and running, visitors can arrange tours of the park through the Steering Committee. Tours are led by volunteers who were involved in the original takeover as well as those who have guided and protected the park since then. There is no charge but advance reservations are required.

The importance of Chicano Park to San Diego is best summed up by the late Ramon “Chunky” Sanchez, much-loved activist, musician and creator of the heartfelt anthem, “Chicano Park Samba”: “There’s an energy there that’s hard to describe—when you see your people struggling for something positive, it’s very inspiring. The park was brought about by sacrifice and it demonstrates what a community can do when they stick together and make it happen.”

In January 2017, the park was designated a National Historic Landmark, thanks to the efforts of Congressman Juan Vargas, and Josephine Talamantez and Manny Galaviz of the Chicano Park Steering Committee. This status recognizes the artistic, cultural and sociopolitical significance of the park and preserves the space for future generations.

Photos by Joe Contreras, Latin Life America Media