We pulled into the parking lot of Chicano Park in San Diego’s Barrio Logan, situated under the elevated on-ramps of the San Diego-Coronado Bridge. Immediately, there was so much to see. We got out of the car and began taking photographs, talking about the murals on the pylons closest to us, their intricacies, symbols and colors. After just a few minutes, it became apparent that if we tried to analyze the 50+ murals in the park in that way, we would never leave San Diego. So, we put our cameras in our pockets and walked the circumference of the park, looking for the through-lines that connect the murals to each other and to the Barrio Logan community.
The history of this park is one of community action. Mexican-Americans began to settle in this specific area of San Diego in the 1890s, and at one point Barrio Logan was home to the second largest Chicano Barrio population on the West Coast. However, a series of government projects began to invade the neighborhood’s physical space. The US Navy and defense industry took over the shoreline that once was part of Barrio Logan. A re-zoning law (residential to industrial) allowed mostly Anglo-owned auto junkyards to move into the community. The I-5 was built, bisecting the community, and on-ramps for the San Diego-Coronado Bridge were planted in the middle of the community. Each of these actions took land from homeowners, local businesses, and public spaces at the heart of Barrio Logan, and by 1979 the population of the neighborhood decreased from 20,000 residents to approximately 5,000.
The government did not consult with the community before enacting these projects with such high stakes for Barrio Logan residents. In 1967, community leaders stood up and asked the city for the land underneath the Coronado Bridge on-ramps for a park. Two years later, the state of California agreed to lease the land to the City of San Diego for a community park and the residents of Barrio Logan were ready to begin transforming the space. Soon after that announcement, the Highway Patrol began construction of Patrol Station on the land designated for the park. Citizens were outraged and protested, surrounding the bulldozers so that construction would have to halt and occupying the park space until the City agreed to renegotiate the use of space. Barrio Logan residents have time and time again stood to defend the space that this now Chicano Park and the murals within it. Knowing the history of the park enabled us to better see themes and connections as we walked among the pylons and concrete walls. (Almost all of the historical knowledge came from the two webpages linked above. Thank you to the Chicano Park Historical Documentation Project for compiling all of this history for visitors like us.)
The strength of ancestral knowledge was prominently displayed in so many murals. We saw figures such as Cuauhtli, Coatl, Xochitl, and Itzcuintli (as well as many others, some of which we recognize and some of which we definitely missed) across the park. They tower over passersby, a symbol of the power that Chicano history (narrative, knowledge, and figures that lie outside the bounds of what is most taught in public schools) holds in Barrio Logan, magnificent and enduring. The imagery is deeply rooted in the land itself. Throughout Chicano Park, there are references and maps to Aztlan, which means “the land to the North, the land from which we, the Aztecs, came.” Maps in the Park show the fifty states with Colorado, California, Arizona, Texas, Utah, New Mexico, Oregon, and parts of Washington marked with red to indicate the ancestral land of the Aztec people. Just as many of the murals in the park tell the story of claiming the space under the pylons, Aztlan calls attention to reclaiming Chicano ancestral land. This is one example of how murals can capture and tell histories that lie outside the lines of the dominant historical narrative.
The Chicano activist legacy and its leaders occupy many of the pylons as well. There are numerous visual references to Cesar Chavez, the United Farm Workers, Che Guevara, the Mexican Revolution, Frida Kahlo, and many others who fought for Chicano rights. These murals serve as a tribute to the hard work and progress made possible by those who came before.
And then there are the murals that memorialize and celebrate the community effort that created Chicano Park itself. These murals reference the Navy Yard, the highways, the pollution, the park’s earliest muralists and defenders (Salvador Torres, Victor Ochoa, and Jose Montoya), and much more more. They celebrate the victories, including several that reference “Varrio Logan,” the victories of Barrio Logan. Many of these murals also call attention to the ongoing action needed to protect Chicano Park and Barrio Logan’s residents from government and capitalist encroachment. Around the edges of the park are luxury apartments and new storefronts, ominous signs of gentrification and a warning that this community is under siege.
Chicano Park, full of art and Mexican-American pride (evidenced by red, white, and green benches, play structures, and decorative rocks), is a place where the community continues to gather. On October 15, 2016, a car drove off of the Coronado bridge and killed four Barrio Logan residents. There is an ongoing vigil in the park in front of one of the pylon murals, and the morning that we were there, a memorial service was held for the victims of this tragedy. A mural was also put up in their memory. One reflection of the strength of a community is its public space, and Chicano Park exemplifies the power deeply rooted in Barrio Logan.
Kat + Alice
***We tried diligently to collect the names of artists and activist organizations involved in the creation of the murals pictured above. Documenting it all was impossible, however, due to worn paint, unsigned works, and sometimes the inability to connect a signature to a work of art (the pylons had many sides, and, when they were signed, it was not always obvious which piece the signed artist had worked on). To this end, the Chicano Park Historical Documentation Project Library, Walter Otto Koenig’s documentation, and this San Diego Reader Article about original artists restoring the murals.