A History in Pictures

One of the types of murals we’ve seen again and again during our travels is a mural that tells a linear history, from left to right, of a culture or civilization. In San Francisco, it was the mural on St. Peter’s Church (described in this blog post). In L.A., we saw a mural chronicling Filipino history beginning with Lapu Lapu who fought Migellan and colonization. Right as one enters Chicano Park, there is a mural beginning with dark tones of colonization and illustrating the changes and triumphs of Aztlan culture. In Albuquerque, a fresco depicting the history of the world (sorry, no photos allowed), is housed in the National Hispanic Cultural Center. In Mexico City, one of the largest collections of Diego Rivera’s murals, found at the Secretaria de Educacion Publica, fill two court yards, three levels high. Along the ground floor, these murals share the plight of the worker.

St. Peter’s Mural

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Gintong Kasaysayan, Gintong Pamana (Filipino History Mural, A Glorious History, A Golden Legacy)

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Chicano Park, Aztlan History Mural

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Diego Rivera, Secretaria de Educacion Publica

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These murals often begin with the roots of a culture, whether they be figurative or literal. For example, the St. Peter’s mural (which actually reads right to left) shows bodies underneath a field of corn, fertilizing the growth of the culture. In contrast, the murals in L.A. and San Diego begin with more historical representations of figures and events. The middle of the this type of mural usually depicts the battles–literal, civil rights-oriented, social, and otherwise–that the group confronted. In the final panels of these murals are the successes and the community’s visions for the future. In three of the five (L.A., Chicano Park, and San Francisco), the mural also featured little portraits of celebrity community members with little name plates floating underneath.  

When confronted with the Filipino mural in L.A., we were struck by how little we knew about Filipino history and Filipino-Americans today. Besides recognizing one or two figures in the more “present day” section of the mural, we were pretty ignorant of the contributions and impacts that Filipinos and Filipino-Americans have had on the country we live in. For us, it highlighted how much cultural knowledge it takes to read one of these murals. They are so rich, nuanced, and deep; even the two of us, college-educated women with a focus in American Studies/Literature/History, knew only a surface amount of these populations’ historical narratives. We were clearly outsiders entering to examine murals, and the feeling of illiteracy stuck with us (spurring us to check books out of the library and do quite a bit of googling to better understand what we saw, which has yet to be satisfying).

These murals exist in neighborhoods that the people represented in the murals fought to establish and maintain. After seeing these murals in many different neighborhoods, we are left wondering: What role they play in the continued preservation and maintenance of these neighborhoods as the generational gap between those who fought for them and the youth widens? In Filipinotown, as we looked and photographed, there were five young children playing in the park near the mural. Is the mural a talking piece that parents and grandparents use to engage children in stories about their history? Do kids internalize the experience of seeing their culture on the wall in a most familiar space? Are they inspected and seen often, or are they a backdrop as the community works, plays, and lives? Do they play a role in preserving communities that are under threat of gentrification? While we don’t have the answers to these questions (and expect that no one really does), the asking makes us look again and again and again, working to unearth the knowledge “written on the wall.”

In Solidarity,

Kat + Alice

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