Los Angeles Mural Mile: A Pacoima Arts Revolution

We turned onto Van Nuys Boulevard, home to Los Angeles’s Mural Mile, and parked right in front of Pacoima City Hall. Before starting our trek down Van Nuys to see the murals, we stopped into the local post office for some postcard stamps. We asked the postal worker who sold us the stamps whether he knew which murals we should be sure to see. “I don’t really know about that,” he said. “I’m not sure.” This response was similar to those we got from our L.A. hosts, Aunt Sharyn and Uncle Richard, when we told them where we were headed and what we planned to see there. (They also loaned us MUCH needed handheld fans for our walk.) In contrast to the murals in The Mission in San Francisco, people did not seem to know much at all about the Pacoima murals.

IMG_4517Stamps in hand, we left the post office determined to find as many murals as we could. The first mural we wanted to see was behind City Hall itself, but, as it was Saturday, the building was closed and fences kept us from getting close enough to really see the work. We used the Mural Mile Map–super difficult to read on an iPhone–determined about where we were in relation to the highway, and set off down Van Nuys toward the mountains.

The murals were not obvious at all, and, since the map was hard to read, we found ourselves peeking around every corner. Every once in awhile, we would find the large, bright images we were searching for. Mostly, though, we just craned our necks to find the same concrete we’d seen before. The first mural we found was on the back of the Entrepreneur Center. We would have missed it, had it not been for a few wisps of paint on the corner of the building, leading us around it to find a 30-foot piece filled with dynamic colors depicting allusions to Mexican Culture. It was painted in 2015 by Jaime “GERMS” Zachariah and Gil Ortiz.

Heat radiated from the sidewalk as we continued down Van Nuys Blvd, and we began to notice a trend in the murals we saw. Many of them were credited to Levi Ponce, or Levi Ponce and a partner, with a list of names of people who helped put the mural on the wall. We also noticed that the dates on the murals were pretty recent, mostly between 2011-2015. In 2002, Los Angeles instituted a ban on public art because the city was worried about possible corporate messaging embedded within. This ban kept mural artists from creating in the city that was once called the Mural Capital of the World. L.A. lifted the ban in 2013, but the city still has a lot of work to make the process of creating mural art artist-friendly.

Meanwhile, in Pacoima, Levi Ponce declared the beginning of an arts revolution. His first mural captures Danny Trejo from the shoulders up, staring out from the side of El Indio restaurant. Trejo, an actor with roots in Pacoima and the San Fernando Valley, shifted from a life of drugs and stealing to a life of acting and activism. Trejo is a symbol of growth and positivity rooted in the Pacoima community. Ponce’s use of color in this mural evokes Van Nuys Blvd at twilight, and his use of the poles and signs in El Indio parking lot is striking.

Danny trejo.JPG

Because Ponce’s mission is based in the community, he begins his design process by asking the community what they would like to see. He wants the artwork to reflect the multi-faceted neighborhood he grew up in. Community members strike up conversations when they walk past Ponce, hard at work, and then inevitably they pick up a paintbrush and add color to the wall. Our walk down Van Nuys Blvd, looking closely at the 20 +names painted in one corner or another, revealed Ponce’s zeal for collaboration.

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Mural Mile also hosts murals by artists such as Kristy Sandoval, a graduate of Academy of Art University in San Francisco, who is part of a collaboration of six to eight female artists dubbed H.O.O.D. Sisters. Their mission is to empower young women to see themselves as capable artists. Artists like Rah Azul and Manny Valesquez also feed the collective spirit of creation on Mural Mile in Pacoima. Many of these murals are shown in the slideshow above.

As we walked back toward our car (making a aqua fresca stop in an air-conditioned Myke’s–2.4 miles in 104 degree heat is hard work!), we talked about how the art we saw on Van Nuys was part of the infrastructure of the community. We found murals in the parking lots of autobody shops, behind chain link fences, and around corners. Sometimes, we had to stop and decide whether what we were looking at was indeed part of Mural Mile or instead a clever, intricately painted sign for a local vendor.Valley feed The paint on the walls of Pacoima businesses and buildings begins to seep so deeply into the city, adding a texture of power, culture, and pride that radiates from the streets

Mission Murals to Remember

The Mujeres Muralistas collective decided we would design images of our Mexican/Latino culture, who we were, where we came from. That was really important to us. And we also looked at the community–who is our audience, who lives here, who’s going to see the mural images and learn from them–and it was the children born here and all the Latino Community living in the Mission. The murals were created to honor the beauty and color of the Latino American culture. The way that we knew we were right on with our plan is that people would come and look at the murals that we were painting and sit there on a bench and cry. And then the next day they’d show up with lunch or beer as thank-you gifts. And we’d ask “Do you like the mural?” “Oh yes, it’s beautiful…because you’re speaking directly to us. We’ve been here all our lives…we risked our lives crossing the border to get here to have a better life and nobody knows that we live here, nobody knows that we exist. And these murals are showing that we are alive, that somebody’s thinking about us. Thank you for painting our culture.”

–Patricia Rodriguez (The Mission, pg 73)

There were too many murals in The Mission and Bay Area to capture–so much that was larger-than-life, bright, emotive, and filled with layers of history and meaning. In our first post, Balmy Alley: The Desire Path, we wrote about the ways that our guide, Carla Wojczuk, showed us to take in murals. We recommend reading that post before this one. In this post, we are remembering in writing the murals we saw in the Mission that we will bring back to our classrooms for our unit about how borders and walls impact identity (both personal and communal), and how the experience of crossing can be told by pen, by paintbrush, and by tongue.

Much of what we know about the murals below is a combination of information from our tour guide Carla, and two books that we purchased at the Precita Eyes Mural Center: The Mission: Photographs by Dick Evans and Street Art San Francisco: Mission Muralismo, edited by Annice Jacoby for Precita Eyes Muralists. The books are also where we found the quote above, which we will use to introduce our students to this unit.

500 Years of Resistance (1992), Isaias Mata

St. Peter’s Church stands on the corner of 24th and Florida Street. The church served as a sanctuary for political refugees from El Salvador in the 80s and early 90s, many of whom were single men fleeing forced conscription into the army and military oppression of the poor. Among these political refugees was Isaias Mata, a professor by trade. Though eventually allowed to return to his home country, he stayed in St. Peter’s for more than a year, and, during his time in the parish, he painted a three panel mural (visioned along with Father Jack Isaacs, a priest at St. Peter’s) titled 500 Years of Resistance, a reference to the 500 years since the Spanish invasion of the Americas.

St Peters Panel 1On the 24th Street side of the mural, there are two panels. One frames the entrance to the parish. Over the entrance is a figure blowing into a conch shell, which is a reference to the method in which many indigenous religions salute the four cardinal points of the universe. Speaking to the power of ancestral knowledge, on either side of the open doorway, looking from bottom to top, the viewer sees rainbow-colored leaves below a strip of almost-black that contains several skeletons. Above the skeletons, a layer of more recently buried indigenous people whose flesh has not yet gone to the earth. Above the soil, Mata has created a lush landscape that includes corn, cacti, trees, grasses, and flowers native to the Americas. Connecting the landscape to the people below the soil are thousands of thin roots. This, we learned from Street Art San Francisco, is a reference to Diego Rivera’s mural in the Chapel de Chapingo, depicting the idea that the bodies of the dead serve as nourishment for those that still live.

The middle panel, upon which the rainbow leaves at the very bottom continue, includes several larger-than-life faces. The struggles depicted on this panel are a amalgamation of the many battles that indigenous communities faced at the hands of oppressors. Most striking to us was the section, greenish in color, that shows a troop of conquistadores with spears advancing. Upon second look, we noticed that, while many of the conquistadores wear historic battle dress, the figure closest to us is wearing a gas mask. The connection this makes about ongoing violence and destruction of indigenous lands and communities gives pause.

The third panel, facing Florida Street, radiates the grueling effort of revolution. Directly in the center is a gargantuan wheel being pushed from below by three large figures and pulled from above by six figures straining at a rope. Between the wheel and the six figures above are flames, symbolizing the friction produced by change. In the bottom left corner, people stream down from a city skyline in a protest march, holding signs that read “Viva La Huelga Strike,” “Paz y Justicia,” “Pan, Tierra, y Libertad,” and more. Balancing that image in the top right corner are images of social justice leaders including Oscar A. Romero, Sor Juana J. De La Cruz, Fray Bartolome De las Casas, Kateri Tekakwitha, and others. Finally, in the bottom right corner are two young people holding flowers and a white flag. This panel addresses the question “Do the oppressed have agency?,” and question we will address with our students as we move through this unit.

Un Pasado Que Aun Vive/A Past that Still Lives (2004), by Joel Bergner

This mural, located about halfway down Balmy Alley, shows the echoes of the Salvadoran Civil War (1980-1992). The center of the mural is a paved road, showing that time does not stop in the face of tragedy. At the end of the road, in the foreground of the mural, are a mother and son in the back of a cart. The mother looks wistfully ahead, holding the sleeping boy in her lap. In her hand is a letter from her husband, who has moved to find work in the US. This practice is common, and tears families apart still today. This mural juxtaposes ongoing daily life with the ghosts of war. One extraordinary example of this juxtaposition is top center, where a man is walking down the street, but his shadow is crying, head in hands. Another is on the side of the building labeled Papusaria Paty. There families are eating breakfast. Meanwhile, the silhouettes of three soldiers, a firing squad, are shooting and killing civilians.

This mural is a statement that the artist and many others stand in solidarity with the liberation movements in Central America. The mural welcomes the thousands of people exiled from their homes, searching for a safe place to raise their families.

La Cultura Contiene la Sevilla de Resistancia que Resplendor de la Flor del Liberacion/Culture Contains the Seed of Resistance, Which Blossons into the Flower of Liberation (1984, 2014), Miranda Bergman and O’Brien Thiele 

This mural is the last remaining PLACA mural. The PLACA muralists were a group of artists who spoke with the residents of Balmy Alley, gaining permission to paint a the first series of murals meant to give voice to people being oppressed by war and violence in Central America. Their narrative countered the “official” narrative of the American government, and spoke the Mission community’s truth. On the right panel is a bountiful agricultural scene, filled with smiling people and music. In the corner, a young woman holds a book titled “Nuestra Historia.” On the left panel, the eye is drawn to man, bent over, the sack he holds spilling golden corn out onto the ground. The bag reads “Solo para exportacion.” The large boot of a solder steps into the spilled corn, seemingly disregarding the value of the crop. To the right of the bent man is a group of women holding weapons and photos of los desaparecidos, a few of the thousands of dissidents and innocent civilians who vanished without a trace after the military junta seized power in Argentina in 1976.

La Llorona’s Sacred Waters (2004), Juana Alicia

La Llorona Whole.JPGLocated at the corner of 24th and York Streets, the wall that is home to La Llorona’s Sacred Waters used to be home to another of Juana Alicia’s murals, Las Lechugueras (The Women Lettuce Workers). After that mural suffered water damage in 2001, Juana Alicia chose to adjust the theme of the new mural to reflect urgent issues of the day.

This mural, almost entirely blue, is an homage to water-centered conflict. There is a thin red stroke at the top of the mural, visually separating its content from the blue sky above. La Llorona, the myth tells us, is a woman who drowns her children and then drowns herself. Unable to enter heaven without finding her lost children, she walks the earth forever, crying. At the center of this mural is a woman holding a young boy in her left arm, and reaching into the rushing water with her right. A large tear rolls down her cheek.

Also found in this mural are references to the farm workers in India’s Narmada Valley who protested against their government’s dam projects which caused their homes and towns to flood, the Bolivian women in Cochabamba who fought to keep corporations from buying water rights, and women protesting the unsolved murders of Juarez women. The mural calls attention to the fact that women disproportionately bear the weight of poverty and the consequences of environmental devastation.

Indigenous Eyes: War or Peace (1991), Susan Kelk Cervantes

Eyes.JPGSusan Cervantes is the founder and director of the Precita Eyes Muralists in the Mission. She repainted this mural in 1991 after the garage door hosting the original mural (painted by Nicole Emmanuel in 1984) was destroyed. This new mural honors the previous by restoring the original images on the garage structure. The garage door now features they eyes of a Nicaraguan child, in which is reflected the impact of Nicaragua’s civil war. In the pupil of one eye, there is a a skeleton soldier, symbolizing the violence that the children surviving in the war witness on a daily basis. The pupil of the other eye shows a dove, the symbol of peace, and in the iris to the right floats a question mark.

More Mission Murals to Remember (In No Particular Order)

La Rumba No Para: The Chata Gutierrez Mural (2015), Carlos “Kookie” Gonzalez with the Precita Eyes Muralists located on 24th Street near South Van Ness

Community leader

Naya Bihana/A New Day (2002) Martin Travers with Gustavo Sanchez, Pooja Pant, Eric Norberg, Paulette Liang-Norberg, and Kaira Portilla located in Balmy Alley

Naya Ana.jpgCultivating Resistance (2017), Clarion Alley Mural Project located in Clarion Alley

Imitation is the Whitest Form of Flattery (2015), Texta Queen located in Clarion Alley

Whitest Flattery.JPG

For the murals below, we have incomplete information. One of the big learnings from our first mural walk is that we need to be more vigilant about collecting as much information as possible when we are looking (location, artist, title, date, etc), and we will be much more careful about that going forward.

On the side of the Galeria de la Raza building in The Mission:

Galleria de La Raza Mural.JPG

Name and Artist Unknown, located in Lilac Alley

In Solidarity,

Kat + Alice