A Boyle Heights Housing Project’s Murals Are Time Capsules of Chicano Art

Charles “Cat” Felix's mural Give Me Life at the corner of Lorena Street and Olympic Boulevard, circa 1973
Charles “Cat” Felix's mural Give Me Life at the corner of Lorena Street and Olympic Boulevard, circa 1973
Photograph by Kazuo Higa/Courtesy of HACLA/Courtesy of Estate of Kazuo Higa

Artist David Botello painted his first mural when he was in third grade. It was a collaborative effort with another third grader, Wayne Healy. Together they covered a chalkboard-sized piece of butcher paper with an elaborate prehistoric landscape, complete with dinosaurs and volcanoes.

The occasion was an East Los Angeles elementary school open house in the 1950s. “We’re studying dinosaurs,” Botello recalls his teacher saying, “and I want you to put your heart out there and do something for the parents to see.” Botello still speaks with pride about the care and effort he and Healy put into that Jurassic masterpiece.

Construction of the 710 freeway forced Botello’s family to move out of their home and relocate to a different school district, so Botello and Healy lost touch. Decades later they reconnected at an art show on L.A.'s Westside. “Wayne didn’t know who I was because I had long hair and a beard and I wore glasses,” Botello recalls. “But his face, I tell you, he looked exactly the same.”

Picking up where they had left off so many years before, Botello and Healy began collaborating as muralists under the moniker East Los Streetscapers. Their bold artistic projects brighten street corners and storefronts across L.A.'s Eastside to this day.

The East Los Streetscapers represent just two of many Chicano artists who have been creating large-scale, often politically charged murals on the Eastside since the 1960s. Now, some 40 years after they were painted, the neighborhood’s vast collection of murals is getting much-deserved attention thanks to Give Me Life: Iconography and Identity in East L.A. Murals, a beautiful, meticulously researched new book by art historian Holly Barnet-Sanchez and independent scholar Tim Drescher.

“What we wanted to do is to look at the murals first and foremost as monumental works of art,” Barnet-Sanchez explains. “Then through the murals themselves we can learn about the community that created them and that lives with them.”

Give Me Life is a fascinating read because of the care and respect with which it examines its subjects and the histories it simultaneously reveals. The area of the Eastside that Barnet-Sanchez and Drescher have isolated as the focus of their study was the center of the development of Chicano culture. It is also a rich artistic source to mine. At Estrada Courts, a large government housing project off Olympic Boulevard, there are more than 90 massive murals to examine, among them David Botello’s first major solo project.

The story of Estrada Courts is revealed vividly in Give Me Life through beautifully reproduced photographs from the 1970s. Today the murals are faded and graffiti has spread across them like rogue vines, creeping up from the ground and gradually invading the art. The murals still make a statement as they exist today, and they're definitely worth viewing — but their impact is muted in their current dilapidated state.

In the opening chapters of Give Me Life, Barnet-Sanchez and Drescher catalog, map and thoughtfully analyze every mural at Estrada Courts, examining each piece individually and drawing conclusions about their impact as a whole. They write: “Details change from mural to mural, but the overall message is coherent and focused: Respect the ancient past and recent history, appreciate community, consider future possibilities, support labor and activism, embrace myth and religion, and be proud of being of Mexican descent, of being Chicano.”

The story of Estrada Courts’ murals is full of interesting characters. There is Charles “Cat” Felix, a friend of Botello’s who was influential as Estrada Courts’ artist, curator and mediator. During a talk at the Fowler Museum in 2012, Botello described Felix’s role in the community: “He was really talented and fun-loving and he had a lot of homeboy friends and a lot of artist friends, so he bridged that gap. There was no more graffiti at Estrada Courts for a whole generation because the gangs respected his work.”

Felix was barrio-savvy. He wanted to beautify his neighborhood but knew that Estrada Courts' resident gang had to be respected. He straddled two worlds, satisfying both the gang and government officials by encrypting the gang’s tag into artistic, prominently displayed Aztec designs. The graffiti was gone and Mayor Tom Bradley came out to paint a symbolic brushstroke at a celebratory dedication ceremony. At the same time, right in front of government officials’ eyes, there was the gang’s tag, “VNE,” boldly displayed on a street-facing wall at the entrance to Estrada Courts but ingeniously disguised within a mural.

Young men from the VNE gang helped paint this mural at the Estrada Courts housing project, pictured here in 1974.
Young men from the VNE gang helped paint this mural at the Estrada Courts housing project, pictured here in 1974.
Photograph by Marcos Sanchez-Tranquilino/Courtesy of HACLA/Courtesy of Marcos Sanchez-Tranquilino

In addition to being the title of Barnet-Sanchez and Drescher’s book, Give Me Life is the name of one of Felix’s largest Estrada Courts murals. “It was also a cry to the world to ‘Give Us a Chance,’” the co-authors point out. “The mural’s central observation is that life is like a carousel ride in which each rider tries to grab the brass ring, but sometimes the ‘prize’ is failure or death (represented by the spectral hooded figure standing on the uncertain footing of an eight ball).”

Felix signed his mural Give Me Life as “CFelix and the Kids of the World.” The kids he references were the many young Estrada Courts residents who helped him and other artists paint. Images from the 1970s show the same kids playing in the grass in front of the mural. Photos from years later reveal changes — the ominous death figure painted out, the eight ball covered by a stylized “VNE” tag, a nearby mural whitewashed and replaced with the text “National Award-Winning Community Project.”

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The changes apparent in the book’s many photos mirror the evolution of a neighborhood. They also tell the story of the larger Chicano movement. Barnet-Sanchez and Drescher explain: “The murals in this study do not merely represent or celebrate Chicanismo, they helped create it.”

For Judithe Hernández, one of the few female Chicano muralists whose work is highlighted in Give Me Life, that recognition is essential. She says that L.A.'s Eastside was “the locus of the creation of Chicano iconography and cultural imagery in the 1960s.” She continues: “Being part of it is kind of weird. I was in my 20s when I painted those murals. Being a person of color and an American minority, I never could have anticipated that historians 40 years later would be calling what we did the beginning of an American school of art. It’s really pretty amazing.”

It’s a point the two authors emphasize in the book’s foreword: “What is new about this book is that it takes the murals seriously as art, not merely as illustrations of other ideas or as academic framework.”

That distinction is important and has big implications. Art is valuable. Art should be carefully preserved. If these murals are art, they must be treated as such.

Of course, there are preservation efforts — with a variety of public and private organizations involved — but what they are accomplishing feels small and slow in the context of the volume of work that still needs to be done. As always, money, or the lack thereof, is the constant hindrance in the never-ending quest to bring the murals back to vibrancy.

Frank Fierro's Orale Raza was painted between 1974 and 1979.
Frank Fierro's Orale Raza was painted between 1974 and 1979.
Photograph by Tim Drescher/Courtesy of HACLA
The same mural todayEXPAND
The same mural today
Catherine Womack

Willie Herron, a muralist who has developed a second career as a “street-credentialed” conservationist, has a unique perspective. He looks at the Eastside's walls like an archeologist, developing careful techniques to peel away the layers of whitewash and graffiti like an onion, eventually revealing the murals beneath. “A lot of these murals could come back,” he says. “They are temporarily hibernated. That’s the perspective I like to have for most of these pieces.”

Botello’s Estrada Courts mural Dreams of Flight has already been restored once. A beautiful side-by-side photo comparison in Give Me Life shows it as it originally appeared in 1973 and in its post-restoration state in 1996. There are small changes. “I figured I can change the mural, I’m still alive,” Botello says, “I didn’t have to restore it exactly the way it was.” He says his perspective had changed in 1996 thanks to the women’s movement, so he swapped out the image of a small boy playing with an airplane to depict a girl, using his niece as the model.

“You go there and there’s children everywhere,” Botello says, “so I wanted something they could identify with, something that would inspire them.”

Botello’s mural has faded again after 20 more years of exposure to the bright Southern California sun. He is making plans to raise money in 2017 to restore it once more so that it can live on in its next iteration, inspiring kids like him to draw, paint and fly wherever their dreams may take them.


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