It wasn’t a good look by any means. After decades of languishing in storage, unseen and censored, Barbara Carrasco's epic 1981 mural L.A. History: A Mexican Perspective spent several nights during its triumphant reinstallation at Union Station last month shrouded under black cloth.
The mural was covered during eight private events, blacked out, just as it had been more than 35 years ago when, according to Carrasco, the city’s then-redevelopment agency deemed it too “negative” with its depictions of Japanese internment, the lynchings of Chinese residents and the Zoot Suit Riots, all amid some of the rosier aspects of the city’s past.
The mural — a sweeping song of L.A. history that seems to bloom away from the strands of a woman’s auburn hair — is currently back in storage in Pasadena. As of press time, there are no imminent plans for it to be seen again.
For people aware of the piece’s history, the too-short stay for L.A. History and its treatment during the private events at Union Station were nothing short of cruel ironies. Commissioned by the Community Redevelopment Agency for L.A.'s bicentennial, the mural was in progress when the agency asked that Carrasco remove more than a dozen images that dealt with the less savory aspects of L.A.'s past. When she refused, the project was scrapped.
“Here we are in 2017 and it’s still controversial, it’s still being silenced,” says Denise Sandoval, a curator and professor of Chicana/o studies at Cal State Northridge, who was not involved in the exhibit. “This reveals a Los Angeles that does not want to deal with its racist and exclusionary past, the ugly side of history.”
For the handlers of the piece, the situation turned into what was basically a double booking gone bad.
The private groups renting Union Station’s historic ticketing concourse over eight evenings were given the option to cover the mural, depending on their event’s needs, says Pauletta Tonilas, chief communications officer for the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority. Some of the renters had themselves contracted events companies (some up to a year in advance), and these had not planned to have an 80-foot-wide mural looming over the space unannounced.
“We really worked to accommodate all the parties, understanding we had various groups that had already rented the space and had other visions of what they had planned for their events,” Tonilas explains.
“By its very presence at Union Station, we enhanced the visibility of this art piece,” she adds. “Folks who are trying to turn this into something negative, it’s unfortunate.”
Indeed, it was something of a miracle that Carrasco’s history of the city was displayed in 2017 at all.
Its showing was an external addition to an exhibit at Olvera Street museum LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes. That show, “Murales Rebeldes! L.A. Chicana/o Murals Under Siege,” focuses on eight murals in Southern California that were whitewashed or destroyed, and was part of the Getty's Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA initiative.
LA Plaza negotiated with L.A. Metro to temporarily display L.A. History: A Mexican Perspective on scaffolding for three weeks.
“It was really a coup for us to be able to secure that space for the time we had it,” says Jessica Hough, co-curator of “Murales Rebeldes!”
L.A. Metro, which contracts with a management company to oversee daily operations at Union Station, agreed, understanding that these days would conflict with a calendar of other events in the concourse.
On Sept. 29, the mural was unveiled once again (L.A. History had been displayed at Union Station for a short period in 1990). The public and media response was immediate, enthusiastic and downright emotional.
“See my name! It says Grace, that’s me!” said a woman named Grace Flores Diaz during the unveiling, as captured by a CBS Los Angeles camera. Diaz pointed up to a depiction of herself in the mural. “We learned history while we were painting it!”
Throughout the 1970s and '80s, Chicana/o artists set out to conceive and paint murals directly alongside members of the community; young people sat with historians and local leaders to learn the history they helped paint. These projects happened all over Southern California and likely helped encourage scores of young people to pursue the arts. (I personally remember being involved in several mural painting projects in the early 1980s at Balboa Elementary School in Shelltown, San Diego. I helped paint a mestizo’s face — half native, half Spanish.)
L.A. History: A Mexican Perspective was no different. Carrasco engaged young people, historians and community members as she painted. Together they drew the icons of our landscape: City Hall, orange groves, the Hollywood Sign. Yet from end to end the mural is a distinctly L.A. woman’s historical point of view, Westside Chicana particularly, as Carrasco grew up in the Mar Vista Gardens housing project and went to Venice High School.
Her piece is what co-curator Erin Curtis calls a “part of L.A.’s shared cultural heritage.” There’s a prominent Virgen de Guadalupe, a depiction of the city’s first Jewish temple and the archway of the Santa Monica Pier. A whimsical “group portrait” near the mural’s end features the faces of artist Harry Gamboa Jr. (Carrasco’s husband), political pioneer Edward Roybal, L.A. Times journalist Frank del Olmo and singers Rick James and Teena Marie.
The 43-panel mural is a kaleidoscopic piece that, three decades later, is remarkably attuned to the prevailing cultural and historical concerns of the 2010s. It almost reads like a contemporary artwork.
The mural pays homage to slain L.A. journalist Ruben Salazar; playwright Luis Valdez and actor Edward James Olmos; to Biddy Mason, the last freed slave in Los Angeles, who founded the city’s First African Methodist Episcopal Church; and lesser-known figures, like Juan Francisco Reyes. He was the Spanish colonial town’s first elected alcalde — L.A.’s first-ever mayor chosen by the people was black and Spanish-speaking.
Carrasco also painted Sandy Koufax alongside Dodger Stadium, reminding viewers of the violent displacement of Mexican-American families that took place in order to build the facility at Chavez Ravine. Hank Leyvas, one of the youth wrongfully accused in the 1942 Sleepy Lagoon trial, also is represented.
“It’s basic L.A. history, so I guess that’s the controversial part,” Carrasco says in an interview.
The artist describes the public's response to seeing L.A. History as overwhelming. People were reportedly traveling from as far as San Francisco and San Diego to see it. A letter writer to the L.A. Times exclaimed: “Come on, L.A.! Do not allow this mural to be wrapped up and put away in a warehouse yet again! Reclaim it!”
“I had people from all walks of life visiting the mural,” Carrasco says. “A man interned at Manzanar [the site of a WWII concentration camp for citizens of Japanese heritage], he hugged me like … no one hugged me in my life. He said, ‘Thank you so much, it should stay.’ … That’s what makes this all worth it. It’s people like him, directly reflecting his experience. It’s hard to explain that.”
Carrasco regards the times when her mural was shrouded at Union Station last month with some disdain. “I don’t know how they allowed them to have that option,” she says of the private events.
Metro officials and the curators of “Murales Rebeldes!” admitted they had not anticipated the degree and intensity of response to the temporary installation of L.A. History: A Mexican Perspective.
“Better work could have been done around managing particular expectations and communicating those closures to the artist and to the public,” Curtis says. “It’s still so raw that you can’t help but go immediately to that place, if you’re Barbara, or know Barbara’s story.”
A variety of agencies and parties have begun initial discussions to try to find the mural a permanent home, but knowing bureaucracy for what it is, Carrasco is resigned to the prospect of waiting years to see her work displayed once more. For now, Carrasco is back to storing L.A. History: A Mexican Perspective at her own expense.
“I really want to get the mural up. I’m 62 years old. I just want it up somewhere.” But, she says, “Everyone is so afraid to rock the boat.”