The intrigue surrounding Barbara Carrasco’s legendary mural L.A. History: A Mexican Perspective is nearly as colorful as the work itself — an exhaustively researched visual narrative tracing the city’s history from tar pits through pueblo days and into the bright glories and stinging social violence of modern times.
Commissioned and subsequently censored by the since-dismantled Community Redevelopment Agency in 1981, the 80-foot-long, portable mural has been shown only a handful of times since. Mostly it’s been stashed away, for fear the city would try to snatch it.
Nearly 40 years on, the artist and her vision have finally outlived whatever oppressive orthodoxy prevailed when the CRA deemed 14 scenes — including the Zoot Suit riots and the whitewashing of David Alfaro Siqueiro’s mural América Tropical — too controversial.
“This is the first time it’s been shown without any censorship whatsoever,” Carrasco said at a preview of the aptly titled “Sin Censura: A Mural Remembers L.A.,” a showing of L.A. History that opened March 9 at the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum. “I don’t think you’d see any attempt like that now. People would fight it tooth and nail,” she later said.
L.A. History unfolds in a series of vignettes woven through the undulant tresses of our namesake, La Reina de Los Angeles (here a pensive, terracotta muse modeled on a photo of the artist’s sister). It’s a winning addition to the Natural History Museum: Mounted on three walls for intimate gallery-style viewing, accompanied by an interactive digital console and correlating directly to artifacts in the adjacent permanent collection “Becoming Los Angeles” (which reopens May 30 with new additions).
And it arrives with a redolent aura; as a powerful origin myth reminding us to perpetually question who we are, even as it details how we got here. It functions both literally, illustratively, as intended — and as a living record and commentary on the inevitably political struggle over what becomes history.
Stylistically, there is nothing graphically violent, certainly not by today’s standards. The illustrations are of, as Carrasco says, “basic L.A. history.” Some recognizable snapshots (the former stately homes of Bunker Hill, Dodger Stadium, Grand Central Market) reference darker histories. A portrait of Biddy Mason, a former slave who won her freedom, amassed a real estate fortune and became an important L.A. philanthropist, seems a wholesome answer to that cruel fiction, the American Dream.
Today, the idea that an institutionally sanctioned city history includes minority voices and depictions of unpleasant but well-documented events seems obvious. Look around, and you’ll see many of the same scenes the CRA took issue with enshrined across the city: Biddy Mason Park downtown was established in 1989, incidentally in the same vicinity where L.A. History was originally intended to go; an obelisk commemorating the Westside corner where Japanese-Americans were sent off to internment went up last year; and murals across the Southland witness the momentous presence of marginalized people and the resurgent fight against injustice.
Carrasco’s community-driven masterpiece — painted with the help of several artists and historians and 17 young people, many of them at-risk youth from the Summer Youth Employment Program — speaks eloquently, insistently, from an unapologetically Chicana perspective, with an unflinching eye trained on systemic inequity.
“We had a lot of images to include and the CRA thought there were too many images — or they used that excuse to say, ‘Why are you putting a Japanese internment there, Japanese people don’t want to be reminded of such a sad chapter in their history,’” Carrasco said. “I just laughed. I go, ‘None of you are Japanese, how can you speak for the Japanese community?’”
Instead of relenting, Carrasco dug deeper, asking three Japanese organizations to vet her research. “I still have all those letters — I got a lot of support from the community,” she said. When the CRA asked her to remove scenes, she refused.
“When she was working on the mural everything was great, but then came the harsh hand of censorship and she literally had to rescue the mural and take it into hiding because the city attempted to steal it,” said Carrasco’s husband, artist Harry Gamboa Jr.
A handful of people took the work from where it was being painted on a vacant floor of City Hall East, slipped it into waiting trucks and hauled it off into hiding, Gamboa said.
Even after Carrasco won a copyright battle with the city, L.A. History was still on the run. “It continued having to be put away in different locations, and when it was shown briefly in the 1990s as part of the Los Angeles Festival, there were hints that they’d maybe try to take it away again. So again it had to be put into storage,” Gamboa said.
But during that time, he added, many scholars and people around the world became interested in the lore of the missing mural. Briefly hung last year at Union Station as part of the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA, it was covered with a black cloth during private events, drawing further outrage — and perhaps catalyzing the push to bring it to the Natural History Museum.
“It took quite a bit of effort, and a sea change of politics and awareness, to finally bring Barbara’s mural back into Los Angeles, when it would be recognized and accepted and embraced by the establishment,” Gamboa said.
At last week’s preview, the establishment was in full effect, basking in the good optics. A small flotilla of broadcast media followed officials around the room, gobbling up soundbites. L.A. County supervisors Hilda Solis and Mark Ridley-Thomas praised Carrasco for her bravery, vision and persistence, highlighting her connection to the museum, where she spent time doing archival research for the mural.
Solis suggested NHM should become a permanent home for the mural — to which NHM director Bill Estrada later responded, “I would certainly raise my hand and vote for it, and I think in time that discussion will come up.”
Carrasco had the shortest speech that morning. “It’s such a long stay here, which is something I’m really grateful for, because I came here as a Girl Scout,” she said before simply inviting everyone to see L.A. History by saying, “Come on, let’s go!”
Energetic, with mildly mischievous green eyes and a ready smile, 63-year-old Carrasco has a way of talking that puts people at ease. By her own account, she grew up in poverty on the Westside, a third-generation Mexican-American who came up as an activist during in the Chicano Movement of the 1970s, painting iconic banners for Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers.
Asked what she might include if she painted the mural today, she pointed to Dreamers and the entrenched battle over immigrant rights. “I would definitely do something like that, because we’re a whole country of immigrants, we were founded by immigrants, and it’s just really sad. I remember when I was a really young person I went up with my brothers and sisters behind the Hollywood Sign, and we saw Latino men did the whole thing, they made that big sign. I was thinking, ‘Wow, we don’t even know that.’”
And while acknowledging a vastly different climate for public art — she credits the Mural Conservancy with helping foster respect for artists among businesses and institutions — Carrasco stressed the urgency for political artwork, now more than ever.
“Especially in this political climate, I urge artists to have the message in their work. I really worry about those artists who say nothing in their work, who do very decorative work — there’s a lot of murals out there that I don’t consider murals. They’re super decorative. They have no narrative whatsoever about a community, about what’s going on in this world,” she said.
Now an internationally acclaimed and locally celebrated artist, Carrasco is still as committed to the transformative power of public art as when she began.
“There are artists that just show in galleries and never do public art, and it’s interesting to see those artists do really well; I’m happy for them, but I’m not personally one of those artists. I would like to have a show where I sell everything, but that hasn’t happened in a long time,” she said.
“I don’t think it’s wrong. But I think if you do public art, it should reflect the community where it’s placed.”
“Sin Censura: A Mural Remembers L.A.,” focusing on Barbara Carrasco's L.A. History: A Mexican Perspective, is on display at L.A. County Natural History Museum through Aug. 19.