Ernestine Jimenez is gazing over a chain link fence at a painting of a pachuco in his underwear. It's a depiction of the Zoot Suit Riots of 1943, when white Marines stationed in Los Angeles beat the shit out of blacks and Mexicans for dressing fancy in wartime.
"Those were my grandparents, pleated out," she says. "It was a sweet look. But we'd come home from war and the police would rip our clothes off."
It's serious stuff, but when Jimenez painted this panel of the Great Wall of Los Angeles, a mural of California's multicultural history that blankets a half-mile stretch of an L.A. River tributary, when she was a seventeen year old chola from Venice, pumped to be making $2.25 an hour at her first job.
During the summer of 1980, with 33 other area students, and six artist supervisors, she learned a great deal of Chicano history -- and with Lupe Martinez, then a junior at San Fernando High, joked around with Bea Pressner, a sturdy German emigre with a thick accent. "On breaks, we used to fool around and draw on each other's pants, so we wrote 'wide load' on her ass!" Jimenez says.
Lupe's sister Esther, who was 14 when she worked the following summer, laughed. "Remember when the river flooded?" Martinez says. "[Bea] was stuck in a U-Haul truck with all of our equipment. A helicopter tried to pick her up down in Griffith Park, but she fell back in!"
Since its completion in 1983, the mural has suffered extensive damage due to sun exposure, car exhaust and smog. Only in the past two years has the Wall's parent sponsor, the Venice-based Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC), secured the more than $2 million in public and foundational funding necessary for two rounds of restoration, which, like the original mural-making, took place during the dry summer season. The results were unveiled at a restoration ceremony in Valley Glen on Saturday.
Radical upon its conception, the Great Wall is an institution now. It's kept alive with foundation grants and university support, and its directors look forward to building interpretive stations on a solar-powered, ninety-foot bridge. At the restoration ceremony, councilmen and city officials took to the podium to call the wall and its adjacent park a tourist destination. The audience of hundreds politely clapped when one politician suggested highway signage.
But when UCLA Chicano Studies professor Judy Baca broke ground here in 1974, she was still green, an artist and activist hailing from East L.A. There were no multicultural departments in universities and the notion of histories was not on the radar of a white public. And those gangbangers she united with a paintbrush? This was before we called them at-risk youth, and this was fifteen years before Garfield High calculus teacher Jaime Escalante shook hands with Ronald Reagan.
Baca began the Great Wall during a golden age of Los Angeles muralism. Beginning in the early 1970s, city politicians recognized the visual metaphors and folk images found on the walls of the barrios as nonviolent outlets of cultural expression, and harnessed the mural as an inexpensive tool for community development. With the establishment of the Citywide Murals Project in 1974, the public paid for the creation of more than 250 murals, and in the early 1980s, dozens more were painted in honor of the city bicentennial and the 1984 Olympics. Los Angeles now boasts somewhere around three thousand official and unofficial murals, more than Mexico City.
It was in this environment that the US Army Corps of Engineers asked Baca to beautify the Tujunga Wash, a dilapidated flood control channel that resembled a concrete gash, baking in the sun of this affluent San Fernando Valley community. Baca, who had recently left a position with the city to found SPARC, was then known for "Mi Abuelita", a 1970 mural dedicated to the matriarch in Mexican families, which she'd created in Boyle Heights' Hollenbeck Park. But the river seemed to her to be bigger than one nationality or minority. It was the backbone of the city's body of ethnic groups, the foundation upon which she could weave a tapestry of their parallel histories, demonstrating that the California narrative is in fact comprised of the collective struggles of Jews, Mexicans, Japanese and blacks.
Completed over five summers from 1976 to 1983, Baca and 400 students, culled from summer youth employment agencies, worked with other artists, oral historians, ethnologists, scholars, and community volunteers. Each year, 350 feet and a decade of history were added, beginning with prehistoric California and ending in the early 1960s. Many of the students were taggers and didn't need to be taught, as Baca told Bill Moyers in 1980, how to "take over a public space by writing on a wall." But none of them knew how to read a blueprint or use a snap line.
After its first summer, the Great Wall was the longest mural in the world: one thousand feet of California history, from the Paleolithic era to the Red Cars at the turn of the twentieth century. When mural making ended in 1983, with the completion of several panels depicting events of the 1950s -- including the genesis of gay rights, the forced assimilation of Native Americans, Asian-American attainment of land rights, and the Beat Generation -- it spanned more than 2,754 feet. Enormous panels were connected with broad, eighty-foot paint strokes, like the band of red, white and blue that curves around the multitudes of ethnic strife in the 1940s.
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New murals still have a place in Los Angeles. We see them painted for commercial use or tiled for conventional institutional settings, like on the side of police station in Boyle Heights, underground in the Red Line corridor, or in the library of the RFK Community Schools on Wilshire Boulevard, which Baca designed. Like the Great Wall, these murals pay homage to parallel histories, but feel more like a nod to the outsize scale of Los Angeles, where public art often means communal movie screens.
Carlos Rogel, the new head of the project who on Saturday was officially passed the torch from Baca, told me an MFA program in public art at UCLA is imminent (adding to the public art program already at USC). It's his hope that it will be the training ground for future Angeleno muralists. For now, he said, Baca's UCLA students are designing new sections of the Wall, ending with the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984, to be completed in the near future.
And there's the Mobile Mural Lab, which arrived on Saturday, a truck outfitted with sketches, computers and a chalkboard on its broad side. The murals on the side of the truck often commemorate community events and coalitions. Every month or so these murals are painted over, and live exclusively online. Unlike the Great Wall, the mobile murals are more important as the documentation of a process, rather than a work of art.