Once a week, muralist Anthony Ortega takes the train from the Inland Empire to L.A. to check on his mural in Highland Park. “You gotta have pride in what you do,” he said.
Ortega, 45, is co-founder of Quetzalcoatl Mural Project (QMP), the Chicano artist collective that completed the mural at the end of 1996. QMP dedicated it to Daniel Robles, Ortega’s best friend, who had become a collateral casualty of gang violence. He had the idea to paint a mural that “talked about the progress we made here in America,” Ortega says.
Shortly after his friend's murder, Ortega got to work on the mural, which is at the corner of Avenue 61 and Figueroa Street. For two months he hunkered down with fellow artists, reading books and studying historical texts. “It was important that we learned our history adequately,” he said.
At approximately 100 by 20 feet, Mexico Tenochtitlan: A Sequence of Time and Culture is one of the largest murals in the area. Despite ongoing efforts to maintain it and keep up with weather damage and tagging — most recently in preparation for a rededication celebration to mark the 20th anniversary in March 2016 — the mural has seen better days.
“In the past two years this mural has been tagged something like 23 times," Ortega says. The worst yet happened in early October 2016. The vandals' writing spanned more than half the width of the mural — beginning at the creation scene, up to the altar of the Virgin and into the Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent, and the ocean. “It was respected for a long time — the community loves this mural. Every time they see us working on it, they think of us as superheroes,” says Dominic Ochoa, 37, the youngest original artist.
But while the community and local businesses are supportive, the artists feel neglected by local officials. “We don’t have time for politicians to procrastinate and put us on hold,” Ortega says. The mural is in councilman Gilbert Cedillo’s district, and Ortega says he worked with a field deputy for Cedillo in 2014 who promised to help secure a grant from the Department for Cultural Affairs (DCA). That field deputy is no longer with Cedillo's office, and Will Caperton y Montoya, DCA’s director of marketing and development, wrote in an email that DCA does not currently have any application related to Mexico Tenochtitlan on file.
“It would be difficult to ascertain what discussions were had,” Fredy Ceja, Cedillo's communications director, wrote in an email.
The artists have little experience securing public funds, but when they began planning the mural in 1995, Ortega secured two major supporters: John Densmore, former drummer of The Doors, and Zack de la Rocha, former vocalist of Rage Against the Machine. Densmore and Ortega met at Self Help Graphics, the Chicano artists space in Boyle Heights; De la Rocha was his neighbor on Avenue 58 in Highland Park. Together with other private donors, the two musicians provided most of the funding for the original mural.
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Now Ortega says they need at least $20,000 to bring the mural back to its original glory. Frustrated by his experience with obtaining public funds, he's resorting to what he knows works: networking. On a Sunday afternoon in November 2016, Louie Perez from the L.A.-based band Los Lobos drove by the wall and saw Ortega and others at work.
“I was really impressed. It was Sunday afternoon but here they were, working on the mural,” he says. “That’s quite the commitment.” Perez plans to present the project to his bandmates to see if Los Lobos wants to support the restoration.
This time, Ortega and Ochoa don’t want to merely spruce up the paint and add anti-graffiti glaze. They want to update the mural so it will continue to “speak to the core of the people,” as Ortega puts it. Gentrification, war and environmental issues are on the table. Ochoa, whose eyes still sparkle when he talks about the mural, has another idea.
“You know what would be really cool? Since we’re all so into our phones and technology, if there was a link someone could go to on their phone and it tells the whole story,” he says, brimming with excitement. “There is so much detail.”