Essay

The Lessons in Los Angeles’ Murals

Karen Mary Davalos

L.A.’s murals have been part of Professor Karen Mary Davalos’ life since childhood. They not only spoke to her about background as a Chicana, they also helped her learn about herself.

 

The murals of Los Angeles have always told a tale of improbable subjects and political gestures. Since the late 1960s, Chicanas and Chicanos have been painting the walls of Los Angeles to offer new visual histories and representations of Mexican-heritage people and their culture.

The earliest murals, such as “Dreams of Flight,” painted in 1973 (at 3241 E. Olympic Blvd.) by David Botello, or “Mi Abuelita,” painted in1970 (in the Hollenbeck Park Band Shell) by Judy Baca and Las Vistas Nueva crew, visually expressed a new Chicano identity, an improbable subject given the weight of colonialism, imperialism and racism in the region. Carlos Almaraz and Judithe Hernández’s “La Adelita,” painted in 1976 (at 2781 Alcazar St.), further imagined female imagery, representing women as strong, wise leaders. This representation, too, was improbable in light of the patriarchal values of mainstream and Mexican cultures. Yet muralists were able to challenge the injustices of sexism. By visualizing the improbable or unimagined subject, Chicano murals offer political space against the trauma and violence done to Mexican-heritage populations. Murals in Chicano communities were largely political gestures, even when the muralists make no claim to Chicano identity, and visualize landscapes, geometric designs, or psychedelic icons within and for Mexican American communities.

My own connection to Los Angeles murals began as child, especially in my parents’ car as my family drove across the east side of the city. I was in awe of the color, design and size of murals: How could an artist scale the walls of buildings, freeways and the pillars that support bridges? From where did these amazing, creative ideas emerge? How did artists manage the perspective and design in such a scale? But, more important, I remember that I felt empowered looking at images of Mexican Americans — images that did not depict criminals or someone sleeping against a cactus. I did not feel disempowered as a child, because my family made a point to teach me to love my brown skin, hair and eyes. But as I entered high school and then college, my confidence was slowly eroded by media images, the political backlash against the United Farm Workers and worker strikes, and the minor but potent moments when a store clerk ignored my requests for help or demanded to see my driver’s license when I wrote a check. The Chicano and Chicana murals of L.A. provided me with monumental representations of my heritage that pushed against negative images.