This Neglected Mt. Washington Mural Hides A History Of Chicano And Indigenous Identity

Daniel Cervantes' 2004 mural on Marmion Way, below the Southwest Museum of the American Indian, was defaced with graffiti and eventually whitewashed in 2013. (Courtesy Pola Lopez)

By Philip Iglauer and Chris Greenspon

For many residents of Highland Park, a predominantly working-class Latino neighborhood in Northeast L.A., what happened to the 2004 untitled mural of indigenous people next to the Southwest Museum of the American Indian encapsulates their anxiety over gentrification.

The mural on Marmion Way in neighboring Mt. Washington was whitewashed in 2013 after a decade of neglect and graffiti. The erasing of such murals has been a sticking point for Latino residents who fear getting priced out of their neighborhoods. In November 2017, community members gathered in a public vigil for erased murals in Highland Park.

This time, things worked out differently. The Southwest Museum's mural is getting restored, and that's welcome news to Daniel Cervantes. He's the artist who painted the 169-foot multi-paneled mural of indigenous people, including from the Tongva, Pueblo, Navajo, Apache, Chickasaw and Aztec tribes.

Daniel Cervantes' 2004 mural on Marmion Way in Mt. Washington, before it was covered by graffiti and later whitewashed in 2013. (Courtesy Topi Arvi)

The artwork is getting restored courtesy of Highland Park's Chamber of Commerce and neighborhood council, the Autry Museum, L.A. City Councilman Gil Cedillo's office and Avenue 50 Studio.

Cervantes, however, says he couldn't afford to take time off from work for what he was offered to restore the mural, and doesn't live in the neighborhood of his childhood anymore.

As his family grew and needed a larger house, Cervantes was priced out of Highland Park and outbid for homes in El Sereno. In 2016, his family moved to Covina, twenty-odd miles east on the 10 Freeway. It's a familiar story to many residents forced out of the Northeast L.A. enclave now crowded with trendy gastropubs and vegan cafes.

Artist Pola Lopez at her home and studio in Lincoln Heights. (Philip Iglauer for LAist)

Pola Lopez, an artist from New Mexico who lived in Highland Park for 16 years until relocating in Lincoln Heights, was selected to repaint the mural in 2016. Although her painting career took more of a gallery and museum track, Lopez painted a mural at York Park, a colorful phantasmagoria of stars, flowers and cacti. She is also active in erecting mural paintings with youth in the juvenile justice system.

Lopez said she is on schedule with the Southwest Museum mural. She will submit her final drawings at the end of the month and hopes to get started on it in early March.

Much of her work focuses on Chicanismo, and artistic themes that draw a connection to ancestral ties with Mesoamerica.

RESTORING ART AND CHICANISMO

Indigenous history before and after European colonization has been a major theme in Chicano art since the '70s, said Erin M. Curtis, who co-authored ¡Murales Rebeldes! with Jessica Hough and Guisela Latorre about the aesthetics underpinning the murals in Los Angeles. The link between Chicanos and North American indigenous tribes began in 1519, when Spain invaded Mexico and created the mixed-race Mestizo class.

"This mixed identity is very common," Curtis said. "It's the result of colonization and different people connect to it in different ways; it's very, very individualized."

Artwork from artist Pola Lopez, who is restoring Daniel Cervantes' 2004 mural in Mt. Washington. (Philip Iglauer for LAist)

"There was a caste system, a sort of racial hierarchy that was developed throughout Latin America with whites at the top, and then going down through to native folks and brown folks."

Cervantes said he wanted to show Latinos living in L.A. and caught up in gang rivalry that they had another identity that predated colonialism. That's why he painted the Southwest Museum mural in 2004 and, for a few years, the painting stayed clean. Over time, however, the wall became a canvas for taggers and graffiti artists.

"I knew it was going to happen," Cervantes said at Blackbird Tattoo Shop in Covina, where he works. "I know what area I lived in. I hope that at least maybe some kids that were into graffiti or some sort of art got to see it, and hopefully they got inspired the way I got inspired by all the cool stuff I've seen in L.A."

A MURAL-RICH CITY

Los Angeles is a city of murals, and many of them across the greater East L.A. area pay tribute to indigenous history.

Aztec figures have lived on a market wall in Cypress Park on Avenue 26, and a bowling alley on Figueroa was home to a tribesman uniting rival gangs until it was whitewashed in 2014.

One of the neighborhood's defining murals decorates the side of the AT&T building at the corner of Avenue 56 and Meridian Street. The History of Highland Park was painted by Judy Baca, with assistance from Joe Bravo, Sonya Fe and Arnold Ramirez in 1977.

That mural, too, was neglected for years, and tagged by graffiti. After work from the community, local leaders and AT&T, Baca led restoration of the mural in 2011.

In the 1990s, advertisements masquerading as mural art began to proliferate throughout the city, according to L.A.'s Department of Cultural Affairs. In an effort to take control of overabundant commercial signage, the city enacted a moratorium on new murals, starting in 2003. That moratorium was finally lifted in 2013.

Murals can be protected by the city department, if properly identified, vetted and registered.

First, an online application is filed with the DCA's Original Art Murals Program. Then a public meeting is held somewhere near the mural site. There is no vote at this meeting. The point is to garner feedback from the community on the art, both opposition and support.

Barring action by the DCA, the application moves forward and the mural will be protected from whitewashing for two years. If it's a new mural, the artist is on the hook for $100 in permitting fees, plus all graffiti removal costs.

"When it was illegal, you could just go up and do a wall and nobody said anything, you took your chances," Lopez said. "Now because of the money involved, because there are grants and people are funding them, then you have to answer — they're commissioned pieces."

Artists Daniel Cervantes working at Blackbird Tattoo Shop in Covina. (Philip Iglauer for LAist)

HOPE, INSPIRATION AND UNITY

Cervantes said he gave Lopez his blessing to restore the mural on Marmion Way, which Lopez plans to get as close to the original as possible.

Unlike the graffiti he did in his youth, Cervantes said murals have the potential to reach people of all ages, providing Latinos with a meditation on who they are and where they come from.

Although Cervantes had to grow up faster than most, he said he never lost his love of art. It actually became essential to his upbringing.

"I had to bury my first friend to gang violence... he was, I think 14 or 15," Cervantes said. "(He) and his friend were walking down the street, and some car rolled up on some other dude down the street, and he seen some guy get shot, and they ran to the dude to help him."

But the car did a U-turn, came back, and let off more rounds, killing his friend, Andy Milano, he said. Coming of age in this situation, Cervantes said he found hope in political graffiti and Chicano studies.

With the restoration of the Southwest Museum mural, Cervantes hopes a new generation might also find inspiration the way he did.

"I always felt that learning your culture would bring some kind of unity towards the community; that there was too much of a lack of knowledge of who we were, where we came from and what happened in history," he said.

Editor's note: A version of this story was also on the radio. Listen to it here on KPCC's Take Two.