The East LA Mural That Turned A Budget Department Store Into A Cultural Landmark
Walk past Alliance Morgan McKinzie High School in East Los Angeles and you might notice a striking image of a muscled man shielding himself from a rain of swords. It's one of 19 sections in "The Story of Our Struggle," an eleven-foot-high, five-foot-long fired-ceramic tile mural that charts Chicano history from pre-Columbian times to the present. In rich jewel tones, it depicts Aztec civilization, the Spanish conquest of Mexico and the loss of Mexican land to the United States. Although sweeping in its subject matter, the work is as much a personal reckoning as a cultural one.
The mural was created by artist and educator Johnny D. Gonzalez, aka Don Juan. Born in 1943 in the Mexican state of Aguascalientes, he came to California as a young child. Unable to speak English, he was ridiculed by his schoolmates for his thick accent.
"My introduction to the country was fear of being beaten up because I was Mexican. My brother was getting beaten so, being five years old, I didn't want anybody to know that I was born in Mexico," Gonzalez says.
Growing up in East L.A. in the 1950s and '60s, he took little pride in his Mexican heritage and, like many immigrants, he worked hard to assimilate.
Music and art were his salvation. "His mom said that he was drawing before he could walk," says his partner, the multi-talented Irma Beserra Núñez. She serves as the Vice President of the L.A. City Human Relations Commission, the Co-Chair, Lead Advocate, and Artist Spokesperson for the Coalition To Save The First Street Store: Chicano Historical Monument and as a cultural educator.
As a young man, Gonzalez illustrated advertisements and played in the popular rock band Leggeriors. Although he loved music and drawing, he wanted more. "My dream was always to travel," he says.
Gonzalez had been obsessed with geography books since childhood. He loved looking at pictures of foreign monuments such as the Great Wall of China.
Alienated by the racism he experienced growing up, Gonzalez had avoided becoming an American citizen until the late '60s when he realized the benefits of having a U.S. passport. "I became an American citizen so I could leave the country," Gonzalez laughs.
In the fall of 1969, he hopped on the R.H.M.S. ELLINIS, an ocean liner headed to Europe. To pass the time on the nine-day journey, Gonzalez played his guitar. His fellow travelers -- a mix of Europeans, old hippies and East Coast residents -- began asking him to play the Mexican folk songs he had learned as a child.
"I was shocked that they knew about these songs and I was amazed that I knew two languages. They said, 'Could you translate what it means? Because we grew up hearing these songs but we didn't know what they meant.' I became a celebrity on the ship," Gonzalez says.
Over the next four months, he travelled to 14 countries, enthralled by Gothic and Renaissance architecture as well as artworks like Lorenzo Ghiberti's "Gates of Paradise" and Michelangelo's "Tomb of the Medicis," both in Florence, Italy.
It was a transformative experience for Gonzalez. "Coming from East L.A. and seeing their architecture and monuments -- all this culture and art -- I thought I had died and gone to art heaven," he says. In Spain, "That was the first time in my life that I felt I was being treated with respect for being Mexican."
He devouring books on the history of Mexico, which he hadn't been taught as a child. "I started thinking, 'Spain comes in to conquer us, and France and then all these different countries. So we're having invasions and then we're weak and then they come and invade us again.' And I started thinking, 'No wonder we haven't progressed. We're always being attacked.' That was my inspiration for 'The Story of Our Struggle.'"
When Gonzalez returned to East L.A., he began working at a fever pitch to draw up plans for a massive East L.A. cultural heritage site called El Monumento de la Raza. In the spring of 1970, he wrote an eight-page initiative, "Project: East L.A. to Tourist Attraction," which stated, "In Europe, all roads lead to Rome. In Southern California, all freeways lead to East Los Angeles."
Gonzalez proposed transforming East L.A. into a cultural destination similar to the ones he had seen in Europe. He began meeting with local leaders and business owners to figure out how to make that happen.
"Scholars [including Dr. Karen Mary Davalos in her article All Roads Lead to East L.A.] have said that it's the first cultural heritage tourism initiative. The key thing about Juan's concept is that it wasn't just murals. It was architecture, monuments, murals and public art. His whole focus was to transform the outdoor physical environment," Núñez says.
Although the project was never realized, Gonzalez and his brother Jose Luis threw themselves into opening what would become Goez Art Studios and Galleries at 3757 East First Street. It was the country's first art studio and apprentice program dedicated to Chicano artists.
Gonzalez's cultural awakening coincided with a critical moment in Chicano history.
During the '60s and '70s, Chicano youth around the country, particularly in East Los Angeles, banded together to fight institutionalized racism. High school students staged walkouts (known as blowouts) to protest poor educational opportunities and LAUSD discrimination. The Chicano Moratorium held marches to oppose the Vietnam War as well as boycotts, rallies and protests to support the United Farm Workers, who were fighting for fair wages and humane working conditions. In the book Give Me Life: Iconography and Identity in East Los Angeles, Holly Barnet-Sanchez and Tim Drescher write:
"In East Los, the period elicited a general sense of both desperation and possibility, frustration to the breaking point and the potential of new horizons, with residents daily experiencing both poles of these dialects. Problems included substandard housing, job hiring discrimination, lack of access to insurance, and increasing gang problems on the one hand and police brutality toward Mexican Americans on the other."
In September 1970, Gonzalez met with Bob Kemp, the owner of the First Street Store. The budget department store, opened in 1924, was where everyone in East L.A. -- at the time a mix of Eastern European, Latino and Asian immigrants -- shopped. According to Hector Becerra of the Los Angeles Times:
"Sometimes a department store is more than a department store. It can be a gathering place and a symbol of economic independence. First Street was all of that for East L.A. It wasn't as fancy as the department stores that once thrived downtown -- May Co., Broadway, Robinson's. But to many on the Eastside -- immigrants without the money for downtown prices -- First Street was a touch of class within walking distance or a short ride. When people said they were 'going to First Street,' it was understood that they meant the store, not the street."
The store was already a consumer landmark. Gonzalez wanted to make it a cultural one.
He presented Kemp with a sketch of "The Story of Our Struggle," which fused Mexican-style murals with European touches and architectural elements from California missions. Kemp loved the idea but was hesitant. Tensions were high in East L.A. due to the killing of civil rights activist and reporter Ruben Salazar during the National Chicano Moratorium March on August 29, 1970.
Kemp held onto the sketch and drafted Gonzalez's studio to create another mural (now lost) inside the store. The job was given to artist Richard Jimenez, a member of the Goez team.
In December of 1973, with tensions in East L.A. temporarily settling down, Kemp finally greenlit "The Story of Our Struggle."
Working with fellow Goez artists Robert Arenivar and David Botello, Gonzalez finalized the design for the murals and the architectural facade. Goez had the tiles made in Guadalajara, Mexico at the studio of ceramicist Joel Suro Olivares.
Framed by arches, the panels told a multi-generational story, illustrating pivotal moments from Mexico's past.
"The Return of Quetzalcoatl" depicted the arrival of Spanish colonizer Hernan Cortez in 1519, whom Aztec leaders supposedly believed was the Mesoamerican god Quetzalcoatl. "Eradication and Absorption of Mexican Culture and Knowledge," a panel that shows a man on a horse tangled up in creeping vines, represents the pain of assimilation. The last panel, "Hope for a Brighter Tomorrow," portrays Chicano men and women looking toward an unseen but hopefully more equitable future.
Once completed, "The Story of Our Struggle" attracted national attention and inspired more murals around East L.A.
A story in the April 7, 1975 issue of Time magazine described the "East L.A. Chicano Mural Movement":
"The Message that came through is pride in the Chicano heritage. One series of... murals, called "The Story of Our Struggle," shows events from Mexico's loss of the Southwest in 1848 to a present-day farm unionist cutting the chains that bind a fallen comrade. So well does the series trace the rise of chicanismo that elementary school classes are brought to study the murals as part of their history lesson."
The Kemps were thrilled to have the monument on the front of their department store. "We were very proud of that, and so were the residents. They all thought it was a very nice tribute to them," Olive Kemp, wife of Bob Kemp, told the Los Angeles Times in 2007.
Gonzalez would go on to have a prolific career as an artist, activist and educator. After completing "The Story of Our Struggle," he began leading bus tours that highlighted more than 100 local murals. In 1983, he partnered with Núñez, and together they created the New Barrio Lifestyle Campaign Cultural Arts Education Program, which brings Chicano history and culture to Californians through the arts. They also created murals with students around the state, including "The Color of America," a three-story mural at Redlands High School in San Bernardino County.
Economics eventually brought Gonzalez back to "The Story of Our Struggle." In 2007, the First Street Store closed after 80 years. The site was purchased by Alliance College Ready Public Schools and the building was threatened with demolition.
"I was teaching older adult education at the time in the Eastside and in the Valley. My students in the Valley were predominantly Jewish. Many of them grew up in Boyle Heights. Even though the Jewish community has primarily moved out, they were here when they were young so they wrote letters," Núñez says.
In 2013, the multi-ethnic Coalition to Save the First Street Store reached a compromise with McKinzie High and the city of L.A. -- not a given. (Look at what's happening to many of Millard Sheets' murals.)
They decided to save the mural, while making way for the new construction. The new landmark, "The First Street Store: Chicano Historical Monument," would be a feat of artistic preservation and architectural progress. The original building was torn down and the tiled mural placed in storage. Gonzalez was tasked with recreating the new facade, making it a more exhaustive work than the one he had created almost five decades prior.
In 2016, the new facade was completed. The tiled murals were reinstalled and a new high school complex built behind it. But Gonzalez's vision isn't yet complete. He and Núñez are raising funds to add a fountain featuring the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl and a sidewalk with Aztec designs in front of the facade.
Gonzalez and Núñez want to help revitalize this portion of First Street. Once a a hub of culture and commerce where East L.A. residents shopped, banked and ran errands, now, "They call it La Calle Fantasma, the Ghost Street," Gonzalez says.
"We're hoping we can have at least one block that we could utilize as a sample to motivate and inspire elected officials, community leaders and grassroots communities," Núñez says.
The past year has halted their dreams of a First Street revitalization. Plans for the fountain and sidewalk at the First Street Store were put on hold due to COVID-19. In September 2020, the block suffered a setback when a five-story housing complex that was under construction caught fire.
"This project was designed to provide desperately needed low-income housing for families and veterans as well as retail space to help generate economic development," Gonzalez says.
On the positive side, plans to quickly rebuild the apartment complex are in the works. Gonzalez and Núñez continue to pursue Revitalization Innovations: Chicano Cultural Community Educational Tourism, a project that aims to bring tourism and educational opportunities to East Los Angeles. Like almost everyone else, their lives were derailed by the pandemic. But they have hope that a new day is rising in East LA.
"This is actually the beginning of what we hope is going to be a new renaissance," Núñez says. "We can't just allow the destruction of our communities, again and again. It's the story of our struggle and it is ongoing. It's the hope for the future."