Sam Rodriguez and team in the process of painting 'Here & There' on the side of Kiem Service Laundromat in San Jose's Japantown. (Courtesy Empire Seven Studios)
A few weeks ago, news broke about Bay Area artist Jose Meza Velasquez filing a $5 million lawsuit after a real estate developer painted over his historic Mural de la Raza in San Jose.
But by and large, Chicano mural art is still thriving in the South Bay—and worth a sightseeing tour on your preferred set of wheels.
Mural de la Raza was not the only mural to pay homage to Chicano culture, but it was up for more than 30 years; one of a shrinking number of murals to last that long. Murals, and especially Chicano murals, function as a form of visual history for the neighborhoods in which they sit. That helps to explain the outrage when Velasquez's work disappeared under a coat of gray paint.
I asked a few people in the know where to spot some of San Jose's most impressive older murals. Jose Manuel Valle of Silicon Valley De-Bug was more than happy to oblige with a list. He's a key figure behind El Emergency Comité for the Preservation of Chicano Arts, which sponsored an online petition in support of Velasquez that’s garnered more than 2,900 signatures.
“Right now, the most important thing is to build public interest,” Valle says.
Murals are delicate artworks, vulnerable to oblivious landlords, paint-bleaching sunshine and teenage taggers. So grab your camera and start photographing community treasures like La Medicina y La Comunidad, by Gustavo Bernal, on the front of the Gardner Health Center on East Virginia Street.
Health care providers are depicted alongside Aztec and Roman Catholic icons, making doctors look like the modern-day heroes they are. La Medicina no doubt benefits from its position above street level. (It was also retouched in 2009 by San Jose artist Paul J. Gonzalez.) Valle notes that Bernal also painted a mural on the side of Miller Elementary that's no longer there.
Juan Carlos Araujo was a kid growing up in San Jose when he visited this health center with his mother. Back then, he didn't know much about the artwork he passed by, but something must have stuck.
Today, the 36 year-old runs Empire Seven Studios along with Jennifer Ahn, helping to put up new murals by modern artists reflecting San Jose's past, present and future.
"Like life itself, [murals don’t] last forever. What is important is to leave some knowledge, some history behind. You know, it’s generational," Araujo says.
Next on the tour is Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in East San Jose. Cesar Chavez attended services here, and started organizing farmworkers. McDonnell Hall, in the back of the church, is now a National Historic Landmark.
Technically, the church's art isn't a mural but a mosaic, a triptych traveling through time from the Aztecs to the 1960s. There are lots of clever touches: a toothy Quetzalcoatl on the bottom left corner, the two contrasting suns in the top corners, the labor union signs on the bottom right.
Katherine Oppenheimer of Sunnyvale originally created the mosaic in 1967, along with two fellow artist friends, for a planned Chicano community center that never came to be. Oppenheimer passed on about five years ago, but her son David Oppenheimer says she was "deeply inspired by the civil rights movement," and meant the mosaic to celebrate how that movement freed so many people from colonial (and also religious) oppression.
He points out that we see a man bowing down in the left, a couple on their knees in the middle, and marchers "for the first time, standing on their feet" on the right. Ironically, a church became the caretaker for the piece after the community center fell through.
"It's tradition. It's heritage. It's really our teachings, outside of English textbooks," Araujo says, adding this mosaic is blessed to be on this church campus, because that means it's not under the kind of threat those on commercial properties face. Take the mural that used to grace the Cal Foods store in the Five Wounds neighborhood: after gang members defaced large parts of it with graffiti, the property owner painted over those sections.
Araujo used to come to Cal Foods for the cheese burritos. "I've known the property owner for some time. She's been here for over 25 years. At some point, she's going to retire. Who am I to tell her 'no'? So this will be another mural that will be gone."
Murals are often intended to beautify the streets and alleys they're chosen for. They may not erase the sight of homeless encampments, or empty parking lots, or other signs of urban decay. But their splashes of color and intricate storytelling brightens the neighborhood, shouting out to pedestrians passing by to stop, look and learn.
While much of the iconography in Chicano murals is familiar to anyone who grew up in California, there are personal touches from the artists, who often work as a team, sometimes including young people on court order to do community service.
Those kids might not be up on Spanish colonialism, or the Valley of Heart’s Delight, or the early days of Silicon Valley, but murals like the one Opski Chan painted on an old IBM building near Roosevelt Park in San Jose give a nod to all of that history.
Chan pulled some of his imagery and fonts from the packing boxes of the fruit orchards that once filled the Santa Clara Valley. "It's a lot like graffiti, but used in a different way," says Araujo, who grew up doing graffiti himself before he turned to art.
That sensibility is evident in many of the murals Empire Seven collaborates on.
Here & There by Sam Rodriguez, in San Jose's Japantown, mashes together bits from multiple visual languages. A lotus flower floats in the same scene with Mexican bread and images from the video game Pac-Man.
This is San Jose's culture, Araujo says. It's where Rodriguez comes from. It's where we come from.
"We've lost a lot of murals," Araujo says, but new murals are going up, too. "It's hard to erase people's culture. Our culture is rooted deep here."