[NPR] A half-mile long mural in Los Angeles celebrates the history of California (podcast)


1:30PM JULY 04, 2024

by A Martínez

Listen to the audio clip here:

0:00/7:17: https://www.wfdd.org/story/half-mile-long-mural-los-angeles-celebrates-history-california



On this Fourth of July, we bring you a story about a celebration of American history. One of the world’s largest murals is painted on the side of a concrete-lined river running right through the city of Los Angeles. Among the dozens of artists who have left their mark on the Great Wall of Los Angeles are Ricardo Mendoza and Rio Diaz.

RICARDO MENDOZA: It deals with, you know, alternative histories and with people of color, women, minorities, and just going back in time with all these really important issues, you know, that – we have a research team, a full staff of, you know, researchers and artists like myself.

RIO DIAZ: It validates the tapestry of the American experience. It broadens people’s scope because we’re so often just so separated that when you elevate people’s stories, it educates the community that they, too, their community, their social group, had been there from the beginning.

MENDOZA: This is for generations of folks to really wrap their souls and their minds around content that will inform and heal, that – it’s like poetry and metaphor to help people understand moments in history. So it’s like a classroom that way, you know?

MARTÍNEZ: This Great Wall, this expansive mural, was born out of the artistic vision of Judy Baca.

JUDY BACA: How could I make something that mattered that was actually contributing to the larger struggle for the change that we needed to have, that recognized our people’s contributions, that advanced the civil rights, particularly for the Latino community?

MARTÍNEZ: In the mid-1970s, Baca was approached by the Army Corps of Engineers about beautifying the Tujunga flood control channel.

BACA: I looked at the river, and I thought, wow, I’ve been painting in each neighborhood, and never do these neighborhoods meet. We’re a totally segregated city. So the kids who were in East Los Angeles never met the kids in South Central. The South Central kids never met the kids in the Thai community or the Japanese community. So, I thought, what if we, on this endless wall, came all together? And I began painting the Great Wall, thinking that I would create a narrative mural in a team that would work across race and class, have them understand that their history – Black history, for example, Chicano history, Asian history, women’s history – was all of our history and that we could see ourselves connected. It visually demonstrated as connected in the imagery.

MARTÍNEZ: With funding from juvenile justice and poverty programs, Baca started collaborating with dozens of young people as young as 14, along with hundreds of artists and other community members. And she also co-founded the Social and Public Art Resource Center, or SPARC, to spend five summers between 1976 and 1983 using paint to tell some untold history.

BACA: It became overwhelming how profound the story was, how much was not known and how much we – our history had been disappeared in the interest of creating an alternate America, a thought in which we were not participants. I could not go to the library in 1976 and pull down a book on Black history or Chicano history. I could not pull down a book on women’s history. It was just the beginning of a time in which we were beginning to collect that kind of material. And so we became adamant researchers and found the stories of our families. And I talked to historians who were doing the obscured work and began to develop the content that became the Great Wall.

MARTÍNEZ: What are some of the stories that are there?

BACA: So, our first thing was recover the land, the story of the land itself, and then recover the stories of the people who lived on that land. And how did they do it? How did they deal with the flooding in the winter and the contraction of the rivers in the summer? How did that work? And you could see this over 5,000 years of people managing to live alongside of the river and living in concert with it, living in harmony with it. And the land also yielded us plants and animals and marine life. And part of our story, as we are developing the expansion of the Great Wall now, is to tell that story of what used to live there – the coyotes, the bald eagles, the – you’ll see the marine life that has disappeared. There were many consequences to the loss of our river. And this is a recovery in a way, at least of our memory. This is about a side of public memory that brings back the river, that brings back the stories of the people, and it now brings back those historical moments for the alumni of the Great Wall, now over 400 of them.

And then it began to move into the 1920s and the formulation of the agricultural business of California, that basically, we feed a nation. And who are those people? Who are the harvesters, the essential workers? And behind me, if we unroll this giant piece, you’ll get to the people who formulated the first farm workers’ unions and the work in the fields. And it tells you about the walkouts in East Los Angeles, demanding the history be including the stories of Chicanos from that region. So we are unfolding the story again as we move now into the ’60s.

MARTÍNEZ: New sections of the mural, painted by Baca and a small team of artists, encompass events from the gay rights and civil rights movements. There are images that reflect a boycott on grapes, Chicano music and culture, the Watts Renaissance and Watts Rebellion and Black Panther community organizing. And with Baca, they’re coming to life inside the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, or LACMA, on a scrolled canvas that will be applied later to the wall of the Tujunga Wash.

BACA: It’s a narrative, and it’s got a long wall, endless wall that can be continued.

MARTÍNEZ: So, Judy, when I was a student at LA Valley College, which is right there where the wall is, I don’t know if I knew what I was looking at. But one thing I did kind of know about murals is what my grandfather used to tell me, is that he loved murals because it was art for people who didn’t feel like they were welcome in a museum or that maybe it wasn’t intended for them. So this expansion and what’s already there – who is that for?

BACA: It’s for the people. We’re visualizing for you the realism and the magic of the story that is ours. And it will breed respect and understanding of the resilience of us, the resilience of people who’ve come through incredibly difficult times. And still, they’ve managed to contribute. They’ve managed to transform our societies. That’s what this is about.

MARTÍNEZ: Judy Baca, thank you very much for letting us take a look and having us out here at LACMA.

BACA: You’re welcome. You’re very welcome.


MARTÍNEZ: It’s MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I’m A Martínez.


I’m Leila Fadel.


And I’m Steve Inskeep.


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