Artist Guillermo Rosette in front of one of his murals
When you drive down Interstate 5 south toward the San Diego-Tijuana border, you go through a neighborhood called Logan Heights. It's a stretch of industrial buildings and run-down concrete walls.
But suddenly, the gray is broken up by flashes of bright colors splashed over the freeway walls and pillars. The scenes depict the struggles and triumphs of the Chicano Pride movement and the history of Mexicans in the United States. They have become a landmark since they were first painted in 1973.
Muralist Victor Ochoa is touching up a mural he made four decades ago, of a group of Chicano activists called Brown Berets. Ochoa was part of the original movement that birthed the murals and its surroundings, Chicano Park.
"The community before the freeway came in was a very sprawling barrio; we used to call it the 'ombligo de Los barrios,' the bellybutton of the barrios," Ochoa says. "Logan and National, were like the downtown section, and then the other streets were residential."
But in the 1960s, San Diego built the interstate right through the downtown section over the protests of its residents, effectively cutting the neighborhood in half.
"So just in these few blocks, they took over 5000 families out. They went through our barrios pretty terribly. That was a death blow to this neighborhood," Ochoa says.
But Guillermo Aranda, another of the original muralists, says what really tipped people into action was when the city reneged on its promise to build a park and planned a parking lot instead. On April 22, 1970, hundreds of men, women and children came down and formed human chains around city workers.
"People said 'Hey, if we want a park we have to claim this park ourself,' explained Aranda. "And people came and they brought cactus and maguey and picks and shovels. I remember this one guy came in with a bulldozer and dug up the earth and everybody worked to make it a park. So that's how Chicano Park came to be."
It took nearly two weeks of constant occupation, but the city finally gave the people their park. A few years later, artists began painting the walls of the overpass to commemorate the struggle, and to tell the history of the Chicano rights movement in the United States.
"Once we did the murals here at Chicano Park, it exploded, and Los Angeles, San Francisco, New Mexico, Arizona, Texas...even back to the east coast, murals began to explode all over," Aranda said.
The murals began attracting tourists from all over the world. Fast forward to the early 90s, after two deadly earthquakes rocked Southern California. At the time, Marty Rosen worked for CalTrans as part of a team that was retrofitting Highway 5.
"I was just blown away. I mean, just these monumental murals on these bridge columns that vary from about two stories to maybe five stories high," recalled Rosen. "My initial thought that came out of my head was that this is the Sistine Chapel of California."
Rosen pushed to have the murals recognized as a historical resource, although they were barely twenty years old at the time. Eventually, he collaborated with the seven original artists on a CalTrans administered grant, called a T-grant, to restore and preserve their murals. It took nearly 20 more years.
"There were many years there where we just weren't sure if it was going to happen.We finally in 2011 started the actual mural restorations," says Rosen.
Restoration is continuing on what has become a symbol of the struggle against a faceless bureaucracy that tore apart a community, and how that same bureaucracy is helping preserve its voice. Artists are putting the finishing touches on the newly revitalized murals in time for a celebration this weekend.