The divide that defined the birth of a park and a community’s struggle for empowerment in the early 1970s is as potent now for those who remember the strife that led to the founding of Chicano Park.
Located in the Barrio Logan neighborhood of San Diego just south of downtown, Chicano Park began in 1970 amid protests by residents, activists and artists against the city of San Diego over the construction of a California Highway Patrol station on land where the city had promised the people of Logan Heights a community park.
Residents were already frustrated about the dislocation of families brought by the building of Interstate 5 and the Coronado Bay Bridge. The park, which features more than 80 murals, developed because residents wanted a public space that would celebrate the area’s Chicano roots stretching back to the Aztecs and Mayans.
Today the park, which was just designated a National Historic Landmark, remains at the center of the day’s political debates as the unveiling of a new mural has pitted park advocates against those who support President Trump’s proposed border wall.
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The mural, located on a side pillar of the bridge, portrays a migrant worker being choked. Artist Sal Barajas said the hands are intended to depict both U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which is responsible for deportations, and Mexican government officials, who create conditions where people have to leave the country for work. The worker is sending $1 and $5 bills to his wife and child.
“The migrant worker is doing anything possible to provide for his family,” said Barajas, who also worked on one of the park’s original murals.
The words “No more deaths” and “Love has no borders” appear on the mural and, toward the bottom, “No Border Wall.”
Political issues from farmworkers’ struggles to civil rights have long been part of this park under a bridge, born from citizens challenging City Hall. And the newest mural, commissioned by Border Angels, a nonprofit migrant-rights group based in San Diego, has sparked opposition from some who say the mural’s message does not belong in a park.
Among them is Ernie Griffes of Imperial Beach, who supports Trump’s border wall plan and wants the park’s historic landmark designation withdrawn.
“The artwork, especially the most recent, conveys a hatred for America, expressions of the Aztlán militant narrative that California belongs to Mexico and the soldiers of Aztlán are taking it back,” Griffes said by email. “Political correctness has prevented those who see the area as an eyesore and defacing of government property from speaking out about it.”
Enrique Morones, Border Angels’ executive director and founder, said he does not see the new mural as divisive or anti-American.
“What’s not American? Expressing your opinion?” Morones said. “What’s not American? Freedom of speech?”
Morones has wanted a mural painted in Chicano Park for about 10 years. He said the amount of donations the group has received since the election made the mural possible. The mural, unveiled in March, cost about $10,000.
The vision, he said, was for the mural to show opposition to the border wall, urge no more deaths and provide a place for people to pay homage to those who have died and stress the group’s message that love has no borders.
Barajas said he wants to spur discussion about current political issues.
“When they come here, I want them to see a little bit of this argument,” Barajas said.
Kate Nash, a teacher visiting from Leeds, England, was taking photos of the mural on a weekday afternoon.
“It is a powerful image. It’s such a universal story,” she said. “We’ve all got families that span borders.”
Tommie Camarillo remembers as a young mother bringing her 2-year-old daughter to the 12-day occupation that drew people from around the Southwest. People brought them water, little trees to plant and shovels.
“We were upset, and we were determined,” said Camarillo, now 70 and chairwoman of the Chicano Park Steering Committee, which oversees the park. “We were determined that we were not going to move until we got the park.”
Josephine S. Talamantez, also a committee member, was an 18-year-old college student when she and her classmates joined the occupation, forming human chains. She recalls seeing community elders bring pots of food to the group and returning Vietnam War veterans take part.
“When we stood up and defied the city of San Diego and the state of California, it fueled a level of confidence and spunk in me,” Talamantez said. “It took away fear … fear of racism.”
Later, artists, including from Sacramento’s Royal Chicano Air Force, came and helped create murals at the park.
The park was one of 24 sites designated as new National Historic Landmarks by former Interior Secretary Sally Jewell. Also designated were the Jackson, Miss., home of civil rights activist Medgar Evers, murdered in 1963, and the location of the Kent State University shootings in Ohio, where the state’s National Guard shot and killed four students in 1970.
In the Jan. 11 announcement from the Interior Department, the office noted that “Chicano Park has become a cultural and recreational gathering place for the Chicano community and is the location of the Chicano Park Monumental Murals, an exceptional assemblage of master mural artwork painted on the freeway bridge supports.”
Alberto López Pulido, professor of ethnic studies at the University of San Diego and a park steering committee member, is working with Talamantez and others to raise money for a park museum and cultural center.
“It’s the story of self-determination of a community and the power of place,” he said.
Journalist Marisa Agha is based in Southern California.