Whitewashing of Mural in Santa Ana Stirs Controversy

Julie Leopo/VOICE OF OC

White paint covers a mural by Sergio O'Cadiz. The mural on Raitt Street in Santa Ana was originally installed in 1994 and painted over by the property owner.

In 1994, Mexican American artist Sergio O’Cadiz Moctezuma designed and painted a mural on a wall along Raitt Street in Santa Ana, between McFadden Avenue and First Street. He did it with the help of local children and community members, and it was publicly funded through the city’s Safe Haven Youth Program.

Photo courtesy of Janet Owen Driggs

A photograph taken in October 1994 shows the artist, Sergio O’Cadiz (wearing a hat), directing children to paint the Raitt Street mural. They are filling sections drawn in thick black with color. The mural was completed in 1994 and covered up in July 2019.

Image courtesy of Janet Owen Driggs

A young artist fills in a section of Sergio O’Cadiz’s Raitt Street Mural in October 1994. The mural was completed in 1994 and covered up by the property owner in July 2019.

The mural depicted an older version of the Santa Ana cityscape, with birds flying overhead, caballeros riding on horseback and children holding banners that read “education,” “diversity,” “love,” “tolerance” and “peace.”

A dedication scroll proclaimed, “This mural is dedicated to the children of Santa Ana and the people who work for their future.” The phrase was repeated in Spanish.

The mural was beloved and respected by the community. Taggers and graffiti artists — who have been known to stealthily leave their marks on others’ work — left it alone for more than a decade.

In recent years, the mural did suffer some tagging. But in mid-July, neighbors reported seeing a solo artist attempting an impromptu restoration without asking for permission from the property owner or the O’Cadiz family.

Google Maps

A screen capture of the O’Cadiz mural on Raitt Street as found on Google Maps. In recent years, the mural started to fade and was tagged with graffiti.

Apparently miffed by this effort, the property owner had the entire mural covered in white paint some time during the week of July 14-21, eliminating an important part of Santa Ana’s cultural and artistic history.

“I was devastated. I was absolutely beside myself,” said Maria del Pilar O’Cadiz, the deceased artist’s daughter and a longtime resident of Santa Ana. “I was devastated because it was a mural that we all loved.”

“It’s a tragedy,” said Janet Owen Driggs, an associate professor of art history at Cypress College and director of the Cypress College Art Gallery. “The Raitt Street mural was a real community effort by a really significant artist. It’s a piece of Orange County history that has been lost.”

Pilar O’Cadiz, an educator and education director of an engineering research center at UCLA, said she and her family had already started efforts, prior to the renegade restoration attempt and subsequent whitewashing, toward restoring the mural, which had fallen under some neglect and disrepair in recent years.

Several years ago, O’Cadiz posted her budding campaign on Facebook, trying to get the word out, and asked for volunteers to join. Now, it looks like those efforts might be for naught.

“I think it’s unfortunate that the mural was painted over, especially (with) the circumstances surrounding it,” said Victor Payan, a Santa Ana arts activist, executive director at Media Arts Santa Ana and director of the OC Film Fiesta. “This was completely unnecessary, especially given the value, the history, the status of this mural …. There were already restoration efforts being considered, so it would have been so easy just to tap into those, to reach out to the city, to reach out to the family, to understand what federal public art protection law is. You don’t just go into somebody else’s work to paint on it, especially if it’s a master artist. I think that was a huge mistake.”

The identity of the renegade restorer is still unknown. It is believed that the property owner lives in Anaheim, not Santa Ana, although that is not 100 percent certain, O’Cadiz said. Efforts have been made to contact the property owner, but nothing has been resolved yet, according to O’Cadiz and Tram Le, the city of Santa Ana’s arts and culture specialist.

Julie Leopo/VOICE OF OC

White paint covers the mural on Raitt Street by Sergio O’Cadiz.

In the days and weeks following the whitewash, anger and sadness over the incident flowed onto social media. The Santa Ana History Room, which is affiliated with the Santa Ana Public Library, posted pictures of the Raitt Street Mural after it had just been completed on Instagram and Facebook. The posts got dozens of likes, shares and some comments.

Some finger-pointing also emerged on Facebook as folks tried to determine who the renegade restorer was. In one string of posts by a well-known Santa Ana arts activist, a member of the Santa Ana Community Artist(a) Coalition was blamed for doing the unauthorized restoration.

Alicia Rojas, co-founder of the Artist(a) Coalition, vehemently denies that anyone in her group had anything to do with the unauthorized restoration. She said she has been in touch with Pilar O’Cadiz about the incident and a possible restoration effort. She added that she does not know who did the renegade restoring, which led to the whitewash.

“We had absolutely nothing to do with this,” Rojas said. “It couldn’t be more false, and it comes from personal issues in the past.”

The posts have since been taken down from Facebook.

The controversy has also caught the attention of Santa Ana’s City Council and its Arts and Culture Commission. During the most recent Arts and Culture Commission meeting on Aug. 15, the issue of composing some kind of mural policy or ordinance that would provide rules and guidelines for the creation and restoration of murals was discussed.

Julie Leopo/VOICE OF OC

Outlines of the mural by Sergio O’Cadiz that celebrated Santa Ana and its youth can be seen underneath the white paint that now covers the mural.

Commission members agreed that a draft of a mural policy or ordinance would be written for discussion during the Oct. 17 meeting.

“This mural got whitewashed, so then now council members are hearing directly about this issue, and they’re now coming to us,” said Jessica Cha, chair of the Santa Ana Arts and Culture Commission. “So it’s now becoming more of a two-way, instead of us just coming up with ideas and offering them up to the council. I think we’ve got the perfect storm right now.”

Photo courtesy of Pilar O'Cadiz.

A photograph taken in 1994 shows the artist, Sergio O’Cadiz (wearing a hat), directing children to paint the Raitt Street mural. They are filling sections drawn in thick black with color. The mural was completed in 1994 and covered up in July 2019.

A Portrait of the Artist

Sergio O’Cadiz was an important artist and architect in the annals of Southern California history. He was born in Mexico City on Nov. 10, 1934. He studied architecture at the University of Mexico and took painting lessons under the tutelage of legendary artist and muralist Diego Rivera. O’Cadiz immigrated to California in 1961.

He initially settled in Huntington Beach, and worked with Blurock Architects in Costa Mesa from 1962 to 1967. He founded his own firm, Sergio O’Cadiz and Associates in 1968, doing independent and contracted design projects, including many murals and other sculptural public works in Southern California.

Some of his more significant works include a concrete relief mural at Santa Ana City Hall (1972), a massive sculptural, Brutalist work at Cypress College (1968), a mural at Fremont Elementary School in Santa Ana (1975), and a MEChA mural at Santa Ana College, which was created in collaboration with the college’s students in 1974. The MEChA mural is featured in the Getty Conservation Institute’s América Tropical Interpretive Center and its permanent exhibit demonstrating the influence of David Alfaro Siqueiros on Chicano murals.

“I think he’s really significant for a number of reasons, and very under-recognized,” said art historian and Cypress College gallery director Driggs. “What Sergio does from an art historian’s point of view, he acts as a bridge to a number of different movements. He’s incredibly expressive and dynamic. He’s fully trained in the Brutalist architecture style. He developed this very unusual technique for making concrete murals. And he’s a muralist in the tradition of the Mexican muralists, like Diego Rivera.

“He says that the artist’s role is not to make work for the artist, but to make work for the community.”

The whitewash of the Raitt Street mural is not the first time O’Cadiz’s work has been destroyed. His Fountain Valley Colonia Juarez mural was a 640-foot-long pièce de résistance on an 8-foot-tall wall that was also designed and painted with members of the community between 1974 and 1976. It depicted important scenes from Mexican and Mexican American life and history.

In 2002, the mural was obliterated when the city of Fountain Valley decided to replace it and the wall with a new brick wall, much to the chagrin of the artist and the community. The mural and the incident are documented in the book and exhibit, “Murales Rebeldes: L.A. Chicana/Chicano Murals Under Siege,” organized by the California Historical Society as part of the Getty’s recent “Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA” initiative.

Coincidentally, the traveling exhibit opened at the California Museum in Sacramento on July 15, the same week that the Raitt Street mural was whitewashed.

O’Cadiz died while working in his studio in Orange on March 26, 2002. He was 67.

In memory of the artist and his work, the Cypress College Art Gallery is presenting “J. Sergio O’Cadiz Moctezuma: El Artist,” opening Sept. 19 and running through Nov. 14. The exhibition will explore O’Cadiz’s public artworks and the processes he utilized in sculpting and coloring poured concrete. The show will also include paintings, drawings and photographs.

“This is one of the reasons why it’s important to do the show, because he represents a very important piece of Orange County history, particularly in the area of public art history,” Driggs said.

Meanwhile, Pilar O’Cadiz, family members and others in the Santa Ana arts community are discussing efforts to restore the Raitt Street mural, either at its original location or perhaps somewhere else.

It could be a difficult process, since the artist is no longer alive, but it’s been done before with whitewashed murals. See: Siqueiros’ “América Tropical” on the side of the former Italian Hall on Olivera Street in L.A.’s Chinatown.

“I’m an optimist in general by nature,” Pilar O’Cadiz said. “I’m hoping we will do that. We certainly will be making every effort. I’m hoping with the publicity of the (Cypress College) exhibit, recognizing the significance of his work in the region, we can then galvanize different entities that might have an influence.”

And the mystery of the renegade restorer continues, for now.

Richard Chang is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC, focusing on the visual arts. He can be reached at richiechang@gmail.com.