A historic, five-part mural welcoming Latino immigrants and Chicano heritage to Santa Ana may be seeing its last days. Over the last decade, efforts to preserve it have yet to come to fruition — and the clock is ticking.

The five part mural sits on Civic Center Drive in Artesia Pilar neighborhood. The third mural, which depicts “Indio and India,” has been partially painted over. City officials could not confirm any records of why it was painted over. March, 5, 2021. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

The murals are literally fading out alongside Civic Center Dr.– as  the paint chips away each day the sun beats down on it. 

Julie Leopo

An enterprising and award-winning photojournalist in Orange County and beyond. Leopo, as Voice of OC’s Director of Photography, has captured a wide array of photographs visually documenting the news and soul of Orange County local government and community. Her work has also appeared in Vice, KCET, Ed Source, The California Endowment and OC Weekly.

Tales of the mural’s origin are whispered amongst locals but there are questions over which one is true. 

The facts at times are hazy or vague. 

The self-taught artists who created it have moved out of the city, and the then-city manager who some say helped bring it about, David Ream, has passed away. 

One thing is certain: this mural has rooted itself in the souls of Santaneros across the city. 

“Whether you’re from the neighborhood or a rival neighborhood, folks never disrespected that mural, because if you did, you disrespected yourself, you disrespected your culture,” says Johnathan Hernandez, a newly-elected City Council member representing the area where the mural stands.

Monetary pledges have been made around the mural’s preservation. Hernandez, who ran a campaign partly highlighting Santa Ana arts and culture, is one person who’s made such a commitment. “I am pledging $1,000 to the mural,” said  Hernandez during  a phone interview. “This mural is so significant for us as Chicanos and Chicanas in this community, because it was one of the first murals that reminded us that this was our home.” 

Over the next four years, Hernandez and the Santa Ana Historic Preservation Resource Committee plan to recognize some significant locations as historic landmarks — a designation that would prevent the murals’ removal under any circumstance. 

And “La Raza” and the other murals will  be one of those locations. 

A family walks by the murals. March 5, 2021.

However, costs to preserve and revitalize the art is estimated to range anywhere between  $10,000 to $20,000,  according to Alicia Rojas,  co-founder of the Santa Ana Mural Arts Coalition, a grassroots effort to preserve murals and connect artists with projects. 

“The problem is one of the walls is broken. It’s actually fallen and it’s being held by levy that the homeowners put on it. So when we were looking at the restoration,” Rojas said. “We were not just talking about repainting it, we are talking about replacing the wall. We would have to use real restoration methods and projecting on the wall.” 

Rojas’ coalition tried to restore the mural two years ago, but a funding issue threw a wrench into the effort. 

Rojas said she observed many private murals painted and unpainted in the city, specifically in downtown. 

“There’s many murals that need to be restored that are very symbolic, especially these neighborhood murals.  This is not a mural that is just downtown, it’s a mural in Artesia Pilar,’ says Rojas, “It is the heritage of the city.” 

Through the years, new homeowners have moved in and out of the city, at times stalling preservation efforts, according to those who say newcomers and transplants to Santa Ana don’t always understand the mural’s significance to the community. 

It ties into a years-long debate over what some call the ongoing gentrification of Santa Ana, fueled by controversy in recent years over the whitewashing of murals and streetside artworks that some consider precious to the community’s heritage and history. 

White paint now covers the mural on Raitt Street by Sergio O’Cadiz. Credit: Top Photo: Google Maps Screenshot. Bottom Photo: Julie Leopo

“I mean, look at the mural on the Rait St, and how it was whitewashed by the new homeowners,” comments Rojas. 

The hope is that the mural in Artesia Pilar can avoid the same fate. 

“The good news is, the residents who own the wall–one is an original homeowner from when it was painted and a new homeowner–are ready to move forward with rebuilding the wall,” said Hernandez, who is leading current efforts to restore the mural.   

One of the homeowners acknowledges the fragility of the mural, “If there was an earthquake, it would not survive,” says, Rosela Felix. Felix’s parents, who were into Chicano culture, agreed to have the mural on their property in 1991. Both parents are no longer living. 

“The main thing is the wall repair, so the idea now is to photograph the fitting and the images from the back of both properties and then put it out to bid to 15-20 contractors,” said  Manny Escamilla, a former city employee and arts commissioner in Santa Ana.  “We do not want to tear down the wall. We want to stabilize and secure the wall.” 

Current costs for the wall repairs are unclear. “The city is exploring costs,” commented Tram Le, Santa Ana’s Art and Culture specialist, over an email sent to Voice of OC. 

Done for the People by the People 

News reporting at the time identified four artists, when in fact, later it became known there were actually five. Georgie Ruiz is not mentioned in this clipping. Credit: Courtesy of Gilbert Rodarte

Throughout the mural’s history, there are different stories over how the mural came about. Voice of OC reached out to the City for more information around the town hall meeting that inspired Georgie Ruiz to create the mural. Additionally, many of the artists behind the mural and city officials involved have either moved away, were unreachable or died.

Much of what’s known about its origins comes from a community radio show.

The mural was organized by Georgie Ruiz, a MEChA student, in 1991 and painted among four other artists: Gilbert Rodarte, Steve Martinize, Roger Montenegro and Jaime Varella. 

During its birth in the 90s, many young people in Santa Ana were either directly or indirectly affected by gang violence, police brutality, or the plights of belonging to a low income housing neighborhood. 

Lucinda Andaluz, a Artesia resident and student part of MEChA in the 90’s remembers Georgie Ruiz, her fellow MEChA member who wanted to create change, and remembers how he conceptualized the mural standing on Civic Center today. 

“There was a lot of police brutality in the communities and [Georgie]  wanted to instill pride and do something that demonstrated a positive reflection of us,” commented Andaluz.

Ruiz, who was unreachable for comment, left a detailed interview with Mariana Bruno on Radio Santa Ana. He speaks of making this mural out of “rage” due to the treatment he received at a Santa Ana town hall meeting. 

Georgie details going to a neighborhood meeting by Alona park in 1991. There was a shooting in the more affluent part of Santa Ana and a meeting was held to address the violence. 

Georgie showed up to the community meeting. He wore what he regularly dressed in: Nike Cortez, white shirt, black cuffed Levis and a raiders hat. 

“The meeting gets kicked off,” Ruiz says during his Radio Santa Ana interview, “Someone asks how do we identify a gang member. So the Santa Ana PD proceeds and says, ‘Well they usually typically wear: Nike Cortez, Nike shoes, black Levis, white shirts and Raider hats’ and I see people looking at me like, ‘Hey we got a gang member in here.” 

Ruiz, feeling discriminated against, wanted to comment on the racist profiling being perpetuated by the meeting but his hand went uncalled for. 

As the meeting carried on other items were discussed such as: fighting graffiti.

Ruiz, still with his hand in the air, was finally called on. Deciding to leave the racial profiling topic be bygones he decides to tackle the graffiti topic. 

“I want to talk about graffiti, let’s say I wanted to hop on and fight graffiti in the city, I wanna do murals, how do I go about that?” asked Ruiz. 

Ruiz, who was influenced artistically by a spray paint demonstration given at Santa Ana college by muralist Willie Herron, recognized how powerful murals could be in a neighborhood. Ruiz only to this point in time had made fliers for MEChA meetings on campus at Santa Ana College. 

The city manager allegedly present at the meeting, David Ream, instructed Ruiz that if he could find private property that would allow him to do his work it was doable. Ruiz asked the city manager for his contact info in case he ran into issues. It was his lifeline throughout the painting process. 

Ruiz found a home for his mural on Civic Center, and began the process of creating the mural.

Gilbert Rodarte, one of the four artists, is responsible for the iconic calligraphy of “La Raza.” Rodarte, who never had any formal training as a muralist, except the art he drew in his notebooks. 

“I was really into calligraphy,” says Gilly, “so I picked up a black spray can and outlined it [the mural] in silver.” The rest was of the mural we all painted collectively.”

Gilbert “Gilly” Rodarte, 47, stands in front of the calligraphy he painted in 1991. Different preservation efforts throughout the past ten years have tried to restore the mural, but none have succeeded. Rodarte at one point considered doing a fundraiser to personally raise funds for the mural and restore what he could. Attempts to contact other artists who contributed to the mural were unsuccessful. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

One day as Rodarte was working on the calligraphy a police officer placed Rodarte in the back of the police car.

The officer claimed Rodarte didn’t have permission to paint. Ruiz, with the city manager’s phone number handy, called and set Rodarte free. 

Rodarte is continually asked about his involvement with the mural. He is a reserved man, who shys aways from interviews but is now ready to talk; he still lives across from the mural with his family. Rodarte knows the mural needs work and there is only so much time left before it falls apart. 

For many, muralism in neighborhoods not only brings a sense of identity but also an impactful reminder of the pain and realities residents face behind those walls. Such as “Lady Santa Ana,” painted to the far right, who was painted to remind the community of the lives lost due to gang activity. Or the Aztec calendar painted the farthest to the left, to remind of us of the Aztec civilization before us. 

“This mural is a pride of what we are,” says Ruby Woo, President of the Neighbrohood Association in Artesia Pilar, “We are not Mexico but not the United States. It’s living in two worlds, in where you’re from and where you live.”

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