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Santa Ana’s murals along Civic Center Dr., which are on the brink of collapse, are finally seeing real progress that may save them after all. 

Mural art is all over Southern California, with deep roots in the Chicano movement that took hold in the 1960s. Santa Ana holds a unique position in mural art in that the city is host to one of the largest collections in the region. 

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. Subscribe to receive her column by email.

But many have been painted over and time has taken its toll on many of the street murals that remain.

Those along Civic Center Drive were on the road to ruin until a group of activists took up the cause of renewing them. 

After the last Voice of OC story, a faith based group in Santa Ana donated $12,500 to the restoration efforts, giving the project more momentum than in years past.

The journey to salvaging the murals in the past hasn’t always been easy. Efforts would fade away due to funding issues, but today’s organizers know this may be the last chance before the walls fall down on their own. 

The current grassroots coalition working to save the murals is made up of four artists, some community members, a City Council member, and led by the Artesia Pilar Neighborhood Association. The coalition has hosted meetings for over a month now and have brought in experts and muralists to help identify the best way to restore the wall and how much it will cost. 

“We’re really excited about moving forward. This is the first time in ten years we are seeing progress,” said Ruby Woo, the Artesia Pilar Neighborhood Association president. 

But timing is critical.

A close up of “La Raza” mural shows the wear and tear of the paint. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

“The wall is compromised,” says councilmember Johnathan Hernandez,  who met with members of the 652 Santa Ana Labor Union, representing the potential contractors, in early May, “All five walls have to be torn down, they are shaky, that’s the bad news.” 

Hernandez said the labor union has agreed to donate bricks and working materials.

In total, the group is looking to raise $45,000 for stipends, permits, paint, materials, food and other costs. 

While the main goal is to restore the mural, there are many different ways to salvage the walls as the committee wants to designate it as a historical landmark. 

Designating it as a historical landmark would give the mural a living chance, unlike many other murals that are disappearing around Santa Ana and other cities in California. The latest mural to be white washed in Santa Ana was a community mural by Sergio O’ Cadiz Moctezuma. 

Originally the mural was painted with donated, non-professional grade paints nearly 30 years ago. Some say it’s nearly impossible to restore the wall to its original state, due to  significant chipping and sun damage. 

Gil Vasquez, a seasoned muralist restoration expert, and brother of prominent Chicano muralists, Emigdio Vasquez, drove down to Santa Ana to inspect the walls. Vazques observed water damage and foundational issues. 

The coalition was hoping this could be a solution to save the original artwork. 

Vasquez’s restoration method, which he created himself, requires slicing the art of the wall and holding it together on the other side with heavy duty wallpaper while extracting the art. But this is not possible for this mural. In order for his process to work the wall must be sealed correctly at the time of its creation, which it was not. 

There is hope in the fact that there can be some repairs. 

“My inspection of the mural revealed extensive damage to the wall’s foundation. Fortunately, a foundation repair contractor can rebuild the wall,” he says.  

Gil Vazques visits the site of the murals and inspects the top portion of the mural where he observes openings which was just one way water damage occurred. “These openings absorbed water through the rainfall throughout the years,” said Vazques. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

The coalition is still working on how to move forward with the project taking consultations from contractors and muralists. 

Steve Martinez, one of the mural’s original five artists, says whatever direction the project goes in, they’re on board with either: 

“Whatever we may need to do, we are all in.” 

Since the Voice of OC story, three more artists have come forward telling personal recollections of their experiences with the mural, even providing never before published personal photos. 

Giving new context to the mural. 

Steve Martinez, one of the five original artists, who was hesitant in returning calls or texts, finally decided it was time– so did two other artists, Jaime Varela and Roger Montenegro. 

“I started hearing people talk about what the mural meant to them and I really needed to get on board with this because if it means this much to others, this should mean just as much to me,” says Martinez, “it really is humbling.”

Steve Martinez, 17, paints part of the five part mural in the summer of 1991. “One thing I do remember clearly from the project was that it was very hot out,” said Martinez. Credit: Courtesy of Steven Martinez

Artists Jaime, Steve and Roger were art students at Santa Ana Highschool in the 90s, who became friends, and still are to this day. 

During the creation of the five panel murals, Georgie Ruiz, approached the three of them to work on the mural. Jamie, Roger and Steve also knew Gilly Rodarte, the fourth artist, who was brought in to do calligraphy, of “La Raza.” 

One uncovered part of the mural, now archived in a photo, is that Varela painted a part of the mural that never made it to the final unveiling of the project. “We all drew something, but I drew it wasn’t approved, it was actually painted over” says Varela, “I was more into graffiti, so I drew Santa Ana in graffiti lettering, and they said, ‘hey man they aren’t going to let that fly.’” 

Ruiz, the initiator of the mural, decided to make the project to combat graffiti in the neighborhood. Ultimately, Varela’s vision clashed with the mission of the mural. 

Varela still thinks about his contribution to this day and how it was erased after he was done, not during the painting process. 

Roger Montenegro, who painted the 1947 Chevy Fleetline, was inspired by a drawing he had in his bedroom he had seen in a Lowrider Magazine. “I wasn’t too excited about the color I painted it, you know purple, but all the paint was donated and made the best of what we could” says Montenegro. 

The community mural would be the first time all three artists had ever taken part of a mural process.

Ruiz, the original mastermind behind the project, has not publicly come forward to work on the project just yet.  

Jamie Varela’s lettering of “Santa Ana” which was painted over because it resembled graffiti.

During the last meeting, on the account of Alicia Rojas, a committee member, said Ruiz was reached through a friend of a friend years ago, “Ruiz didn’t want to work on the mural citing failures during fundraising and seemed disillusioned,” said Rojas. 

He has not been reached since then despite numerous search attempts by Voice of OC or the committee.   

But the committee’s efforts are gaining momentum for the first time in ten years, and more original artists are on board this time around and the clock is ticking. 

Rodarte, the artist behind the iconic “La Raza” calligraphy smiles at reunification of artists, over a zoom call, “this feels right and I am happy we are part of the restoration and can be a part of it.” 

“This might end up being something great for the community and kids growing up who participate in it and be for the greater good,” says Montenegro. 

Tax deductible donations are being accepted through one of the artists GoFundMe

And, for any volunteer opportunities or questions regarding the project, contact wooruby@yahoo.com

Julie Leopo is the staff photographer at Voice of OC. She can be reached at jleopo@voiceofoce.org.

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