A Turning Point
The Conception and Realization of Chicano Park
by Kevin Delgado
Winner of the Bruce Kamerling Award in the
1998 San Diego History Center Institute of History
In San Diego, there is probably no monument that defines its neighborhood like Chicano Park defines the community of Logan Heights. For twenty-eight years, the community has annually celebrated the day in 1970 when they were successful in securing a park in their neighborhood. Until that time, there had been many signs hinting towards Logan Heights' demise as a residential neighborhood. Residents of this San Diego community -- especially long-time residents -- have been very aware of this.
Since its inception, Chicano Park has been seen by these residents not only as a symbol representing a new chance for the neighborhood of Logan Heights, but also as a marker that laments the passing of what the neighborhood once was. For these reasons, the movement for the expansion and improvement of the park has not been forgotten by the community. On the contrary, the park has become the community's cultural center as well as a political steppingstone from which greater things can be accomplished. It is a place where one can see the elements of indigenous, Mexican, and American roots combine to create a Chicano culture. It is a forum where leaders such as Emiliano Zapata and Cesar Chavez are celebrated. The land itself has come to symbolize Logan Heights struggle for identity and self-preservation. This essay will demonstrate why Chicano Park has become so important in Logan Heights and how, in a show of unity, this neighborhood created the political leverage to create a place that was uniquely their own. It is to this community struggle and unity that the creation of the murals and continuing pride in the park can be attributed.
Community pride in Logan Heights did not begin with Chicano Park. This neighborhood, which now contains many junk yards and shipyards, was once primarily a residential area and one of San Diego's oldest communities. Starting between the years of 1910 and 1920 the area began its transformation into a predominantly Mexican-American community as immigrants fled north from revolution and a poor Mexican economy.1 By 1940 Logan Heights had grown into one of the largest Mexican-American communities on the West Coast, containing fifteen percent of San Diego's Spanish- speaking population. At this time the barrio2 extended to the waterfront where there was a local beach and community pier which served as a social gathering place. Barrio Logan lost this access to the waterfront, however, when World War II began and the Navy and defense industries moved in along the bay.3 To many longtime residents of Logan Heights, this was viewed as the first step taken by outside forces that would result in the dismantling of their community.4
Throughout the 1940s and into the 1950s, however, Barrio Logan remained California's second largest Mexican-American community.4 At one time, this neighborhood was home to nearly twenty thousand residents.5 This would soon begin to change. As San Diego's downtown area expanded, the city of San Diego and the state of California began to take steps toward modernization. Consequently, the makeup of Barrio Logan completely changed. In the 1950s, city zoning laws were changed turning Logan into an industrial area rather than a residential one. The neighborhood immediately experienced an influx of Anglo-owned junkyards. These auto junkyards were set up next to school yards and homes, creating resentment in the community. To this day, there exists an antagonistic relationship between those affiliated with the junkyards and the residents of Logan.6 In 1963, Interstate 5 was constructed, bisecting the community. Logan residents who found their homes in the path of this new freeway were given no choice but to pack up and leave. Finally, in 1969, the Coronado Bay Bridge opened with its on-ramps and support pylons towering over the barrio.7 These developments had a devastating effect on the community of Logan. Families and businesses found themselves displaced from land that was now taken over for development. The constant clamor of the junk yards and construction crews made life miserable at times.8 Many Logan Heights residents resented these new developments, but were unaware that they had the right to protest or petition the city council.9 The result was that the population of Barrio Logan dropped from its former population of twenty thousand residents to approximately five thousand residents by 1979.10
During the late 1960s and early 1970s, the United States was in the midst of massive social change that would find its way to Barrio Logan. The black civil rights movement had inspired many emerging leaders of the Chicano11 community.12 Then in the 1960s the United Farm Workers movement led by Cesar Chavez sparked a new political awareness in Chicanos everywhere. Among many other events, student organizations such as MECHA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan) were formed. Young Chicanos were creating a political movement that was all their own.13 This Chicano youth movement culminated in March of 1969 when the first National Chicano Youth Conference was held in Denver, Colorado.14 Over fifteen hundred young people attended, including several of the young artists who would later become some of the original muralists of Chicano Park. The conference created a document known as El Plan Espirutual de Aztlan16 or "The Spiritual Plan of Aztlan." This plan called for Chicano youths to create political and social planning at the grass roots level. It also called for Chicano artists to become active participants in the social and political causes of their communities.17 Those who had attended the conference returned to their own neighborhoods excited by the way the meeting in Denver had affirmed their Chicano culture.18
Thus, even before 1970, political and social awareness had been growing in Barrio Logan. Young people who had left the barrio for college or the military were now returning with a new sense of involvement. They, in turn, spread these attitudes to other members of the community.19 Logan residents began to take an active interest in what became of their neighborhood, and they started making certain demands of their local representatives. As early as 1967, residents of Barrio Logan began asking the city to build a park underneath the site where the Coronado Bridge would eventually stand.20 On 23 July 1969, the state of California awarded the city of San Diego a twenty-year lease on a 1.8-acre plot of land between National and Logan Avenues and adjacent to Dewey Street.21 City officials announced publicly that they intended to build a park on the site. On 10 November 1969 a state law became effective which stipulated that any unused parcel of land near highways could be used a community recreation areas.22 City officials once again announced their intention to build a park under the Coronado Bridge. With these developments, Barrio Logan waited eagerly for its park. The land remained a vacant lot.
The barrio's wait came to an abrupt end, however, on the morning of 22 April 1970 when residents awoke to find, once again, that the state had brought bulldozers into their community. Residents quickly discovered that the bulldozers were not there to build a park, but rather to to clear the topsoil off the land to prepare for a parking lot that would house three hundred California Highway Patrol cars. Furthermore, a small brick building on the site that residents had wanted for a community center had been slated to become the headquarters of the California Highway Patrol in the San Diego area.23
This realization sparked an instant and militant reaction by the community. Resident Mario Solis ran from door to door telling residents what was happening.24 By seven o'clock in the morning, demonstrators had gathered at the site to challenge the construction crew.25 Demonstrators formed a human chain around the bulldozers and halted construction. At nearby high schools and colleges, students who had been studying the community's plan to build a park left class to join demonstrations. At local markets, women abandoned their shopping to help out.26 Community leader Jose Gomez recalled:
Tempers began to get hot. Some of the workmen were laughing at us. People who were picketing were yelling back at the workmen. Then at noon, students walked out of school -- They formed a car caravan down Logan Avenue to join us. The supervisor of the workmen called his men off the job and they left.27
The number of demonstrators continued to grow until it reached approximately two hundred and fifty. James Hall, state secretary for business and administration, announced that all work on the site would be halted until a meeting could be held between state and city officials and community representatives.28 Meanwhile, the demonstrators continued to occupy the site.29
The California Highway Patrol, however, needed somewhere to build their new headquarters, and Logan's central location made it an ideal choice. The need for a larger headquarters had arisen when the state began patrolling freeways inside the city. To accommodate this need, the Highway Patrol had acquired a two-acre plot of land under the bridge in August of 1969. Patrol officers were called to the scene on the day of the takeover to prevent clashes between demonstrators and the construction crew. When asked what he thought of the situation, Captain Vincent J. Herz of the California Highway Patrol stated, "We also tried to get a state parcel near the bridge on the other side but that was deeded to the city for a neighborhood park. So they have a park."30 The land Officer Herz referred to was the empty 1.8- acre lot that the state leased to the city of San Diego on 23 July 1969.
The idea of having the headquarters of the California Highway Patrol in the middle of Barrio Logan did not sit well with many barrio residents. Many in Logan Heights mistrusted the police. Chicano poet Alurista indignantly stated, "We gave you our culture of a thousand years. What have you given us? A social system that makes us beggars and police who make us afraid."31
For years, the residents of Barrio Logan had felt helpless in determining what became of their neighborhood. They had been unable to prevent zoning ordinances which prohibited single home building in the area, and little was done by landlords to upgrade the existing houses.32 To residents, a highway patrol headquarters in place of a park was just one more development that would force them out of the community. Chicano artist Arban Quevedo expressed the feelings of the community:
What happened before when officials came in and destroyed a barrio is that people took their hats off and went to a new barrio. But what I say is 'What did I go to school for? Damn it.' We have a lot invested here. I don't want to take my hat off. I want to leave it on my head and rejuvenate the barrio.33
He and other barrio residents believed that if action was not taken at that time, Barrio Logan would cease to exist.34 With this in mind, residents organized themselves to deal with the problem at hand more effectively. In order to coordinate the occupation of the land and to negotiate with state officials, community leaders formed the Chicano Park Steering Committee. The community remained united and refused to give up the land under the bridge. News of this movement spread and within a week bus loads of youths from Los Angeles and Santa Barbara arrived on the scene to join the protest. Enthusiasm for the movement grew locally as well, and fertilizer and seed were brought as protesters began cultivating small plants on the site.35 The plants came to symbolize the renewed sense of community that had sprouted as all segments of the neighborhood joined behind the demand for a Chicano park.36
After twelve days of occupation, Assistant City Manager Meno Wilhelms announced that city and state officials had agreed to negotiate with the protesters. Before the negotiations could begin, however, the state stipulated that the protesters would have to vacate the site. The Chicano Park Steering Committee continued to station informal picketers on public sidewalks around the site in order to keep the community informed on the negotiations. The steering committee also threatened to reoccupy the site if an agreement was not reached within thirty days.37
On the night of May 4, city councilman Leon Williams attended a community meeting at Lowell Elementary School, just blocks from the disputed land. He promised a crowd of more than two hundred people that they would get their park. They remained skeptical.38 Community leaders urged residents to be prepared to reoccupy the site and encouraged parents to be prepared to remove their children from school to help participate in demonstrations if the need came.39
As it happened, the need never came. On 31 June 1970, the city authorized a contract for $21,814.96 for the development of the 1.8-acre plot that had been leased from the state the previous year. The plans and specifications for this development had been approved on 7 May 1970. Also at this time, the City Park and Recreation Board initiated action to name the park the Chicano People's Park.40
Even with this new contract, however, dispute remained over the land slated to be the new Highway Patrol headquarters. From the beginning, the official position of the state was that the land belonged to the California Highway Patrol and it was up to the city to negotiate for it.41 Therefore the city agreed to make a bid for the land. On 2 July 1970, Assistant City Manager Wilhelms received a letter from the state spelling out their terms of sale. The state's primary concern was that the city would pay no less than the state's investment in the land -- approximately $203,500. If the city wished to exchange land to the state to help pay for this, the land would have to be acceptable to the Highway Patrol. At this time, the city also announced its intention to lease several more acres under the bridge for the development of Chicano People's Park. Regarding the matter of additional land, the state stipulated that the city would have to begin development within eighteen months. Furthermore, if the park was not used by the community, the state would terminate the lease and the city would have to pay for the removal of any improvements.42 These formalities aside, it appeared that the barrio protesters had been successful in their efforts. The protests in Barrio Logan had halted the construction of the Highway Patrol headquarters and made possible the acquisition of land for a park. The development of a park on the site, however, was a different matter.
Over a year passed without any sign of development. Community members continued to lobby actively for their park.43 Meanwhile, city council continued to deal with official proceedings in its negotiations to acquire the land from the state.44 On 24 May 1971, California Governor Ronald Reagan signed a measure that allowed a land exchange between the city of San Diego and the state. This bill was an emergency measure by Assemblymen Peter Chacon of San Diego and Wadie P. Deddeh of Chula Vista.45 On 11 November 1971, city council finally approved the acquisition of 6.1 acres of land for the development of Chicano Park. This acquisition included the small brick building to be used for a community center. In exchange for this, the city of San Diego would grant the state of California a small plot of land in Mission Valley on which to build its new Highway Patrol headquarters.46
Even with these developments, however, there was no assurance that Logan Heights would have its park immediately. The city council did not announce a tentative schedule for work to begin until April of 1972.47 During this time, San Diego Mayor Pete Wilson remained conspicuously indecisive on the issue of Chicano Park, saying only that it had already cost the city great sums of money.48
Despite apathy from local government the development of Chicano Park took on a new phase when, in 1973, a group of about a dozen artists49 gained permission from the city of San Diego to begin painting murals on the support pylons of the Coronado Bridge.50 This idea had originated with Chicano artist Salvador Torres who would become known as the "architect of the dream." In the late 1960s, Torres had returned to Logan Heights from San Francisco where he had been attending the California College of Arts and Crafts. When he arrived in the barrio he found that the house where he had lived with his father had been demolished to prepare for the construction of the Coronado Bridge. At first, like other residents of Logan, Torres deeply resented the bridge. Soon, however, he became fascinated with the giant structure. He began to see the bridge pylons as huge concrete canvases onto which his art could be rendered. He spent days and weeks making drawings and watercolor sketches of his visions.51
In 1969, he created the Chicano Park Monumental Public Mural Program, intended to promote his vision. Yet the concept of murals under the bridge, although seriously considered, seemed unlikely. At the time urban wall murals were still rare in the United States. On the night of 22 April 1970, at a community meeting to discuss plans for the development of Chicano Park, Torres stood up and proclaimed, "Chicano artists and sculptors will turn the great columns of the bridge approach into a thing of beauty, reflecting the Mexican-American culture."52 In retrospect, this may sound like a miraculous prophecy, yet Torres himself was inexperienced with mural painting.
At this time, however, there was a resurgence in mural art among other California Chicano artists. In 1971, Torres joined a group of artists to travel through Mexico to study the famous murals, mosaics, and sculptures of that country. Stopping anywhere there was a monument, the group made its way to Mexico City.53 There, the group visited the city's rich collection of mural art by such masters as Diego Rivera, Jose Luis Orozco, and Alfor Siqueiros. These three artists had used their murals to help create a new vision of what it meant to be Mexican in Mexico's post-revolutionary period. They had emphasized the plight of the mestizo,54 who had previously been looked upon as inferior to those of Spanish heritage.55 This tradition of social activism through mural art related to the Chicano artists of the 1970s in that they felt that, as Chicanos, they had a responsibility to galvanize and give physical representation to the Chicano movement through their art. These young artists looked toward the examples given by the Mexican muralists for inspiration in accomplishing this.56
While in Mexico City, Torres attended the inaugural ceremonies for the Siqueiros Polyform. This is an elliptical building containing a 50,000 square foot mural by Alfor Siqueiros (at that time, the last surviving member of the three Mexican master muralists mentioned above). Torres was struck by the similarities in form that the Siqueiros Polyform had with the Coronado Bridge. He returned to Logan inspired to create concrete murals that would tower over the barrio.57
For three years, Torres and other Chicano artists lobbied city council for permission to create their murals. Finally, in 1973, the San Diego Coronado Bridge Authority gave permission for the artists to begin work on their murals.58 Painting began on 23 March 1973. Remembering the first day, Torres said:
The paints were all laid out. And there's this giganticwall there, and all of us just looking at this wall. So we pour out the paint, took some rollers, and attacked the wall with the rollers. We put color everywhere. There was at least two or three hundred people there, that all of the sudden were all over the walls.59 The artists soon discovered that they now had to overcome the enthusiasm of the community. During the first few days of painting, large crowds gathered at the walls to paint their names and draw their favorite cartoon characters. This was extremely discouraging to the artists who had waited and planned for this moment for years. Soon, however, the novelty of painting wore off, and the artists were left to their murals.60
Since then, many different artists, Chicano and otherwise, have come into Barrio Logan to make their contribution to Chicano Park. It has grown to be the largest collection of Chicano murals in the world.61 The park has gained worldwide recognition as an excellent example of contemporary art, and, in March of 1980, was officially designated a San Diego Historical Site.62 Tourists come from Latin America, Europe, and other parts of the United States to see what are considered to be some of the finest murals outside of Mexico City.
To the community of Logan, however, and to Chicanos throughout San Diego, Chicano Park remains a physical and constant reminder of a time when Chicanos came together as a community to fight for what they believed was right.63 Evidence for this can be seen in the way that the founding of Chicano Park continues to be remembered. In April of 1971, the community of Logan Heights gathered to celebrate the first anniversary of the Chicano Park takeover. The neighborhood has made this an annual tradition in which residents share food, mariachi music, and ballet folklorico64 performed by local youths. Political speeches have also become an integral part of the festivities memorializing Chicano Park. Each year residents seek to remind themselves that they had gained an effective political voice on 22 April 1970. To many that day marked the rebirth of Logan Heights as a community with a future. Barrio residents had managed to halt a move by the state that threatened to further diminish their neighborhood. During one Chicano Park Day celebration, a resident stopped to remark, "In most of our lives, this is probably the only time we've had a voice. It's not much of a park, but it's ours."65
To many others, Chicano Park has taken on an even greater significance. They view the park as the first land reclaimed by Mexican descendents since the end of the Mexican-American War.66 Viewing the park in historical terms was present from its beginning. On the very day of the land takeover, the flag of Aztlan was raised by demonstrators.67 From this action, the historical context in which many Chicanos view the park becomes clear. Not only do they view it as vindication for their Mexican ancestors of the nineteenth century, but it is vindication for their indigenous ancestors of the sixteenth century as well. What may be most amazing about Chicano Park today, however, is that the spirit of community involvement that led to the realization of the park has never gone away. Chicano Park Day is not merely a day for community socializing, nor is it simply an expression of cultural unity. As is true of the park itself, the anniversary of the takeover has maintained a quality of political significance that reminds barrio residents of the struggles they have gone through, and continue to experience as a community and as a minority group.68
It is the memory of that fight that continues to feed the pride that local Chicanos feel for Chicano Park. Though the park has gained world-wide recognition for its murals, it holds a deeper significance in Logan Heights. Community members remember the realization of this place as a time when they came together and demanded to be heard. The occupation of the land under the bridge is remembered as a defining moment that stated to those who sought to transform the neighborhood into an industrial area that barrio residents would not go passively. For this reason, the park probably would not hold the significance it does if the community did not have to struggle to get it. The murals, in part, are a reflection of that struggle. As a cultural monument as well as a political symbol, Chicano Park constantly reminds Logan Heights residents of the day that they took back their neighborhood.
1. Frank Norris, "Logan Heights: Growth and Change in the Old 'East End'," Journal of San Diego History 26 (Winter 1983): 32.
2. While to most English speakers the word "barrio" may connote a ghetto populated with Latinos, in Spanish the word simply means neighborhood.
3. Pamela Jane Ferree, "The Murals of Chicano Park" (M.A. thesis, San Diego State University, 1994), 25.
4. Chicano Park, Marilyn Milford, producer, Marilyn Milford and Mario Barrera, directors, 58 min., Red Bird Films, 1988, videocassette.
5. Ferree, "The Murals of Chicano Park," 26.
6. Richard Griswold del Castillo, interview by Kevin Delgado, 6 November 1997.
7. Ferree, "The Murals of Chicano Park," 26.
8. Victor Ochoa, interview by Kevin Delgado, 19 January 1998.
9. Chicano Park video.
10. Ferree, "The Murals of Chicano Park," 26.
11. The term "Chicano" is derived from the Spanish word "Mexicano." The first two letters of the word have been dropped and the soft "x" sound has been changed to the hard "ch" sound. Chicano was taken up by activists in the 1960s to replace the term Mexican-American. The term "Chicano," however, is rejected by some Mexican-Americans to this day because they feel that it holds negative connotations attributed to the pachuco gangs of the 1940s and the cholo gangs of today. To many others, though, Chicano means a person of Mexican descent who lives in both his homeland and the homeland of his ancestors.
12. Ferree, "The Murals of Chicano Park," 3.
13. Chicano Park video.
14. Philip Brookman and Guillermo Gomez Peña, Made in Aztlan (San Diego: Centro Cultural de la Raza, 1986), 16.
15. Alan W. Barnett, Community Murals, (Cranbury, N.J.: Associated Universities Press, 1984), 107.
16. Aztlan is the mythical homeland of the Aztecs, located somewhere in the American Southwest. According to legend, CuatEmoc, the last ruler of the Aztecs, prophesied that his people would find Aztlan again. This is seen by many Chicanos (combined with the dubious nature of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ceded the northern half of Mexico to the United States in 1848) as further justification of their right to lay claim to that area.
17. Brookman and Pena, Made in Aztlan, 16.
18. Barnett, Community Murals, 107.
19. Ochoa interview.
20. Chicano Park video.
21. "State Awards Land Lease Near Bridge," San Diego Union , 24 July 1969, sec. B, 2.
22. "City Planning Park Project Near Bridge," San Diego Union , 9 November 1969, sec. G, 8.
23. Beth Coffelt, "No Man's Land: A Transformation," San Diego Magazine , December 1973, 108.
24. Chicano Park video.
25. "Delay Ordered on CHP Project Near Bridge," San Diego Union , 23 April 1970, sec. B, 1.
26. Chicano Park video.
27. Eva Cockcroft, "The Story of Chicano Park," Aztlan 15 (Spring 1984): 82.
28. "Delay Ordered," sec. B, 1.
29. Ibid., sec. B, 3.
31. "'We'll Have Our Park' Chicanos Say," San Diego Union , 24 April 1970, sec. B, 4.
32. Coffelt, "No Man's Land," 110.
33. Cockcroft, "The Story of Chicano Park," 80.
34. Larry Baza, interview by Kevin Delgado, 16 January 1998.
35. "Heavens Open Up to Aid Park Plan," San Diego Union , 28 April 1970, sec. B, 3.
36. Ochoa interview.
37. Nancy Ray, "Chicanos Vacate Bay Bridge Site, " San Diego Union , 1 May 1970, sec. B, 1.
38. Ochoa interview.
39. Vi Murphy, "Williams Vows City Gift of Park," San Diego Union , 5 May 1970, sec. B, 3.
40. "City Authorizes $21,814.96 for Coronado Bridge Park," San Diego Union , 1 July 1970, sec. B, 3.
41. "We'll Have Our Park," sec. B, 1.
42. David Brownell, "Terms OKd for Chicano Park Here," San Diego Union , 3 July 1970, sec. B, 1.
43. "Chicanos Prod Council on Park," San Diego Union , 3 March 1971, sec. B, 8.
44. "Lease Agreement Assures 'Chicano People's Park' Use," San Diego Union , 10 June 1970, sec. B, 2.
45. "Reagan OKs City-State Land Trade," San Diego Union , 25 May 1971, sec. B, 1.
46. "City Approves Chicano Park Deal for Land," San Diego Union , 12 November 1971, sec. B, 3.
47. Ferree, "The Murals of Chicano Park," 33.
48. Coffelt, "No Man's Land," 111
49. Salvador Torres, Victor Ochoa, Guillermo Aranda, Coyote Tonacatecutli, Mario Acuedo, Armando Nunez, Arban Quevedo, Salvador Barajas, Guillermo Rosete, Jose Cervantes, and Arturo Ramon.
50. Lee Grant, "Chicano Artists Go to the Wall," San Diego Union , 13 May 1973, sec. E, 1.
51. Coffelt, "No Man's Land," 106.
52. "We'll Have Our Park," sec. B, 3.
53. Coffelt, "No Man's Land," 106.
54. One who has both Spanish and indigenous heritage; the majority of Mexicans.
55. Michael Brady, interview by Kevin Delgado, 15 December 1997.
56. Larry Baza, interview.
57. Coffelt, "No Man's Land," 106.
58. Ferree, "The Murals of Chicano Park," 38.
59. Chicano Park video.
61. Richard Griswold del Castillo, interview by Kevin Delgado, 6 November 1997.
62. City of San Diego Historical Site Board, "Chicano Park," HSB No. #143, San Diego History Center.
63. Griswold del Castillo, interview.
64. Traditional Mexican dances.
65. Chicano Park video.
66. Griswold del Castillo, interview.
67. Chicano Park video.
68. Cockcroft, "The Story of Chicano Park," 85.
Kevin Delgado is a 1988 graduate of San Diego State University with a B.A. in history and English. He plans to pursue a graduate degree in writing. Originally from Torrington, Wyoming, Mr. Delgado has lived in San Diego for the past ten years.