Santa Barbara’s Chicano Murals Shown the Door: How the Ortega Park Murals Are Being Rescued

Campesinos – Armando Vallejo 1979 (photo by Barbara Parmet)

by Mark Moses Alvarado

On November 12th, 2020, the City of Santa Barbara Parks and Recreation Department held an online community meeting to review redesign concepts for Ortega Park, which was first built in 1930 over a landfill. I asked City staff during that meeting what efforts were being made to preserve the historic Chicano murals that live in the park? I was told that the murals could not be saved due to the construction of new buildings in the park, but that there would be new opportunities for public art with the construction of these new structures.

In recent years, the park was being misused by neighborhood homeless individuals co-mingling with local inebriates. Residents complained about illicit drug and alcohol abuse. There were also reports associated with fighting and prostitution. It got so bad that former City Council Member Jason Dominguez engaged in an altercation with one of the homeless regulars that required the police and had the homeless person banned from the park. Otherwise, the park was a pick-up basketball spot for local Latino men in the evenings and weekends. Saturday mornings the park’s softball outfield was converted into youth soccer fields with droves of Latino parents attending in lawn chairs and popup tents cheering on their children. The small lap pool had been used infrequently for swimming lessons and open swim for neighborhood kids during the summer and the small Welcome House was also periodically rented out for social occasions by the Latino community.

As the homeless issue proliferated throughout the city, Ortega Park became a flashpoint and an ideal project to demonstrate how a complete redesign could attract old and new users to the park by upgrading its amenities into the 21st century and essentially revitalizing the park as a gentrified community-wide destination.

In 2018, the City began a worthy community outreach effort to begin the redesign process with an out-of-town consultant. I participated in a bulk of those charrettes that were well attended but I did find it a bit disingenuous that leaders and parents from Pony Baseball on the Northside of town showed up with kids in team uniforms. This was obviously a ploy to lobby for a new baseball diamond versus building a soccer complex, which is more compatible with the existing Saturday morning matches, practice time and neighborhood culture. I’m also acquainted with somebody who sat on the Pony board at that time and he confirmed that their leadership was actively talking to the Parks and Recreation Department about creating new playing fields for the Pony League. The final design recommendation splits the baby in half with a shared soccer/baseball field design over an artificial surface. Overall, the redesign plans are top shelf and present elements and amenities that you would find anywhere in the United States. Unfortunately, the redesign does not capture the legacy of the park, it’s neighborhood culture or the identity of the Latino community. Perhaps if the design had incorporated the murals from the beginning of this process, we would be having a different discussion regarding the life of Ortega Park.

Once I realized that the City had no intention to preserve the artwork finished by local artists, that included Manuel Unzueta, Armando Vallejo, Carlos Cuellar, along with Mexican artists who were part of a sister cities exchange in Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco, along with community and youth volunteers, I recalled asking City officials about the murals during the community charrettes. I was told during that period that anything associated with public art would be discussed later. Hence, the November 12th meeting where the public was told the murals would be destroyed.

At that point, myself and One Community Bridge Project consultant Anna Pihoefer began to research the Parks and Recreation staff report scheduled for a Planning Commission hearing on November 19th. In that report, we found that the required California Quality Environmental Act(CEQA) assessment of structures did not include the murals. The CEQA provisions clearly state that if any of the structures hold a social, cultural or political significance, they must be assessed for conservation. The report filed by the City’s Urban Historian, Nicole Hernandez, stated that the structures had “insignificant impact”. I contacted Ms. Hernandez and she requested that Manuel Unzueta and I meet her at the park on Monday November 16th. She also stated that she was only asked to assess the buildings and not the murals that live throughout each structure in the park.

When we met with her, we toured the murals and she apologized for not assessing the work as part of the CEQA report. At that point she encouraged me to submit a request to designate the murals as “Structures of Merit” per approval by the City’s Historic Landmark Commission. I did that the following day and I also included the California Preservation Arts Act, which protects the murals by law and requires the City to seek permission from the artists in order to alter the work.

By Tuesday afternoon on November 17th, I was notified by the City that the scheduled hearing to the Planning Commission had been cancelled indefinitely. The proposed destruction of the murals received valuable news coverage in Noozhawk, the Santa Barbara Independent and KEYT television. This coverage along with our notification about the CEQA assessment, request to designate the murals as structures of merit and the provisions found in the California Preservation Arts Act are believed to be factors behind the cancellation of the Planning Commission hearing. It was also interesting how Parks and Recreation Director Jill Zachary stated in the KEYT story that there were always plans to preserve the murals. Which was a straight up contradiction from what her staff stated at the November 12th community meeting.

Incidentally, on Thursday November 19th, I was contacted by Planning Commissioner Jay Higgins. He requested that I speak on the murals during the scheduled meeting even though the Ortega Park item had been deleted by the City. He stated that it was odd that the City would cancel its own hearing 48 hours before the meeting and that it was important that the public understood what was happening from a community perspective. I spoke during general public comment explaining our findings and why the murals are so valuable to the history of the Eastside neighborhood. A staff person from the City also spoke and stated that the Parks Department was committed to exploring means to understand and preserve the murals.

On the following day, I attended a conference hosted by the McCune Foundation and met Gail Osherenko. She is the cousin to Dr. Holly Barnet-Sanchez, who is an arts historian and professor emeritus at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. She and Dr. Tim Drescher published “Give Me Life: Iconography and Identity in East LA Murals” In fact, Dr. Drescher is the leading authority for the preservation of public murals in California. Both Dr. Barnet-Sanchez and Dr. Drescher have offered their support and expertise for the preservation of the Ortega Park murals. I must state that when Dr. Barnet-Sanchez told me that the murals belong to a significant collection of public Chicano works from San Diego to San Francisco and that if you touch one, you touch them all. I immediately recognized that all of these murals hold the same significance as the sister missions up and down the California coast.

I’ve also and most importantly have been working with two of the primary Ortega Park artists, Manual Unzueta and Armando Vallejo. Both have asked me personally to assist them with organizing an effort to save all of the murals living in the park. Even though the City has made contact with both of these artists and others in an effort to pivot their initial position to destroy the work, it’s vital that all of the artists receive support from the community. As a community and Eastside neighborhood, we are entering into uncharted territory regarding the full public preservation of our Chicano art and equally our ethnic history and cultural legacy in Santa Barbara.

I’d also like to recognize the support of the City’s Arts Advisory Committee. Specifically, Kai Teppar and Freddie Janka, who both spoke out against the destruction of the murals at the November 24th City Council meeting. The Committee also requested that the Parks and Recreation Department provide an update report at their December 17th public meeting, where both myself and former SBCC MECHA leader Diana Cabral spoke in support of the murals. Parks staff provided an overview of the Ortega Park redesign and a commitment to hire a mural conservator to assess the significance of the work. The Arts Advisory Committee expressed full support for the preservation of the murals. One member was dismayed that he was not even aware of the park improvement project, let alone the proposed destruction of the murals. Other members expressed disappointment that the City ignored their expertise in the community and as a public body that is qualified to review the preservation of public art. It’s quite evident that if the City had utilized their input from the beginning the issue of saving the work would have taken a different route. But it also speaks of how our Chicano public art is valued by public officials. Surely, if the Dolphin Fountain at Stearns Wharf or the Chromatic Gate at Cabrillo Field were to be impacted by redevelopment, the City would have paid closer attention to the significance of those works and what they mean to the people of Santa Barbara.

On December 28th, I was contacted by Kiernan Graves who was hired by the City to assess the Ortega Park murals for their preservation. Myself and arts consultant Anna Pilhoefer met with Ms. Graves on January 5th. We were encouraged that Ms. Graves expressed a commitment to help save the murals to the greatest extent possible, but often stated that she was working for the City and that she could only provide recommendations. The meeting was recorded and Mrs. Pilhoefer attended not only to support the rescuing of the murals, but also as a principle witness of what was stated in the meeting. I anticipate that we will have further engagement with Ms. Graves as I also gave her contact information for other community members advocating for the preservation of the work.

At this time of writing this article, we are hoping this information can be circulated widely to bring further support and attention to the preservation of the murals. I need to recognize Chicana/o activist Michael Montenegro for speaking out first about the murals and the need to preserve Chumash culture in Santa Barbara through public art in Santa Barbara. We are also thankful for photojournalist Barbara Parmet for documenting all of the current work. She is committed to seeing that these images find a home in a local museum or library. She is also eager to help film a documentary on this rescue effort. We are very fortunate to have the academic support of Dr. Barnet-Sanchez and Dr. Drescher, along with input we have received from Dr. Dennis Bixler-Marquez, Chair of the Chicano Studies Department at the University of Texas-El Paso. We are reaching out to Chicano/Chicana Studies at UCSB for their support as well. I’d also like to acknowledge the continued assistance and spiritual lift provided by Diana Cabral. She is Manuel Unzueta’s niece and worked on the murals as a youngster. She is currently the Director of Danza Aztlan at Cal-State Northridge. I also want to thank Sojourner Kincaid-Rolle for reaching out and expressing her love and gratitude for this effort along with members of Healing Justice Santa Barbara and United Corazon. Lastly, Ortega Park neighbor, Ann Hefferman, has been instrumental by contacting muralist Javier Nino in Mexico. His work still lives in Ortega Park. Ann is also one of the organizers for the annual IMadonnari at the Santa Barbara Mission and is planning a tribute to the Ortega Park Murals.

Mark Moses Alvarado – Founder
One Community Bridge Project
Santa Barbara, CA