In the Los Angeles neighborhood of Boyle Heights, on the corner of Soto Street and Cesar Chavez Avenue, a brightly colored mural masks the wall behind a bus stop. At the center of the image, a woman sings proudly. She’s surrounded by men playing musical instruments and a couple dancing in swirls of bright colors.
The mural is called El Corrido de Boyle Heights, or The Ballad of Boyle Heights. It was painted in 1983, and it’s one of thousands of similar murals that started popping up in 1960s — murals that portray Chicano culture and heritage. The images speak to the Chicano political movement, which animated many Mexican-Americans in LA, and to the broader issues of their time: the Vietnam War, environmental degradation, education, civil rights.
But El Corrido de Boyle Heights has started to fade, and graffiti obscures parts of the scene. Other murals like this one have been whitewashed or destroyed, torn down or covered up by the city or new businesses moving into the neighborhood. A new exhibition in downtown LA aims to call attention to the murals, both those that remain and those that have disappeared.
Erin Curtis is the curator of “¡Murales Rebeldes! LA Chicana/o Murals under Siege.” She says, “Some murals have been painted over as neighborhoods change; other murals have been censored or contested because of their political content.”
Curtis says LA was once viewed as the mural capital of the world. And yet, at a time when street art is more revered than ever (works by the English artist Banksy go for more than $1 million at auction), the Chicano murals of LA aren’t given the same respect.
Curtis says, “It speaks to the collective value that we place on artworks based on who is making them. … Within this community, this work is valued, but often outside this community it’s not seen in the same way and not regarded in the same way. There are methods, like this sort of communal work, that Chicano artists were doing years before it became popular in the broader art world.”
LA’s Chicano muralists fought back against this very culture of exclusion: They weren’t let into museums, so they made art where they could.
“Chicano muralists really worked on breaking down those distinctions between high art and low art,” Curtis says. “They often worked outside of museums because institutional spaces didn’t welcome Chicano artists at that time. So they forged their own paths and started to work in a different style. They worked on walls outdoors; they did these murals with the input of the local community.”