San Diego’s Chicano Park Celebrates Its Anniversary – The New York Times

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Fifty-two years after its creation, the park still represents a struggle for recognition and power in California.
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SAN DIEGO — Below crisscrossing freeway overpasses and the whooshing of speeding cars is one of the largest collections of outdoor murals in the United States.
Frida Kahlo’s distinct features are rendered huge on a concrete pylon. Majestic Aztec warriors prepare for battle. On a recent afternoon, a woman stopped to photograph Cesar Chavez and other Latino leaders painted on the side of a highway off-ramp.
This is Chicano Park, the heart of San Diego’s oldest Mexican American neighborhood, known as Barrio Logan. The park, which will mark its 52nd anniversary on Friday, remains a symbol of Latinos’ struggle for recognition and power in this border city as well as the rest of California.
“In most of our lives, this is probably the only time that we’ve ever had a voice — a say in something we wanted,” Jose Gomez, one of the leaders in the creation of the park, said in “Chicano Park,” a 1988 documentary. “You know, it’s not much of a park, but it’s our park.”
In the early 1960s, a heavily Latino neighborhood in southeastern San Diego known as Logan Heights was bifurcated by the construction of Interstate 5. Just a few years later, the newly built Coronado Bridge carved another path through the community and dislocated even more families.
Though Mexican Americans had long been accustomed to not being included in decisions made by government officials, many began to feel more empowered during the civil rights movement. So residents of the neighborhood they called Barrio Logan demanded a park to make up for what had been lost.
In 1969, officials agreed to designate green space underneath bridge pylons that now pierced the community. But in April 1970, bulldozers arrived to raze the land to construct a California Highway Patrol station, not a park.
This led to a takeover of the three-acre parcel, with protesters forming a human chain around the bulldozers to halt further construction. The group occupied the park for 12 days, as demonstrators flooded in from nearby homes and Chicano studies classes while other activists traveled from Los Angeles and Santa Barbara to support the movement.
Fed up with years of disregard from the city, protesters planted cactuses, flowers and trees to create a garden on their own.
“What have you given us? A social system that makes us beggars and police who make us afraid?” a demonstrator who identified himself only as a San Diego State University student told city officials on April 23, 1970, according to a history compiled by S.D.S.U. researchers. “We’ve got the land and we are going to work it. We are going to get that park. We no longer talk about asking. We have the park.”
On May 1, city leaders agreed to build a park on the land in Barrio Logan. Thus, Chicano Park was born.
Kera Lovell, a history professor at the University of Utah, told me there were at least four dozen such park takeovers in the United States in the 1960s and ’70s. The most well-known is Berkeley’s People’s Park, which was founded the year before Chicano Park.
These acts of protest most likely became popular as Americans grappled with the issues of land rights and imperialism during the Vietnam War and an era of urban renewal.
“It just calls into question who owns the space and what is power,” Lovell told me. “I don’t know if they were ever meant to last.”
But Chicano Park has.
Four years after the park takeover in 1970, Latino artists began to cover the concrete surfaces in the park with paintings that told the stories of their people. Today more than 80 murals are splashed along several blocks, depicting an array of images, including lowrider culture and deaths at the border.
In 2017, Chicano Park was named a National Historic Landmark. It’s currently being considered for designation by the National Park Service.
“The pillars are pretty awful. They’re gray and stark — but they see them as these canvases that they’re going to paint about their life in this world in which they’re being displaced,” Lovell told me. “In my work, I say Chicano Park is a success as far as not just survival, but thriving.”
For more:
The annual Chicano Park Day on April 22 is typically an in-person celebration, but it has gone virtual because of the pandemic. See more about events planned for this week.
The University of San Diego assembled a guide to the dozens of murals in the park.
Listen to Los Alacranes’s song “Chicano Park,” which tells the story of how it came to be.
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Thanks for reading. I’ll be back tomorrow. — Soumya
P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword, and a clue: Do a great job (5 letters).
Mariel Wamsley and Jonah Candelario contributed to California Today. You can reach the team at CAtoday@nytimes.com.
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