50 years after first Chicano Park murals, a younger generation picks up the fight
Nearly everyone passing through Chicano Park calls out to the park’s cofounder Josephine Talamantez, who squeezes them tight and asks after their families. Highway pillars surround them, covered in colorful murals. From the time of Spanish conquistadors to the present, they depict a single message of Chicano resilience and self-determination: "Aquí estamos y no nos vamos."
"We’re here, and we’re not leaving."
The space was born from this refusal.
In the 1960s, Logan Heights was a mostly Chicano community segregated from the rest of San Diego by redlining. The residents couldn’t obtain loans to live elsewhere. And then, like many states around the country, California built a highway and bridge right through the community of color — which had less resources to fight back — dividing it in half.
Talamantez estimated that three-fourths of the community was displaced. She said the highway cut off remaining residents of what was now called Barrio Logan from their church, library and post office.
They asked that the space underneath the Coronado Bridge be turned into a park in exchange for this loss. The city agreed. But when bulldozers arrived on April 22, 1970, they weren't there to create a park, but a highway patrol station.
A witness walked to City College and found Talamantez and her Chicano studies classmates to tell them what was happening.
They rose, marched the two miles back and placed their bodies in front of the bulldozers.
“We were going to create our own park, because we had gotten tired of being disrespected and basically treated like we had no place in our country,” Talamantez said.
The irony of the date is not lost on Talamantez — on the very first Earth Day, the protestors risked jail time for trying to build a park.
Within a couple hours, Talamantez said a couple hundred people gathered.
“It spread like wildfire,” she said.
The occupation would last 12 days before the city began negotiating, but Talamantez said she knew they won from the start.
“We were not going to leave. Simple as that,” she said.
They did win, and worked together to build their park.
One family loaned their tractor. Some neighbors began tilling the land and planting, others set up food stations to feed the volunteers.
In 1973, artists took paintbrushes to the highway pillars to create the now-famous murals.
In the decades that followed, the Ku Klux Klan threw paint bombs at them. When the artists repainted, they incorporated the incident into the new mural, so the community would never forget. White supremacist threats to the murals continued, some as recent as 2018.
The park had an educational mission since the beginning.
“We’re Chicanos,” Talamantez said, “and we’re going to create our own culture and teach you about us until you can get to the point where you recognize our value.”
Over the years, industry and the Navy crept into the neighborhood, taking over the beach where many spent their weekends, occupying more than half of Barrio Logan and creating some of California’s worst air pollution.
The Environmental Protection Agency now marks the neighborhood as having a higher cancer risk than 80-90% of the country.
And what remains faces a new threat — it’s now viewed as “a hip place to live,” Talamantez said.
“I mean, there was a property that just sold for $1.2 million here in the hood,” she laughs in disbelief. “And so we’re losing the last of our residents.”
Like Talamantez, most of the original protestors are in their 70s. Some have died.
Last year marked the end of the 52-year cycle of the Aztec calendar. Lit by firelight, the older generation broke pots to signify the end of their own cycle.
Chicano youth read the names of those who passed and those who did significant work, before breaking pots to signify that they’re picking up the fight.
They replaced the elders by stoking the fire, making sure it wouldn’t go out.
The community was destroyed by political decisions that were made without them at the table, Talamantez said, “and that’s why it’s necessary for us to work with the next generation to understand what we had to learn the hard way.”
Raquel “Rocky” Tonantzin Aguayo Esquivias chairs the group representing the younger generation, the Aztlán Youth Brigade.
She grew up swinging in the park while her mother painted the pillars. It was a respite from the predominantly white schools she attended; somewhere she could see her brown skin and her history writ large, a space created just for Chicanos like her.
From her “down Chicana” mother, she received an education she said she didn’t get in school, about the Aztecs, the Chichimecas, the Toltecas and the long fight she was joining.
Like Talamantez, she’s wary of how rising prices are pushing the community out. She’s watched a dozen storefronts change as their owners were bought out. Not just on Logan Avenue, she said, but throughout the neighborhood.
Esquivias, Talamantez and the others on the park’s committee are not resting.
A long-fought-for park museum just opened to the public. They’re working to implement an electric bus to help elderly residents get to the park. And they have another big dream: placing a lid on the highway to connect the community again for the first time since the 1960s. Local leaders, including Congressman Juan Vargas, have signaled support for the idea.
In the face of gentrification, Talamantez said the park’s message will always remain the same: Aquí estamos y no nos vamos.
The U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear a case from Poway that could change how political discourse is regulated on social media. In other news, we hear about Chicano Park’s legacy and its future. Plus, a new exhibit dedicated to one of the most celebrated cartoonists in Mexico is open at the Comic-Con Museum in Balboa Park.
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