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A new children's book explores the protest that built Chicano Park

 June 20, 2024 at 1:45 PM PDT

S1: Hey , San Diego , it's Andrew Bracken in for Jade Hyneman. Today we speak with the San Diego author and hear about their new children's book that tells the story of how Chicano Park came to be and the community activism behind it. This is KPBS Midday Edition. Connecting our communities through conversation. For over half a century now , Barrio Logan's Chicano Park has been a beacon for Mexican-American heritage and pride in San Diego and beyond. Its famous murals helped it to become a national landmark , and it continues to be an important symbol of Latino identity here in the region and beyond. The park and its history also serve as a reminder of the power of community action in bringing about change. The history of Chicano Park and the community effort to bring it to life is the subject of a new children's book called Barrio Rising. I'm joined now by the San Diego author behind the book , Maria Dolores Aguilar. Maria , welcome to Midday Edition. Hi.

S2: Hi. Thank you for having me.

S1: So , Maria , you're from National City , not too far from Chicano Park.

S2: And I mean , anytime I go on the five freeway , I pass by it. And as a child , I would , like hang out the window just to look to see , you know , what was on the murals. My father worked in the tuna canneries when they used to be in Barrio Logan , and he would tell me stories about that. And I also went to the the medical clinic , the Family Heights Logan Health Center as a child. So I have a lot of , you know , roots there , and I've lived next to it my entire life. So it's always been like in the periphery of my life here in San Diego.


S2: I just know that the murals were there and that was it. Like , I didn't have any conception of how they had got there. And I even took Chicano studies in high school , and they just never told us , you know , like this is this , this amazing thing that Chicano community has accomplished. But we didn't weren't taught that , you know , we just learned things like , you know , Cesar Chavez and the great boycotts and stuff like that. But we never learned what was like literally in our own backyard.


S2: Like , I just would love to lose myself in books. And one thing that I always noticed , as is there wasn't anybody that looked like me or my family in these books. And so you kind of get the message that maybe my story is not important. So that's why I wrote this book for children. So children that were like I was conceived , that they come from this long history of resistance and resilience and that their stories do matter.

S1: So your book , it adds a fictional layer to a very true story of how Chicano Park came to be.

S2: And I think it basically starts back when they lost access to the beach and bayfront , when the naval station was built. And then after that , the neighborhood was zoned from residential to industrial without knowledge of the residents. Like they had no idea , like why all of a sudden there was junkyards next to schools and houses and why there was heavy industry. So all of.

S1: It really impacted , like the air quality and stuff. Exactly.

S2: Exactly. And Barrio Logan , like National City , has one of the poorest air qualities in the region. And not just that , but also there was the expansion of the five freeway , the addition of the Coronado Bridge that basically broke Barrio Logan in half. Right. Because now we have Barrio Logan and we have Logan Heights on the other side of the freeway. So the neighborhood had undergone a lot of , you know , suffering up until that point. And , you know , they just accepted it as progress. Right ? Like , this is the cost. This is just how it is. Right ? But they had been asking for a green space , you know , a park for the kids. So on the morning of April , you know , 1970 , someone from the neighborhood , Mario Solis , he gets up and , you know , he's just going about his day and he sees these bulldozers and other earthmovers underneath the the bridge. And he's like , oh , wow. You know , they're building the park. And so he goes and talks to the guys , but he's like , oh no , we're not building a park. We're going to build a California Highway Patrol substation , a police station. And they were like shocked , you know , because they didn't know that this was going to happen. And so one of the things that they call Mario Solis is they call him the Paul Revere of Chicano Park , because after he found this out , he started going from house to house , you know , rallying people , telling them to start going down to the construction site. He went to stores , you know , women were doing their daily shopping. They left all their stuff , and they went to the construction site , and the whole community just converged on that site , and they put a stop to the work that they were doing.

S1: And another key figure in the story is Laura Rodriguez. What can you tell us about her and her role in this ? You know , in the history of the park.

S2: Laura Rodriguez was the initial inspiration for Barrio Rising. I had seen the tribute mural for Laura Rodriguez on Cesar Chavez Parkway , and when I had seen it , I was like , who is that ? Like , I need to Google more information. And when I had found out about her , you know , about her life , it was so fascinating. She was born to a father who was blind , who sold newspapers. So every day before she went to school , she would walk him to downtown San Diego. He would sell newspapers and. Then after school she would , you know , pick him up and they would go home. And he was very ill. And he knew that his end was coming. And he took Laura and his sister and her sister to an orphanage in Los Angeles to leave them. And , you know , the orphanage was like , no , you know , we can't do that. So they came back home and they were actually , um , the Marsden family , the sisters that were working in the neighborhood house at that time , like , took an interest in Laura. And when her father passed , they went to go , um , they , like , basically took her in as her own. And so Laura went to go live with the Marstons. And , I mean , could you imagine going from living in Barrio Logan to living with one of the most prominent families of San Diego ? Like the difference , right ? But she goes over there and I guess she still has a patio in her heart , because at 16 , she meets a guy and they go back to the barrio. So , um , you know , she does that and , you know , she just lives her life. You know , she becomes a mother , a grandmother , and so everybody knows who she is in Barrio Logan. But also in that time , you know , Hispanic women , Latino women were kind of , like , expected to have a certain decorum , you know , not to be , you know , ruffling feathers and all that stuff. So the whole community is converging on the construction site. And in that moment , Dona Laura , Laura Rodriguez , she lays down in front of the earth mover , and it inspires everybody like it's it's like it ignites the whole moment , the movement that's going on under there. And I think it just like resolved everyone like , wow , this Laura is , you know , laying down in front of the earth mover. She's ready to like , you know , give it all for this park , for our community. And it was incredible what she did.

S1: Yeah , it's an amazing story. I mean , and another piece of this that I think comes through in the book is also that this effort to bring Chicano Park to life was not , you know , merely the act of 1 or 2 really , you know , courageous people. But just like the power of community , right ? Mhm. Yes.

S2: Yes. Community is at the heart of Barrio Logan. Like that is what the , the story is really about , about how a group of ordinary people can come together to accomplish something amazing. And not only that , they're just ordinary people. They're students , they're grandmothers , they're they're children , they're older people. You know , it's just regular people.

S1: You're listening to KPBS. Midday edition will be back after the break. Welcome back to Midday Edition on KPBS. We continue now our conversation with author Maria Dolores Aguilar about her new book , Barrio Rising. And so the book centers on a little girl named Elena and her dream for a park.

S2: And then you know how she feels when she finds out it's not a park , and how she has to make a decision of how she's going to participate in this takeover. You know , thinking of my own children , I don't know if they would see that and be like , oh , we want to go to a park and , you know , protest. So I think she acts as an avatar for readers to step into this experience that might be different from their own and make that leap of bravery in a way that maybe they can transfer that to a different aspect in their own life.

S1: So I want to turn to you and your connection here. I mean , earlier you mentioned your love of literature came early.

S2: I have always loved books. There's nothing like losing yourself inside a book. Like I can be in my house , a national city. You know , growing up in a low income family , my father was a construction worker. My mother was a housekeeper. You know , we didn't have family vacations. We didn't get to go to any nice place. But I could go into a book and I could travel to a completely different time and place in a book. So I've always loved reading. However , you know , like I mentioned earlier , I never really saw anybody like myself in a book , and it wasn't until I was in seventh grade and we read the House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros , that I actually read a protagonist with the Chicano , you know , with the Chicano protagonist. And I was like , oh my God. Like , it was such an incredible moment being seen , you know ? And I just remember that feeling. And I was like , man , one day I'm going to make someone feel seen to. Yeah.

S1: Yeah. So how did that transition ? I mean , it's one thing to like , you know , find passion for reading. But when did you decide , you know , I want to tell these stories too.

S2: I'm going to go ahead and write my novel. Right ? And so , you know , I set out to do it. Yes , at ten. And I tried , but of course , I like I mentioned , I come from a family where there was no one that had a creative career , that I could kind of see what that trajectory would look like. So for a long time , it was just a dream that I had in my back pocket. But it wasn't anything that I actually knew actionable steps to take. It wasn't until I had my children and I realized , I'm raising these little people and I'm raising them. You know , I'm telling them , you have dreams like you're going to find them and you're going to want to accomplish them , but how am I going to encourage them to do something when I myself am not doing it ? So it kind of sharpened my focus. And after my second son was born and he was a year old , I was like , okay , we're going to figure out how how these books come to be. Like , I wrote a manuscript , I joined critique groups , I started going to workshops , you know , and I started sending work out and I started getting rejected. But I kept at it.

S1: I mean , that's amazing. Trying to write at ten , like , that's that's just. Yeah , that's incredible. So , you know , earlier you talked about sort of like , you know , the importance of reading the Cisneros book and finding stories of , you know , Chicano stories. Yes. You know , how do you think that landscape has changed since you were a child in terms of , I mean , are you seeing more Chicano representation in literature and culture at large than you did as a child ? Definitely.

S2: Like I said , I didn't get to see myself in a book until I was in seventh grade , whereas my kids have seen themselves since they were born. You know , when other people like , you know , are pregnant , they start buying baby clothes. I started buying books. I was like , oh my gosh , I want I can't wait to share my love of books with my kids. Like so. There is so much more representation than there was when I was a kid. However , now we're dealing with book bans , right ? Because that's that's something that's kind of affecting the landscape. You know , sometimes people don't want to bring a book into a library because it might be challenged or there might be problems , and it's just easier to avoid the controversy than to go up against it. So it's better now. But there's also new challenges.

S1: And one thing that you've made a priority of , you know , you do these visits , um , these free school visits for title one school specifically.

S2: And like I said , I didn't try to be a writer because I didn't know anyone who was in a creative career. So I firmly believe. You can't be what you don't see. So I want to go to these schools and , you know , talk to these children and encourage them to follow their dreams , that every single person has a unique story that only they can tell , but sometimes it just needs a little bit help to get out of there. And I hope I can be that spark to those children in title one schools like I was to help them tell their own stories.

S1: And writing about the people of Barrio Logan. I think this is on the back cover of your book. You say that the struggle for equity continues. Yes. Can you talk more about where you know , where the barrio is today and some of the challenges that that you see it facing ? Yes.

S2: So Barrio Logan still faces with the issue of air quality. It has one of the worst air qualities in the region , but also they're facing gentrification. The rent is very high. People that were born there are having trouble , you know. Staying in the place where they were born. So those are two issues that they're still facing today. And along with access to the beach and bayfront , they don't have , you know , equitable access as other communities do.


S2: It might not look exactly like what Elena did in the book , but it can be applied to something different. I want them to feel seen and appreciated for who they are , because sometimes when you live in a community like Elena does , like I do sometimes you get the sense that people don't care , that you know you're not seen. And I hope that they feel seen from the book.

S1: Maria Dolores Aguilar's new children's books called Barrio Rising The Protest that built Chicano Park , shall be celebrating the launch of the book at Lee books tomorrow at 6:30 p.m.. You can find more details on our website at KPBS. Org. Maria , thanks so much for sharing more about the book and congratulations.

S2: Thank you so much for having me.

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Author María Dolores Águila is pictured with her book "Barrio Rising: The Protest That Built Chicano Park."
María Dolores Águila
Courtesy of Dial Books/Penguin Young Readers and
Author María Dolores Águila is pictured with her book, "Barrio Rising: The Protest That Built Chicano Park," in this undated photo.

For over half a century, Barrio Logan’s Chicano Park has been a beacon for Mexican-American heritage and pride in San Diego.

The park's famous murals and the stories they tell helped make it a national landmark in 2016. It continues to be an important symbol of Chicano identity regionally and beyond. 

The history of Chicano Park and the community effort to bring it to life is the subject of a new children’s book called “Barrio Rising: The Protest That Built Chicano Park.” On Thursday's Midday Edition, we spoke with the author.