Imaginary Borders

Mural painted by the artist Juana Alicia

Is it true what Eva Cockcroft and Holly Barnet-Sanchez say in the opening chapter to Signs from the Heart: California Chicano Murals: “Public art provides a society with the symbolic representation of collective beliefs as well as a continuing reaffirmation of the collective sense of self”? In regards to Chicano Muralism (sometimes referred to as “U.S. street muralism”) this definition is not always congruous. Actually, pubic art in general, doesn’t fit this definition, especially sculptural works, which are most often either culturally specific or universally abstract. Chicano murals, or any culture’s murals for that matter, are very distinctive to that culture, not representing “collective beliefs,” but rather depicting a specific culture’s beliefs and attitudes.

In American cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego, Chicano murals are very Chicano, expressing that culture’s cosmos. I wouldn’t generalize Chicano Muralism by claiming it to be an art form of “collective beliefs” that represent America in its totality, because I don’t believe there can be a singular American mural style, just like there can’t be what literary critics term “the great American novel.” American culture is heterogeneous and complex. American public art provides society with specific cultural viewpoints that contain a multitude of beliefs and expressions. Within the spectrum of Chicano art there is an immense diversity of themes, yet they are filtered. In America, the mirror we look into is a prism, and likewise there are no collective beliefs found in pubic art, but rather pesonal expressions.

A mural can therefore be defined differently depending on its context and who is creating it. In the context of Chicano Muralism it is specifically cultural, has roots and tradition, and is a public art because it is presented in public spaces. But these public spaces are not “public” in the true sense of the word; rather they are community and cultural spaces. You don’t see Chicano murals in San Francisco’s Pacific Heights or the Marina district, you most often see them in the Mission, where there is a Chicano community. So one could say that public murals belong to neighborhoods or that Chicano Muralism belongs to barrios.

Judith Baca, one of the pioneers of contemporary muralism said that murals “break down the divisions among … people, give them information and change their environment.” This is again a generalization that doesn’t always hold true. We get a sense of what Baca is saying, that murals do change people, or change a specific people within a specific community. Actually, murals change neighborhoods more than they change entire cities, states, or countries. I don’t see Chicano murals in the Mission break down the division among people who live in Pacific Heights, the Marina, or the Sunset. Most people who even live in the Mission don’t see the murals around them, so how are they going to affect a community of people who live a few miles away that rarely, if ever, venture into the Mission? So in terms of Baca’s definition I argue that “people” and “environment” translates to specific communities.

Public murals are community specific. They are local and stay close to home. They, for the most part, educate a people who, if they see the mural, are already familiar with the content, history, and politics. Murals in this sense serve to remind and to inspire those who are willing to see them. But in another sense, public murals are futile, invisible, because it is a fact that many people don’t notice them.

However, the mural within the community, and more precisely the artistic community, has merit. One can define the Chicano mural as creating an artistic and political community within a larger cultural community. It is an art form that is no doubt beautiful and helps embellish a neighborhood or barrio and so this has merit too.

In a utopian world, I would opt for murals to be created everywhere in all communities. Why not have murals painted in Pacific Heights that depict that culture of money, success, and I suppose the American Dream, or murals in Japantown that reflect that culture? If this kind of utopian vision came true, how would the mural be defined then? Most likely, how I am defining Chicano Muralism now, as an expression very specific to a culture or neighborhood.


It is one thing to wish for world peace, yet another to view human history and see that the cycle of human behavior has never warranted it. History is one long human argument, whereas optimistic art reflects unachieved, utopian dreams.

The themes of Chicano murals can be just about anything and everything. Yet, I’m surprised by the limited cosmos of Chicano subject matter. If you think about what art can say, Chicano Muralism tends to be confined by imaginary borders as if afraid to leave its universe and venture beyond. It pales in comparison to other Latino art mediums, especially the visual collages by Alma Lopez and performances of Guillermo Gomez-Pena. Within Chicano muralism’s cosmos, however, many themes have varied from Pre-Columbian and religious symbolism to historical events such as the Mexican Revolution and the Spanish conquistadors. Portraits of famous figures such as Cesar Chavez, Emiliano Zapata, and Ernesto “Che” Guevara have routinely been depicted. Political murals have addressed themes such as drug abuse, gangs, police brutality, and community. Decorative themes have included what is termed “Supergraphics” (stylized graphics), geometric abstraction, organic abstractions, and motifs from Latino folk art.

On a positive note, newer themes developed since 1975 to the present, have proposed a new ideology and sense of community. The mural has expanded its consciousness and has addressed world issues, not just local community concerns. Some of the most visible motifs occurring in the contemporary murals are solidarity and the depiction of peoples of color. One of San Francisco’s local projects, the Balmy Alley Mural Environment created more than twenty-five murals based on Central American solidarity and were painted by a group of multiethnic artists in 1984. That same year, in response to the Olympic Games hosted in Los Angeles, Judith Baca depicted female athletes of color as part of her Great Wall mural. At the same time a mural project was funded and located along one of Los Angeles’ downtown freeways. This mural was a lesson to be learned in terms of location. A freeway is most likely one of the most dangerous locations for artists to work, and also dangerous for motorist who attempt to look at the mural while driving. Also, the exhaust fumes and pollution from cars has a deteriorating affect on the murals. The idea of ornamenting a freeway is not such a bad idea, but in this respect the decorative motif should be simple and abstract, nothing too visual that would cause drivers to take their eyes off the road for a long period of time.

One of the most powerful Chicano murals in terms of its sense of humanity is Resurrection of the Green Planet by Ernesto de la Loza. It is a rare mural in that it sheds specific Chicano themes and instead expresses concerns regarding the need to be conscious of international human rights, the environment we live in, and appreciation of diverse cultures. Yet, the mural fails to leave its Chicano-based visual idiom and exploits the curandera, the female healer, to express its views. The mural’s themes are borderless, but its imagery and pictorial style remains specifically cultural, trapped within its own cosmos.

Probably the most successful global mural is World Wall, a series of paintings on portable 30-foot panels created by Judith Baca. The theme is “A Vision of the Future Without Fear” and expresses the desire of world peace and harmony. The mural has toured various countries where other international panels have been added in the hope of connecting communities and creating a “global village.” World Wall is a project that reveals optimism despite our present dire straights. It is one thing to wish for world peace, yet another to view human history and see that the cycle of human behavior has never warranted it. History is one long human argument, whereas optimistic art reflects unachieved, utopian dreams.

Many recent murals are less politically conscious, turning their focus on aesthetics. These murals are created to adorn public spaces. As I venture through the Mission looking at various murals I come to Clarion Alley and see some elements of this. Decorative murals are sometimes met with criticism, yet the formal elements should be considered, at least in terms of art for art’s sake. Why can’t a mural exist without having ideological or political messages attached to it? Again, this type of mural counters Baca’s definition.

Chicano Muralism has strong influences from the Mexican Muralist movement of the early 20th Century, which at that time aimed to educate the public as it retold Mexican history and incorporated modern art styles while innovating new ones. The great muralist at that time were Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueros, and Jose Clemente Orozco who have inspired many contemporary artists one way or another. Distorted eyes, hands and feet, and traditional color pigments are Rivera’s influence. Experimental mediums, perspective, and enlarged hands that symbolize power, courage, and strength come from Siqueros. Futurist artistic styles, imagery of women taking up arms, and revolutionary themes have been Orozco’s signature influences.

One of the noticeable differences between Mexican Muralism and Chicano Muralism is the idea of the team approach. Mexican Muralist teams often consisted of skilled artists directed by one main artist exemplary of the way Diego Rivera worked. Chicano Muralism abandoned this and became community based. Often, a team of muralist includes people who are untrained artists and the themes of the mural are not decided by one artist, but rather by the local community. This new development of creating murals as a community also negates the individual and elitist artist who often works alone.

One of the problems with contemporary murals is that they don’t last for any significant period of time if they are painted outside. Three reasons why they don’t last are 1) inferior painting medium, insufficient primer, and ephemeral surfaces 2) exposure to natural elements 3) vandalism. The best way to paint a mural exposed to the elements is with the fresco technique, using a combination of lime plaster and pigment. This is the traditional technique used in Italy and many works have survived hundreds, if not thousands of years. I’m dumbfounded why muralists create expensive works that will only last a few decades, sometimes even using cheap acrylic or spray paint on wood fences that will deteriorate in less than ten years. All throughout the book Signs from the Heart: California Chicano Murals it is stated how some murals don’t exist anymore because they deteriorated in a short period of time and some others (more recent murals painted in the recent 70s and 80s) have been restored or moved indoors. It is unclear why no one has suggested a standard method of creating murals that will help maintain their longevity.

icon to divide content

Today I’m getting a personal look at murals, venturing on foot through San Francisco’s Mission District. I start with Inspire to Aspire on the corner of South Van Ness Avenue and 22nd St. and am shocked that only a ghostly outline remains from what once was a rainbow of colorful art. The paint is chipped, the colors washed out. But after a few moments I realize the beauty of this, how time has changed the mural, petrified it in one sense and made it like all living things. Art, like people, is impermanent.

Photo of Inspire to Aspire mural by Mike Rios
Original mural Inspire to Aspire by artist Mike Rios (1987)

Inspire to Aspire is also known as Homage to Carlos Santana or The Santana Mural. It was commissioned by the famous Latino pop musician Carlos Santana, who was pivotal and inspiring for Latino musicians and artists in the 1970s and has recently had a strong reemergence. The prolific artists Mike Rios painted Inspire to Aspire in 1987. It was originally executed in bright colors along the backside of an apartment complex in three sections that was flanked by a parking lot. The middle section is the illustration of Santana gripping a guitar with his head in an ecstatic expression. Apparently, one week before the mural’s inauguration, Santana went and looked at it and demanded that Rios repaint his portrait because he looked like one of the characters in Planet of the Apes, and we’re not talking Charleton Heston. With the improvement made the end result was a portrait of a singer with soul.

A row of mariachis is positioned behind Santana and illustrates his Mexican roots influenced by his father, who was a traditional mariachi. The mariachis in the mural are painted in monochromatic bluish-gray tones, which suggest the past, an association made from images in old black and white movies before color was available.

Flanking Santana on either side are two musicians who inspired him. On his right is Eddie Palmieri playing his keyboard so passionately that some of the keys are flying apart, and on his left is Armando Peraza, a master conga drummer who represents the Afro-human experience.

The overall color scheme of the mural is warm with minor cool tones. The most dominant colors of red, yellow and orange are complimented by turquoise green and achieve a pleasant harmony. Even the skies behind the dreamy San Francisco/Atzlan landscape depicted on the far right section of the mural are fiery in tone and suggest passion. And indeed, the mural is drenched with warmth and optimism.

The mural is well balanced as each of the three sections carry the same pictorial weight. The mural is symmetrical with two yellow stone figures that look like Aztec or Mayan dogs (that possibly represent Gods), which are positioned on the far left and right of the mural. Both face outward away from the center section and give the mural motion. The eye goes first to Santana, move down, and then alternate right and left. The two stone dogs almost beg the viewer to look beyond the mural into another realm by directing each eye outward.

There are many pre-Columbian motifs apparent in the mural, such as the green stone sculpture above Santana’s head and the geometric patterns near the top of the mural. Two blue faces also flank Santana’s face, which creates the three-face symbol that expresses Mexican roots of Mayan, Aztec, and Indian.

I continue to walk around the Mission, studying various murals and note their deterioration. Some look new and vibrant, painted recently, while other faded murals are from the 70s or 80s. I can appreciate being in the presence of these murals, rather than just looking at pictures of them in a book. Being in direct contact with the Mission culture permeates my Caucasian skin. I certainly feel out of place. Sometimes I even feel nervous, not knowing how safe I am in any specific location while lugging around my expensive digital camera. There are smells from restaurants: chili verde, fried beans, tortillas, mixed with car exhaust and homeless people. Music blares from tacquerias and young drifters enjoying the Sunday sun with boom boxes held low by their legs or resting on shoulders with attitude. Everything is intoxicating. I feel slightly dizzy and happy to know this culture is alive and vibrant in the heart of San Francisco. As I gaze at one mural on 24th and Mission next to McDonald’s a mariachi walks past. He wears a dark blue uniform with hat and white shirt. He looks superb, young, like a timeless God. I immediately hope this aspect of the culture will never die.

I have experienced the Mission in various ways over my fifteen years of living in San Francisco. My area of dwelling has most often been Valencia, from 16th to 22nd Streets. Valencia has always been exciting to me because it is the convergence of two cultures. Although it has received criticism for gentrifying part of the Mission, what would this district be like without it? I have in the past, on braver days and nights, ventured beyond, walking up and down Mission and 24th streets, but the energy is sometimes threatening. Rather or not this energy is a reality or my imagination is difficult to distinguish. One day, on the way to a restaurant on 24th Street, I was almost jumped by a gang, but luckily only received an onslaught of verbal abuse and threats. A few years later I dated a Chicana woman and I suggested we eat at a restaurant in the Mission. As we walked down 24th street I sensed her nervousness and she told me “Not everyone around here accepts us, even though we accept each other.” I never thought about her in terms of our cultural differences or color of skin. She was beautiful to me in fundamental, human ways. Our relationship was as simple as the fact that she was a woman and I was a man and that everything else should follow naturally. But in our world, in our culture, there are imaginary borders that have been established by history and injustice. My learning about these borders has been based on experiences rather than by books or the media. I know where I should or should not go. Valencia Street has always been safer ground for my skin color and has allowed me to see parts of the Mission without being threatened by it. So for me, it’s an important street, an imaginary border, but also a bridge.

Today I venture where I don’t belong, across the imaginary border, across the bridge, looking at murals in hopes of understanding this culture that deep down doesn’t accept me because at one time my so-called “people” didn’t accept them. As I keep learning about its history and mine I am coming to understand that it has many reasons not to trust me. It has a right to be angry with me. I don’t blame the culture, but I wish that as a community in the twenty-first century we could resolve, unite, and move on because I’m delighted by this culture and its art.

I walk along 18th street from Mission to Valencia. A block and a half away I can already see the top of the Women’s Building and parts of the MaestraPeace mural that distinguishes it. I like the fact that this is a mural visible from a distance. I walk closer and study it from the side. The way the mural does not cover the entire building is smart design because the building itself has ornate features and should not be covered completely. The mural is like a scroll or snake that flows around the building, leaving its good parts exposed. It was painted in 1994 by seven women artists: Juana Alicia, Miranda Bergman, Edythe Boone, Susan Kelk Cervantes, Meera Desai, Yvonne Littleton and Irene Perez, all of whom are active in the community as teachers and artists. A hundred other women also participated in creating this mural.

Photo of the mural MaestraPeace
The mural MaestraPeace painted on the Women's Building (1994)

The mural’s main theme, a visual testament to the courageous contributions of women throughout history, is fitting for a building whose interiors house and support women. It is a powerful theme because women have rarely been depicted as heroes throughout history, yet there are many. Seen in this mural are Audre Lorde, poet and activist, the brilliant painter Georgia O’Keefe, and Rigoberta Menchu, a leading advocate of Indian rights and ethno-cultural reconciliation. Other female icons appear such as Quan Yin, Yemeyah, and Coyoxauqui, which add spiritual tones to the mural design. I’m perplexed that the mural lacks significant Latino women such as Frida Kahlo or perhaps any number of contemporary Latino writers such as Ana Castillo, Julia Alvarez, or Nicholasa Mohr. I certainly would have chosen Frida Kahlo over Georgia O’Keefe, but I suppose the latter was depicted for her pictorial style and influence of the desert landscapes of New Mexico.

A repetitive motif that is consistent, yet changes throughout the mural, are the textile patterns that have been created by many cultures throughout the world. This adds color and design to the mural while also allowing the eye to move from one central figure to the next. The motifs vary from Indian and African, to simple and complex. The color patterns change and alternate. In some respects the mural is busy, as most murals are. It’s as if these artists approach murals with the idea that they need to fit as much information and utilize as much space as possible, always making them rasquache. It would be refreshing to see a mural incorporate emptiness and minimalism. To be fair the artists did leave some of the building's surface alone to serve as white space and rest the eye, but allow it to be visible we also sense the connection with the services it provides.

The front of the Women’s Building is difficult to see because of trees and phone lines. One of the things I find odd about some murals in the Mission is that trees often block the view. Why would you want to block the mural? I’m sure that the local residents want trees to lines the streets because of their beauty and shade, and also because they provide oxygen and clean the air, but they could at least trim the tops so that the murals are visible.

The central design and focal point of the building and mural is the symbol of the Goddess of Light, Creativity, and Rebirth. The naked figure upholds light as if making an offering or taking in its power. She bears a set of butterfly wings, which in many cultures represent immortality and transformation. The wings are a rainbow of color resembling the shape of a lotus, given further definition by the building’s facade. In her womb is a six-month fetus representing the cycle of life and maternity. From the Goddess of Light flows water that transforms into the various textile patterns that represent over thirty-six cultures. Thus, the starting point of the mural branches out and flows to the various other sections.

Hands are a symbolic motif throughout the mural, repeating sometimes as abstract patterns, or as gestures by most of the female figures. Immediately below the Goddess of Light are two large hands that hold fabric as it flows through its fingers. The hands are large and jut out, reminding one of Siqueiros’ and his treatment of hands that often broke the picture plane. Most of the figures are holding things: Georgia O’Keefe holds flowers, one Mayan woman holds her baby, another woman holds a bell with curiosity. A young woman, somewhat tentative and shy, holds fabric that is draped around her; it appears that she is just beginning to have the courage to step out into the world. A woman in a wheelchair holds her hands up high and clasps another woman’s hand as a symbol of mutual support.

Overall, the mural is rendered in a realistic style with bright colors and sharp details. It is one of the best murals, in my opinion, that I’ve seen in the Mission that weaves together the power of community art with activism and the immense creativity this can achieve. It highlights artistic and scientific achievements, political activism, and the healing power of women’s wisdom from many different cultures and histories.

As I leave the Woman’s Building the sun shines brightly as it often does in the Mission. I’m thrilled by all the murals I’ve seen today and feel immense warmth on my face and in my heart. I’ve come to find my own definition of this art form that may be right or wrong, but based on my experience and what I’ve seen and read about them. I have a feeling that the more I look at murals over time my understanding will broaden. There is no question that Chicano Muralism thrives in the Mission, but I don’t see anyone looking at them, so I question if this art is futile. If murals reach only a few people than this is enough to justify their presence. Without the murals the Mission would be a colorless district, and so if anything, they offer surprises to those whose eyes are open. The murals serve as a cultural language for the Chicano community who understand and validate their visual meanings and symbols. The murals are reminders—and like traditional Mexican murals painted almost a century ago by artists like Diego Rivera—they are part of the struggle to express human values and equality.

I cross Valencia, the imaginary border, and head toward Mission street where my car is parked. Is it safe? Has it been broken into? Am I equal here? How safe am I in this part of the Mission? Are we safe anywhere? These questions cross my mind. Perhaps one day borders, both real and imaginary, will vanish and we will easily experience what other cultures have to offer without tension or conflict. Sometimes it feels as if that day is coming closer and other days it seems like more borders are being constructed (in terms of terrorism and immigration). I long for the day when the world unites in peace, but like a lot of these murals suggest, this may just be an illusion of an optimistic, utopian dream.