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."
El Corrido de Boyle Heights was created by a collective called East Los Streetscapers. They also created the Boyle Heights mural Filling Up on Ancient Energies (1980), which Shell Oil commissioned for one of their gas stations. Today, the gas station is a car wash and the mural is nearly destroyed. East Los Streetscaper Wayne Healy, 71, says the original artwork tied global themes to the neighborhood.
"You'd see dinosaurs sinking into the muck of eons of time, converting themselves into fossil fuels. You'd see a refinery. You'd see low riders, which is a car culture of East LA, and they'd be getting filled up. You'd see a car full of guys and a car full of girls flirting at each other as they're cruising down Whittier Boulevard."
The mural took up a wall that was 6 feet tall and more than 20 feet long. Today, just a small section of the mural remains. It depicts two Mayan deities and a jaguar (the cat, not the car), and it's mostly obscured by a rack of tires. Shell tore down most of the wall in 1988 without notifying the artists. East Los Streetscapers sued Shell and won a settlement, which paved the way for a state law: the California Art Preservation Act.
Healy acknowledges that when someone commissions a work of art on private property, there's no guarantee it'll stay there. "The law doesn't say you're stuck with our mural. The law says: Give the artist a chance to remove the mural, take pictures of the mural or do nothing with the mural. Just give them 90 days."
He says that, all along, his goal was to paint a positive picture of and for Chicano people — and the community took note.
"One of the things that was motivating that was negative images that were always heaped on us in the movies," Healy says. "You know, you go to the curio shop and you see the Mexican asleep under a cactus — stereotypes like that. ... I wanted people to look at the mural and think of it as a mirror. They would see themselves in it and feel good about themselves. ... I can recall a time when I [was] painting and some lady looked down and she's crying. She's saying, 'You're telling our story.' "
Hundreds of people walk by the murals in Boyle Heights every day on their way to school, work and errands. Rita Chavez, 85, is a longtime Boyle Heights resident who has observed the murals for years. She says they've left a deep impact on her and how she views her community. "You can look to any place and see murals, and it will tell you what you see in the mirror."
She looks at El Corrido de Boyle Heights and explains how it reflects the community around it. "What I see here is that this is kind of a poor area, or middle class. ... It's trying to tell you the past, what they've been through, and what they're going through now. ... You'd be surprised what these murals will tell you, you know? They'll tell you a lot, just staring at them."
Jolie Myers edited this story for broadcast. Nicole Cohen edited it for the Web, and Claire Harbage edited the photos.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Now we're going to tour the threatened Chicano murals of East Los Angeles.
Most of the shops have signs in Spanish. There are places selling fruit juice, wedding dresses. And in a little storefront, a bunch of women are exercising to Latin music.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SHAPIRO: We're standing at the corner of Cesar Chavez and Soto Street in the middle of the Boyle Heights neighborhood, which is a Latino neighborhood where there are Chicano murals that were painted largely in the '60s, '70s and '80s reflecting the political debates of the time, whether it was over education, the Vietnam War, civil rights. One of these murals right in front of us is called "El Corrido De Boyle Heights," "The Ballad of Boyle Heights." And it shows a woman singing in the center of the image surrounded by men - one with a guitar, one with a violin - people dancing on the side. It's an exuberant, brightly colored image.
ERIN CURTIS: Los Angeles during this time in the 1970s and moving into the 1980s became known as the mural capital of the world.
SHAPIRO: Erin Curtis is the curator of a new exhibit in Los Angeles called "Murales Rebeldes," or "Rebellious Murals." The show highlights surviving murals and some that no longer exist, documenting the Chicano political movement that animated Mexican-American communities in Los Angeles.
CURTIS: Some murals have been painted over as neighborhoods change. Other murals have been censored or contested because of their political content.
SHAPIRO: It's an interesting juxtaposition. We're standing on a busy street with corner stores. It looks like a relatively low-income area. And at this intersection is a huge piece of art that looks like it could be hanging in any fine art museum depicting the life of this neighborhood.
CURTIS: Chicano muralists really worked on breaking down those distinctions between high art and low art. 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.
SHAPIRO: There is an almost kind of fetishization of street art these days...
SHAPIRO: ...Where Banksy can paint something on the side of a building and suddenly it's worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Is it strange to see that happening at the same time that these Chicano murals that have been around for decades are being torn down, painted over and destroyed?
CURTIS: It's not particularly strange to me. I think that it speaks to the collective value that we place on artworks based on who is making them. They're...
SHAPIRO: You're saying we value artwork by Chicano artists less than we value artwork by a Brit like Banksy.
CURTIS: I absolutely am saying that, yes, in many cases. Now, I want to be clear that 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.
SHAPIRO: A bus stops in front of this mural, and men and women from the neighborhood pile out.
RITA CHAVEZ: My name is Rita Chavez, 85. You can go to any place and see murals, and it'll tell you what you see in the mirror.
SHAPIRO: So what does this one tell you about what you see in the mirror?
CHAVEZ: Well, what I see here is that this is kind of poor area or middle class. It depends where you live. And it tells you the children you raised. You know, some kind of sad, some happy. But it's trying to tell you the past, what they've been through, and what they're going through now.
SHAPIRO: Next, curator Erin Curtis takes us to see a mural that has been mostly destroyed. It's at a carwash. Both these works of art are by an artist's collective called East Los Streetscapers. One of the painters in the group is Wayne Healy. He's now 71 years old. And he met us at this second mural, which is called "Filling Up On Ancient Energies." When he painted it for a gas station on this site, it was about 20 feet long and 6 feet tall. Now just one small section remains, mostly hidden behind a wall of tires. It shows two Mayan deities and a jaguar. Healy told me one of his goals with these murals was to fight negative stereotypes.
WAYNE HEALY: One of the things that was motivating that was negative images that were always heaped on us in the movies. You know, you go to the curio shop and you see the Mexican asleep under the cactus, stereotypes like that.
SHAPIRO: So you wanted to portray different images of your community?
HEALY: Exactly. I wanted people to look at the mural and think of it as a mirror. They would see themselves in it and would feel good about themselves. Yeah, that's us.
SHAPIRO: Do you think they did make people feel differently about themselves?
HEALY: Absolutely. I can recall a time when I'm painting and some lady's - I look down and she's crying. She's saying, you're telling our story.
HEALY: You know?
SHAPIRO: A gas station commissioned this mural in 1980. And in 1988, the gas station decided to tear it down. As painful as it may be to see your artwork destroyed, isn't it the right of the gas station that decided to commission it in the first place?
HEALY: Absolutely. It's his right to do what he wants with his property. The law doesn't say you're stuck with our mural. The law says give the artist a chance to remove the mural, take pictures of the mural or do nothing with the mural. But give them 90 days.
SHAPIRO: The law that he's talking about only exists because Healy and other members of his art collective sued Shell for tearing down the wall without telling anybody. The California Art Preservation Act is one step the state has taken to try to preserve some of this art and history. I asked Healy to describe what this mural would have looked like when it was complete.
HEALY: It's about 6 feet tall. And then you'd see dinosaurs sinking into the muck of eons of time, converting themselves into fossil fuels. You'd see a refinery. You'd see low riders, which is a car culture of East LA, and they'd be getting filled up. You'd see a car full of guys and a car full of girls flirting at each other as they're cruising down Whittier Boulevard.
SHAPIRO: These murals were painted decades ago, speaking to the issues of that time. Do you think that the murals speak to today's issues? Or are they just historical artifacts?
HEALY: They're relevant. Excuse my confidence. They're timeless. History is timeless.
SHAPIRO: The exhibition "Murales Rebeldes!: LA Chicana/Chicano Murals Under Siege" opens in downtown Los Angeles next month, and the book is out now.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE PREMIERS SONG, "GET ON THIS PLANE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.