By Chanel Ward and Alexsandra Ruiz-Ortíz
“As it keeps getting more gentrified, there’s going to be no existence of any kind of Latino here. This mural is like a journal for me, these murals have a voice.”
A quote from artist David Ocelotl García pierces the heart of the Sun Valley community in Denver, Colorado, as they mourn the loss of a mural that not only spoke to the culture of the neighborhood, but influenced so much in it.
The bright and bold mural that served as a historical icon on 2895 West 8th Ave. for the past 14 years, is now just a whitewashed wall with primer bleeding through the back of the erasure.
The building is owned by the Denver nonprofit, Sisters of Color United for Education (SOCUE) and was a tremendous asset as a community-based health clinic, offering an array of valuable resources through promotoras. SOCUE now leases the building to a tenant that ultimately painted over the historical mural.
Director of SOCUE, Adrienna Corrales is not only responsible for the building, but also holds a significant and meaningful place in her heart for the mural that was her first major grant, much like for Ocelotl García.
“They went against their lease by painting over the mural,” stated Corrales. “It was very significant to me and to David and they really messed up.”
Corrales explained that she “had given them permission to paint the west wall, because that had been covered in graffiti years ago, but I definitely did not give them permission to paint over the south wall.”
Corrales believes in her heart that they truly didn’t know the significance of what the mural meant to the community, to Chicanos and Mexican-Americans, but it is still a mistake that cannot be ignored and has impacted many.
“What we’re trying to do is work with multiple owners of that business,” she explained. “We are talking with the person that actually signs the checks and he was very upset that they went against the lease. They definitely have to replace it, there’s no question about that.”
Although Corrales said that she is not exactly sure how the mural will be re-established; she does know that it will be replaced, either in the same or new location or with a small arts fund that she is asking the new tenants to participate in through a donation.
Corrales confirmed they are working with the business to find a workable solution. “We are trying to figure out how we can do some kind of project, or something that speaks to the historical importance of that mural.”
Matt Volz, one of the principals with Phoenix Corp., manages construction projects and is working in partnership with their team in Denver to renovate the building. They took over the lease from the prior tenant and are working with SOCUE to invest in the building and renovate it. However, as a part of the lease, they were allowed to paint the west wall due to graffiti; but were instructed to leave the other exterior walls in their original state as they contained the murals.
“This entire mishap happened through some miscommunication and was never our intention to take down the mural,” explained Volz.
After letters were forwarded from Daniel Stange, SOCUE’s Director of Mobilization, and Lucha Martínez de Luna, Associate Curator of Hispanic, Latino and Chicano History at History Colorado, to Volz, that is when he realized the damage priming the mural did to the community. Volz stated that he immediately contacted artist Ocelotl García to apologize and researched the significance of the mural.
The mural, entitled Huitzilopochtli was Ocelotl García’s very first mural, and the inception of the mural began with Belinda García, founder of SOCUE and was created with the help of community members and other artists, such as Metropolitan State University of Denver professor and artist Carlos Frésquez, and MSU students.
“The idea is that we would slowly wrap this building in murals,” explained Ocelotl García. “There is so much energy and so many significant things that have happened there and that’s all related to the importance of the paintings there.”
Ocelotl García went into detail about his very first mural. “My mural was specifically Huitzilopochtli, which is basically ‘Hummingbird Warrior’ it’s a character in Aztec tradition. There are a lot of metaphors within the meaning of it, but it’s a spiritual thing, traditional in the native culture of the Aztec people.”
“There are two main characters in there,” said Ocelotl García. “There is a little boy, which is actually like Huitzilopochtli, he doesn’t really exist in character, he’s more of like an energy, a spiritual being. I gave people human forms in that mural in terms of these characters and Huitzilopochtli was being held by a woman, which is his mom.”
The image of the mother was in the likeness of Ocelotl García’s mothers’ face. His mother passed shortly after the mural was complete, losing her battle with cancer.
“It’s all very tragic, because that mural has influenced many different things, not just for me, but for a lot of different people. It’s been published several times and in several books as a very significant piece, but to think they sadly don’t know the value of art,” expressed Ocelotl García.
“It’s really amazing, and not surprising, but sadly, it’s amazing that this happens here, because that wouldn’t have happened in – let’s say for instance – México. That would never happen there, because people value art so much, it’s part of the culture.”
Frésquez elaborated on the situation surrounding the erasure of the mural. “It’s sad. It wasn’t really my mural, but a mural is like a gift to the community, so it was like a gift taken away and without permission,” said the MSU Professor.
Frésquez reestablished that this act of erasing our history is due to a lack of communication. “They should’ve checked in. They could have said ‘this [mural] is fading, this [mural] is chipping’, then Sisters [SOCUE] would have said ‘we’ll get someone to restore it or to touch it up.’ You just don’t destroy it. You just don’t make that decision yourself.”
The Art Professor feels that if SOCUE were informed that the new tenants wanted the murals to be restored, then they could have contacted Ocelotl García and Frésquez with his students of that semester to retouch the murals. “But nobody said anything, nobody communicated. We didn’t look at any options, and someone made that decision to get rid of it and to me it goes back to us not having control of our culture as Chicanos, as anyone of color, it seems,” expressed Frésquez.
The unfortunate reality is that this isn’t the first time or the last that a mural has been removed by those who do not know or wish to know the importance of these culturally significant murals.
“Where is that respect of what was there before? How do we educate people, how do we inform people, and how do we let people know that you have to save this stuff?” asked Frésquez.
Martínez de Luna has made it a priority to prevent mural defacing or covering through The Chicano/a Murals of Colorado Project, which she is the Director of and says their mission is to, “protect, preserve and promote Chicano murals.”
Martínez de Luna says about the mural movement, “I hate to say, it’s not necessarily a revitalization, because it has always existed, but there is kind of this fervor right now with mural paintings. The mural movement did start in the Chicano and Mexican-American communities and we’ve been largely ignored in history and not just here in Denver, but also at the regional and national level and that’s kind of the purpose of this project.”
She has collaborated with various cultural institutions and scholars to encourage their writing of articles to bring more awareness.
“We want to archive all of the murals that have been painted here in Colorado, many of them have been destroyed like Huitzilopochtli,” Martínez de Luna explained. “It was really devastating to us, as you know, this mural was fantastic, it was David García’s first mural ever painted and it was very important to our community.”
Chanel Ward is an Independent Reporter for The Weekly Issue/El Semanario. Alexsandra Ruiz-Ortiz is an Independent Reporter for The Weekly Issue/El Semanario.
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