Sergio O'Cadiz: El Artist

The Mexican maestro was a popular painter in Orange County for decades. Now, his family is fighting to keep his legacy alive

Sergio O'Cadiz: El Artist

Just across the street from Mile Square Park in Fountain Valley, in the middle of the city's suburban placidity, exists what's probably the most anomalous collection of street names in Orange County. They're in Spanish, but not in the florid fantasy-heritage jargon endemic to South County and new condo communities everywhere. Instead, these roads (Circulo de Zapata, Avenida Cinco de Mayo, Calle de Juarez, Calle de Madero, Avenida Independencia) are a bold celebration of Mexican revolutionaries—name streets such as these anywhere else in the county today, and cries of sedition would surely bloom and become the clarion call for racist lunatics everywhere.

This is Colonia Juarez, the city's historic barrio. Created in the 1920s to house Mexican agricultural workers in a segregated setting, it's unique in the city's collection of tract homes for its deep, narrow lots and long history. But it's a neighborhood whose history is always under siege, a battle it's always losing. While some properties still feature beautiful gardens filled with cornstalks and towering cacti, with houses built in the low-slung, stucco-happy, ranch style common in Southern California's Mexican neighborhoods, those are now the exceptions.Two-story mini-McMansions now dominate Colonia Juarez, most of them occupied by new residents who have slowly pushed out the long-timers. Vacant lots await transformation into new housing for the next wave of people with no ties to the neighborhood, who'll look at the street names and cringe.

Along Calle Zaragoza—named after the Mexican general who led a ragtag army to triumph against larger French forces in the battle of Puebla—stands an 8-foot-tall wall that's about 600 feet long. It's your classic Orange County barrier: built of concrete block artificially tanned and weathered so it looks like adobe, on an island with no sidewalk to discourage pedestrians, anchored by ugly bushes with the occasional tree every 50 feet or so in a desperate attempt at beautification. The wall separates Colonia Juarez from a massive apartment complex on the other side, a bitter reminder to longtime residents of how Fountain Valley has sought to isolate them from the rest of the city at any means possible.

Roman O'Cadiz with his mother, Maria del Pilar O'Cadiz, who holds a photo of her father, Sergio
John Gilhooley
Roman O'Cadiz with his mother, Maria del Pilar O'Cadiz, who holds a photo of her father, Sergio
O’Cadiz’s Laborer
John Gilhooley
O’Cadiz’s Laborer

But this wall is doubly painful to the family of Sergio O'Cadiz, an artist who passed away in 2002. Shortly before his death, Fountain Valley officials tore down the 6-foot-high wall that had previously stood there, a wall that was once the pride and joy of the neighborhood and a masterpiece of Chicano art. In 1975, Colonia Juarez residents asked O'Cadiz—a celebrated artist whose work had been the rage in art galleries, private households and public spaces across Orange County since the 1960s—to help them paint a mural on that wall that would tell the barrio's history, that could enliven what everyone considered an eyesore. Over the course of six years, O'Cadiz and Colonia Juarez residents painted a stunning panorama, one that drew immediate praise and controversy for its unflinching look at the neighborhood's past, present and future.

Fountain Valley officials never liked it, though, so they let the wall decay, never allowing O'Cadiz to restore it, watching it rot until they said it wasn't worth saving and the neighborhood's demographics had changed enough so they could knock the mural down with little controversy. By then, the Colonia Juarez mural had become a metaphor for O'Cadiz himself—once loved, then forgotten, then slowly allowed to fade into our historical amnesia.

But instead of letting that final indignation stand, the family of O'Cadiz is starting to fight back. After a decade of mourning, his family is emerging to return its patriarch to his rightful spot in Orange County art history as one of its most visible, prolific members. But it's a race against time: his public art decays with each passing day, his private work languishes in storage, and the memories of those who remember the young Mexican who took Orange County by storm years ago fade like a mural in the sun.

* * *

Maria del Pilar O'Cadiz is looking at a beautiful nude woman looming over her bed at her mother's Santa Ana home.

"This is one of my favorite paintings done by my dad," she says. "Look at the softness of her figure, those long, luxurious lines. It's Reuben-esque."

As Pilar, a researcher with UC Irvine's School of Education, walks down the hallway to check on her elderly mother, she points out more of her father's paintings: a conquistador; a nautical scene; a Cubist-style rendering of a nude woman; Mujer Montaña, a massive portrait of a woman reclining on a mountain range, her epic peaks and valley precisely detailed. "That was a former lover of his," she says with a laugh. "He drew this after she spurned him."

In the living room is more of O'Cadiz's art: paintings of fruit, small statues, sketches, triptychs, self-portraits. And in another room is yet more—some in drawers, some standing, some hanging, just some of the more than 1,000 works Pilar estimates her father painted over a 50-year career, in addition to the dozens of public artworks that still exist—and those that were destroyed.

"Toward the end of his life, he would just give them away," she says. "One time, I saw a painting done by him being sold at a garage sale in San Diego for $20. I [could] kill myself for not having purchased it then.

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