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

"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.

"He didn't feel recognized," she adds, now commenting on the destruction of his Fountain Valley mural. "He felt dejected and disillusioned. His masterpiece, destroyed."

But Pilar isn't depressed. The vibrancy of O'Cadiz's works, the breathtaking diversity of styles and themes, readily prove this is the work of a forgotten genius. She thinks the family possesses about 300 of Sergio's paintings, and she knows there are more out there.

Mexican poet Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz
John Gilhooley
Mexican poet Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz
A mural at Fremont Elementary
John Gilhooley
A mural at Fremont Elementary

"It's about time Orange County remembers my father," Pilar says, as she leafs through her father's notebook. "After all, Orange County loved him before."

Sergio O'Cadiz Moctezuma was born in 1934 in Mexico City to a middle-class family. His father was an economist who ran his own microbrewery and enrolled O'Cadiz in a Jesuit-run school, the better to develop artistic tendencies that were already emerging as a toddler (Pilar has a drawing her father did when he was 3). O'Cadiz went on to study architecture at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, known worldwide as UNAM and renowned for its stunning buildings and collection of murals by Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros.

After graduating in 1958, O'Cadiz found work designing buildings in Mexico's capital and teaching art classes; eventually, his reputation became such that he was courted in 1962 by legendary architect William Blurock to work for his Costa Mesa-based company, William Blurock Associates. "He didn't intentionally come to stay," Pilar says, "but they offered him a contract, so he stayed."

Blurock was a pioneer in designing buildings for high schools and colleges that stood out as works of art and functionality despite being Brutalist in nature—strong vertical lines, a heavy use of concrete, imposing edifices that towered over the flat Orange County landscape. The firm's structures from that era still stand across Orange County: the old library at Orange Coast College, buildings at Estancia High in Costa Mesa and Fremont Elementary in Santa Ana, as well as at UCI, to name a few of the many. The firm encouraged its workers to suggest how to incorporate standalone art pieces into their structures, and O'Cadiz flourished in this corporate environment. Though his official responsibilities for Blurock were as a conceptual architect and a renderer, he quickly gained a following among school districts for his flourishes: sculptures at Willard and Lathrop intermediate schools in Santa Ana, murals at Monroe and Fremont elementary schools in the city, and a 4,500-foot-long sculptured wall along a library hall that Cypress College commissioned O'Cadiz to do in 1967.

Nevertheless, O'Cadiz chafed at the expectations the firm and others placed on him. "I was dropped into a society where an old building was built 10 years ago, where all anybody could think of was 'My God! He doesn't speak English!'" he told the Los Angeles Times in 1975. "What used to be my values were suddenly invalidated. I had a good education, good manners—they meant nothing."

He left Blurock to start his own firm and opened an art studio in Newport Heights, off Newport Boulevard in Costa Mesa. O'Cadiz quickly became a hit in the Orange County art scene—The (Santa Ana) Register called him "one of the most promising of the 'new wave' of young Mexican painters," noting the demand for his art was such that "his popularity will also take hold here in the United States." Pictures of him during that time show him as a Mexican bohemian, more dashing Esquivel than gruff radical with his skinny ties and suits, short-sleeved shirts, immaculate Van Dyke beard, thick-framed glasses and short hair. While O'Cadiz painted scenes of Mexico, he worked more in the abstract, his ethnic tendencies mere flourishes in favor of themes that would gain easier access to galleries from Newport Beach to Anaheim to Los Angeles. And always a creative type, O'Cadiz even worked on a couple of productions for South Coast Repertory as a set designer in its early days.

The artist could've easily hewed to this assimilatory middle-class life—he bought a home in Huntington Beach and brought his family over from Mexico. He also consulted in the construction of golf courses and resorts in Japan and Spain, among other countries. But the late 1960s and early 1970s unleashed an earthquake in the arts scene in the United States. Now, Mexican-American artists who had long considered themselves creatives first and Mexican second had to confront the Chicano Movement, which demanded all brown-skinned artists step into the Chicano artist corner and address revolutionary themes, or risk the dreaded label of vendido—a sell-out.

"Dad had a polemical relationship with the Chicano movement," Pilar admits. "He found it too narrow-minded and nationalistic, and he felt those artists pushed themselves into a corner from where they could never get out of for the rest of their careers." At the same time, O'Cadiz was a proud Mexican—he memorably told the Times, "My idea of America is the right to be as Mexican as I want"—who understood the Chicano movement was an expression of Mexican identity that, however limiting, was still important. And he also understood that the hallmark of Chicano art, the mural, was the pocho cousin of the murals he so loved from Mexico City and were making an impression in American cities.

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