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

O'Cadiz found an academic champion in Shifra Goldman, a professor of art at Santa Ana College who was one of the few Anglo champions of Chicano art during the 1970s. It was her classes on Mexican art that inspired members of the Chicano student group MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicanos de Aztlán) to want to paint their own Chicano mural at the college and request that O'Cadiz help them. Under his direction, The History of the Chicano was unveiled at the school's Nealy Library in 1974. It's an 80-foot stunner that occupies two walls of the room, its central image an armed, crouching Posada-esque calavera dressed in bandoliers and a feathered pachuco fedora moving from left to right, emerging from the genocidal invasion of Spain represented by darkness and a conquistador helmet at the left of the mural to point toward the bright future at the right. All of O'Cadiz's motifs are there—warm, lush figures coupled with abstract faces, geometric mosaics and heaps of symbolism mixed with an affinity for realism.

The 1970s were O'Cadiz's most fruitful era—he was able to dabble in mainstream and Chicano circles, as both demanded his work. Another Chicano-themed mural sprang up at Cal State Fullerton in 1974. He designed a concrete mural for Santa Ana City Hall in 1972; it was built into walls using Styrofoam molds he set into wet cement that he sandblasted once the cement dried. He employed the same style for the East Los Angeles Occupational Center in 1977. Sculptural fountains for Fountain Valley's Civic Center and Newport Beach's Promontory Plaza arose, along with a 16-foot concrete sculpture for Brea in 1975 titled Sunburst on the corner of Brea Canyon and Canyon Country roads. All of his public works were proudly Mexican without being assertively so. The Fountain Valley fountain, for instance, was a collection of concrete pillars that dramatically jutted out from the center of a shallow lagoon, looking simultaneously like ruins, old structures and part of the natural landscape. And all along, O'Cadiz would paint for himself, paint for friends, paint for commission—just paint.

It was his Fountain Valley mural, however, that became O'Cadiz's magnum opus. In 1975, Colonia Juarez residents asked Fountain Valley if it could pay O'Cadiz $300 to paint a mural on the Calle Zaragoza wall; city officials responded with $700 and submitted a grant to the National Endowment for the Arts and the California Arts Commission to fund him with tens of thousands of dollars more. Under O'Cadiz's direction, Colonia Juarez residents painted the 600-foot-plus wall with a history of their barrio, from the arrival of their parents and grandparents to the present day. Residents spared no punches in their depictions of barrio life. One panel showed crouching Indians putting on frowning white masks, a representation of the barrio's forced assimilation into America; another listed Latino war heroes from World War II and the Vietnam War, since many Colonia Juarez residents had fought for their country. Another section was left blank for the community to do what it wished.

A mural at Monroe Elementary
John Gilhooley
A mural at Monroe Elementary
Another O'Cadiz beauty
John Gilhooley
Another O'Cadiz beauty

But the mural quickly became mired in controversy. On the wall also were the names of Colonia Juarez residents who had been killed over the years by gang violence. Another panel depicted cops in gas masks dragging away a young Mexican-American man to a police car, earning the wrath of Fountain Valley police. "It just doesn't happen to be what we think the school kids should see every day walking down the street," the police chief told the Times. Vandals eventually defaced that section with white paint; city fathers pulled O'Cadiz's funding and claimed they had never submitted grant applications in the first place.

With no funds to finish the mural, O'Cadiz took a six-month gig in Japan—he wouldn't finish the Colonia Juarez project for another six years. By the time he did, O'Cadiz was no longer in demand—the only major work from the 1980s was a mural at Oberlin College in Ohio, where Pilar was an undergraduate. The same officials and gallery crowd who once praised him now heaped scorn. "Nobody seems to be terribly interested in murals anymore," an Orange County Historical Commission Member told The Register in the 1980s in justifying government negligence toward O'Cadiz's monument. "Orange County just isn't a real ethnic-wall-art sort of place."

The days of public adulation were over. O'Cadiz had to give up his studio when the 55 freeway was lengthened. He continued to consult in the design of schools and libraries for Ralph Allen & Partners—he even worked on sketches for Coto de Caza residences—but clients no longer asked specifically for him. Reporters checked in on him periodically and wrote the stock story—the former rising star who was now a recluse, undone by his "fury" with "unruly hair and rumpled clothes." Even worse, bureaucrats started tinkering with his artwork.

In late 1999, under the guise of a beautification program, Fountain Valley announced it would tear down the Colonia Juarez wall on which O'Cadiz's mural stood. Then-councilwoman Laurann Cook used its newfound diversity and lack of ties to the fading mural as an excuse to take the wall down. "The diversity [of the neighborhood] lends itself to becoming one neighborhood,'" she told The Orange County Register.

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