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

"It's a nice, quiet neighborhood," one Vietnamese resident told the paper about Colonia Juarez. "But I don't like all the colors on the [Calle Zaragoza] wall. I would like it just plain. Now it looks like violence."

The city had already threatened to tear it down in 1985, but O'Cadiz and other residents were able to sway officials otherwise then. But those officials crucially didn't allow O'Cadiz to restore the mural, so it eventually became the faded eyesore they had claimed it always was. In addition, city officials said the wall was not earthquake-safe, posed a danger to the community and no longer conformed to city building codes, claims that enraged O'Cadiz because they were so preposterous. They pointed to a neighborhood survey they conducted that claimed more than 70 percent of neighborhood's residents wanted the mural demolished and replaced with a sidewalk with landscaping.

Despite complaints from O'Cadiz and residents, the wall came down in 2001. "I'm powerless to do anything in the area," he told reporters. "I'm really sorry that there wasn't more vision [in the community]. In my culture, there is the tradition of oral history. That's what I will retreat into."

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

"He was livid and profoundly hurt," O'Cadiz's daughter says. "He was angry about society's ignorance of art in general, but especially public art, which he viewed as so important for a full society."

Those weren't the only indignities he faced. Fountain Valley leaders turned his fountain into planters, a desecration O'Cadiz only found about when he went to City Hall to try to save his mural; eventually, that sculpture was also destroyed. In 2000, Santa Ana planners blocked half of O'Cadiz's concrete mural on City Hall to make way for an annex without letting him know—he found out after friends came across construction crews obliterating his work.

Murals continued to sprout from O'Cadiz's hands—one for Garden Grove's Youth Center, another off Raitt Street in Santa Ana—but they were pedestrian works, the maestro going through the motions. He would occasionally show at galleries, but that world and its exorbitant prices soured him to the scene. Eventually, O'Cadiz's ouvre became a rumor, discussed in the past tense, rarely seen, with no new works appearing in years.

The destruction of his legacy left O'Cadiz disillusioned, refusing to leave his home. Toward the end of his life, he hired a lawyer to see if he could sue Fountain Valley and Santa Ana for destroying his work under the legal argument of public patrimony; since he had little money, he put up his entire collection as collateral.

Pilar tried to convince her father to stage a huge showing of his work as a comeback, but he refused. Nevertheless, she pressed on and was planning one until O'Cadiz passed away in 2002, survived by six children, three former wives and several grandchildren. The only obituary that newspapers printed was the announcement placed by his family.

* * *

In February of this year, Pilar participated in a lecture on the history of Chicano art in Orange County in a lecture at the Fullerton Public Library sponsored by OC Weekly. The crowd was small—about 40 people—but vibrant, although most of the audience comprised family members of Orange County's other legendary Chicano muralist, Emigdio Vasquez. Pilar had prepared a PowerPoint presentation of her father's work, pointing out those that had been destroyed and those that remained. The crowd sat in awe, clenched their jaws when seeing the destroyed Colonia Juarez mural, wanted more information. Afterward, they stood in line to talk to her—how could they purchase her father's work, or at the very least promote it?

It was a cathartic moment for her. The lecture happened almost 10 years after her father passed away, and it came just as Pilar was scheduled to announce an exhibit of her father's work in downtown Santa Ana—the first retrospective in decades.

"I feel obligated to my father, but it's important as an act of service," she says. "If I don't do it, who will?"

She continues to work at UCI, but she's increasingly devoting her time to trying to save her father's existing public-art projects. She has organized nearly monthly exhibits of his work this year in Santa Ana galleries, broken up by themes—Catholic iconography, workers and nude women. "He sure loved mujeres," Pilar cracks. In the works is curriculum that art teachers from K-12 and the colleges can use on O'Cadiz's work, as well as a cataloging and scanning of his paintings and sculptures in preparation for a possible book.

And it seems as if the art world is slowly remembering O'Cadiz. In April, the Los Angeles-based Center for the Study of Political Graphics contacted Pilar to let her know it had made an amazing discovery. The center had been the beneficiary of Shifra Goldman's collection, and among the works were the original sketches for O'Cadiz's History of the Chicano, an 8-foot-long scroll that's a piece of art in itself. It had been feared lost to history, mostly because it was unsigned; it took another legendary artist, Willie Herron of the art group ASCO to positively identify the picture as an O'Cadiz original. Archivists with the Smithsonian have approached Pilar about her father's work; art collectors are approaching about purchasing some of the work, although she refuses to sell them—"I tell them the starting price is half a million dollars, and I won't go lower." Just this past summer, a Brea official contacted Pilar; the city was doing an inventory of its Art In Public Places collection and realized it had no information on Sergio. And Pilar's son, Roman O'Cadiz, is an emerging artist in his own right; just a couple of months ago, Scott's Seafood commissioned him to paint a mural in its dining room, which earned him a glowing profile in the Santa Ana 'zine Santanero.

« Previous Page
Next Page »