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.
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.
"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.
"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.
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.
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.
"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."
"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.
"I needed a decade to make peace with my father's passing, and this is the time," Pilar says. She stares at her father's self-portrait, the very one featured on our cover—stoic but proud, palette in hand, ready to paint the world, the flowing river within him signaling an inner peace and restless talent. "This energy—it was out there, dormant, but it's coming back."
This article appeared in print as "El Artist: Sergio O'Cadiz was once one of Orange County's most prominent painters. Now, his family is fighting to keep his legacy alive."
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