Law-Enforcement Claims Historic Chicano Mural in Orange Sensationalizes Gangs-30 Years Later

By Gustavo Arellano

published: April 09, 2009

A Brush With the Law
OC law enforcement claims a historic Chicano mural in Orange sensationalizes gangs—30 years after it was completed

Emigdio Vasquez is about as mainstream an artist as you’ll find in Orange County. His murals documenting county and Chicano history span walls at Santa Ana College and Anaheim City Hall, restaurants and liquor stores. Individual works hang in the living rooms of United States ambassadors and among the collections of universities, museums and millionaires. Vasquez—who grew up in Orange’s historic Cypress Street barrio—has been discussed in multiple art history books for, as one critic calls it, his “hard-edged, unblinking textures and an unerring eye for the seemingly commonplace detail.”

So imagine the 69-year-old’s surprise when a nephew called him with the news that the Orange Police Department was claiming his work promotes, glamorizes and inspires gang violence.

The mural was included in the latest gang injunction pursued by the Orange County district attorney’s office. In February, prosecutors released a report outlining their case against Orange Varrio Cypress (OVC), a Chicano gang based in the Cypress Street barrio. As with other gang injunctions, this civil lawsuit identifies suspected gang members and their activities and seeks to limit their movement. Among other constraints, the injunction prohibits those named from congregating in front of what detectives call the gang’s “flag”: the Vasquez mural.

Vasquez, though admitting to being a vato loco during the 1950s, has no connection to these cholos.

“I was pissed,” Vasquez fumes over the phone. “The whole notion that it promotes criminality is a load of B.S.”

Orange Police Detective Joel Nigro asserted in an expert declaration included in the injunction that Vasquez glamorized his home barrio’s gang.

“Vasquez is a muralist who grew up in the Cypress Street neighborhood and portrays rebellion against a perceived oppressive government through art,” Nigro wrote. “Emigdio Vasquez has also painted several other murals reference [sic] the OVC gang and the gang lifestyle, including pieces such as ‘Vatos Locos,’ ‘Sunday Morning In OVC,’ ‘Vatos Locos de Barrio’ and ‘Cypress Street Pachucos.’”

But what truly set Nigro off was a mural titled “Tribute to the Chicano Working Class” painted on a Cypress Street duplex. It wraps around the building’s exterior with successive images of an Aztec pyramid and eagle warrior; Mexican laborers including boilermakers, miners (a tribute to Vasquez’s father), orange pickers and strawberry pickers; strikers waving a flag calling for “huelga” (strike), Cesar Chavez, a convenience store, and scenes of pachucos and homeboys in a Chevy Special Deluxe. A small vignette shows two teens next to a wooden fence that bears the image of Che Guevara.

Nigro claimed that gang members had claimed the mural as “their flag,” frequently posing for photos with the mural as a backdrop. He also criticized the inclusion of the strikers and Guevara, whom the detective wrote was “a politician, Marxist, revolutionary and guerrilla leader” whose image “became a ubiquitous symbol of rebellion worldwide.”

“They never asked me shit,” Vasquez replies, when asked if Nigro ever called him to explain his art. “[Nigro] is full of it that it promotes gang violence. The mural has never been a problem until now. I don’t know why now. Christ, I don’t know what to think.”

Nigro did not return a call seeking comment for this story.

John Anderson, assistant district attorney in charge of gang injunctions, declares, “The gang has adopted it as their symbol. It does have relevance to what we’re doing here. If anyone’s desecrating the wall, it’s the gang members.”

“It doesn’t matter who painted the mural,” adds DA spokeswoman Susan Kang Schroeder. “If they were in front of the Statue of Liberty, that would’ve been included as a place that they consider their own.”

Anderson doesn’t want the mural to go away. “I would hope that based on the prohibitions in the injunction, we would hope that we can take it out of [the gang members’] hands,” he says. “We want to give it back to the neighborhood.”

Vasquez painted “Tribute to the Chicano Working Class” in 1979 as his thesis for a master’s degree in art from Cal State Fullerton. He remembers school and city officials—including law enforcement—present for the mural’s unveiling and the nonprofit Friendly Center providing materials. For 30 years, the mural stood without controversy, and Vasquez easily explained the more controversial parts of it.

The pachucos and homies? “I paint what I see in the barrio.” Guevara’s image? It was a tribute to a long-gone Cypress Street mural. Cholos taking pictures in front of it? “I can’t do anything about that. They’re proud of it, and I don’t see anything wrong with that. But it doesn’t promote any criminality. That’s a bunch of bullshit.”

This isn’t the first time the officials of an OC city have demonized a longstanding Chicano mural as promoting gang culture. Last year, Fullerton City Council member Shawn Nelson stated during a council meeting that the city should whitewash a group of Chicano murals painted on a Lemon Street pedestrian overpass because it might confuse drivers into thinking that the city condoned gang violence. Nelson eventually abandoned that idea after residents and art historians rallied to save the murals.

A similar response has occurred in Orange, where community members staged a 100-strong protest March 21 against the gang injunction. Among the signs waved were some praising the Vasquez mural.

“I don’t understand what makes [police] an expert on Chicano art, or our culture, for that matter,” says Yvonne Elizondo, who grew up on Cypress Street and is a member of the community group Chicanos Unidos. “[Vasquez’s] artwork is absolutely beautiful. This isn’t a guy who goes tagging on walls. He is a hero from our neighborhood.”

garellano@ocweekly.com