Emiliano Zapata is missing part of his mustache. Cesar Chavez's torso is almost gone. A pachuco has a wad of gum stuck in his nostril.
Time, weather and at least one gum-chewing anarchist have not been kind to Memories of the Past and Images of the Present, a sprawling mural on the outside wall of Anaheim's Ibero America Market. Like a lot of public art, the meaning of this one is mostly lost on the public. It's meant to commemorate the 1978 Little People's Park Riot, a melee in which Anaheim police officers maced and beat residents of the town's Penguin City barrio. Investigations by the Orange County grand jury and district attorney's office charged the Anaheim Police Department with brutality and ordered it to improve community relations by, among other things, carrying business cards.
The city also appeased Penguin City residents by commissioning Emigdio Vasquez to paint a mural with the help of local youth. The mural—100 feet long, 15 feet high and across the street from Little People's Park—retells Mexican-American history from the Aztecs through the Mexican Revolution up to the Chicano Power era. It catapulted Vasquez to fame; he went on to become one of Orange County's most famous homegrown artists. The success of Memories of the Past and Images of the Present inspired other cities to sponsor murals in Orange County barrios, from Santa Ana to Fountain Valley's Colonia Juarez to Fullerton's Tokers Town.
Nowadays, though, the historic mural has no caretaker as paint flakes gather at its base and bricks peek out from what were once the faces of students. Vasquez last restored the mural in 1994, sponsored in part by a city grant, but the primary person in charge of restoring the mural is Ibero America Market's owner, according to Anaheim spokesperson John Nicoletti. "If [Ibero America Market's owner] won't do it, and the city sees it as an asset, the city then has to find the money to pay for its restoration. . . . Because of its location, staff is extremely aware that a makeover would make a huge impact on the aesthetics of the neighborhood."
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Ibero America Market's owner was unavailable for comment. But even if the city found funds to spruce up Vasquez's masterpiece, restoration might not ensure the mural's future. Two new dangers loom, both more powerful than the elements. Developers eager to build new brownstones and condos have bought many Penguin City businesses and homes in the past couple of years; Ibero America Market is one of the last businesses remaining. And a continued flow of new residents with no historical ties to the neighborhood means fewer Penguin City dwellers know about the Little People's Park riot and the mural it inspired.
On a recent weekday afternoon, none of the residents I interviewed could tell me the mural's history. "Been around for as long as I've lived here," said one man as he walked through Little People's Park with his son. He's lived in the neighborhood 15 years. "It's nice." Another woman remarked it reminded her of the murals in Mexico. A man delivering Doritos to Ibero America Market had heard of Vasquez but not of the mural.
"I heard it was a student project," said another woman as she passed by the mural. She was right. I looked for the signature of Vasquez and others on Memories of the Past and Images of the Presentto show the lady. And I found it: only the letter E remained from the spot where Vasquez and his students signed off on their work so many years ago.