Art students from local high schools are busy applying the finishing touches on a mural at the Heritage Museum of Orange County as grand as Santa Ana’s 150-year history. With an picture of Old Santa Ana City Hall taped to a brick wall, they fill in the white beards of the guards that flank two pilasters framing the entrance to the historic building. Since September, many of the teenagers from Valley and Godinez High School have spent their afternoons working with muralists Abram Moya and Moises Camacho on the project, one that finally wrapped up by sundown.
“Being young, you really don’t know much about the history of Santa Ana,” says Adamaris Gasca, a Godinez High School student going into 11th grade. “Being part of the mural introduced us to the origins of the city and how it has developed.”
Now, the mural is ready to be introduced to the community of Santa Ana during a big unveiling reception this afternoon at the Heritage Museum.
Kevin Cabrera, the museum’s executive director, first envisioned transforming the beige wall shared with Godinez High School into an artistic history lesson with the city’s sesquicentennial this year in mind. He helped recruit two artists–Camacho and Moya–to bring it to fruition.
Camacho didn’t think the project would be so grand at first, but then he saw the big brick wall of a canvass before him. The muralist worked with Moya before, including downtown Santa Ana’s “La Madre Naturaleza” (Mother Nature) mural across from the Church of Scientology building. This time around, both artists had new collaborators. “Art is something collective,” says Camacho, wearing a bib apron stained with paint. “We always try to involve the community in general in the creative process, but in this case we reached out to high schools.”
The mural project brought three organizations–the Santa Ana Unified School District, the city and the Heritage Museum of Orange County–together in common cause. In working with students, the two muralists began with a workshop on perspective, an art technique that provides dimensions of depth and space to a painting. They proved to be apt pupils and stayed through the duration of the project. “We thought a lot of them were going to drop out,” says Moya, “but a lot of them continued.”
With the mural all but finished, it gives Cabrera the opportunity to expand on 150 years of Santa Ana history and beyond. “It’s really hard to overlook the diversity,” he says. “When you look at the mural, and especially some of the buildings, it helps tell the stories of certain communities.” Aside from familiar downtown historic sites like the Old Orange County Courthouse and Old Santa Ana City Hall, the artwork also includes scenes like the segregated Fremont Mexican school and Second Baptist Church–Orange County’s first black congregation, a building that still stands today.
And then, of course, there’s the eight profiles that emerge from Santa Ana’s natural history into its expansive human one. From left to right, the mural features Spanish explorer Gaspar de Portola, city father William Spurgeon, Mexican landowner Zenobia Yorba, school segregation fighter Virginia Guzman, historical preservationist Adeline Walker, black history curator Harriet Tyler, civil rights activist Reverend Norman Corbin, and Palestinian American activist Alex Odeh.
Cabrera points to Rev. Corbin’s portrait. “He was a huge leader within the black community but also was really engaged in the Latino community,” Cabrera explains. “He spoke fluent Spanish.” The mural also pays homage to the Tongva tribe, the area’s indigenous people. Cabrera also highlights another subtle detail in the mural with a Pacific Electric red car stopping right before Old Santa Ana City Hall. That’s meant to symbolize how the red car brought new people into the city in 1905, only to have its Chinatown burned down a year later.
In addition to apprenticing under accomplished muralists, the inspiration for the artwork taught the students much as they painted their city’s past. “I was really interested to learn that we had segregated schools here,” says Katrina Mena, a Godinez High School student entering 11th grade. “I would have never of thought that would happen here.”
Another portrait off to the right side of the mural features the late Emigdio Vasquez, the godfather of Chicano art. Moya worked with Vasquez and called him an inspiration for the project. His likeness holds a paint brush in hand as if ready to pass it on to the next generation. In working on the mural, Moya befriended Tai Nguyen, dubbing him “Señor Nguyen.” The graduating senior from Valley High School helped bring many of the portraits to life. “Each of them have their own stories,” says Nguyen, who hopes to become an art teacher one day. He’s happy to be finished with the mural, but expresses some regret that the experience is coming to an end, one where new friendships have been forged.
It’s a sentiment shared by Cynthia Salazar, a Godinez High School student entering 11th grade. “It’s bittersweet because you know how much you’ve worked and you really want to see it finished,” she says. “At the same time, it’s become such a big part of our lives that it’s sad to be finished.”
All that’s left now is an unveiling ceremony–and a name for the mural. Cabrera mulled over several ideas before settling on “Siempre Santa Ana” saying, “It tells the story of struggle, pride, and success.”
Santa Ana’s 150th exhibit opening and mural unveiling reception at Heritage Museum of Orange County, 3101 W. Harvard Street, Santa Ana. Fri. Jun. 7, 5 p.m. Free.
Gabriel San Román is from Anacrime. He’s a journalist, subversive historian and the tallest Mexican in OC. He also once stood falsely accused of writing articles on Turkish politics in exchange for free food from DönerG’s!