Just when we thought we would never have to report again about legendary Chicano artist Emigdio Vasquez's public art getting tarred and feathered, here come those culture Cossacks known as the Orange Police Department–again.
Last week, visual artist Emigdio "Higgy" Vasquez was restoring one of his father's murals on Cypress Street at the request of Chapman University. The mural–on an apartment owned by Chapman that Emigdio originally painted in 1979–is titled "Tribute to the Chicano Working Class" and consists of a grand portrait of figures from Mexican history juxtaposed in chronological order to end with contemporary working-class families (some of the latter group modeled after people Emigdio knew in real life). After thirty-plus years, the mural had started to show some serious wear, so Chapman approached Higgy in October to restore it, as Emigdio is in poor health.
The restoration process had been mostly uneventful, with community members and even police officers complimenting the mural's progress from behind a makeshift fence that Higgy had erected. But that changed last Friday, when an Orange PD officer walked past the fence without permission and not bothering to identify himself. When Higgy asked "Can I help you?", the chota merely brushed him off and responded with something to the effect of "Relax, I'm friendly."
"This fence around the property very clearly implies that it is off limits to just anyone," Higgy told the Weekly. "I blocked the entrance off with trash cans, and he pointedly moved them out of his way to get in. Police officers don't just walk right in through your front door without permission first."
The officer looked over the mural and told Vasquez he thought the mural was good "except for one thing."
"I thought he was going to mention the portion of the mural where the face of Che Guevara was, since I know a lot of people don't like what he stood for," Higgy says. "But he just started telling me that there was a problem with this graffiti," referring to a tiny portion of the mural where a couple of youth are depicted in front of a white fence with graffiti on it that reads "OVC," the acronym for the Orange Varrio Cypress gang that has claimed Cypress Street for generations.
And then the Orange cop left.
A shaken Higgy forgot to ask for the officer's name or badge number, shocked as he was by the cop's brazen behavior. He works mostly with digital mediums such as graphic design and video, and Higgy admits he was initially unsure whether he was up to the task of restoring the mural. But having watched his father paint the mural as a child and being an experienced painter himself, Higgy accepted the project–and the Orange cop's little intimidation game has toughened his resolve.
"This is not going to happen again," he said. "For one thing, I'm going to make sure the entrance to this area is more securely closed off. Secondly, I know now not to have gotten in conversation with that police officer, and to have asked for his name."
The Orange PD could not be reached for comment. But this isn't the first time the Vasquez family has had to deal with Orange officers harassing them over the Cypress Street mural.
Back in 2009, the Orange PD tried to claim as part of their efforts to place a gang injunction in the Cypress Street barrio that Emigdio's mural promoted criminality and served as OVC's "flag" (the injunction was later overturned by the courts. As we wrote then, an Officer Nigro "criticized the inclusion of [UFW] strikers and Guevara, whom the detective wrote was 'a politician, Marxist, revolutionary and guerrilla leader' whose image 'became a ubiquitous symbol of rebellion worldwide.'
Emigdio ripped the Orange PD back then, explaining that the Guevara mural and the OVC placas were merely documenting a fence that was in the Cypress Street barrio in 1979. Asked then whether the Orange PD called him to explain "Tribute to the Chicano Working Class," Emigido responded, "They never asked me shit. [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."
Meanwhile, Chapman officials stand by the Vasquez family–for now.
"We consider the mural to be very important to the community and were thrilled when Mr. Vasquez agreed to restore the mural," says Chapman spokeswoman Mary Platt. "Being the son of the original painter, we couldn't think of anyone else to work on it."
A meeting between OPD, Higgy Vasquez and Chapman officials is scheduled for Friday.