Santa Ana Community Artist(a) Coalition Fight Red Tape to Paint Downtown Mural

“We conducted surveys, asking people what they wanted to see on the wall, and the most popular answer was ‘cultura y gente,'” says Moises Camacho, art director and co-founder of the Santa Ana Community Artist(a) Coalition. “So we have the railway, and el paletero, an icon here in Santa Ana.”

He’s talking about the Coalition’s newest mural, on an alley between Bush and Main streets in downtown SanTana. It vibrantly paints homage to the city’s rich history: the Chinatown notoriously burned down at the orders of the City Council, the carousel that used to stand at the Fourth Street plaza, and even a jacaranda tree with quinceañera dresses as flowers, symbolizing the strong Chicanx roots of the city.

The creation of the “Viva Santa Ana” mural (unveiled in September 3rd, 2016) was arduous, says Alicia Rojas, project director and co-founder of the coalition. “We were here, for a year, every Saturday,” she says, looking up at the jarocho dancers. They take up about a third of the wall, clad in traditional white attire. Rojas went on to explain that before the coalition could start painting, it was a battle just to claim a space.

“Gentrification started happening and then we were fighting for walls,” she says. “We just wanna paint.” She later explained the lengths the group had to strive through, like needing approval from three different building owners, headaches with permits, and filling out grant applications to finance the project. When a $10,000 city grant was finally awarded to them, it went mostly to feeding volunteers, buying art supplies and materials for lectures and workshops.

There’s another wall, a short stroll away from the mural, with bright, circus-like font on a black background that says “Sueños Revolucionarios.” This particular mural popped up in a matter of weekends since the building owner commissioned London-based street artist Ben Eine to do it.

The sudden arrival of that mural offers a contrast between it and the Coalition’s meticulous, democratic process, where locals were asked to partake in voicing what they wanted to see on it.

“It was very important,” said Camacho. “This was a collective group effort, where the mural had more than one vision, enriching the work. It is part of building an identity. Murals carry this identity, and how it was to represent the culture, and why it was essential to have things that were Mexican.”

“Every image on there comes from someone who talked about it in a survey,” Rojas added.

Something not present in hipster art.

Two years ago, the Coalition acquired a city wall on a prominent parking structure in downtown. Outreach coordinator Debra Russell explained that the project was initially presented by the WCA (Workshop for Community Arts, parent org of the Coalition); once the mural proposal was approved, the group began to generate ideas on how best to involve SanTana residents with the project.

“During this time, there were other murals going up around the city, by the Yost, behind the Frida Cinema” created by outsiders, Russell says. “Most of these had no community input. And that was our vision. We’re going to ask people what they want to see on their walls, we’re going to incorporate people from this community, and even people who don’t even identify as artists, so that they could realize their artistic creativity.”

The bloom of ideas stopped when the group met opposition—Facebook trolling, skeptical building owners, and councilmembers. “[They said] we weren’t good enough,” says Rojas. “That we didn’t know what we were doing. The arguments were saying that this was a city wall, and ‘How come we got it?'”

Eventually, the Coalition lost their wall. There was outpouring of support afterwards, which poised local and diverse building owners to give them permission to paint on their walls but didn’t have the funds to pay them properly. So Rojas and Camacho took to grant applications, still wanting do a project as an act of resilience to the opposition. It manifested into the mural on Bush. After deciding what was going to go on the wall, Coalition members and volunteers painted every Saturday for a year. Lead artists were Roger Reyes, Bri Negrette, James Rocha, Cynthia Mora, and Celes Orozco. The curator of the project was Abe Moya, Jr., lovingly dubbed the grandfather of the group. Higgy Vasquez Jr. served as a mentor, and Teo Reyes handled the important minutia of everyday tasks.

As for future plans? The Love Santa Ana nonprofit has invited the Coalition to help with two new murals in the Townsend barrio, continuing their mission to connect artists and their community by collaborating in public spaces. And it’s that outreach that makes all the troubles worth it.

“When people tell me, ‘I see myself on the wall?'”says Rojas, “I get chills.”

Visit “Viva Santa Ana” at 312 N. Bush St. SanTana. Follow them on Facebook at their page.

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