Artist Carlos Aguilar spent four years working on a mural tribute to Mexican-American war veterans in Santa Ana’s Logan barrio only to have it vandalized twice this week. Sometime on Sunday, a cholo scrawled a rival street gang’s name in blue spray paint across his portraits of soldiers. By Monday, the tagging had already been crossed out in black; but not before gangsters left a fresh placa on the Mexican flag that anchors the mural alongside the Stars and Stripes, one that, at least, will be easier to paint over.
Santa Ana cholos couldn’t have picked a worse wall in the whole city for turf war tagging. Aguilar’s “Heroes Among Us” mural is beloved by the historic barrio that houses it and is a point of pride for the city at large. The artist learned of what happened to his masterpiece on Sunday when a friend called to deliver the news. He immediately visited the mural site and initially reacted with anger and disbelief. “I just think it was just a bad decision by one individual trying to disrespect the whole community,” Aguilar now says. “This is just a platform for people who already have something against us to talk bad about Santa Ana. It’s not about that. I don’t blame the whole city because somebody decided to do something dumb.”
The mural project started in earnest around February 2012. “I didn’t want to portray the same cliche that people have of la raza,” Aguilar explains. “I wanted to make sure that people got the message that we have been involved in many of the wars that the United States has fought, that soldiers have lost their lives and fought very valiantly for this country as Mexican-Americans.” Aguilar envisioned that his work would take just a couple of months to complete. But with scarce funding and resources, it turned into a four-year labor of love.
The scope of “Heroes Among Us” is as broad as its canvas on the side of La Chiquita Market with portraits of nearly 200 Mexican-American veterans who served in major conflicts from World War II to Vietnam. Most of those depicted fought in Second World War and almost half of the mural’s portraits are of servicemen who grew up in Logan. The community is devastated by the vandalism, especially those whose relatives’ images got defaced. Twenty-two portraits in all are damaged, but Aguilar is promising residents that he’ll restore the mural back to its original glory while offering an apology on behalf of the taggers.
When Aguilar began his work years ago, he never imagined it could be vandalized, even though his children’s mural painted on the side of a coin laundry in Santa Ana got defaced in 2011. But the inspiration in Logan was more prideful. “I was always under the impression that it would be off limits,” Aguilar says of his veterans mural. “Art pieces like this are sacred to the community.” It came into being through donations and even before the artist applied the finishing touches, the mural served as a mini-war memorial for Orange County’s soldados. “This young man who was really troubled by post-traumatic stress disorder would come by in the afternoon while I painted to talk about war and death with me,” Aguilar says. “There’d be other veterans that would stop by. It gave them a chance to actually talk about their war experiences among themselves.”
But the prowess of the public art piece extended far beyond those it immediately sought to honor. Legendary Fullerton College ethnic studies professor Gerald Padilla brought students to the mural to teach about its significance to history. The New York Times featured Aguilar’s work front-and-center for a 2016 story about the city. The mural became a familiar scene in music videos by local musicians and its portraits even came alive as characters for author Sarah Rafael Garcia’s SanTana’s Fairy Tales book.
Sadly, “Heroes Among Us” is in the news this week for all the wrong reasons. “Our gang detectives are looking into the case,” says Santa Ana police spokesman Cpl. Anthony Bertagna. “It has always been an understanding that because of the significance of that mural it was always left alone.” Meanwhile, Aguilar is in talks with the city to hopefully secure at least half of the costs needed to restore the mural. The artist doesn’t have an exact estimate on total damages right now but surmises the task will take a month or two away from his regular job to complete. This time, he’ll apply a primer to prevent against any future vandalism.
“It’s a vivid reminder of the sacrifices that the Mexican-American people have made for this country,” Aguilar says of his work. “This mural doesn’t belong to me. It belongs to the people of Santa Ana.”