Why Did Huntington Beach Allow a Chicano Mural to Get Whitewashed?

The whitewashing of La Historia de Adentro/La Historia de Afuera (The History From Within/The History From Without), a mural that Westminster native Yreina Cervántez created with Alma López in Huntington Beach, made Cervántez’s reality as a community artist very clear. As she related, Cervántez realized that local arts professionals did not see her work as worthy of protection. Moreover, she concluded, public images of people of color were not their priority when it came to preserving Huntington Beach’s historical heritage.

The artists painted La Historia de Adentro/La Historia de Afuera in 1995 as part of the Huntington Beach Art Center’s (HBAC) inaugural exhibition, under the directorship of Naida Osline, on a wall in the center’s parking lot. Measuring 105 feet long and in areas up to 24 feet high, the mural reinforced Osline’s and HBAC’s commitment to diversity. It depicted the history of Huntington Beach through the eyes of the city’s ethnic minorities, with imagery of water and waves as a unifying visual element. Its dynamic, rhythmic composition was meant to reflect the pulsating movements of sea and ocean life. As Cervántez remarked, “We looked at different cultural representations of water, and we designed the waves to connect everything [in the mural].”

Cervántez and López also used live models to fashion many of the figures in the mural, engaging in painstaking preparation before painting. They said they hoped the mural’s imagery would give visibility to those communities and initiate productive dialogues across race. “We did our homework,” Cervántez remarked. “We did a lot of research for that mural because it was an important topic.” Live models were not mere props for the artists; they were actual residents of Orange County, including Huntington Beach, who had shaped the local history in transformative ways.

Given its distinct perspective on local history, La Historia de Adentro/La Historia de Afuera was poised to become a unique public monument in Huntington Beach. But a number of years after its creation, the mural was vandalized with large graffiti letters that ruined its overall composition and aesthetics. Then Kate Hoffman, the executive director of HBAC, contacted the artists with disturbing news. A new owner of the building, she said, “has notified us that he needs to paint that wall to handle some building issues. In addition, the mural was recently damaged by graffiti that cannot be removed without destroying the mural.”

Even though Hoffman thanked Cervántez for “the beautiful work you did for us” and hinted at the possibility of a mural commission for the artist sometime in the future, she emphatically stated, “The owner now has the right to paint over the mural.” After all, the artists had signed a contract with HBAC assuring them that the mural would remain up until 2000. Hoffman’s call came in 2008.

Cervántez, nevertheless, was disturbed by the news and requested a meeting with Hoffman and the owner to discuss the possibility of restoring the mural and cleaning up the graffiti. She proposed a modest budget of $1,500 for the job. The HBAC initially seemed receptive to the idea, but attitudes changed. Upon seeing even more graffiti on the wall, the art center concluded—without consulting Cervántez or López—that the mural could not be repaired and had to be removed to prevent it from becoming a “magnet for graffiti.” The HBAC informed Cervántez—who later recalled their conversations with great frustration—that “the mural was up longer than it was allowed to, and that I just needed to move on and let somebody else do something with that space.”

Clear that HBAC no longer supported the mural, Cervántez contacted numerous Chicana/o art scholars and community leaders to help her save it. Laura Pérez from UC Berkeley wrote an impassioned plea to HBAC stating, “To paint over a mural by Cervántez and López today is equivalent to painting over the work of Diego Rivera or David Alfaro Siqueiros, now recognized as world-class artists.” Having worked with Cervántez in the past on numerous occasions, I, too, reached out to HBAC, asking it to preserve the mural on both artistic and historical grounds, likening its destruction to that of David Siqueiros’ 1932 masterpiece América Tropical on Los Angeles’s Olvera Street.

In response to our attempts to save the mural, the HBAC team argued it was powerless to prevent the mural’s destruction, repeatedly underscoring that the building’s new owner was under no legal obligation to keep the mural and reminding us of the expiration date in the contract the artists had signed.

That the artists had signed this agreement with HBAC and that the mural “survived” an additional eight years after the contract had expired might suggest that the work’s destruction was fair and ethical. However, in my view, one must take into consideration that when Chicana/o community artists enter into contract negotiations with gallery directors, property owners and other power brokers, the agreements reached are not between individuals on equal footing. In many cases, working-class backgrounds, coupled with a lack of proper support for their work, give Chicana/o artists no leverage during such negotiations.

Although the circumstances that led to the destruction of La Historia de Adentro/La Historia de Afuera were complex, it is relevant to consider that this was a mural about the history of people of color painted by Chicana artists in a predominantly white area of Orange County. The mural’s demise coincided with the city’s centennial celebration, a time when Huntington Beach reflected on its own history and when larger narratives were beginning to incorporate the contributions of people of color.

This recognition of the city’s diverse history, however, was uneven and tenuous, as the story of Cervántez and López’s mural indicates. The mural received little community support during its tenure in Huntington Beach. The HBAC did not keep any records of the project. Very few local newspapers and media outlets covered the mural’s presence when it was initially painted. The mural’s destruction received even less press coverage, especially compared to the 2012 effacement of a McDonald’s-themed mural also in Huntington Beach that was tagged with large block letters reading, “VEGAN.”

It appeared that no one cared about the destruction of La Historia de Adentro/La Historia de Afuera. Why the indifference? Did the local community value the artistic merits and historical imagery of the mural? Did it regard the people depicted in the mural as part of its own history? Could the mural have been saved if it had received more community support from its inception? Was its challenge to Huntington Beach’s predominantly white surf culture a contributing factor to its destruction? Would the mural still exist had Cervántez and López painted an image of Duke Kahanamoku on a longboard?

Including histories of people of color during a centennial celebration is one thing, but supporting a mural that showcases those histories in a more permanent and visible manner is another. It most likely was not the case that the mural was viewed as too radical and thus in need of destruction, but rather that it was not deemed sufficiently important and historically valuable to justify the funds and resources required for its protection. The “hidden histories” theme of La Historia de Adentro/La Historia de Afuera thus takes on added meaning with the disappearance of its historical figures who were pushed into hiding behind layers of white paint.

Copyright (c) 2017 Guisela Latorre. Adapted from ¡Murales Rebeldes! L.A. Chicana/Chicano Murals Under Siege (Angel City Press, 2017). Reprinted by permission. !Murales Rebeldes! is the companion publication to the “!Murales Rebeldes!” exhibition presented by the California Historical Society and LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes in Los Angeles, opening at LA Plaza on Sept. 23.

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