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The Battle of Chicano Park:
A Brief History of the Takeover
By Marco Anguiano, Chicano Park Steering Committee
Chicano Park - Reclaiming Aztlán
On April 22nd and 23rd, 2000, we celebrate the 30th birthday of Chicano Park - "La Tierra Mia" - "Our Land." We commemorate this sacred place and we honor those people - some alive, some passed away - who planted, painted, protected and nurtured Chicano Park. The birth of the Park is the story of a barrio tragedy transformed into triumph. It is the history of the Chicano Mexicano people struggling to reclaim our heritage and our right to self-determination. The Park is where our history is enshrined in monumental murals. It is where we keep making history as we fight to preserve and defend a small piece of Aztlán known as Chicano Park in Barrio Logan, San Diego.
By taking Chicano Park, the "myth" of Aztlán metamorphosed to reality. Aztlán - the southwestern United States was the ancestral land of the Aztecs. These ancient people migrated to the Valley of Mexico and founded an empire whose capital was Tenochitlan, now Mexico City. By claiming Chicano Park, the descendants of the Aztecs the Chicano Mexicano people begin a project of historical reclamation. We have returned to Aztlán - our home.
A Park for the Raza of Logan Heights, Aztlán
In many ways Chicano Park is like any other park. It's where families gather to have a reunion or a picnic. Where the crisp tempting smell of carne asada floats in the air. Where the high pitched giggles of chamaquitos and chamaquitas reverberate against the cement pillars as they climb, slide and swing on a playground that people struggled and sweated for.
It's a park where youngsters bounce a basketball on the court or challenge each other to a round of handball; Where couples exchange wedding vows in the Kiosko. Where a grandmother - nana - gently pushes a stroller along the walkways to pacify a grinning, gurgling baby.
Unlike other parks, el Parque Chicano pulsates when trumpeting shells, throbbing drums and percussive rattles proclaim the beginning of a Danza Azteca ceremony.
Unlike other parks, Chicano Park displays on its monolithic pillars, one of the largest assemblages of public murals in North America. These awe inspiring murals are giant mirrors of our Chicano Mexicano history.
Unlike other parks, Brown Berets fired raised shotguns in militant salute while a Mexican flag was raised and waved defiantly during Chicano Park Day ceremonies. And unlike other parks, Chicano Park was taken by militant force by a community angered by decades of neglect, ignorance and racism.
La Raza Moves to Take the Land
For decades, the Chicano community in Logan Heights had thrived as a small, self-reliant neighborhood. Mexicanos had always been part of the community. Since the 30's many more moved there as laborers, cannery workers, welders, pipefitters, longshoremen, etc. For decades, community residents had asked city officials to build a park in the barrio.
After World War II, the city, with complete disregard for Barrio Logan residents rezoned Barrio Logan to allow the influx of industry, junkyards, metal shops and other toxic businesses incompatible with a residential community. City burrocrats and politicians seemed to care less about the predominantly Chicano barrio.
By the mid-1960's, the community was bisected by the construction of Interstate 5, an eight lane freeway that tore Barrio Logan in half and displaced many lifelong residents. A community gathering place, the Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe was no longer in the center of the Barrio. It now faced a barren asphalt freeway flanked by a 40 foot high cement retaining wall.
According to Victor Ochoa, a Chicano Park mural coordinator from 1974 through 1979, "They threw Interstate 5 in the barrio, taking something like 5000 families out of the barrio."
When the Coronado Bridge, which intersects Interstate 5 in the heart of Logan Heights, was completed in 1969, it left a jungle of concrete pillars where many families had lived before.
The "Paul Revere" of Chicano Park
On April 22, 1970, Mario Solis, a student at San Diego City College ditched class and was strolling casually through the Barrio Logan in the area below the bridge. He ran into construction crews, equipment, machines and bulldozers.
Solis asked the construction workers, "what are you going to be doing here?"
The crewmen responded that they were "building a parking lot for a Highway Patrol station"
Solis was stunned. He told the crew that the people of the community had other plans. He said, "It'll be a park!" The construction crew cackled and laughed in response. Little did they know who would have the last laugh.
Solis rushed back to City College and interrupted a Chicano Studies class taught by Gil Robledo. He alerted the students in the class and demanded to know, "...what are you guys gonna do?"
Students and Activists on High Alert
Robledo's students who included Rico Bueno, Josie Talamantez, David Rico and others "went on red alert," according to some of those present. Bueno wrote and printed flyers and directed others to area schools and to surrounding barrios to sound the alarm - that this was the final straw. Bueno, a Vietnam veteran later threw away his service medals in protest against the war at a Chicano Moratorium march.
Women, men, children, activists, students, residents the youth, the elderly and entire families gathered at the construction site. At day's end, two to three hundred people had congregated. They evicted the construction crew and seized the land.
Solis, a Brown Beret, as well as a student, commandeered a bulldozer and ignited and gunned its engine. He begin flattening the land while others planted cactus, plants and trees. The people begin to build a park. Long time barrio residents like Laura Rodriguez brought tortillas, rice, beans and tamales to feed the rebels.
"What I still remember is that there were bulldozers out there," says Ochoa. "And women and children making human chains around the bulldozers and they stopped the construction work. They actually took over those bulldozers to flatten out the ground, and they started planting nopales and magueys and flowers. And there was a telephone pole there, where the Chicano flag was raised."
Police and Authorities are Stunned
According to veteran activist David Rico, current chairman of the Brown Berets de Aztlán, "When the cops showed up during the takeover of the Park, they demanded to know who the leaders were, so we pointed to somebody over there and that somebody would point to somebody else who would then point somebody else - you had a lot of confused cops. We had the system very, very confused."
Al Puente, then a San Diego police officer on the Barrio Logan beat, years later divulged that the police department was confused since they had never experienced such an incident before - where an entire community had rebelled. Although Puente had earned a reputation as rough cop in the barrio, years later he related that he warned police against attacking the protesters since many women and children were among those at the site.
The land underneath the bridge was occupied. An unprecedented coalition of barrio residents, students, and community activists, Brown Berets and Raza from barrios throughout San Diego and Aztlán united and confronted the bulldozers and stopped the construction of a Highway Patrol station. At a community meeting that night, activist Jose Gomez stated, "the only way to take that park away is to wade through our blood."
Chicano Park Steering Committee formed
On April 23 the Chicano Park Steering Committee was formed to direct the community effort to build a park and confront state and city authorities. Activists demanded that the property be donated to the community as a park in which Chicano culture could be expressed through art.
"Our community had already been invaded by the junkyards, the factories and a bridge had even been built through our barrio," declared Jose Gomez, "some of us decided it was time to put a stop to the destruction and begin to make this place more livable."
"We are ready to die for the park," Salvador "Queso" Torres, a community artist shouted to a gathering of city and state officials while supporters stamped their feet in rhythm and shouted, "Viva la Raza!"
The Coronado Bay Bridge was built at the height of the Chicano Movement. There was a great awareness at the time about the militancy that was all to often necessary to attain our rights. The establishment of a California Highway Patrol station under the bridge was a final insult to the people of Barrio Logan, a community that already had many grievances against local police.
The occupation of Chicano Park lasted twelve days. People of all ages worked together to clear the land and plant it. Supporters arrived from all over the state. Finally an agreement was reached between the Chicano community and the city, which agreed to acquire the site from the state for the development of a community park.
Chicano Power Peaks in San Diego
Many of the same activists involved in the takeover of Chicano Park were also central to the occupation and founding of the Chicano Free Clinic (now know as the Logan Heights Family Health Clinic) and the Centro Cultural de la Raza in Balboa Park.
The creation of Chicano Park was a defining moment in Chicano history and in the history of Barrio Logan, as well as the City of San Diego. Respected leader Josie Talamantez, then an 18 year old student at San Diego City College and a resident of Barrio Logan, explained the exaltation of the community in the park takeover:
"I was living a block from the site and my family had been very much involved with trying to get a park in this area for a long time. I felt proud. It was the first time that I had seen Jose's (Gomez) mother and my mother and the little kids and a lot of the people in between all working together."
One of the park's original muralists Mario Torero, linked the Park to Chicano identity: "We can't think of Chicanos in San Diego without thinking of Chicano Park. It is the main evidence, the open book of our culture, energy and determination as a people."
Ramon "Chunky" Sanchez, composer and singer of the rousing anthem "Chicano Park Samba," said, "There's an energy there that's hard to describe - when you see your people struggling for something positive, it's very inspiring. The park was brought about by sacrifice and it demonstrates what a community can do when they stick together and make it happen."
Ernesto Bustillos, another veteran activist termed Chicano Park, "A Liberated Zone," where Raza from all walks of life, students, barrio residents and activists joined forces to retake our land. Chicano Park has provided us with the freedom to practice and express our ideas, our culture and our traditions. In short, the struggle for Chicano Park has become symbolic of our Raza's struggle for self-determination, our right to Aztlán and who we are as an indigenous people.
A Never Ending Story
There is no end to the story of Chicano Park. It is a living history. As long as Raza take responsibility to preserve and defend the park and Barrio Logan, it will survive and thrive.
Since the reclamation of the land, there have been many difficult and exhausting struggles to preserve and defend the park. We highlight a few:
Grand Jury Attacks
The battles included the San Diego County Grand Jury's so called "investigation" into Chicano Park Steering Committee which resulted in the evacuation of the Park building by the Chicano Federation in 1979. The Chicano Park Steering Committee has been homeless since, but holds meetings throughout the community and is open to anyone who wants to be involved.
Building the Kiosko
The construction of the Kiosko (1972-77) went through a maze of San Diego City burrocratic red tape. After years of meetings the project was hijacked and funding withheld by so called city council representative Jess Haro. Haro wanted a "Spanish style" architecture for the kiosko." When finally confronted at a community meeting, Haro backed off. The Kiosko was dedicated in 1977.
All the Way to the Bay
The "All the Way to the Bay" (1970-88) campaign spearheaded by Ronnie Trujillo of the CPSC asserted the right of Barrio Logan residents to have the only access to the bay and to extend Chicano Park all the way to the waterfront. Activists challenged the San Diego Port District and other agencies from San Diego to Sacramento. Ground was broken for the bay park in 1987 and the park completed in 1990.
The Murals and the Retrofit
In the mid-1990's, Cal Trans, the agency responsible for the San Diego Coronado Bay Bridge, proposed an earthquake safety bridge retrofit plan that would've destroyed the Chicano Park murals. In response certain community "representatives" formed the "Right Directions Committee" to squeeze Cal Trans for "mitigation money."
The Right Directions Committee assumed that the retrofit was a foregone conclusion and the murals would be inevitably destroyed. They wanted to press CalTrans for their pet projects in exchange. This "committee" began holding forums at the Barrio Station. When the Chicano Park Steering Committee found out about this "movida," mural supporters rallied to the forums and challenged Cal Trans and their proposals. The Right Directions committee dissolved itself in the face of community opposition to the retrofit.
After many militant marches, press conferences and negotiating sessions with Cal Trans, they relented and under the advise of professional engineers found a method of retrofitting the pillars that spared the murals. This retrofit work continues to this day, while the Chicano Park Steering Committee is the watchdog of the construction.
Even in the Quietest Moments
Then there are the meditative moments in Chicano Park - when the din of the traffic evaporates and you're alone facing the monoliths of history - prisms reflecting our lives, our history, and our struggle.
It's our church, where we reflect on the spirit of those who struggled to create and preserve the Park.
It is our school, where we learn our story - our history written, painted and told by us for generations to come.
It's also during these contemplative moments when Chicano Park becomes the paramount icon of our Raza's aspiration to control something meaningful in our lives - Chicano Park symbolizes our sacred right to self-determination.
1) Historic Resource Evaluation Report for the SD-Coronado
Bay Bridge, Chicano Park and the Chicano Park Murals, Jim Fisher, staff
Chicano Park Info:
Map of Chicano Park featuring
each mural, names of artists, and dates.