Chicano Park
Steering Committee

P.O. Box 12524
San Diego, Califas 92112

(619) 563-4661



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A park's future hangs on word
Caltrans says word Aztlán is 'militant' and using it could violate federal rules

By Leonel Sanchez

February 28, 2003

A dispute over whether the word Aztlán should be spelled out with large rocks in San Diego's historic Chicano Park is delaying a plan to spend a $600,000 federal grant to repair and improve the aging park.

Tommie Camarillo, who chairs the Chicano Park Steering Committee, said Caltrans told the group that the word Aztlán is "militant" and that using federal dollars to inscribe it in the public park could violate grant-related civil rights requirements.

State Department of Transportation District Director Pedro Orso declined to discuss the dispute, other than to say Caltrans and the Chicano Park group are working things out.

Aztlán is the Nahuatl name for the mythical place of origin of the ancient Aztecs. Chicanos, who are mostly Mexican-Americans, use the term to refer to the southwest portion of the United States that once belonged to Mexico. Critics say the word promotes separatism.

Caltrans has also rejected another art project for the park, which is under the San Diego-Coronado Bridge. That project features the Chicano Park logo, which includes a map of the United States with the word Aztlán. over the Southwest.

Camarillo said Orso "deleted" the Aztlán-related proposals, citing concerns about possibly violating Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. That law prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color and national origin in programs and activities receiving federal financial assistance.

Camarillo said her group does not believe the Aztlán proposals violate federal funding laws. In a letter to the state secretary of Business, Transportation and Housing, she said Chicano Park is not just another park and should be treated as an outdoor museum. "You can't use the same general standard rules that you would anywhere else," she said.

The Aztlán proposals are consistent with the park's murals and other works of art that celebrate Chicano culture and have made the park an international tourist attraction, she said.

The park has city and state historic recognition, and there is a movement to get the murals listed on the National Register of Historic Places, based on their association with the Chicano civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s and on their contribution to the arts.

San Diego filmmaker Paul Espinosa, who focuses on Latino culture, said "Chicanos made a connection to Aztlán as a kind of a homeland for the indigenous people of the southwest" in the 1960s. The most radical elements of that era embraced the term to fuel their aspirations to create a separate nation, he said, but that nationalistic interpretation is much less prevalent today.

"Aztlán today is more about cultural symbolism," Espinosa said. "It's about a cultural homeland, a place you can feel comfortable. A lot of the visual symbolisms in Chicano Park are referring to that same homeland."

Ben Seeley, director of the Border Solutions Task Force, said he's not offended by the more innocent definition of Aztlán. But Seeley also said he would object to using federal funds for projects that include the term, because it would amount to preferential treatment for Chicanos.

Among conservatives, Seeley said, there are those who believe the concept of Aztlán is a driving force behind an effort to return the Southwest to Mexico, at this point through unfettered immigration.

"The word Aztlán has been distorted to benefit people interested in the movement (of U.S. land) back to Mexico," he said.

Businessman Mateo Camarillo, who has taught Chicano Studies at San Diego State University and is the brother of Tommie Camarillo, thinks most people familiar with the term don't view it as threatening. The name of his telecommunications consulting firm is Aztlán and Associates.

"No customer has ever complained that they feel intimidated or discriminated (against) based on the name Aztlán in our company," he said.

Caltrans and the Chicano Park group have had an uneasy working relationship over the years.

The sides clashed several years ago when a plan to retrofit the San Diego Coronado Bridge threatened to damage or destroy some of the murals. Ultimately they came up with a plan that satisfied both sides and had continued working together to secure financing for park improvements. The park is also in line to receive a $1 million federal grant to restore its murals, but at this point that project isn't in dispute.

Tommie Camarillo said the word Aztlan had been used without controversy in the park for 20 years, spelled out in large rocks. Barrio Logan youths later moved the rocks to spell "Logan."

Now the group is determined to spell Aztlán in rocks again, she said, to unite the surrounding barrios under one symbolic name.

Leonel Sanchez: (619) 542-4568;
Copyright 2003 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.


Chicano Park Info:

Map of Chicano Park featuring each mural, names of artists, and dates.
What is the Chicano Park Steering Committee?
The Battle of Chicano Park: A Brief History of the Takeover
Press on Chicano Park
Link to unofficial Chicano Park website