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
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
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
"The word Aztlán has been distorted to benefit
people interested in the movement (of U.S. land) back to Mexico," he
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
Leonel Sanchez: (619) 542-4568; firstname.lastname@example.org
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
The Battle of Chicano Park: A
Brief History of the Takeover
Press on Chicano Park
to unofficial Chicano Park website