When I moved to Los Angeles from my hometown of New Haven, CT at the tail end of 2016, I found myself putting down roots in one of the city’s eastern-most neighborhoods, Highland Park. Everyone I consulted about LA areas said that Highland Park was the newest hot spot, which is code for gentrification’s latest victim. My very own move there was emblematic of this gentrification, and something I’ve had to reckon with.
Highland Park was and still is the place to be, but not necessarily for the trendy new restaurants, boutiques, and other businesses that seem to pop up along its thoroughfares overnight. What actually makes the neighborhood sing are the relics of the original community that have endured. The handful of longstanding small businesses that have held out, the recreation center that buzzes with kids playing baseball on weeknights, and, of course, the large, eye-catching mural that gleams from the wall of a building on the corner of N. Figueroa and N. Avenue 61.
This is “Mexico-Tenochtitlan: The Wall that Talks,” an expansive 12-by-75-foot mural that depicts Chicano and Latino figures and motifs in bold colors and stirring imagery. I passed this mural daily when I lived just a few blocks away from it for two years, and was endlessly captivated by its immersive world. Though I lacked the cultural context and understanding of its significance to the community at the time, the importance of its message radiated from its visuals, along with the love behind its creation.
This past March, the Los Angeles City Council rightfully designated “Mexico-Tenochtitlan: The Wall that Talks” as a Historical-Cultural Monument in a unanimous decision. This public art piece was a 1996 collaboration between the Quetzalcoatl Mural Project and a group of local Chicano muralists, and the community has maintained the mural as a labor of love for 27 years. It continues to honor the culture, heritage, and lore of a resilient community in a rapidly changing part of the city.
“This mural represents working together. The significance of it is that it’s a Chicano mural that represents the social consciousness of its own people,” Anthony “Eagle” Ortega, the Cultural Arts Director at the Quetzalcoatl Mural Project, told me. “I’m just glad that this historic piece is now going to be part of that from now on.”
Ortega was one of the original muralists to first put paint to wall in 1996. He was a driving force behind the initial idea for the mural itself, which partly pays homage to his best friend, Daniel Robles, an honor roll student who was killed by unnecessary street violence in 1995. “He and I would discuss humanity, and how we as a society have drifted away from that— how do we go back to that humane way of being?” he said. “Both of us were thinking about that, and then one day we started talking about murals. About how great it would be to express yourself, to talk about social change, to bring about a social message, in a mural. Much of our problems are not resolved unless we begin to look through the lens of an artist. Where you’re able to shift the ideas and draw awareness to it. That’s what we try to do with the mural, and we do it to honor my best friend.”
Ortega first moved to Highland Park when he was in his 20s in the mid-90s, at a time when the neighborhood was becoming an increasingly exciting site for Chicano arts and culture. “We had all of these groups and entities that were mushrooming into the arts scene in LA,” Ortega explained. “Then we saw that early wave of gentrification flow into the community, as developments changed the face of the community, taking it in a new direction.” At that time and to this day, the mural serves as a means of reclaiming space.
Painting murals for this purpose is a long-held practice within the Latino community, as mural painting has been a popular form of Latino art since the 1920s. In Jade Puga and Richard Montes’ application for the mural’s historical landmark designation, they explained how Los Angeles’ earliest murals were often created by Mexican immigrants who used the walls of restaurants as their canvases. Many of these murals harkened back to the traditions and motifs of murals painted on Mexican pulquerías, or pulque bars, and they often featured scenes that depicted daily life or Mexican film stars.
“During the Chicano movement of the 1960s and ’70s, the city’s Latino community became active in using art to reclaim their history and space, and after this period, Los Angeles became home to one of the largest concentrations of mural art in the country,” they wrote. In the 1990s, the Chicano movement saw a national resurgence, and with it the revival of politically motivated Chicano murals that responded to the racial and socioeconomic injustices of Latinos. These Chicano muralists boldly put their art in public spaces to engage their communities and incite social change. “A lot of us got involved during the civil unrest in LA in ‘92. I got involved in social action and activism around then,” Ortega shared.
The awesome power of public art to express and demand social change is writ large throughout the journey of this mural. From its original creation to the constant vigilance on display to maintain and restore it, the ferocity with which the Quetzalcoatl Mural Project stands guard for it speaks volumes. “We had to forge an alliance with the Mural Conservancy and the Highland Park Heritage Trust,” Ortega said on how they’ve gone about protecting the mural. “Because of the height of gentrification alone, we knew that public art would be on the fringe. How do we reclaim these public spaces? The Highland Park Heritage Trust was only dealing with landmarking old houses. We knew that, in theory, if they were able to protect houses, why couldn’t it be done under the idea of a mural? That’s how we began pushing for preservation.”
Defending “Mexico-Tenochtitlan: The Wall that Talks” has become a communal affair. The Quetzalcoatl Mural Project has partnered with Avenue 50 Studio, an organization based in Highland Park that’s “grounded in Latina/o culture, visual arts, and the Northeast Los Angeles area that seeks to bridge cultures through artistic expressions, using content-driven art to educate and to stimulate intercultural understanding.” Ortega and his team also engage local community members to work on the mural, like students from the neighborhood high schools and the nearby ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena. “Without the participatory process of having members of our own community contribute, this mural would never have manifested to where it is today,” he told me. “It exists on the shoulders of the people. We were the backbone, but our love and support comes from the community.”
While it’s rare for a mural in a public space to receive official Historical-Cultural Monument designation, Ortega is hopeful that this achievement will help set a precedent for other public art pieces in Los Angeles to garner the same appreciation and protections. “I would love to see more LA-based murals that have been here a long time, for the past 50 years, become historic landmarks. Our mission at the Mural Project is building a better community through the eyes of an artist.”
Dedicated to Daniel Robles, the Chicano Movement, UFW leader Cesar E. Chavez, Gabriel “Angel” Miranda, and Rev. Rene Ledesma.
Original contributing artists: Andy Ledesma (Quetzalcoatl Mural Project co-founder), Anthony “Eagle” Ortega (Quetzalcoatl Mural Project co-founder), Dominic Ochoa, Isabel Martinez, Jaime Ochoa, Jerry Ortega, Jesse Silva, John “Zender” Estrada, Oscar Deleon, and Rafael Corona.