Chicano Park, a cultural mecca of the U.S. Southwest, has finally gained national recognition. The park, located in San Diego's Logan Heights is now a National Historic Landmark recognized as a “vibrant community gathering spot closely associated with the local Chicano Civil Rights Movement,” according to a statement released Wednesday by the U.S. Department of the Interior.
However, the nod from Washington — the product of unceasing efforts from community members — is unlikely to blunt the defiant identity of the park, which remains rooted in the long history of struggle against dispossession and discrimination that served as a political awakening for many Chicano and Mexican immigrant communities across the United States.
Lying beneath a concrete and steel bridge linking the San Diego Bay to the affluent resort city of Coronado, Chicano Park is mainly known for its masterfully-crafted murals painted on the bridge's pylons and retaining walls, a product of multiple generations of San Diego artists.
A National Park Service form on the park's significance describes the murals as "Mexican pre-Columbian gods, myths and legendary icons, botanical elements, animal imagery, the Mexican colonial experience, revolutionary struggles, cultural and spiritual reaffirmation through the arts, Chicano achievements, identity and bicultural duality as symbolized in the search for the 'indigenous self,' Mexican and Chicano cultural heroes and heroines such as La Adelita, Cesar Chavez, Father Miguel Hidalgo, Che Guevara, Pancho Villa, Emiliano Zapata, and scenes based on contemporary Chicano civil rights history."
The murals of Chicano Park | Photos: Creative Commons
The 32,000-square meter park also contains a community-designed Aztec-style Kiosko — built against the objections of local officials who had insisted on a Spanish-style gazebo — as well as an herb and cactus garden, a statue of Emiliano Zapata, a playground and a skate park, among other amenities. For over 45 years, the park has thrived as the barrio's cultural and recreational heart, hosting events like lowrider shows, concerts and street fairs and drawing visitors from across the region and the world.
A mere 20 minutes' drive from the San Diego border-crossing with neighboring Tijuana, Mexico, the park was founded in 1970 when local high school and college students — including members of the Brown Berets — occupied a vacant lot slated to be turned into a California Highway Patrol substation.
The occupation took place in the aftermath of the Coronado Bridge's construction, which had led to the displacement of thousands of residents in what was once the second-largest Chicano barrio on the West Coast. The activists' message was simple: Barrio Logan residents demand space devoted to the community, not police repression. They won their demands, leading to the founding of Chicano Park.
“The park was born in a period of political struggle," Benjamin Prado, a local organizer with Union del Barrio, told teleSUR. It was a time "when young Chicanos were being attacked by the police in our barrios throughout the Southwest while at the same time, the U.S. government was drafting these same Chicanos to fight as cannon fodder in a criminal war against the Vietnamese people,” he explained. According to Prado, the murals in Chicano Park are characterized by Indigenous resistance to colonialism and San Diego's evolving social movements.
One of the resistance murals in Chicano Park. | Photo: teddeady/Flickr
However, the park has also faced constant threats from city and state officials, property developers, and opponents of the park such as white supremacists who have defaced the murals and threatened to “occupy” the park. Recently, supporters of President-elect Donald Trump circulated a petition branding the park as “anti-white,” “racist” and “anti-American.” Few, if any, locals signed the petition.
Residents credit the Chicano Park Steering Committee for the park's continued survival. The committee was formed by community members and still enjoys the participation of many who were involved in the original takeover that led to the park's creation.
Tommie Camarillo, now 70 years old and a 47-year active member of the committee, was involved in the takeover. “It's not just a park. It's part of my heart, part of my soul,” Camarillo told teleSUR. “Politicians are politicians, they always like to take credit,” Camarillo said with a sigh.
“Everything that you see is because of the community, the people, everything has been a fight,” she continued, noting that the fight for federal recognition required 14 years of hard work by founding committee member Josephine Talamantez with the help of Manny Galaviz, a volunteer. “This recognition is a definite plus for the community in the fight to defend the park from gentrification,” she added. The committee is now hoping to use the newfound status of the park to secure a vacant building in the city, which they hope to turn into a museum.
Each year, Logan Heights draws thousands of visitors for Chicano Park Day, a free community-hosted celebration that is also free of corporate sponsorship. This year, the 47th annual party will be held on April 22 and will be dedicated to Ramon “Chunky” Sanchez, a musician known as the heart of the barrio whose song, “Chicano Park Samba,” has become the theme of the park.
Locals such as Prado remain keen on stressing the social significance of Chicano Park, which they say represents their community's fight for self-determination in the face of racist attitudes and power dynamics that have persisted from the era of colonialism to the present day — now reinvigorated by the electoral victory of Donald Trump.
Demonstrators stage a rally against President-elect Donald Trump in Barrio Logan, San Diego, California, Nov. 11, 2016. | Photo: Reuters
“This is now a new period of struggle for Chicano-Mexicanos — the U.S. Empire is now led by Trump's fascism,” Prado noted. Like many cities across the U.S., San Diego will be holding a number of protests on Jan. 20 against the inauguration of Donald Trump as president. In San Diego, the largest event is expected to be the rally and march at Chicano Park.
The park was the launchpad for huge 2016 protests against Trump, both during his local campaign appearance — where several fights and violent police incidents broke out — as well as after the announcement of Trump's victory. Trump has become an object of popular hatred in Barrio Logan for his racist and anti-worker messages, such as promises to “build the wall” and fortify a border security apparatus that already bisects Mexican-American communities in San Diego.
Looking to the future, residents and activists plan to continue using Chicano Park not only as a cultural asset but a political one, as well. Prado explained that for Union del Barrio, Inauguration Day will be an opportunity to provide political direction to a movement that remains strong and must prepare to fight against "all that Trump and U.S. settler-colonialism represents: racist hostility, economic oppression, and the reemergence of a white nationalism antithetical to the very meaning of Chicano Park.”
Camarillo agrees that there will be further struggle in the park's future — a reality that she's long been used to — but she also takes great pride in the feeling that she is passing along a priceless inheritance. “We're sure we'll have hurdles to jump, this is nothing new to us and has always been a part of the park's development ... But I'm 70 years old — now I can pass away with peace proudly, knowing that we're passing this along to future generations.”