‘Hasta la Bahia!’: Ghosts of America’s Past in Chicano Park
Kilometres from one of the world’s most heavily-fortified borders, Chicano Park in San Diego reminds Americans of who was there first.
‘Déjenme decirles, a riesgo de parecer ridículo, que el revolucionario verdadero está guiado por grandes sentimientos de amor.’
‘Let me say, at the risk of sounding ridiculous, that the true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love‘
— Che Guevara
I got into San Diego in the dying stages of a dull grey June afternoon. ‘May Grey, June Gloom’, locals call it. They’re all quick to tell you it’s normal this time of year. I had just spent 3 torturous days on the USA’s long-distance Greyhound buses, lurching from New Orleans to Houston, Houston to San Antonio, San Antonio to El Paso and through to San Diego.
Greyhounds are so bad because most of their passengers think they’re travelling through the Greatest Country In The World and that this is the best buses can possibly get. So, there’s not even an aspiration for a situation in which the buses don’t smell of piss, or the floors of station toilets aren’t coated in shit, or the buses don’t leave 6 hours late, because, you know, if things are bad in the USA then they must just be even worse everywhere else.
My trip from El Paso to San Diego let me take in some of the southern USA’s most majestic scenery and most jarring man-made phenomena. We sped between mountain ranges, through tiny, dusty, gas station towns, past cacti which looked almost human, having grown arms which curved up towards the sun and made them look exasperated, like they were cursing the gods.
Then in Calexico I got a proper look at the US-Mexico border. My first taste had been the night before in El Paso, when from the highway into the city I had glimpsed the twinkling lights of Mexico’s much larger Ciudad Juarez which, if not for the border, would be one city with El Paso.
I had never been able to smell cooking food from a different country before, but if the desert wind blows the right way in Calexico you can smell tacos sizzling in Mexicali. The smell of cooking meat floats through the gaps in the already pretty large fence which Trump wants to replace with an even bigger and more racist one. Our Hispanic bus driver said he supported it. ‘I’m for it, I don’t care!’
As one might expect, southern California is heavily Latino. Announcements and signs on public transport are provided in Spanish and English (‘Eating is not permitted on the train/¡No comas la torta aquí, cabron!’) and the discerning traveller (me) can sample the delights of Mexican, Salvadorian, Colombian and many other Latin cuisines in the area around Logan Heights and Grant Hill. Just southwest is Barrio Logan, home of Chicano Park.
The histories of the USA and Mexico are entwined in San Diego. Many Mexican immigrants arrived in 1910, fleeing revolution. But until 1848 San Diego was in Mexico. Mexico once controlled all of California — up to the border with Oregon — and most of what is now Utah, New Mexico and Texas. Gradually, the USA eroded this territory and annexed San Diego at the end of the Mexican-American war. At the time, California was thinly populated. But mere months after the annexation, James W. Marshall found gold in Coloma. The California Gold Rush sucked 300,000 Americans from the East in search of riches, and California was no longer Mexican.
As with anyone who isn’t white and male, Hispanic people have long been treated as second-class citizens in California and the rest of the USA. For Mexican-Americans agitating for better rights, the fact that this land was once theirs provides motivation for the struggle. But in contrast to Americans of European descent, many Mexicans also identify with indigenous cultures present in America since before colonisation. The Mexican government says 21.5% of Mexicans are indigenous (in the USA the equivalent figure is 0.9%), and most Mexicans carry a mixed ancestry of native and Spanish (sometimes referred to as ‘Mestizo’). One of Mexico’s most famous and lauded presidents, Benito Juarez, was an indigenous Zapotec from Oaxaca.
So, for Hispanic people in San Diego, not only were they being disrespected in their former homeland, they had a stronger claim to the land through their ancestors than the European settlers. It was out of this feeling that the Chicano Movement sprang; ‘Chicano’ being another word for Mexican-Americans.
From the 40s into the 70s, while the African American Civil Rights Movement fought for the liberties of black people and the Women’s Liberation Movement changed the perception of women in American society, the lesser-known Chicano Movement attempted to achieve the same for Hispanic people.
Barrio Logan was one of the most prominent Mexican-American neighbourhoods in San Diego, and for years it had been treated so by the city authorities. In 1950s the city rezoned the residential area and allowed industry to move in, poisoning the air and creating a lot of loud noise. In the 1960s, the authorities twice demolished large parts of the neighbourhood. First, to build Interstate 5, then to build elevated ramps to funnel traffic onto the San Diego-Coronado Bridge.
Without consultation, 5,000 homes were demolished and concrete pillars constructed in their place. This cleaved the residential part of the barrio off from the commercial part. Residents used to walking from their homes to the shops to buy tortilla and pan dulce, or to visit the two Spanish-speaking theatres, were now isolated; the city only factored three pedestrian crossings into the plan.
As a form of compensation for this loss, the city promised to build the residents a park underneath the ramp. But years passed, and no park appeared.
One morning in April 1970, a young supporter of the Chicano Movement was walking past the site of the intended park when he noticed bulldozers. At first, he assumed they were finally about to get their park. But he was wrong. True to form, the authorities had decided that rather than build a park they would build a highway patrol station instead. News quickly spread, and soon young and old members of the community were down there protesting, indignant at another slap in the face from the San Diego local government.
The protests took an unusual form: Instead of gathering in crowds and shouting slogans, protesters began planting cacti, trees and other native plants. They raised the flag of Aztlán, symbolically laying claim to the area which their distant ancestors had once ruled. The protest grew. High school students walked out of their classes to come down to the park and form human chains around the bulldozers.
With the protest numbering over 250 people, the authorities gave in and called off construction, at least for the moment. Protestors stayed on the land for 12 days while community representatives negotiated the creation of the park. Finally, an agreement was reached to provide $20,000 to the community to build the park, and the leaders of the protest assured the protestors that they could leave.
33-year old Salvador Torres, a recent art school graduate, was the first to suggest painting murals. His vision was of the pillars adorned with artworks and a green belt full of trees and plants which would stretch all the way to the San Diego Bay. The first murals took two years to complete. They depicted scenes from native myth mixed with images of social struggle, addressing immigration, inequality, feminism and involving Latin revolutionary leaders like Che Guevara, Salvador Allende and Fidel Castro.
The park hasn’t always existed without issue. Demonstrating the alarming distance many Americans still have to go in learning about the history of the land they live on, some have objected to the presence of scenes from local indigenous history in the murals and references to Aztlán, the ancestral home of the Aztec people. In 2017 a group of ‘patriots’ attempted to occupy the park with the intention of flying the American flag in the middle of it, claiming the park is racist and ‘anti-American’. They were quickly moved on by residents of Barrio Logan.
When I visited Chicano Park I was surprised at how sad I felt. It is, after all, the scene of a small local community’s victory over arrogant city planners. But the scenes in the murals memorialise a history which most Americans prefer to ignore, and in this case literally build freeways over. 5,000 homes were sacrificed for this road; a cracked, dirty strip of concrete habitable only to cars and grunting trucks. The sense of loss is profound. Not just the loss of a local community, but the loss of an indigenous culture which colonisation all but wiped out; a process continuing today and in which San Diego’s city planners played their part.
As opposed to Mexico, where indigenous traditions are central to the national culture and there are huge museums dedicated to pre-Hispanic history, reminders of North America’s indigenous past are difficult to come by in the USA. These murals were the only hint I encountered of the civilisation that existed before the Europeans arrived. What replaced it is tragically underwhelming. What exactly Donald Trump’s Great Fence will be protecting from poor central American immigrants is unclear. History tells us it’s European settlers who’ve tended to invade and destroy countries and cultures, not the other way around. When the new border fence is completed, I know which side I will be on.
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