It was a typical busy weekend at Chicano Park, a symbol of civic pride in San Diego’s Barrio Logan community beneath the Coronado Bay bridge. It’s a grassy, intimate plot of land in an urban setting where neighbors can gather with their families to enjoy a picnic or check out events of cultural interest.
On this particular day it was Palm Sunday, which seemed like the perfect occasion to unveil yet another colorful mural that will permanently decorate a mass of surrounding concrete. The theme of the mural, painted by renowned street artist Sal Barajas, was “No Border Wall.” And appropriately hosting the affair were the Border Angels, a non-profit immigrant rights organization.
“The mural carries three messages,” noted Enrique Morones, the group’s founder and executive director. “No border walls, love has no borders and no more deaths.
“Everybody wants border security, but we want humane policies.”
Rallies like these are proudly attended by the Mexican-American community, but also by outsiders who might not be frequent visitors to the park itself. That’s important because this past January, Chicano Park was officially designated a national historic landmark by the U.S. Department of the Interior. Due to this distinction, HispanicHorizons.com asked longtime Chicano activist Augie Bareno to explain in detail the extraordinary significance of this honor.
THE HISTORY OF LOGAN HEIGHTS by Augie Bareno
Since the early 1900’s when the influx of Mexican immigrants to San Diego county first began, they congregated in an area near the railroad and waterfront then called Logan Heights. It was an industrial area where work could be found. It was a meager existence marked with challenges and obstacles in housing, employment, religion and realization of the full potential of the American journey. Little did they know that it would mark the character of the community for succeeding generations.
The first controversy of sorts came about in the early 1920’s, when Mexican Catholics sought to have Spanish-speaking mass for the faithful. The San Diego area was at the time was under the Los Angeles Diocese and Our Lady of Angels church off Market Street, and was the first and largest Catholic church in the area. The question of providing Spanish-speaking masses fell to the parish board and the Diocese, resulting in a mission being created for the Mexican population at a site on National Avenue. Ironically, the mission was located just a few blocks west of what would become Chicano Park.
While the Spanish-speaking congregation flourished, someone filed a complaint with The Vatican that too many priests from Tijuana were performing mass in San Diego, a violation of Canon Law because they were from a different diocese and country. The impetus of this controversy eventually resulted in the Kearny Avenue creation of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, one of the most iconic institutions in San Diego. The spirit of struggle in the community had been born around the fundamental issue of faith, and would go on to manifest itself in many forms for decades behind the leadership of Father Richard Brown, who served his flock of worshipers for more than 40 years.
Following the Depression and the 1940’s, many sons of the community where called to serve during the war. They responded in patriotic fervor, with immigrant enlistments far out of proportion to their actual numbers. They had hopes that service to their country might lead them to opportunities down the road, circumstances that by and large, had eluded them short of President Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corp.
Veterans in the community from both the world war and Korean conflict had emerged from those experiences with a new sense of purpose and the desire to improve their lives. This renewed pride coincided with the development of family-owned small businesses along the principal streets of Logan Heights. To the north of Logan Avenue, there was also a burgeoning negro business district along Imperial Avenue. While there have always been community organizations within the local Mexican-American residents, they were usually associated with the church. By the early 1950’s however, several civic organizations were developed that aligned with the cultural backbone of the community. They ranged from Fiestas Patrias to Sociedades Mutualistas, and also included Chicano rights groups like G.I. Forum and MAPA LULAC.
The second challenge for the Mexican community of Logan Heights began amidst tremendous growth in the City of San Diego, which began to reflect changes in housing stock and land use patterns. Logan Heights had once been a place where prominent San Diegans resided in upscale housing, but that would later be abandoned for areas like Golden Hills and North Park. This essentially laid the framework for the future, turning the barrio into an industrial zone. The situation was further compounded by the Great Depression, with jobs and opportunities becoming scarce for Mexican immigrants. Had it not been for Helen Marston, the daughter of one of San Diego’s most influential families, the community may not have survived. Years earlier, she created a settlement called the Neighborhood House, which focused on family values and the teaching of skills to help individuals better sustain themselves in the area. It worked and the Neighborhood House is credited with creating the next generation of leadership among Mexican-Americans in this urban setting.
By 1955-56, San Diego experienced a new growth spurt sparked by the defense industry and the influx of Navy families to the region. In addition, the population was causing a major disruption to what had been an antiquated public transportation system. The downtown movers and shakers along with Sacramento wanted to build an interstate highway which would run through the center of Logan Heights, thus destroying adjacent areas including the Negro Business District. Thousands of families were dislocated as a result of the new highway, and property owners were paid very little in compensation. In an era when due process essentially didn’t exist, families were bitter and developed a distrust for civic government, and vowed to never let “Shit Happen Again.” The issue especially resonated with their sons and daughters, who were now attending colleges and embraced their identity in the Chicano movement. The passion was powerful.
The significance of murals and artwork reflecting the struggles of life have deep roots in Mexican society. But what was created at Chicano Park is unique because it combined the vision of two art students from the 1950’s, both who realized that their creative talents could transform a cultural statement to new levels. Salvador “Queso” Torres and Jose Montoya would eventually regarded as premier “Chicano Muralists,” but others like Guillermo Aranda, Victor Ochoa, Mario Chacon, Mario Torero and the aforementioned Barajas would also make contributions to the park’s landscape. The Danza movement of the Aztecs has flourished with it’s rich traditions and ability to portray the past and present, and additional murals can also be seen along the trolley tracks as the train passes through the present-day barrio.
If one thing stands out above all at Chicano Park, it would be the life and contributions of the late Ramon “Chunky” Sanchez, whose voice and spirit was paramount in the development of the site. The takeover, which I was a proud participant, reflect a convergence of San Diego county’s Chicano community; old-timers, business people, senoras, and Mecha students from everywhere. Everybody came together, finally standing up for Logan Heights when the Highway Patrol had planned to build a Substation on land promised by the city to earmark as a neighborhood park. As Chunky had said in the Chicano Park Samba, “Chale with the Highway Patrol Substation here!”
The stewardship of Chicano Park by its Steering Committee stands as a great example of commitment and passion. And now that the park has achieved national recognition, it’s due in great measure to the sons and daughters of the immigrants who first settled in Logan Heights.
Augie Bareno is a member of the original Chicano Park takeover group and a Logan Heights historian. Trained by Bert Corona-Casa Justicia and an associate of Chicano kingpin Herman Baca, he is a county executive, an elected official and accomplished journalist.