Colorado’s Chicano murals make National Trust for Historic Preservation’s most endangered places list
Fourteen years ago, David Ocelotl Garcia designed and painted his first mural: a tribal, Mexican-inspired scene depicted across the side of a community organization’s building in the Sun Valley neighborhood of west Denver.
Using rich oranges, greens, blues and yellows, Garcia — with the help of Sun Valley residents — painted the creation story of the Mesoamerican deity Huitzilopochtli, whose name translates to “hummingbird of the south.”
“The community embraced it as their own, and I wanted it to be this positive imagery that would manifest in the community while embracing culture and heritage,” he said.
But then, in 2020, a marijuana dispensary that had moved into the building covered the colorful mural in white paint.
“They literally whitewashed it,” Garcia said.
The defilement of Garcia’s art is just one example of the threat facing Colorado’s Chicano murals, said Lucha Martínez de Luna, director of the Chicano/a/x Murals of Colorado Project. She estimates more than 40 historic Chicano murals still exist across Colorado, concentrated in cities or towns with strong Latino populations, including Denver, Aurora, Commerce City, Brighton, San Luis, Greeley, Pueblo and Alamosa.
More than 90% of the state’s Chicano murals from the 1970s — a period that produced a wave of art and activism — already have been lost, including nearly all of the murals in Denver’s public parks and schools, Martínez de Luna said.
Efforts to preserve and restore the artwork will get a significant boost Wednesday with the announcement that Colorado’s Chicano murals are on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s annual list of America’s most endangered historic places.
They are the first murals in the nation to make the list in its 34-year existence, and the first Colorado entry since Larimer Square was ranked in 2018.
The list carries clout.
Of the more than 300 locations designated as endangered by the National Trust over the decades, fewer than 5% have been lost since making the list, according to Katherine Malone-France, chief preservation officer at National Trust for Historic Preservation.
“The list is about raising awareness and bringing a national spotlight to places that are an incredibly important part of our shared national narrative,” Malone-France said. “But it’s also about bringing attention to the people who are fighting so hard to protect these places and calling attention to the fact that there are preservation solutions to protect these places.”
“Powerful to see yourself in art”
Martínez de Luna, born and raised in Colorado, grew up steeped in art, murals and social movements. Her father, Emanuel Martínez, is a pioneer of the mural movement who was active in Colorado’s Crusade for Justice, an organization established in the 1960s that advocated for Chicano civil rights.
The murals, painted by the Chicano community for the Chicano community, served as love letters to the culture and history lessons for students whose education often lacked Latino perspectives.
“When the civil rights movement was going on, students were demanding they had access to their history,” Martínez de Luna said. “The murals fill this void. They became their visual texts — their textbooks. A lot of people didn’t feel comfortable going to the Denver Art Museum, or they go there and don’t see familiar faces in the artwork and nothing represents them, so murals are very significant. It’s very powerful to see yourself in art.”
For years, Martínez de Luna — who also has served as associate curator of Hispanic, Latino and Chicano history at History Colorado, among archaeological pursuits — interviewed muralists and photographed their work, begging local institutions to pay attention to the history etched on their city’s walls.
“Nobody was really interested,” she said.
Taking mural matters into her own hands, Martínez de Luna founded the Chicano/a/x Murals of Colorado Project in 2018 with the intention of “promoting, preserving and protecting Colorado’s artistic legacy in the face of increasing urban development and gentrification.”
In addition to preservation, the project is working on mapping the existing murals and educating the public about the art through the installation of informational plaques and community events at which Martínez de Luna wants to hear from residents about what murals are important to them and why.
Martínez de Luna submitted the Chicano murals to the National Trust with the hope that a bigger spotlight would mean losing fewer irreplaceable works of art.
In 2020, she sprung into action when the beloved Sun Valley mural was desecrated — but not permanently destroyed.
“What other murals can we save?”
In Garcia’s mural “Huitzilopochtli,” the deity is flanked by paintings of children with corn crops sprouting from their minds to symbolize the local youth manifesting abundance and sustenance, he said.
Members of the Sun Valley community, from children to adults, helped Garcia paint the mural over a six-month period.
The artwork was so popular in the community that it launched Garcia on a path of mural painting around the globe and introduced him to a love of public art.
“I never had classical training,” he said. “I went to the art school of life.”
The art school of life struck Garcia a blow in 2020 when he learned from panicked phone calls that his first-ever mural had been coated in white paint by the building’s new occupants, a dispensary with new-to-Denver owners.
“They had no understanding that murals can have a really historical significance in any community,” Garcia said. “You can’t go and erase it. That was ignorance on their part. They put white paint over it with the intention they were going to repaint it with their logo or something, and the news spread fast.”
The dispensary’s owners did not return a request for comment.
Garcia and Martínez de Luna’s phones rang all morning with calls from community members distraught over the mural erasure.
The two confronted the dispensary owners, who eventually agreed to pay for mural restoration and the painting of a healing mural on another side of the building. The work is scheduled to begin later this month.
Through an innovative chemical treatment process and power-washing technique used in Los Angeles mural restoration, the Chicano/a/x Murals of Colorado Project plans to blast the white paint off of Garcia’s mural, which should remain intact underneath, Martínez de Luna said.
“Now the question is what other murals can we save?” she said.
“Part of our shared history”
A lack of cultural awareness is only one challenge historic murals face, said Annie Levinsky, executive director of Historic Denver, which helped the Chicano/a/x Murals of Colorado Project with its bid for the endangered places list.
Gentrification has posed problems for public art as well, Levinsky said.
“Typically, these murals are painted on privately owned buildings… (and) those buildings may get bought and sold multiple times and the new owners may not understand when the mural was created, so we’ve certainly seen the erasure of murals for that reason,” Levinsky said. “One of the other challenges we encountered when going through the La Alma-Lincoln Park historic designation process was the local policy tools don’t necessarily address art in this way.”
Historic districts — oftentimes a designation sought to protect and preserve meaningful buildings — don’t offer murals the same protections as buildings, Levinsky said. The murals are just considered, legally, a coat of paint.
“There’s a gap in the protections around the visual elements of the buildings,” Levinsky said. “This list is a catalyst to bring all the partners to the table and bring national expertise around how to do these things. We know the more the public is aware of it and cares about it, the more likely that will be.”
Efforts in Denver or Colorado as a whole to figure out policies to enshrine mural protections into law or practice could have a national ripple effect, the National Trust’s Malone-France said.
“These murals meet every one of our criteria,” Malone-France said. “They are incredibly beautiful. They vividly convey an important part of our shared history. They were created for their communities by their communities. They’re icons. They represent history, identity, create a sense of belonging and fire the imagination with their beauty and their creativity. We cannot lose these. How Denver finds a way to protect these murals is not just for Denver. It could be a model for this nationally.”
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