Community holds meeting to discuss fate of Ortega Park murals
Several dozen residents of Santa Barbara’s Eastside and beyond gathered at Ortega Park Saturday afternoon to make their voices heard about the future of the park’s historic murals that celebrate Chicano culture and mythology.
Since the multi-million Ortega Park renovation project was introduced to the community in November, residents have spoken up about their opposition to the original mural evaluation that was presented to the Historic Landmarks Commission. The report was prepared by an outside party, Site & Studio Conservation, LLC., which recommended destroying and replicating five of the murals and relocating two.
Public commenters referred to destroying any of the murals as a “slap in the face to the Latino community,” and the strong opposition led to the formation of the Save Ortega Park Art Committee, which organized the community meeting Saturday afternoon.
The committee called on meeting attendees to “honor our past, acknowledge our present and support our future,” and recommended all existing murals be recreated/repainted on new buildings by the original artists following the tradition of Chicana/o muralism in the city. Committee members also demanded the funds that would have been spent on the costly relocation of the murals be invested into the Santa Barbara Arts Alliance program to provide local youth with art training and mentoring.
Some of the attendees of the gathering included Mayor Cathy Murillo, Eastside representative and City Council member Alejandra Gutierrez and the original artists who painted the murals in the 1979 Ortega Park Mural Project.
Ms. Gutierrez addressed the crowd and apologized to them for not including them in the decision-making process earlier on. Her apology was met by a round of applause from the attendees.
“Today is a huge day. It’s a historical day, because from now on, the way that the city communicates with the (community) will change,” she said. “I do want to apologize on behalf of the city for not doing the proper outreach, and I say it very sincerely. We’re going to do better, but we have to work together and we have to hold each other accountable.”
Manuel Unzueta, a longtime Santa Barbara artist, teacher and community activist who painted multiple murals in Ortega Park, spoke at the event, saying that he and the other artists welcome the beautification of the park, but hope to maintain its history.
“To me, I don’t want to deal with the politics of it, the economics of it,” he said. “To me, all I’m talking about is that art moves people … I think, in the project of the city, there is room to make sure that the historical expression of art (remains).”
Mark Alvarado, the founder of One Community Bridge which has played a role in community outreach, said that regardless of the physical fate of the murals, he and other activists want Ortega Park to be a cultural hub in the community.
“We’re here today to really center the murals in this whole planning process for Ortega Park,” he told the News-Press. “The murals were not centered or memorialized the way they should have been, and obviously with the community outreach we’ve done and planning up to this point, I think we were on the mark in trying to achieve that, and I believe we have now.
“So now, it’s just a matter of the city hearing from the community in terms of how they want to preserve the murals and protect the murals.”
A few speakers addressed the crowd Saturday afternoon, and a survey was available to any community members hoping to voice their opinions on the future of the murals. The survey asked questions like, “How do you feel connected to these murals?” and “What do they mean to you?”
In addition, anyone who desired was able to speak for two to three minutes with a microphone to the crowd, in which there were numerous public participants.
Carlos Cueller, one of the muralists and also a youth mentor, said he hopes to see his murals repainted by local youth.
“My idea for the murals was not only to be Chicano but also environmental,” he told the News-Press. “For the future, we need to repaint the murals and we need to add new people, new students to have the chance to work with us. We need to keep Ortega Park Chicano.”
Members of the Save Ortega Park Committee advocated for a new, inclusive generation of local youth to be given the opportunity to learn about the history of Chicano muralism through hands-on training. In fact, much of the outreach was conducted by youth in the Eastside area.
Leading that effort was Ali Cortes, the founder of Binestar Latinx and a youth outreach worker.
“I have to give major kudos to the kids. We had a lot of youth show up and they canvassed and they did the community outreach and passed out flyers,” Ms. Cortes told the News-Press. “We found that 90% of people here had no idea of what was going on, because we actually did the communication in Spanish. It was bicultural and bilingual.
“The youth (played) a big part in this…They have heard the stories from their grandparents and their parents … A lot of my kids learned how to swim here. It’s important for them because this generation is very aware of what’s going on. They know what gentrification is.”
John Michael Huerta is a seventh generation Eastside resident, and said even his great grandmother’s grandmother lived here and came to Ortega Park. He shared that he is now 14 years sober from alcohol and drugs, and the murals helped him take pride in his community and pass that along to others.
“I actually got into a little trouble one time at this park, but through my sobriety journey, I’ve come to embrace murals, art and the community as a whole. They unify people and bring our town together,” he told the News-Press. “All murals, not just our murals per se, but all murals have healing and therapeutic properties that are good for people to come together.
“The murals themselves are a window into the past that allows me to exist in the present today, and it gives me a sense of perception, direction and motivation.”
To learn more about the Save Ortega Park Art Committee or to sign up for the mailing list, send comments and contact information to Ken Rivas via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or Carlos Cuellar (Spanish) at email@example.com.