I had been in San Diego for less than a week and was still unsure of bus routes. Having successfully navigated the trolley-to-bus transfer from La Mesa to the Gaslight District downtown, I figured I was close enough to walk. If it were a different day I would welcome any unexpected detours as a result of getting on the wrong bus, but today I was headed somewhere specific.

It was July, Saturday, and sunny. I walked southwest from downtown heading toward Barrio Logan. A historically working class Mexican and Mexican American neighborhood in the city, Barrio Logan is home to Chicano Park. Chicano Park is located under the Coronado Bridge and contains over 70 outdoor murals that decorate the pillars that support the bridge.

Chicano Park came into existence in April 1970 when neighborhood activists occupied the then vacant space under the bridge. The bridge was built around three years earlier, displacing thousands of residents in the process. Though the vacant space under the bridge was originally set to be the site of a highway patrol station, community activists instead demanded that the site be turned into a public park. After months of struggle, the city ceded to the community activists’ demands and designated the site a park. Soon thereafter local residents began calling the space Chicano Park. The name Chicano Park reflected not only how Barrio Logan was a predominantly Mexican and Mexican American neighborhood, but also how those involved with the takeover supported El Movimiento, the civil rights movement in the U.S. that focused on those of Mexican descent. Activists who participated in El Movimiento regularly identified themselves as Chicanas and Chicanos.

Since the 1970s artists like Victor Ochoa, Yolanda Lopez, and Salvador Torres have painted murals dedicated to Mexican and Mexican American culture and history on the bridge’s bare pillars. Popular murals painted in the 1970s include Historical Mural, Quetzalcóatl, and Birth of La Raza. Much like the name of the park, artists found inspiration in El Movimiento’s goals of eradicating ethnoracial discrimination and used the bridge’s pillars to present positive renderings of those of Mexican descent. Also starting in the 1970s, a festival, or Chicano Park Day, is held each April commemorating the day community residents occupied the land under the bridge, reinforcing the park’s continued importance to the local community.

After around a half hour of walking toward the park, colorful pillars broke into view. I entered the park and saw people walking among the pillars taking photos of the murals and reading the walls. People sat on steps of the green, red, and white painted kiosko situated near the center of the park. As I walked around taking my own photos a man in his mid-20s approached me and we began to talk. Learning that I was not a local, he began running through aspects of the park’s history. While I would later tell him that I was writing about Chicano Park in my dissertation, I initially kept this information to myself. I was more interested in hearing about how he spoke of the park. As he talked he braided the park’s history and importance to the community with the park’s significance in his own life. We stayed in the park and talked for hours while he guided me from pillar to pillar discussing the murals.

My “Humanities Moment” is therefore the confluence of walking to the park, seeing the pillars for the first time, and listening to a man – now a friend – talk about the importance of Chicano Park in his life and to the community. Chicano Park is representative of Mexican and Mexican American activism, culture, and history in the U.S. and reveals the power of community to determine the shape of its immediate surroundings. As my friend also demonstrated, Chicano Park is deeply personal and holds layers of meaning for community residents and those who visit the park.

– Sean Ettinger (PhD Candidate in History at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign)