Chicano Park Day’s 36th anniversary is bringing back memories of a time of revolution, and a very familiar situation is heating up in the neighborhood. As the immigration reform debate heats up, demonstrators are returning to Chicano Park. Hardly strangers to protests, the residents of Barrio Logan see this as just another decade, with another fight.
The residents of Logan had long desired a community park throughout the 1960s. Interstate 5 displaced residents and bisected their community, which put them in the awkward position of feeling hidden. Then, the land that once was filled with homes became replaced by concrete pillars and barren land.
When the Coronado bridge construction began in 1967, the residents were told parkland would be allocated for them.
However, just three years later on April 22, 1970 they were greeted by bulldozers and a construction crew under the bridge at Cesar Chavez Parkway and Logan, an empty site they long believed would be home to a future park despite the pillars.
“The city kept promising and promising and continued defying the word of the people by never committing. First we had the freeways built, than the bridge, and they were beating around the bush on the topic of the park,” said Ramon “Chunky” Sanchez, a local barrio folk musician of Los Alacranes and park activist.
As the bulldozers prepped for the groundbreaking of a highway patrol station’s parking lot under the bridge, Mario Solis, a student at San Diego City College confronted the crew to see what they were doing. He had ditched class and soon found himself at the heart of controversy.
“After Mario heard, he ran back to school and busted into the classroom. We joked, ‘you’re kind of late aren’t you.’ And he said, ‘they’re trying to build a station in the park,’” recalled David Rico, a Vietnam Veteran and member of the militant Brown Beret de Atzlan.
After hearing that the land would be turned into a parking lot, the dissatisfaction of the people quickly spread. And the residents of Logan Heights prepared to walk onto the construction site and take it over.
“In my mind, I was picturing a lot of militancy, but when we got to the park it was like seeing a reflection of your family. I saw grandma, grandpa. That was the militancy,” said Sanchez, who was 18-years-old at the time.
He said he hadn’t known what to expect, but in the eyes of his fellow community members, he saw a determination that pulled at his soul, a seriousness which affirmed his role in the reclamation of the land.
“I said to myself, I want to be a part of this. It’s almost as though someone was going to die and they ask for help, you know? You can’t just walk away, you couldn’t live with that.”
Human chains formed around the bulldozers and hundreds gathered to demonstrate against construction, as park supporters from across the county chanted, “Chicano Park all the way to the bay.”
Rico said this scared the authorities.
“The Mayor’s Office, the highway patrol, police, state department and federal government all came and they walked up to about 10 of us and asked who was in charge. They didn’t know who to talk to and that’s how we wanted it. We wanted promises to be met, with the police or without even if they had to go through our blood to take it,” he said.
After a 12-day fight to be given a park on the land rather than a patrol station parking lot, the community succeeded in forming the Chicano Park Steering Committee to oversee the development and expansion of a park. And Solis managed to commandeer a bulldozer to flatten the land as the residents planted cactus, flowers and trees to beautify the desolate land.
During the following months, their park pursuit went all the way to the California Supreme Court. But the barrio got its park.
By 1973, artists began their role in the beautification of Chicano Park by painting murals that educated their community and explained the issues they faced. Those issues ranged from immigration, farm workers rights and police brutality to the lack of portraits of role models their children should be taught about in school.
Sal Barajas, a fellow park muralist said that their paintings were, “a result of anger through art.”
The murals on the Westside of the park were the first to be painted. Although done illegally, the artists expressed their resistance toward the once-cold pillars that staggered through the park.
“I do see art as a weapon, we may not be shooting guns, but the murals are a tool and weapon for change. We have a heritage with murals dating to the Aztecs and Mayas who painted to educate and communicate with the communities, this is where we explain,” said Victor Ochoa, a Chicano Park muralist.
The artwork spoke for the people and progressed throughout the years, showcasing the community’s conflict with junkyards being placed into their blue-collar community, and the barrio’s fight with the California Coastal Commission for extended land on the tidelands. The public art even managed to survive in the 1996 struggle against CalTrans. The agency wanted to retrofit the pillars covered in art with concrete for earthquake safety.
Sanchez realizes that people may get confused by the term Chicano, which became the name of the park. But he said, “Chicano is not so much the color of your skin, but a state of mind and a state of heart. When you’re caught between two cultures, you’re forced to identify yourself by a subculture.”
This past weekend, that definition was reaffirmed as San Diegans gathered at the park to demonstrate against a proposed immigration reform, which if passed would force undocumented immigrants, depending on their time in this country, to return to their native countries. Once again, concerned residents united in solidarity as they did 36 years ago with a common fight for the good of their people and their community.
Sunday, however there was more to their unison on the parkland than fighting a new age of racism.
Residents young and old watched on in devotion and respect, as a Catholic Palm Sunday mass was held in the park’s kiosko. Families even held hands in prayer, showing that the park is more than just a place to play; it’s also a place of worship.
The magical energy of the park is something Sanchez incorporated into the Chicano Park Samba, a song recently inducted into the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.
And he was right; there is something unique about this land. To completely understand and feel that energy, you must make yourself a part of the park’s eclectic environment… breathing in all that this outdoor art gala and cultural shrine represents. As you sit beside a mural and gaze at its essence, you cannot help but feel as though you, too were along for Barrio Logan’s fight.
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Chicano Park Day will be celebrated on April 22 at Chicano Park. Artists Sal Barajas and Victor Ochoa are presently working on a restoration manual for CalTrans through a federal grant which will give the park’s original muralists funds to restore 20 of the original murals. Today, there are over 60 murals throughout the park.
Betsy Lopez Fritscher is Voice‘s office manager and editorial assistant. Contact her directly at