After four decades, even murals painted with the heated passion of a revolution will start to deteriorate and chip, their tint fading as thousands of cars thunder overhead every day on the Interstate 5 and Coronado bridge freeways.

But there’s some new color gleaming from the freeway columns in Chicano Park.

We spent part of last week hanging out with some of the park’s original muralists, who’ve returned to bring vibrancy to the park again. Here’s a video we put together with NBC 7 San Diego:

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Beginning last summer, artists have been descending again from around the country on the park that bears the work of their youth. Older now, they’ve cobbled together teams of their children and friends to help climb scaffolding and paint hard-to-reach corners. Eighteen murals will get this revitalizing touch by next summer.

Last week the scaffolding came down from the eighth mural to get some new color, painted by the very same artist who instigated it in 1975. Artist Juanishi Orosco from Sacramento worked with a team of painters to infuse new color and vibrancy into his “In Lak Esh” mural on one side of a freeway column over the past several months.

Nearby, artist Victor Ochoa is leading a few painters to repaint his mural proclaiming “All the way to the bay.”

Photo by Sam Hodgson
Victor Ochoa worked on myriad murals in the park; his team’s currently working to revitalize his “Hasta la Bahia/All the Way to the Bay” murals on a bridge support.

He’d never entirely finished after the scaffolding he borrowed in 1978 was taken in the middle of the night. So one of the two pillars had a blank, unfinished swath. Now, he’s transformed his original vision as his team significantly revamps the image. He’s added a finer, colorful pattern and shading to what was once a plain white banner. An unfinished painting of a young man wearing a plain T-shirt and jeans hoisting a pole for the banner has now exploded into a vibrant, costumed ringleader.

The men paint to an era-appropriate soundtrack: Jimi Hendrix blares from speakers next to Ochoa’s trailer.

Photo by Sam Hodgson
Ochoa’s team blasts Jimi Hendrix as they paint new color on a mural.

The money for the restoration of 18 murals — $1.6 million — comes from a frequent foe here: the government.

Construction for I-5 and the bridge to Coronado bisected the heart of the neighborhood in the 1960s, leaving the land underneath barren. The community expected a park would go in, but found out in 1970 that a highway patrol building was planned for the location instead. Protestors occupied the land, formed human chains around bulldozers and won the park.

A few years later, the first murals went up, covering the sterile concrete pillars with vivid images. Chicano artists from all over the country added mural after mural. A few years after the first murals were painted in Chicano Park in 1973, Ochoa instigated a “mural marathon” in 1978. Now more than 50 murals, with more being added all the time, tint the columns, ramps and walls around the park with stories of social, cultural and political struggles from the Mexican-American experience.

The road got bumpier again in the 1990s when Caltrans announced it would retrofit all state highway bridges for earthquake safety, which would cover up the murals. The community protested again, and an archaeologist and historian at Caltrans helped get the murals designated officially historic. The agency used a different seismological strategy to fortify the bridges without losing the murals.

The historic designation helped pave the way to get grant money to restore the fading murals. But it was more complicated than even normal red tape to actually get the money into the hands of artists to paint. The colorful murals don’t fit easily with the rest of Caltrans’ plans for maintaining its gray and black roads and bridges.

They needed a specific strategy for restoring color and preserving the murals for the future. Ochoa and another of the original muralists, Sal Barajas, teamed up to produce the official restoration manual and to prioritize the ones that need the most help.

And now, in a move that would’ve surprised the protestors in the heady beginning days of the park, Caltrans has helped secure the federal transportation dollars to restore what was originally the protestors’ work to deface government property.

“To restore things that happened in this particular period of history, the past 40 years, is really just a dream come true,” Ochoa said. “Having a budget is just really fantastic.”

Photo by Sam Hodgson
Artist Mario Chacon wields a paintbrush on scaffolding next to one of the murals.

Tommie Camarillo is no stranger to this fight. A twentysomething Camarillo brought her toddler daughter with her to occupy and take over the park back in 1970.

“We worked with Caltrans because we’re here and we weren’t going to go anywhere, we worked with Caltrans for, it’s been what? 42 years almost,” she said. “We’ve had to fight with Caltrans as well and let ’em know that we were not going anywhere. The community is here. Because we live amongst these pillars, we had to do something with them, as well as the park.”

Now Camarillo is overseeing the restoration, coordinating scaffolding and paint and places to stay for the original artists and their teams of helpers. Many don’t live in San Diego any longer. Some of the original artists have passed away.

Photo by Sam Hodgson
Tommie Camarillo brought her toddler daughter to take over the land for the park in 1970 and has been involved ever since.

Camarillo said she’s paying close attention as her friends come back to paint.

“It’s really amazing. I’ve learned so much,” she said. “Because though I was here, I’ve been here since day one, I wasn’t actually standing there with the artists and watching them paint back then. It was just, you know, happening, and ‘Yeah, that’s cool.’”

It’s a complicated thing to invite artists with four more decades of experience under their belts to revisit work they made in their youth. Should the artist just repaint the same lines he painted in the 1970s, or bring to the table new techniques, new colors? The new Chicano Park could look significantly brighter and more modern than the old one as the restoration continues.

The mural called “Mujer Cosmica” is a good example. The 1975 version features a woman painted white in the center with words and phrases like “ALLENDE” and “VENCEREMOS” written in capital letters all over her arms, legs and torso.

But the newly painted version includes other words and phrases in a more modern scripted tattoo style, phrases like “BARRIO LOGAN SI SE PUEDE” and “VIVA LA RAZA.” In place of “AMOUR” on her chest is the word “LIBERTAD.” The new version fleshes out the color and shading of her skin and the background, retaining the original concept but appearing quite different.

The revitalization will matter to anyone who sees the park, not just the surrounding community, said muralist Mario Torero.

“It shows that this park is alive,” he said. “Sometimes they might’ve thought, ‘Oh, those were those days, that happened long ago. Look it, they’re old and falling apart.’

“And now they’re coming here and they can’t believe the new colors they see on the walls,” he said. “It’s even better than the first time, I tell you.”

Photo by Sam Hodgson
A reinvented version of the “Mujer Cosmica” mural gleams with new, bright color. Artists Esteban Villa and Ricardo Favela painted the original in 1975.

Words by Kelly Bennett; photographs by Sam Hodgson. Bennett is the arts editor for VOSD. You can reach her directly at or 619.325.0531.

Hodgson is a freelance photojournalist and contributor to You can reach him at

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Dagny Salas

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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