Sunday, June 27, 2010

Local Monuments: The Practice of Appreciating the Stars

"Ralph Waldo Emerson once asked what we would do if the stars only came out once every thousand years. No one would sleep that night, of course...Instead, the stars come out every night and we watch television." - Paul Hawken, Commencement Address, May 2009

On my last day in San Diego, I found myself busy running errands, cleaning, strategizing a way to pack the cars, and generally feeling equal parts stress and sadness. I decided to grab a quick lunch and picked up a sandwich, intending to eat it in the car on my way to my next task. But then I remembered the above portion of Paul Hawken's commencement address, which I had read only a few days before, and I pulled over.

If this was my last day in a city I love, I needed to see something in it. But what? There's so much to see! Funny how I've lived in San Diego for seven years and never once had that thought. In fact, in the last year, my husband and I have traveled to Sonoma and Seattle and Santa Barbara and Joshua Tree to sightsee. We never once thought to sightsee in our own backyard, although there is much of beauty to take in.

Perhaps because I'm reading Barbara Kingsolver's The Lacuna, the story of a young Mexican cook whose life intersects with those of Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Leon Trotsky, I decided to finish my half-eaten sandwich at Chicano Park, a local monument that is literally beneath the Coronado Bridge on the city side and, thus, a five minute drive from my front door, though I have never once been to see it.

The park is located in Barrio Logan, a historically chicano and Mexican-immigrant neighborhood, settled before the turn of the century, and it came about in the 1970s, after a nonviolent takeover of the land by the people of the neighborhood in opposition to Caltrans' plan to build a highway patrol parking lot on the space promised for the construction of a neighborhood park. Chicano Park holds the largest collection of outdoor murals in the entire country, and they depict various elements of chicano culture, history, politics, and spiritual beliefs; the effect is one of resistance to historical oppressions and neglect. There are depictions of Latino revolutionaries and visionaries, such as Emiliano Zapata, Che Guevarra, Fidel Castro, and Cesar Chavez, as well as depictions of artists like Kahlo and Rivera and Christian imagery of the Virgin of Gaudalupe and Mother Teresa. Perhaps the most striking image is of an Aztec warrior, wearing an elaborate headdress, carrying a decorated shield, and pointing north. 

For me, the fact that the murals are painted on the pillars of the Coronado Bridge, which was constructed to run right through Barrio Logan in order to offer Coronado residents and tourists the option to drive directly onto the island instead of relying only on the ferry to cross the bay, is the most inspiring part of the park. Instead of accepting its prescribed position as a second-class community, the neighborhood residents declared their beliefs, their cultural contributions, their history, and their worth on the very structure that sought to make these things invisible.

Through a little Wikipedia research, I learned that the bridge was only the proverbial icing on the cake in terms of the state and federal governments' transgressions against the people of the Barrio Logan community. The US military built a base at 32nd Street, effectively taking over all access points to the bay, and the state of California opted to build Interstate 5 through the center of the neighborhood, which encouraged the establishment of industrial sites within the neighborhood. But, nonetheless, on the day that I visited the park, children chased each other around the playground, a couple sat talking in the Mayan-style kiosk, teenagers skated on the sidewalk, a man read at a picnic table, and a girl walked around taking pictures of the murals and sculptures and statues and felt overwhelmed with inspiration.

I hope I don't forget the joy I found in seeing a local monument -- not only is it impressive to see beautiful things, but there is something uniquely and personally gratifying about knowing that you live in a place that values and displays such beauty, that offers it up, for free, to people who want to appreciate it. I'm glad that I am one of those people who had the chance to appreciate Chicano Park, and I plan to be one of those people who appreciates the local sights -- wherever local is for me -- from now on.


  1. Hmm. My antidote to stress/sadness is cookies. Nice alternative! Yes--lots of cultural and class significance to the park. I had a BLAST reading The Lacuna (though I had to renew it twice!!) and I now class Kingsolver among the greats. I loved the book for its history, its humor, its characters (real and made-up) and the hero's magical escape from political corruption and persecution. Something fun that might make a nice segue back into NYC culture: the movie City Island. Recommended!

  2. Excellent! Thanks - I'll need some sort of transitional book to get me pumped up about NYC!

  3. Ha! Just got off of amazon and discovered that it's a MOVIE. Perhaps I should read more closely (or not drive for 15 hours a day for 4 days in a row). :)

  4. Awesome, Shannon. Thanks for sharing!