Hector Villegas is the first to admit that a school setting is a little foreign to him. We're in a downstairs classroom at King-Chávez Preparatory Academy in Grant Hill, just down the street from Barrio Logan, where Villegas' grew up and still lives. When many art programs are being cut in schools, Villegas was just hired as the charter school's newest visual art teacher. While he's mainly known for his iconic murals and strident activism for Barrio Logan's Chicano Park, he thinks this might be his biggest project yet.
"I hear the art teacher's always the cool one," he says, laughing as we pass a mural of the school's namesakes (Martin Luther King and César Chávez) that Mario Chacon painted with help from Villegas. "I don't know if that'll be the case, but I do want them to come into the classroom and be happy and able to express themselves. They have so much stuff going on in their lives. I want it to be therapy for them."
While teaching a bunch of middle school students about art could very well be a daunting task, Villegas may find a receptive audience in the students that attend King-Chávez Prep. Most of his students will be of Mexican descent and even though some are from areas near Chicano Park, many don't know or aren't aware of the neighborhood's rich artistic and cultural legacy.
"One of the things I started doing is really researching what art teachers teach and a lot of it is just teachers just telling kids about art," Villegas says. "Yeah, it's about learning a lot about various disciplines of art from all over the world, but it's also learning about who you are as a person and where you come from. The majority of the kids here are Mexicano and Chicano and they're not learning anything about what that means. Once these kids learn a little bit about who they are and they start going home to ask their parents, that's what I want."
Villegas wants to incorporate things like "silk screening 101," where he would teach kids the process from sketch to paint. He'll bring in other artists from the community to serve as motivational guest speakers. There will also be more hands-on activities such as beadwork, crafting, ceramics and even food. He wants to incorporate lessons about the business side of things, too, because as he says, "artists aren't always the best business people."
Villegas' enthusiasm is infectious when he recounts his lesson plans for the upcoming school year. It's also surprising to learn that he only recently "got over the fear of calling myself an artist." While he's long been a muralist, he's only been doing canvas and gallery-ready visual art for four years. He started in 2012 after a restoration project in Chicano Park, but says he often felt embarrassed by some of the works he was producing even when friends and people in the community offered encouragement.
He kept with it and recently debuted the results at To All My Relation: A Four-Year Cycle, a new show of Chicano-themed acrylic paintings and giclée prints that deals in indigenous, environmental and elemental motifs. The show was organized by the Bay Area-based El Comalito Collective and held at its gallery in Vallejo. While some of the work in the show was seen in Villegas' 2015 solo show in Logan Heights, A Native Chicano Focus in a Pixelated World, it had long been an intention of Villegas to show his work outside of San Diego. What's more, he says that a lot more attention and respect is being paid to Chicano Park artists, especially outside of San Diego, than ever before.
"Chicano Park has a lot of clout to it for people who know about the place," says Villegas, who also recently participated in an artist talk at the University of Oregon. "For a lot of people, it's their dream to paint there. There's some people who've never heard of it, but for those who do, even if they've never been there, it's a big deal."
However, he says he finds it dispiriting that Chicano Park often isn't afforded the same respect by locals. He serves on four Barrio Logan community boards that are all involved in preservation and activism, but says the "city isn't offering any money for the maintenance of the murals or restoration."
"There's so many tourists down there, but we're still neglected by the city," Villegas says. "Expedia and USA Today are naming it one of the ten best places to go in Southern California and there's all this acclaim, but then you have the city and the convention people telling folks, 'don't go down there.'"
In talking with Villegas about these issues, it's easy to see the parallels between his own journey and what he wants to ultimately instill in his students at King-Chávez Prep. That yes, they'll learn about the intricacies and basics of creating their own art, but that they'll also continue that legacy of artistic activism that Barrio Logan has become renowned for.
"Right now, there's not a lot of young Chicanas and Chicanos that are taking the lead in Barrio Logan. There are some, but in the immediate community, it's much more elders who are involved," Villegas says. "I've taught about art before, but never in this capacity. It's exciting. It's a new adventure. Art is medicine for the heart, mind and spirit. I believe that. It's helped me out in my own life, so I know this for a fact. I just want the kids to come in here and feel like that."
Check out Andrew Norbeck's short film about Hector Villegas and Chicano Park