It's my first time in Barrio Logan's Chicano Park. My guide, Salvador Roberto Torres, helped envision the park more than 40 years ago and helped create its vibrant murals. We walk over to a concrete table painted to resemble a Mexican flag where men are playing dominoes. A plentiful jardin de los nopales (cactus garden) surrounds the area, one plant adorned like a Christmas tree, with dirty stuffed animals hanging from its prickly arms. As we stand beneath the concrete overpasses that shade the park, I hear the cars zooming past on the Coronado Bridge above us and I wonder if they know we're down here.
“They know,” Torres says. “They can't miss the murals and the colors. They see them. But many people, they don't stop.”
It's true, not many outsiders will visit Chicano Park in their lifetimes. Since its creation, the park has been a fundamental part of Barrio Logan's predominantly Mexican-American community and culture. When Caltrans decided to build the bridge through the area in 1967, Torres and others rallied against it. They couldn't stop the bridge's construction, so Torres decided they should create something of their own in its presence. Conceived out of strife, now, every year on April 22, the community celebrates the park's birth.
One of the men playing dominoes asks me if I am one of Queso's students, Torres' nickname since he was young. Torres grins a boyish grin and says he'd rather not explain when I ask him why they call him “Cheese.” I tell the man I'm not one of Queso's students and shake his hand. His arms are covered with tattoos of skulls, spider webs and old English letters. Another man has “south” tattooed over his left eyebrow and “California” tattooed over his right.
Torres considers these men invaluable volunteers. He relies on them and many others to help with projects around the park.
I tell the men that I am a journalist.
“I don't trust journalists,” one says. “They come in here 10 minutes and expect to write a book about Chicano Park.” Though Torres had a heavy hand in the park's creation, he's become somewhat displaced over the years. He's no longer affiliated with the Chicano Park Steering Committee (which plans the park's annual celebration), and you won't find his name anywhere on a mural or the plaques that hang in the park.
“Usually, those people who are really into things are not recognized,” he says to me later. “Right now, recognition is only given to one artist for painting a mural. And it's not possible for one artist to paint a mural. I began this work as a collective: This park was started as a collective.”
Even now, he'd much rather be out in the community than by himself in an art studio. He still favors public art versus “plop” art—public art is where the public witnesses its creation, whereas plop art is created in a studio, then placed in a community.
We start walking again and end up across the street, standing over a manhole that has writing next to it. It reads “2011 Logan Avenue.”
“This is where we lived, my father and I, in an apartment right here,” he says, “before they tore it all down.” Torres lived here until the early 1960s, back when mostly canneries spanned the waterfront. He eventually left for college in the Bay Area but, after seven years, returned to San Diego. Upon his return, he was confronted by what his neighborhood had become: a wasteland left vulnerable to those in power. It was then that Torres set out to become an activist for his community.
Even now, 40 years later, he thinks the park is not even close to being what it could be. In his mind, it spans out across the bay and even takes over the Coronado Bridge. The bridge itself would be a canvas, all of its columns covered by murals, with sculptures at the bases. A tram would travel under the bridge, filled with spectators to view the artwork, and a monorail would run atop the bridge. Both would run on wind, solar and wave power.
“The people that are running the show now have no vision,” Torres says.
Though he spends time lecturing about his history with Chicano Park at San Diego State University and is still a working artist, his thoughts always seem to go back to the park and what was started there. He gives both formal and informal tours, and every semester he brings his students.
The son of farm workers, and a former farm worker himself (Torres recalls picking plums and apricots as a young boy in the fields of central California), Torres has always used his art to convey messages about community, human rights and peace. A recent retrospective exhibition at the Four Winds Trading Co. in Old Town, showed the diversity of his art. Many pieces depicted Barrio Logan the way it once was, full of canneries and industry. Others depicted folk theater and rituals of the Mexican and Chicano people, skeletons or other mystical features etched on paper. His most recent works are character studies, showing strangers doing simple things like dining at Ranchos in North Park or sitting on the trolley. His most well-known work, “Viva la Raza,” was not on display, though there were prints of it on hand. The painting depicts La Huelga, the symbol of the United Farm Workers of America, as a rising red phoenix. Though now in storage, the painting has toured 11 national art museums since it was completed in 1969.
We tour the park a bit more before Torres returns to the table to say his goodbyes. After we've left, I ask Torres if any of “the volunteers” have day jobs. It was, after all, a Thursday afternoon. He told me that some of them do and some of them are unemployed (some because they are disabled). He tells me he thinks of them as comrades. His face lights up and he adds: “Those are some of the most talented graffiti and tattoo artists you will find in this neighborhood.”