Victor Cervantes worked on the Beach Flats mural over the span of 50 days in 1992. With the help of the community, who inspired Cervantes to show pieces of Latin@ history, scenes of life, struggle and resistance, he finished the 190-foot-long work of art. The stories depicted were not isolated occurrences, but events woven through time.
The imagery started with the deity of corn, the first meeting of the indigenous with European colonialists and a tree of three prominent faces of the Atlantic slave trade. La revolución mexicana, the 1943 three-day Navy raid on Latino zoot suit wearers; the United Farm Workers struggle; the Immigration and Naturalization Service at your door; a youth killed by the police dying in the arms of a lover.
Twenty-two years later, in June 2014, the mural was washed away by the city. Some say it was fading, “in extreme disrepair,” with huge swaths missing. A Nuevo Dia preschool teacher Mary Murillo claimed the imagery scared the children.
When I heard the tale of the Beach Flats’ mural — what was gone and still standing, I had to see for myself: a community park, and behind it a white wall and a shed with two lasting images of the original: “Drink Cultura” and the Virgin of Guadalupe. As Reyna Ruiz told it, the Latino workers hired by the city in June 2014 to remove the mural wouldn’t paint over Guadalupe. Children were tearing up. “We don’t understand why we have to do this,” Ruiz recalls the workers lamenting. The workers were relieved when they didn’t have to continue, and the project was put on hold.
Cervantes grew up just south of Fresno in Lindsay, California. At age 10, he learned to paint by watching PBS because his mother, with no car and little funds, couldn’t send him to classes. He attended UC Santa Cruz, majoring in art and sociology. While at UCSC, Cervantes became close with Eduardo Carrillo, a Latino painter who taught in the art department and influenced his work.
Cervantes remembered history classes in primary school neglecting the truth about the indigenous people of North American, immigrant, Latin@ and black history — his work is about telling the stories that are left out and erased in history.
“For some time, Latin@ artists haven’t had access to museums and galleries, they had neighborhood walls. Murals emerged out of that need — it illustrates the untold history,” Cervantes said.
The last wall of the Beach Flats mural, “This Mural Was Made Possible By,” honored Barrios Unidos, Familia Centre, city of Santa Cruz, Hire a Youth, volunteer artists, Beach Flats residents, friends and children — some just old enough to hold a paintbrush. Children grew with the walls, telling stories of their family and ancestors’ lives. The mural was a community creation, provoking feelings of collective ownership in a neighborhood of mostly renters, where members may have been viewed as transitory by the city and home-owning neighbors.
In 2012, Reyna Ruiz worked for the Beach Flats Community Center (BFCC) and spoke with then-city arts director Crystal Birns about finding funds for a new mural in the Beach Flats. The Mural Matching Grant funds projects for new murals, but not for restoration or repair of existing murals.
While the mural is representative of the Latin@ residents in the Beach Flats, the park and, subsequently, the mural, are city-owned. For murals on public property, the city puts out a call for artists on a Mural Registry. At the time of the search for the Beach Flats mural, there were no Latin@ artists on the list.
In late 2013 a panel of eight — including Murillo, a representative from Familia Centre, BFCC and city commissioners — selected Mariah Roberts of Live Oak, for the project. The city worked with staff at BFCC and Nueva Día preschool to inform and receive feedback from residents.
Robert’s prior city funded mural — Inside Out! — at the public library made her a prime candidate since she had tax papers on file with the city, in addition to knowing conversational Spanish and proposing a series of workshops with the community. The city allocated $10,000 for materials, assistance, priming and insurance, and gave her six days on site for engagement, priming and installation. “I remember thinking, this is a big responsibility,” Roberts said.
Roberts posted bilingual flyers inviting Beach Flats residents to attend Private Eye workshops. The four sessions attended by 105 children and teens. Participants viewed leaves under magnification and described what they saw. “It takes on a metaphorical image,” Roberts said. She used their words to write poetry, and through digital processes paired it with flowers and images of children’s hands. The mural was printed on panels to be installed by wheatpasting.
“It’s not trying to wash away anybody’s history, from my perspective,” Roberts said. “If I was not there I would have felt, god damn city. In this case, I didn’t know what to say.”
Cervantes has been in Robert’s position before — the muralist dilemma. When a school principal [in Lindsay] approached him about replacing a mural, he saw a need to take a step back and hold space for the previous artist. “You got to see the artist before, and understand what his take is on what he wanted to do,” Cervantes said.
Ruiz was expecting an extensive public art process with artist-neighborhood collaboration for creative and installation processes. Roberts, who does not live in the neighborhood, was legally allowed to be on site for six days, any extra time, she wouldn’t be paid for. “This is not a process [where] you can take shortcuts,” Ruiz said.
Cervantes received a call the weekend the mural was primed. “I was kinda surprised. I just didn’t think it would happen.” Months before Cervantes went to the Beach Flats Community Center and told workers he was supportive of doing something with the mural. He figured, “maybe I’d get a call sometime in the near future.”
But he was never told that his work would be erased. There was no consent, nor closure. “It didn’t feel too good, but then I thought that maybe it is time for something else,” Cervantes said. “The fact that it stayed so long without being damaged, it was a testament in a way, of being successful.”
Two months ago, it happened again. In the early hours of Sept. 12, the “Drink Cultura” mural vanished. When darkness fell, the Lady of Guadalupe was painted over too. This time the city was not responsible.
Some neighbors want to have a mural that reflects a diverse and changing neighborhood. “I get that it had cultural significance for some people but not everyone who lives in the Flats is Hispanic,” Tova Baer wrote on Ruiz’s Facebook post about the incident. “Let them paint a new mural that everyone can identify with and enjoy that represents a new image, that’s inspiring and kid-friendly, that brings people together rather than alienating those of us who aren’t Mexican.”
The Santa Cruz Police Department opened an investigation on Sept. 15 for vandalism of the Beach Flats murals and damage to Beach Flats Park sign. Joyce Blaschke, spokesperson for SCPD, says that the investigation remains unsolved.
People in the community are seeing the incident as a hate crime, Ruiz said. Some residents suspect people in the neighborhood might have vandalized the murals. In response to “complete erasure of Latino culture in public space,” Ruiz and Cervantes organized to recreate what was destroyed.
Two weekends in September and October, Cervantes travelled from his hometown to paint with artists Irene O’Connell, Marciano Cruz, Nikos De La Rosa, Queenie Jimenez and Ruiz. Just like in 1992, youth, residents and friends joined the team to bring their murals back. Most retired by sunset, while Cervantes painted by the lights of cars and street lamps into the next day.
Although the community lost the mural to racism and hate, Ruiz feels like the loss brought them together. “This has been a good thing. It has renewed collective community to each other,” Ruiz said.
Meanwhile, life goes on around them. Children kick soccer balls in a gated area; scooters, skateboards and bicycles travel the concrete landscape; abuelitas sit on a bench; kids chase each other, laughing and playing. Women walk through the park and greet the painters. Across the street, seven hombres talk around a pickup truck. The park is a center; the mural, a home.
A teacher brings her students to the site to meet Cervantes. Youth from the neighborhood point to parts of the mural they helped paint. They tell Cervantes where they live. One child points to his home. Cervantes lived in that house years ago.
“When they get older they will remember what they did, and that is the point,” Cervantes says.
The Beach Flats is a community in ways some cannot know because they have not experienced anything like it. But when you see it, you can recognize the beauty in how communities can be, should be, must be.
In an act of community resistance, they have a newly painted mural, an updated version of the old. What’s left is 190 feet of white primed wall — a bigger project to take on. Ruiz is hopeful that what happens next is a process driven by community decision and engagement. Cervantes is still unsure if he will be involved this time around. He would like to be considered but only under the right circumstances.
As a team, Irene O’Connell, Nikos De La Rosa and Marciano Cruz will apply for the mural in February. Since 2014, the public art process for murals has changed. Beth Ragel, the arts program manager, said every call is different, but for the Beach Flats project the city will accept applicants who are not on the Mural Registry based on the quality of portfolio, resume, responses to key questions and ability to communicate in Spanish.
From Dec. 16-25, the Beach Flats will celebrate Posadas — eight nights of gathering, eating and caroling. Then, Ruiz says, they will start outreach for what comes next. While the artist(s) is unknown, and the search may be nationwide, painting will begin next summer.
The tradition of the Beach Flats was born from community organizing; the longtime residents “paved way for what we have now. Homies organized to achieve the park and garden,” Ruiz said. The fight for “affordable housing” happened over 20 years, led by mujeres, who spent many nights in meetings till 1 a.m. The push to get the murals back, Ruiz believes, is an essence of the same. “Part of the legacy for dignity, and health and wellness, is for the kids. The push to keep the garden, and now this … How do you build ownership in a place where you rent?”
And at the end: the Grass reclaimed cement, where there was soil, life will return.
The term Latin@/Chican@ is used to be inclusive of both males and females, as well as those who do not identify within the gender binary.