By Erik Luna
Murals are what make East Los Angeles a destination for many art lovers and also serve to inspire up-and-coming artists. But one of East L.A.’s iconic murals – “A Story of Our Struggle,” a nearly forty-year-old tile artwork composed of multiple panels spread across the facade of the former First Street Store – is in jeopardy, say mural advocates. A developer wants to demolish the building and construct a new charter school campus that will include the mural somewhere on the property. But mural advocates, who have enlisted the help of County Supervisor Gloria Molina, want the building facade preserved and the mural to remain overlooking First Street.
“All the parties involved are meeting to find a fair solution, keeping in mind that the only option about the murals is to keep the facade intact,” Isabel Rojas-Williams, executive director of the Murals Conservancy of Los Angeles.
“A Story of Our Struggle,” which depicts a story of suffering, revolution and finally enlightenment, is the work of artists Johnny Gonzalez, Robert Arenivar and David Botello. Gonzalez drew up the first design in the early 1970s as the National Chicano Moratorium March against the Vietnam War was taking place. Gonzalez presented the design to Bob Kemp, the former owner of the First Street Store at First Street and Townsend Avenue. Kemp said he loved the idea but was afraid of the doing anything amid a time of social unrest and the death of journalist Rubén Salazar, who was shot and killed in 1970 after a sheriff’s deputy fired a tear canister into an East L.A. bar
“Kemp asked me if he could keep my design and around four years later, around Christmas, he called me up and said ‘I have a Christmas present for you. Look at the newspaper, the Belvedere Citzen.’ When I saw the newspaper, I saw an architectural design of my original design, and in the bottom it said that he was contracting us,” Gonzalez said.
The mural panels were installed in 1974, half a century after the First Street Store opened. The family-owned store closed at the end of 2007 and has been empty ever since.
However, Pacific Charter School Development, a nonprofit developer that builds campuses for charter schools, took control of the vacant store and is planning to build a middle and high school campus on the site for charter operator Alliance for Public Ready schools, said Eli Kennedy, chief executive of Pacific Charter. Last fall, mural advocates learned of the plans to demolish the building and turned to Supervisor Molina’s office, which slowed the development of the school project. “We wanted make sure that the mural was not only restored but restored and protected,” said Molina spokeswoman Roxane Marquez.
Kennedy at Pacific Charter said his firm “totally respects” the mural and is “committed to preserving” the mural panels, which are framed in arches set above the empty store’s plate glass windows. “We intend to keep them on the site,” Kennedy said. But Kennedy has not committed to preserving the facade or keeping the murals in the same location.
“We won’t be breaking ground until we all figure out how all this will work,” said Kennedy, whose firm plans face-to-face meeting with the artists.
Rojas-Williams with the Murals Conservancy of Los Angeles, said the only viable solution is to leave “The Story of Our Struggle” as it is.
“The Story of our Struggle could not exist without the community in which it sits, just as East Los Angeles and First Street would be greatly diminished without The Story of our Struggle exactly where it is,” Rojas-Williams said.
Erik Luna, a life-long resident of Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles, is the Editor-in-Chief of Campus News, the student newspaper of East Los Angeles College.
East L.A. Mural “A Story of Our Struggle” endangered. Departures