How It Happened
In 1974, the Army Corps of Engineers contacted Judith F. Baca about the possibility of creating a mural in the flood control channel as part of a beautification project that included a mini‑park and bicycle path. Two years later the alchemy of converting concrete eyesore into community treasure began.
Production of the Great Wall has involved the support of many government agencies, community organizations, businesses, corporations, foundations, and individuals. This support has taken the form of cash contributions, donations of supplies and equipment, and offered services. In the first several years, SPARC received a great deal of support for the project from governmental juvenile justice funding sources. In recent years, more private sector funding has made the Great Wall possible. Throughout the years, assistance has come from the Summer Youth Employment Program, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the Flood Control District.
The Longest Mural In The World
The Great Wall was already the longest mural after the summer of 1976 when a team of 80 youths referred by the criminal justice department, ten artists and five historians collaborated under the direction of Chicana artist Judith Francisco Baca to paint 1 , 000 feet of California history from the days of dinosaurs to 1910 in the Tujungo Wash drainage canal in the San Fernando Valley. But Baca, executive director of the Social and Public Art Resource Center in Venice, California, with a history of large collaborative mural projects behind her, was not ready to stop at 1910. Mural Makers worked in the wash again in the summers of 1978, 1980, 1981 and 1983. Each year they added 350 feet and a decade of history seen from the viewpoint of California ethnic groups: Their contributions and their struggles to overcome obstacles.
By 1980 the mural, dubbed “The Great Wall” rather than its official name “The History of California,” stretched more than a third of a mile and had consumed some 600 gallons of paint and 65,000 kid‑hours. With the completion of the decade of the Forties in September, 1981, the total length reached 2,085 feet while the number of young people who had worked on the mural rose to 185. In the summer of 1983, a new segment was painted, depicting the decade of the 1950′s. To date, the length of the Great Wall totals 2,754 feet, and the number of participating youths has reached over 400.
However impressive the part currently completed may be, it is only part of a work in progress. The completed mural, which will run for nearly a mile, will take history to the present and beyond to future panels which will be formulated by a planning commission composed of and veteran youth Mural Makers, artists and representatives for the Great Wall’s diverse sponsors.
How It’s Done
Each section takes a full year to research, organize, and execute. Youth of varied ethnic backgrounds between the ages of 14 and 21 must be recruited and interviewed. Those selected are employed as assistants and participate in both the planning and execution of the mural. These Mural Makers, mostly from low income families, are paid through the Summer Youth Employment Program. In 1981 and 1983 additional youth were hired through a grant from the Jewish Community Foundation. Funds must be raised, research begun, artist supervisors hired. The youths are supervised by professional artists who work with them four to eight hours a day. They also receive art instruction, attend lectures from historians specializing in ethnic history, do improvisational theater and team-building exercises and acquire the important skill of learning to work together in a context where the diversity of their cultures is the focus.
After the subjects to be included are selected and sketched, finished designs are made by Baca amd a team of artists and youth selected to work under her direction on the “design team”. The finished drawings are blueprinted or turned into large drawings for pounce transfers. The blueprints are 1 X 2 foot drawings used to transfer the drawing to the wall. On site work begins with heavy labor: Sandblasting, waterblasting and sealing the surface. Grid lines are marked on the wall to match those on the blueprints, and the images are transferred‑a process that provides on‑the‑job math (as well as drawing) training for the kids. After the lines are drawn and painted a dark blue, a transparent magenta undercoat is applied over the entire surface. This serves to harmonize the colors as well as to cut the glare of the sunlight in the painter’s eyes. Snow blindness is a real hazard for the team on the massive wall. The colors are applied first as flat areas and then highlighted and shaded with two tones of the same color‑tri‑color blends ‑the painters call it. Finally, a clear acrylic sealer is applied to protect the painting.
The mural has been flooded five times between 1976 and 1983, with water rising, as high as Edison’s nose,” but it is not damaged by water. More dangerous is the effect of air pollution, years of exposure to direct sunlight, and fertilizer damage from the adjoining park lawns on the colors.
The First One Thousand Feet. 1976
Painted during the first summer of work in 1976, the first one thousand feet are divided into sections of 100 feet each. Although the content is highly integrated, each section was designed by a different artist under the general supervision of Judith Baca. Many problems were encountered in the beginning. Until the Mural Makers built a staircase down to the wash, people had to be trucked two and a half miles to the work site, bringing everything necessary with them, including water, food and toilets. The entire mural area had to be sandbagged so that the residual water would not make the work area slippery. Several tons of sand were trucked in, shoveled, bagged and then dragged into place.
The initial segment, designed by Kristi Lucas, begins in 20,000 BC when the animals whose bones were found in the La Brea Tar Pits still wandered among the plants and trees native to the area. In their research, the Mural Makers discovered that many of the trees we think of as typical of California, like the Eucalyptus and Pepper, were brought by settlers. By 10,000 BC, as Indians migrated to the Americas, perhaps on a land bridge, the Chumash Indian peoples settled in this region.
They had a special relationship to and respect for the animals, especially porpoises. These are shown both in their natural environment and at the center of the prayer wheel which forms the transition to the second segment. Designed by Christina Schlesinger, this section provides an overview of Chumash practical and spiritual life as it might have been in 1000 BC. A vision in which human and animal spirits mingle expresses the Chumash religious sentiments. Much of this section was painted by an American Indian boy who shares this world view. The peaceful early history of the region ends with a White hand rising from the sea, symbol of the destruction of Native American life by White settlers.
The arrival of the Spanish explorer Portillo, who brought the first expedition from Mexico to L.A. in 1769, begins the third segment designed by Judith Baca. The figures in the clouds of smoke that rise from the Indian campfires represent the legendary Black Amazon Queen, Califia, whom Portillo expected to find and for whom California is named. Further on, riding a mule, Father Junipero Serra arrives. Founder of missions throughout California, he is depicted with the San Fernando mission behind him. Within a year after the arrival of the Spaniard, a large percentage of the Native American population of 150,000 inhabitants died of diseases to which they had no immunity that the White men brought. For this reason, the San Fernando Mission became known to the Indians as the “House of Death.”
It is commonly believed that the founders of Los Angeles were Spanish. In fact, of the 22 adult members of the expedition that founded the city in 1781, only one was Spanish. The rest were Mulatto, Black, Mestizo or Indian, as they are in this representation.
Mexico governed California until 1843, the sword and the Bible marching hand in hand. The fourth segment, designed by Judith Hernandez, is dominated by the figure of a Spanish land baron, illustrating the “hacendados” who dominated early California. His serape is formed by the land and labor of the Indians which he has taken and used to build the hacienda toward which he looks and where an elegant wedding is taking place. The panel begins with soldiers who raise the Spanish flag and ends with the battle between the Mexican army and the U.S. cavalry for the control of California.
The Gold Rush era as designed by Ulysses Jenkins provides a Black‑American perspective on this period. It begins with the discovery of gold at Sutters’ Mill and the migration of Blacks, Mexicans and Indians as well as Whites by ship to California. Above the bay are portraits of Mifflin W. Gibbs, publisher of the first Black newspaper and Mary Ellen Pleasant, a civil rights activist who helped defend Blacks arraigned under the fugitive slave laws.
The globe represents the world’s desire for the riches of the 49ers. Beside it stands William A. Leidesdorf, pilot of the first steamboat to arrive in San Francisco Bay, who later became a vice consul to Mexico.
Meanwhile, in the state capital at Monterey, ex‑Southerners passed laws-WHITES ONLY‑which did not allow people of Mexican, Black or Chinese descent to make claims. Biddy Mason, an ex‑slave from Georgia who fought extradition under the fugitive slave laws and who became wealthy, was known for her charity and was a founder of the African Methodist Church in Los Angeles. Joaquin Murieta, a legendary Mexican Robin Hood, fights for the oppressed: The landless who “squat” on the state; the “hanging tree” victims of prejudice; and the Indians who are slaughtered with the coming of the “Iron Horse.”
The “Iron Horse” also brings a wave of Chinese immigration. Designed by Gary Takamoto, the Chinese segment shows the workers on the transcontinental railroad, which was built largely by Chinese labor. The faces which appear in the smoke of the locomotive honor those who died in the course of this mammoth undertaking. A surge of racism that accompanied the Chinese immigration led to the so‑called “Chinese Massacre ” when vigilantes hung 11 Chinese in a downtown Los Angeles street.
The signing of the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, in which Mexico ceded “Upper” California to the U.S., opened the West to a boom of settlement and development including the beginnings of the citrus industry. At the same time, the suffrage movement (segment designed by Olga Muniz) began its work in the state.
1890 Los Angeles Mountains to the Shore
Designed by American Indian artist Charlie Brown, “From the Mountains to the Shore” begins with San Pedro Harbor where, until recently, there was a great abundance of flying fish. In the town the “Red Car” provided an early energy efficient form of transportation. The typical shops and buildings of turn of the century Los Angeles are depicted in this lyrical segment.
The first summer’s work concludes with an homage to the new wave of immigrants and their labor, so important in the development of this region. Designed by Isabel Castro, the section begins with an image showing these new arrivals in a wave of flags which indicated their varied origins. The segment continues with the invention of the car and airplane, which shaped the development of 20th century California.The first 1,000 feet were completed in nine weeks of painting. Then, the names of all those who participated were stenciled onto the wall.
The 1978 Project:
Many lessons were learned through the experience of the first summer’s work. In looking back, Baca realized that, “In those first 1,000 feet, the mural is a loosely connected series of easel paintings.” Beginning in 1978, she exerted more control over the design, which resulted in more stylistic unity and an evolving complexity in the transitions between the sections and linkages between historical incidents.
World War I
Emphasis in this section is on women’s role in the war experience. The “doughboys” leave, kissing their wives and girlfriends goodbye. In the recruiting poster, woman appears in her mythic form as the symbol of Liberty. In reality, she works in the war industry replacing men in nontraditional jobs like welding, as well as contributing to the war effort through “women’s jobs” like nursing.
As the war reached into every aspect a American life, Charlie Chaplin, the famous silent movie comedian and a symbol of the common man, became involved in the national Campaign. He is represented in the mural as a typical “dough boy” fighting in the trenches for the ideals in which he believes and for which the war was being fought. His presence also links the war section with the development of Hollywood and the movie industry.
A New Perspective on Edison
In researching Thomas Alva Edison, inventor of the light bulb without which movies would not be possible, the Mural Makers found much evidence to support the theory that Edison was born in Zacatecas, Mexico, and adopted by U.S. parents. According to Edison’s daughter, Madeline Edison Sloane, there is no birth record for her father in the United States. In addition, almost all American biographers and historians agree that Edison could speak, read and write Spanish as fluently as a native speaker even though he had only three months of formal education.
Edison’s Mexican‑American heritage is symbolized by the Chichimeca corn goddess who whispers the secrets of the ancient builders and inventors in his ear. In one hand he holds a light bulb which lights the world, in the other a movie camera symbolizing the modern communications industry. Hollywood is celebrated in the final image of William S. Hart, star of the first cowboy movie ever made, “The Great Train Robbery.” The scene shows the movie actors on the set and also in the camera viewer.
The 1930’s: The Summer of 1980
In 1980 the crew consisted of some 40 youths, a group of historians who held workshops and programs for the participants and a team of five artists working under the supervision of Judith Baca. The last 1,050 feet of the wall, painted in the summers of 1980, 1981 and 1983, are more complex in design and the linkages between sections more sophisticated. The increased aesthetic quality of the wall begins to bring both national and international attention. Feature articles on the Great Wall appear in Life Magazine, Art In America, Ms, and the German news magazine, Der Spiegel. In October, 1981, the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, provided the Great Wall with its “first museum show.” The mural was also the focus of a segment of Bill Moyers’ “Creativity in America” public television series.
Illusion of Prosperity
The temperance movement’s axe looses a river of whiskey from the barrels of booze that the gangsters, symbolized by an Al Capone figure, used to become rich and powerful, while flappers dance in an “illusion of Prosperity.” During this heyday of jazz, racial discrimination against Blacks continued. Black musicians and their audiences were not allowed in White hotels; only the now fabled Dunbar allowed them to stay in Los Angeles. Above the musicians, between the hotel and a bank beginning to topple in the crash of 1929, a Black worker drinks from a fountain marked, “Colored Only.”
Crash and Depression
In spite of the efficiency of the assembly lines, the cornucopias of prosperity and the fantasies of romance produced by Hollywood’s movie industry, the depression is inevitable. It cannot be hidden by the Hollywood fantasies, which only serve as a facade that tries to cover up the reality of the breadlines behind. While the unemployed sell apples and warm their hands on a trash can fire, the marching feet of the unemployed lead directly into the strikes against low wages.
The strikers symbolize the beginnings of the militant union movement of the Thirties and show the brutal repression. Victimized by invalid treaties, Native Americans are forced to sell two thirds of their land to developers at 45 cents an acre. Three hundred fifty thousand Mexican‑Americans are rounded up and shipped across the border in mass deportations.
At the same time as the Mexicans are deported, the “Okies,” refugees from the dust bowl whose fields were destroyed by drought, provide a new source of cheap farm labor. The “Okies,” in spite of their misery, came voluntarily. The next migration, that of the Japanese forcibly taken to internment camps during World War I, was involuntary. The problem of how to connect these two migrations puzzled the Mural Makers. Baca remembers asking her assistants, “What did the Okies and the Nisei have in common?” The answer, when it came, was obvious. Laundry. Lines of hanging wash form a visual connection between these two sections.
The 1940′s: Summer Project of 1981
The 1940′s section, painted in the summer of 1981, with a crew of 34 youths, six artist‑supervisors and two designers, Judith Baca and Jan Cook, begins where the Thirties section ends: With the role of the Japanese Americans during this period.
World War II
The 442nd Japanese‑American infantry division comes out of the stripes of the American flag‑yet, in the shadow of these stripes, Japanese‑Americans move backward toward the internment camps depicted in the previous section, forced to discard their possessions as they go. The mural continues to explore in turn the contradictory situation of each of the other ethnic minorities in California. A Jewish‑American family, in the shadow of Hitler’s hand, listens to the news from Europe. Hitler’s other hand is a fist. From it goose steppers lead toward an anti-Fascist rally in Los Angeles and toward World War II. Below, on the home front, is the building of the California Aqueduct which transports water from north to south to aid developers, but creates a desert in the Owens Valley region. The World War II segment shows Jeanette Rankin in Congress below and Pearl Harbor above. A group of generals and businessmen plan the war effort; from that cooperative effort stream the lines of soldiers, arms and women war workers. -Charles Drew
The war industry provided jobs for Black women workers‑they are shown opening the doors to the war industry with Dr. Charles Drew, the inventor of blood plasma. Dr. Drew is shown cradling himself in his arms as he dies unnecessarily because of the refusal of a southern hospital to treat him for loss of blood. The iron hand, symbol of the dehumanization that racial discrimination brings, is shown cutting off the flow of blood, cutting off life. Beyond Drew, the other side of the opportunity presented by the new employment given Black women in the war industry, is the discrimination that continues in housing. “We Fight Fascism At Home and Abroad” commemorates the struggle by Mrs. Laws against the covenant laws that denied Blacks access to equal housing in South Central L.A.
Zoot Suit Riots
The contradictions in the Chicano experience are expressed by contrasting the experience of Chicano servicemen with that of discrimination at home. David Gonzalez, a local Chicano Congressional Medal of Honor winner, is shown standing with his mother, in a collage of photos from a family album. In the next panel, taxis bring servicemen into Los Angeles for the Zoot Suit Riots in which Mexican-American boys wearing Zoot Suits were stripped and beaten by marines with the consent of the police. Trains carry “braceros,” Mexican farm workers, contracted to work temporarily in the California farm fields. The struggle to organize the farm workers and demands for more humane working conditions are represented by the portrait of labor organizer Luiso Moreno, who is wrapped in the flag of the Congress of Hispanic Groups.
Parallel to the train bringing migrant workers is the St. Louis, the ship filled with Jewish European immigrants which was refused entry to the U.S. because the Jewish immigration quota was already met. The spirit of these starved and suffering Jewish victims of the Holocaust emerges from the ship and reaches for American soil. Behind are depicted the death camps where the Germans murdered more than six million Jews. Beyond the death camps is the mushroom cloud of the Atomic Bomb, another symbol of death, and beyond that the founding of Israel and the greening of the desert. The end of the War brings in a spurt of prosperity tract houses and a baby boom! In the kitchen of a typical tract house in the San Fernando Valley (the rest of the development can be seen through the window) a baby screams. On the television Ronald Reagan stars in a 1940′s era war movie. Outside, peering through the plate glass windows at the “American Dream,” the Soldiers of Color discover that little has changed for them on their return.
The 1950′s. Summer Project of 1983
The 1950′s section was painted in the summer of 1983 with a crew of 30 youth, seven artist supervisors and muralist director Judith Baca. This 350‑foot segment attained sponsorship from such groups as the National Endowment of the Arts, the California Council for the Humanities, the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee and numerous other groups and individuals. With the aid of over a dozen humanist scholars and historians, workshops and programs were held for the muralists in selecting, designing and enlivening the images.
Farewell to Rosie the Riveter
During World War II, millions of American women left their traditional roles as housewives and entered the war industries as manual laborers and managers. But in the post‑war years, “Rosie the Riveter” returned to the kitchen as the men returned home and reclaimed their power and position in labor. Women’s access to work positions traditionally dominated by men was postponed. The television set propagates mass social images of the housewife and depicts a working woman being sucked into the T.V. image.
Behind the televised images of American womanhood, an all‑American family of 2.5 kids (.5 equaling “Howdy Doody”) moves into a new suburb of endless box houses in endless rows, representing White flight from the Central City. Meanwhile, minorities and poor immigrants move from rural communities into the city. Rows of orange trees have been uprooted as suburbs sprawl throughout the L.A. basin and valleys.
The Red Score and McCarthyism
Joseph McCarthy, the infamous proponent of the 50′s “Red Scare,” holds up a blacklist, naming film industry people who are accused of being Communist activists and sympathizers. The “Hollywood Ten,” a group of Hollywood producers, directors, writers and actors, are subpoenaed and found in contempt of Congress for refusing to answer McCarthy’s charges. Consequently, they are blacklisted and shunned, their professional and personal lives nearly ruined. A typewriter, tied and bound by the lists, represents the fear of being blacklisted and the repression of social criticism and freedom of speech. In the background, Sputnik hovers over the scene, reminding the viewer of the Soviet Union’s techno‑military progress which so startles and frightens America.
Chavez Ravine and the Division of the Chicano Community
Freeways encircle and dislocate various areas in L.A., effectively dividing minority communities. In this panel, a Chicano family is separated by the serpentine thoroughfares as the pillared highway breaks through the roofs of houses. Resembling a UFO, massive Dodger Stadium descends from the twilight sky into Chavez Ravine. A bulldozer and policemen forcibly uproot the Chicano community so that Dodger Stadium can be built on land designated at one time for public housing. Many individuals resisted this forced eviction from their neighborhood, but to no avail.
The Birth of Rock and Roll
Pop 50′s culture is captured in this scene at a drive‑in theater. A huge Elvis Presley wails his rock songs from the silver screen, but behind him a smaller image of Chuck Berry acknowledges the original force of rock’s creativity and inspiration in the Black community. Various hotrods and lowriders, face the screen, as a starspeckled sky forms the background. Behind the movie screen and Elvis, Black musicians again testify to the spirit and contribution of the Black community to popular culture. Jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker and Blues vocalist‑caller Big Mama Thorton (who wrote “Ain’t Nothin’ But A Hound Dog” which Elvis popularized without crediting her) perform. Behind these Black musicians, a Charles White portrait of a Black woman holding up South L.A. portrays the sustaining community activism of Black women in volunteer and church organizations. This scene emerges with another depicting the interior of a local bus. Paul Robeson, Rosa Parks, Gwendolyn Brooks, Ralph Bunche and Martin Luther King, Jr., are rising from their bus seats and moving forward for new destinations (Civil Rights).
Origins of the Gay Rights Movement
The 1950′s witnessed the emergence of homosexual community organizing, represented in this panel by the first gay/ lesbian publications and social change organizations. As police enter the closet to repress the homosexual community through violence and entrapment, women forming the first lesbian rights organization, the “Daughters of Bilitis,” meet in a kitchen and mimeograph copies of their newsletter, “The Ladder,” copies of which float out of the closet above the heads of the police. In a gay bar, solitary men sit in front of mirrors, cautiously glancing at one another, fearing entrapment by vice officers. Each wears a mask at the back of his head symbolizing the false front to society gays had to assume to avoid persecution. In the mirror, the men see themselves as they wish they could be‑warm, affectionate, caring. The masks also represent the Mattachine Society, founded in 1950 by among others Harry Hay depicted here issuing his call to organize. Inspired by the masked Mattachine male dancers of medieval France, the Mattachine Society was the first to advocate social equality for homosexuals.
In this panel, the Beat movement represents another popular underground movement which was harassed by the Establishment. Various Venice cafes sponsored Beat jazz sessions, abstract art exhibitions and poetry readings. But disgruntled conservatives moved to halt these activities and close the cafes, provoking Beats to protest.
Jewish Achievements in Arts and Science
Just as Jewish writers like Allen Ginsberg took risks in developing a new creative movement, Jews in Los Angeles started out in high risk businesses which, by the1950′s, had become among the most important in California. New York garmentworkers become recyclers of rags in Los of Angeles and, eventually, the backbone of the garment industry. Also high risk in the 20′s was the fledgling film industry built by Jewish studio owners into highly Successful enterprises. Finally a huge image of Albert Einstein holding a diagram of an atom reveals his concern that atomic power be used for peaceful purposes but not war.
In this ninth scene, the forced assimilation of Indians is depicted by a government official stripping an Indian boy of his traditional dress and cutting his hair. Indian youth were sent several states away from their homes to boarding schools where they were taught to give up their traditional culture for Anglo ways. Concurrent with this program was the urban relocation off of reservations of many other Indian adults and children.
Asians Gain Citizenship and Property
Despite harsh immigration quotas, Asian Americans made progress in the Fifties by attaining naturalization and land ownership rights. A Korean civilian is sworn in as the first to be granted American citizenship. Behind the scene, a Japanese farmer stands proud in his newly purchased field, depicting the gains of Japanese Americans also to become citizens and to own land.
Olympic Champions 1948‑1964 Breaking Barriers
In this final panel, a woman runner carries the Olympic torch, its flame and smoke swirling into scenes of athletes who overcome tremendous obstacles to win Olympic events. Billy Mills, a Dakota 0glala marathon runner, overcame his repression in boarding schools to become an important symbol for Native American pride. Black runner Wilma Rudolf, overcoming her childhood infirmities (being unable to walk until her eighth birthday) throws away her leg braces and wins three gold medals, the first American ever. Sammy Lee, a Korean American diver, and Vicky Manalo Droves, a Filipina diver, win gold medals as well. The symbolic final runner carries the torch of the 1950’s into the civil rights movements of the 1960’s.