The following was written after experiencing the dynamics regarding the rise and fall of the Plaza Santa Ana Community Mural. This was our experience.
The Mural that Never Was
Written by Eric Cocoletzi and Keex,
Videos by Benjamin Russell Perry, Photos in videos by Dominic De La Riva
The WCA (Workshop for Community Arts) from Santa Ana, California was handed an opportunity that many local artists would have killed for. They had an agreement with the city of Santa Ana to paint on the side of one of the biggest public walls in Downtown Santa Ana. That wall being the one on the corner of Fourth Street and French Street at Plaza Santa Ana. A finalized contractual agreement with the City of Santa Ana to paint the mural was even written, signed by the parties involved, and sent to the city for approval. The WCA was hoping to begin the mural (dubbed the Plaza Santa Ana Community Mural) in the Fall of 2013, after permit issues and red tape were nipped in the bud.
That was the story until acting City Manager of Santa Ana, Carlos Rojas, dashed their hopes with a phone call to Adriana Alexander (Project Director and founder of WCA) on October 4, 2013, notifying her that he was “terminating the agreement” for the proposed wall.
On September 9, 2013, the WCA was granted the opportunity to continue work on a mural for said wall, but from the moment they were granted that space for the mural, there was an outcry from some people about the mural regarding the process that it underwent to get approved and/or what the mural might represent. There were comments on Facebook and there was even talk on the street. It was clear from the beginning that WCA was going to face some opposition.
Before the project was terminated, I had the opportunity to talk with the artists of WCA about their vision for the mural. I learned about how they were granted the wall, what they felt was the purpose behind the mural, and what they had hoped to achieve with the opportunity they were granted. Here’s some of what they had to share on that night…
The story of how the wall was obtained and who chose that particular wall (watch video 1 above), as discussed in the interview by Adriana, was confirmed by Ryan Chase via telephone and also by Andy Rodriguez after meeting with her at The Gypsy Den in downtown one afternoon. Ryan Chase is one of the key figures in the story of the mural because he was able to obtain the wall for WCA by reaching out to the city. As far as finances, Ryan had agreed to donate between $800.00 and $1,000.00 during the initial stages of the mural and to maintain the mural after it was finished. “Maintaining” in terms of agreeing to restore the mural if it became damaged in any way and to take full responsibility for the mural throughout its duration. When asked over the phone what his feelings were about the mural, Chase replied, “I did it because I thought it was important for Downtown.” Ryan stated that he didn’t want to get in the middle of the politics and that he feels the project had “taken a life of its own.” Ryan can’t seem to get a break when it comes to funding or spearheading new projects either on his property or city property. Almost every new idea he has implemented has produced a stick up someone’s ass in the city.
In this next video, the mural group and I discuss opposition for the mural from different sides, the issue of gentrification, Ryan Chase, and their final thoughts.
Opposition for the mural was not limited to social media or plain old shit talking. Opposition would eventually reach the eyes and ears of elected officials and other officials at city hall.
Two of the most vocal people, specifically with regards to the lack of process, have been United Artists of Santa Ana (UASA) member and OC Film Fiesta director Sandra “Pocha” Peña and Victor Payan, Creative Director for OC Film Fiesta and also member of UASA. Their case was distinct because of the lengths that they took to voice their opinion on the mural. You can hear their opinions and concerns in the interview we conducted. I couldn’t believe that members of UASA were behind some of the controversy.
Pocha’s most direct attempt to discredit the artists of WCA was in an email sent on September 3, 2013 to past and present city officials Debbie Kurita, Angi Christensen, Mark Lawrence, Mayor Miguel Pulido, Executive Director of Parks & Rec Gerardo Mouet, then City Manager Kevin O’Rourke (the man responsible for overseeing the project on behalf of the City of Santa Ana), and the entire City Council.
In the email (shown below), Pocha states that the artists are “inexperienced” and that United Artists of Santa Ana and El Centro Cultural De Mèxico were “completely left out and discouraged from participating in the project.”
NOTE: The email was too long to capture in one screen shot.
After reading Pocha’s letter to the city, Lara Montagne, Co-Founder and Executive Director of The Grain Project, contacted us to correct the account Pocha parlayed to the city. In clear language, Lara refutes Pocha’s complaint that community members were “completely left out of and discouraged from participating in the project,” and states that The Grain Project’s collaborative outreach and planning with WCA has been vast and inclusive. In addition to WCA’s outreach, Lara details The Grain Project’s own outreach efforts: posted bilingual invites on their Facebook page on August 19th, September 3rd, September 13th, as well as other dates; bilingual emails with flyers sent to 100 plus members in the community, including Santa Ana Building Healthy Communities, group leaders (including El Centro), business owners, school teachers, residents, neighborhood associations, and reporters; made a bilingual public announcement during Art Walk in between bands’ performance at Plaza Santa Ana; as well as reached out to the community by talking to people on the street and passing out bilingual flyers at community events.
“This project is the beginning of a needed healing for Santa Ana that has been a long time coming,” stated Lara and continued, “Why would a select one or two want to sabotage that?”
Additionally, Lara deconstructs Pocha’s false assertion that the WCA and The Grain Project are inexperienced with mural projects:
“In [Pocha's letter], Pocha claims we (and WCA) do not have experience doing murals. On the contrary, The Grain Project has organized, collaborated (often w/a leadership role), and/or sponsored on many murals and community art projects to date, all projects that emphasize diversity, bridge-building, community engagement and empowerment:
- Jerome Park Cesar Chavez mural
- Jerome Park Sasquatch/Agriculture mural (a very diverse group of artists involved, with main design and implementation led by a group of youth artists)
- Jerome CommUnity Learning Garden mosaic tile project – tiles painted and fired by and for the community for a future collaborative mosaic installation – hundreds participated – lots of diversity and ages involved!
- Dia del Niño community mural mobile installation – “Migration is Beautiful” – lead by TGP Public Art Department with contributions by many Santa Ana community members
- The Pyramids of Empowerment (and Oppression) for Santa Ana Boys and Men of Color Conference – this art installation has already traveled to numerous sites around Santa Ana (Valley High School, El Centro, KidWorks) and has welcomed and received input and additions from community members far and wide. The pyramids continue to travel for more contributions from the community….
- TEDx Youth event – led community painting collaborative public project with event participants and local residents
- The Center OC – TGP’s youth-led Public Art Department led the design and implementation of the community mural on their parking structure. We were the main group involved in making this mural happen at another group’s headquarters
- Martin Luther King – I Have a Dream Mural – TGP’s Public Art Department led and sponsored mural in collaboration with KidWorks and local residents (youth and adults)
- United Artists of Santa Ana – Santora Arts Building 84th Anniversary Celebration (donated paint and other arts supplies for various purposes for this event)
10. Currently assisting with raising funds and other sponsorship and artistic support for Carlos Balam’s Logan Veterans mural
11. Currently assisting with raising funds and other sponsorship and artistic support for Plaza Santa Ana Community Mural in partnership with Workshop for Community Arts, residents, business owners, and the City of Santa Ana”
These are in addition to the ones discussed in the video.
But, still, Pocha’s email got Kevin O’Rourke’s attention because he responded to the concerns in her email. Here’s the response from Kevin O’Rourke which was sent about a week later.
All of the artists involved in the project have years of experience as artists and some of them also have plenty of mural experience. Also, El Centro and UASA were never officially banned or excluded from any meetings regarding the mural. Both Pocha and Victor even stated (in our recorded interview) to attending a WCA meeting themselves and that they were never asked to leave or told that they could not enter. One night, I went to an El Centro meeting and listened as the group heard reports from someone who was sent to a WCA meeting to ask questions and get some info on the mural. The person (who asked to not be named) said that WCA was very welcoming and answered all of their questions thoroughly.
The WCA was given a great opportunity and they put the work in. They had the conversations, drew sketches, had meetings, conducted surveys, raised funds, and invested so much of their time and passion into this project that was going to be for the community. They were going to be part of something that would have been a significant cultural embodiment of the community and for the community. And it was all for naught.
As I mentioned earlier, the problem/issue has been, amongst some people, that there is currently no official process for painting murals on public walls in Santa Ana. The other concern is that this mural never went through an official Request for Proposal (RFP) process. An RFP for this wall by the city would have opened up the opportunity to paint a mural on that wall to whoever came up with the most appealing proposal in the eyes of the city. But, there never was an RFP.
That’s putting it bluntly, but this was one of the main concerns in the email Carlos Rojas (acting City Manager) sent to Adriana, notifying her of the project’s termination.
I wanted to know how Pocha really felt about the mural and why she felt the way she did. So I asked Pocha for an interview regarding the topic in order to hear her concerns about the project. Weeks before the termination of the mural, we met at Santanero’s old headquarters in the Spurgeon Building in Downtown Santa Ana. We talked about the artists, process, and why she even felt the need to voice her opinion in an email to the city. Her husband, Victor Payan, was also present and expressed his opinions.
Here’s some of what they had to say…
Note: Our photographer was unavailable for the interview, so there are no photos of Pocha or Victor.
There were more arguments made by the two during the interview. I checked out their stories and called one of the people involved and it turned out that what Pocha and Victor had told me, according to Moises (the person they named in one particular story), was a lie.
Victor told me (again, this is recorded), he and Pocha had a “pretty long conversation with Moises.” The story was that, according to Victor, Moises had told him that as soon as Alicia joined the project, the group began striving for the wall at Plaza Santa Ana instead of it just being a temporary mural. Pocha said, “He said, ‘Once Alicia got involved, it became this real drive to getting the biggest wall…’” I checked their story out and called Moises myself. He told me they only talked for five minutes and that he never said those things and he was shocked that Victor said that.
Lying about artists’ experience and lying about groups being excluded in order to make sure that you get your way, ESPECIALLY when it comes to a community mural, is pretty low. That was honestly one of the lowest points in this story that I experienced and it happened at a point where I had a lot of back and forth conversations about the mural. Like I said during the interview: “It makes me fuckin’ sick.” Sometimes I still think about it and it still makes me sick. Maybe this was the cost of the mural, or the mural that could have been. Relationships, integrity, self-respect…all gambled and disposed of for the sake of one wall.
Anyway, there were two other artists/members of UASA that were once involved in the mural, but soon abandoned it. One of those artists is Matthew Barrios Southgate, who told me over the phone that he didn’t want to be a part of the mural because he felt that, as an artist that represents UASA, he wants to stick to projects that he is sure are completely legitimate. He explained that he didn’t want to participate in something that might hurt his professionalism. That was one of the soundest reasons for not participating in the project that I had heard. I can honestly respect his decision.
One of the other UASA artists that refrained from participating on the mural was Yenny Bernal. When asked why, she explained that she decided to no longer participate in the mural after attending a volunteer meeting organized by WCA at The Gypsy Den (in The Artists Village) regarding the mural. She felt that she and UASA were attacked after ex-UASA President Alicia Rojas referred to UASA as “toxic.” Yenny stated that she was shocked and apologized to the group before leaving because she felt she could no longer participate if both her and UASA were not welcome. Yenny recalled, “I said, ‘I’m very sorry that you feel this way about my organization.’”
The WCA has stated many times that this mural was something that would have reflected the thoughts and opinions of the community, as per their canvassing. If the mural had gone up and reflected the community’s pulse and looked legit, the WCA would have succeeded in keeping their word. The artists that were involved have the only thing any artist truly needs in order to create…
Ganas. [Look it up. Have some ganas.]
I really don’t believe that it matters how art is created. When the finished product is put in front of you, you take it in and react to it at that very moment. Once you’ve finished doing that, then you ask questions and THEN you decide if the way the art was made or who made it matters to you. Nobody should be able to make that decision for you or anybody else, much less for ART!
The story of the mural has dragged on for weeks now. There were delays regarding permits and the city of Santa Ana’s inability to respond to my questions in a timely manner. I still haven’t gotten some key answers from them. I’ll have to do a follow-up later on. And what’s more, Chase has funded another mural (a permanent mural) right behind the Plaza Santa Ana stage, which would have made it neighbors with the WCA mural. It’s right on the side of the Fiesta Twin Theatre, soon to be called The Frida Cinema. [See photo below].
I spoke to the artists, Mike and Rick from Long Beach, while they worked on the mural one afternoon and both Mike and Rick seemed happy to be working on a wall that size and to be able to have the premier for their mural take place during the October 5th art walk. When I asked them who came up with the idea for the mural, both said that Ryan had specifically asked them to paint something that had the city’s name on it. These are the same artists that worked on the electrical boxes and dumpsters located near Tough Timez Apparel in Downtown Santa Ana.
They were both aware that there was supposed to be a community mural going up right next to their mural pretty soon and they felt that more color in the area wouldn’t have been a bad thing.
As the weeks rolled by, I continued to talk to various people about the wall and what it could mean for the city. Some felt the wall was another sign of gentrification and that it was just a fake olive branch waved by Ryan Chase or that it was another sign of continuing displacement. Some people felt that it was great just because they liked art and wouldn’t mind seeing more of it around the city. When I received and read the email from Jose Gonzalez (Professional Standards staff member for the City of Santa Ana) with the attached letter from Carlos Rojas, I felt complete disillusion and disgust. Not because of the reasons that Rojas stated in his letter for deciding to terminate the project. I was disillusioned because it felt like tantrums and straight-up lying killed the mural. It shows how far some people will go to destroy someone’s dream just because they don’t agree with it. This goes beyond under-handedness and heavy-handedness. This goes beyond deceit. How can people do this to other artists while belonging to a group called United Artists of Santa Ana? When I first joined UASA, it was about supporting the local artists that couldn’t get a fair break—that is why I joined. I would never have dreamt that members of UASA would make it a point to thwart a community mural proposed by local artists from Santa Ana—and that is why I quit.
Correction: October 11, 2013
In an earlier version of this story, Santanero wrote the following: “One story Victor told me involved three kids that he supposedly saw canvassing outside of the Fiesta Twin Theatre. He told me that he invited them to come inside the theatre for a screening of one of the films that was showing during the OC Film Fiesta and that he even asked for Adriana and that the kids explained that she had left early.” We then wrote that this was a lie. That is not accurate. The misunderstanding was that we thought he was referring to a date during the OC Film Fiesta, which ran from September 6th through September 15th 2013. Victor was actually referring to August 25th 2013, the day WCA was conducting surveys for the mural downtown and while Victor was at The Fiesta Twin Theatre. The two people Victor actually spoke to were Isidro Perez a.k.a. “Chilo” and Debra Russell, who were conducting surveys that day. This has been confirmed by both Chilo and Debra. We apologize for the error.