Art News

Chicano Murals Project of Colorado Is Keeping Culture Alive

Chicano Murals Project of Colorado
Huitzilopochtli by David Ocelotl Garcia, 2008, 8th and Federal, Denver, CO
Multiple Chicano murals around Denver have become endangered sites, with the National Trust for Historic Preservation listing several on its annual 11 Most Endangered Historic Places list. Climate change, neglect, lack of legal protection, gentrification and more contribute to the murals' endangerment, the Trust says.

These murals, which were nominated for the list by the Chicano Murals Project of Colorado (CMPC), are more than just art on a wall. The art dives into a cultural exploration of the past, telling stories such as that of the Chicano Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, which fought for equal opportunities in labor rights, land rights, civil rights and more. The murals themselves are also a form of political activism, helping educate the communities surrounding them about the contributions of Mexican-Americans and Latinos to U.S. society. And the artists behind the murals aimed to strengthen the community through pride, making the works a representation of Chicano cultural identity.
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"La Alma," by Emanuel Martinez, 1978, La Alma Recreation Center, Denver, CO
Chicano Murals Project of Colorado
“The majority of these murals were painted for and with the community. A lot of these murals have portraits of people who once lived in these communities,” says Dr. Lucha Martinez de Luna, a founder of CMPC.

Martinez de Luna got involved with murals through her own life experiences. Her father was thirteen years old when he entered a juvenile detention center in Denver; there he began doing art and painted a mural. When he was nineteen, he hitchhiked to Mexico and sought out David Álfaro Siqueiros, one of the most famous muralists of Mexico. Martinez began helping Siqueiros with murals and was encouraged by the artist to return to Denver and continue painting. One of his first pieces was in the Crusade for Justice building.

Martinez de Luna says she once lived in the housing project in Lincoln Park, where her dad painted another mural on the building where they lived with help from the surrounding community. Without permission to paint the mural, however, they ran into trouble with the state, and Martinez de Luna's family was threatened with eviction. The community quickly took a stance to keep the mural.

Martinez de Luna recalls the community's reaction: "This is our neighborhood. This is our space, and this is what we want."

Murals hold deeper meanings for their surrounding communities, she says. That's why organizations such as the CMPC are fighting to protect the state’s “visual heritage and preserve legacy murals throughout Colorado.”

“Our primary focus is on arts activism via education, political advocacy, and public outreach,” CMPC states on its website. It is able to accomplish that mission through the help of community leaders, artists, activists and educators. Initiatives include the documentation of the murals, restoration, and the creation of digital archives on its website.
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Untitled, by Alicia Cardenas, 2020, 2700 Larimer Street.
Chicano Murals Project of Colorado
CMPC also does public tours of murals, and works with grades K-12 to create educational materials for the students. CMPC has also worked closely with government agencies to ensure legal protection of Chicano murals across Colorado.

"Preservation is very different for communities of color," Martinez de Luna notes. "We are challenging what we would see as a Western lens in terms of preservation, and challenging...how they classify murals. Specifically in Denver, murals are just classified as paint on a wall. They are not even acknowledging their art, their history or their culture. That definitely needs to change."

CMPC’s main mission includes preserving, protecting and promoting the murals of Colorado. Not only does it aim to protect already endangered murals, but it also provides preventative measures for any future issues. This means prioritizing the documentation of the most endangered murals first and taking the necessary steps to help advocate accurately for those murals.

That documentation also aligns with the organization's goal of promoting the murals, which is bolstered through digital maps, archives and public events. Promotion is also executed through community engagement initiatives. Recent successful initiatives include an exhibit curated by CMPC at Museo de las Americas titled Smoking Mirrors: Visual Histories of Identities, Resistance, and Resilience.

CMPC has also developed a curriculum focusing on Chicano murals in Colorado. To do so, the group worked closely with Tim Hernández at North High School, Zach Thrower at the Denver School of Innovation and Sustainable Design, and muralists Julio Mendoza and David Ocelotl Garcia. Future plans include expanding the curriculum to more classrooms.

To learn more about CMPC, visit its website, where you can donate to its cause or report endangered murals.