“This is outrageous,” erupts Chicana artist Ruby Chacon on Facebook about the West Jordan mural set-to. “What are people thinking?!?! Seriously . . . I don’t get this mentality.”
For those who haven’t followed the probably-only-in-Utah story, widely covered by media, it goes something like this – many details likely recalled from reading Ben Trentelman’s excellent story in Slug:
Miguel Galaz, a young artist who teaches kids at Mana Academy Charter School, wanted them to learn things like color theory and all that artistic stuff by tapping into their obvious interest in the graffiti that surrounds them in West Jordan. A friend had opened a restaurant there, Taqueria Azteca De Oro, 7800 S. 3200 West, in a rundown, graffiti-covered building, and Galaz saw an opportunity to show his students that art could enhance walls in the same way as spray paint: He wanted them to participate in creating a painting, at his friend’s request, to beautify the exterior of the popular new eatery.
He also saw an opportunity to acquaint his students and community memebers with their cultural heritage by featuring portraits of the founders of the United Farm Workers movement, Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, who made the nation aware of the struggles of those workers, notably during the 1960s, for better pay and safer working conditions. (Think grape boycotts; nonviolence – pickets, strikes; a symbolic Aztec eagle, which also appears on the mural.)
It’s a stunning piece of work. Individual students (of several cultures, including Anglo) designed letters spelling “Cultural” on one side of the building. There are other messages, such as “Si Se Puede” – Yes We Can – near the portraits. There is a remarkable depth to the portraits on the mural, rich color and certainly originality. There is a manifest sense of pride – and good reason for it.
But there were, of course, complaints. The kids took their share of racist jabs from passersby as they worked. And the city, for some reason, decided the artistic endeavor fell under the definition of “signage” and therefore could cover no more than 15 percent of the building’s façade. So that it must be painted over or be subject to a $100-per-day fine to the restaurant owner – who couldn’t afford it. This is, after all, just a taqueria – albeit reportedly quite a good one.
Galaz decided to fight city hall and ran into the usual red tape. He attended a West Jordan City Council meeting (wisely first contacting the media); the city then decided to give him 30 days to work on changing the existing code, allowed the mural to remain and withheld the fine until matters get settled.
This may turn out in Galaz’s favor, given the publicity the potential mural paint-over has gotten and the resulting community support the artwork and its artist have received during a recent rally and, particularly, on social media.
It’s not over yet.
Chacon says she hopes the city ordinance is changed to accommodate this “beautification through public art,” that is encouraged in some Utah communities. Though she now resides in Sacramento, Calif., the former Salt Lake City artista has murals in her hometown at 500 N. 600 West, 300 S. 745 East, a just-completed project at Horizonte Instruction & Training Center, 1234 S. Main , and elsewhere. She, too, frequently collaborates with students and community members.
As Chacon observes, “It’s essential to create a counter-narrative in order to create a sense of belonging and defy stereotypes perpetuated by fear. Public art is a perfect way to do so. This is why I support this public-art piece. It empowers and dignifies an underrepresented history for not only this community but it also reshapes Utah’s history to be more inclusive.”
A graduate of the University of Utah, Ann Poore is a freelance writer and editor who spent most of her career at The Salt Lake Tribune. She was the 2018 recipient of the Salt Lake City Mayor’s Artist Award in the Literary Arts.