It was a profound statement about the importance of public art when white supremacists marched on Charlottesville, North Carolina last year in the now-infamous Unite the Right rally.
White nationalist groups overran the city of Charlottesville in response to the removal of a statue valorizing the confederate general Robert. E. Lee. Although they were guided by hate and ignorance, there was one thing they understood very clearly: public art matters. In the decades following the Civil War, many states erected statues to celebrate the Confederacy as a way to romanticize a shameful past. This is the power of public art. It shapes the way we look at history, the present, and the future.
The influence of public art came into sharp focus again when San Jose’s oldest mural depicting Chicano history, Mural de La Raza, was painted over in the middle of the night by the new owners of what used to be the Payless Shoes building on Story Road. The Mural de La Raza was an important nod to a real history that is often untold in our community.
Unfortunately, the loss of Mural de La Raza is not an isolated incident. Other murals that depict the history, culture, and identity of East San Jose’s residents have been painted over, including the Mexicatlan mural formerly on Sunset Avenue. The timing of this cultural erasure is not lost on the people of the Eastside. Other assaults on the neighborhood’s gathering spaces and businesses continue as the churn of gentrification and displacement reaches our region. The loss of our community’s public art — our murals — is a direct message that those who live here do not matter.
Despite these challenges, East San Jose — and in particular the Mayfair neighborhood — has a strong legacy of community organizing. Built in 1999, the Mexican Heritage Plaza – the home of the School of Arts and Culture – stands on sacred ground. It is the site of one of the first grocery store boycotts for farmworkers’ rights organized by César Chavez in the 1960s. In keeping with that legacy and spirit, a group of young activists, Jovenes Activios of SOMOS Mayfair, are fighting for their cultural identity to remain reflected in the neighborhood where they live.
To help support their efforts to combat cultural displacement, the School of Arts and Culture secured over $200,000 in funding from the California Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts to work with Jovenes Activos and Local Color to realize a youth-driven public art vision for our community. The grant funds will be used to empower Jovenes Activos to create two new murals over the next 24 months as well as an installation exhibit inside San Jose City Hall.
Mentors from Local Color, a woman-led and operated nonprofit whose goal is to preserve, retain, and maintain San Jose’s creativity and culture, will coach the Jovenes Activos youth through the mural-making process from conception to execution. The goal is to build public art know-how in the community itself. This initiative is in line with the School of Arts and Culture’s mission to catalyze creativity and empower our community.
Demone Carter is the Senior Program Manager with the School of Arts and Culture, a creative and cultural hub in East San Jose. He is also an arts advocate, rapper and host of the DAD BOD RAP POD.