San Jose committee pushes to designate murals as historic landmarks
A committee pled with San Jose's Historic Landmarks Commission to protect the city's murals. Photo by Mauricio La Plante.

Decades old art can be painted over in a matter of hours.

This is what an emergency committee, assembled after the covering of the historic “Mural de la Raza” in East San Jose last year, is trying to avoid. Neighbors were outraged after the beloved mural on Story Road, which was more than three decades old, was painted over without explanation.

Members of “the Emergency Comité for the Preservation of Chicano Arts” have organized a list of murals around San Jose to present to the Historic Landmarks Commission in an attempt to qualify the art for protections from the city.

City officials on Wednesday agreed to evaluate the historical significance of the murals and make a recommendation on whether to add them to San Jose’s Historical Resources Inventory, said Juliet Arroyo, the city’s historic preservation officer.

Being added to the inventory will not give the art historic landmark status, but moves it one step closer to that designation.

“I think if you are not from a certain community in San Jose and you see a work of art on a wall, it may just be a pretty wall to you,” said Ashlie Andrade, a member of the comité. “But if you’re actually from that community… I think it poses a long standing impact because you understand what could happen if that mural is displaced or erased.”

Andrade and two other committee members presented a list of art from around San Jose at a Historic Landmarks Commission meeting on Wednesday.

But the committee has faced a slew of obstacles in ensuring the art they document qualifies as a “historic landmark.”

While some of the art dates back to the 1960s, many of the murals could be too new to be considered historic, explained Samantha Emmanuel, a member of the comité and an art conservator specializing in “wall art.”

The commission on Wednesday questioned how contemporary some of the murals are, and asked if they should be protected under the city’s arts commission.

Sofia Arredondo, a graduate student in Chicano Studies at San Jose State University, argued that there’s been a lack of equal representation of Chicano communities in America and that the murals represent that struggle.

“Since the signing of the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, Mexicans and their subsequent generations have had to struggle to keep their history from being minimized and even erased,” Arredondo said.

The commission also considered the social issues that motivated the artists to create such work as a potential historic trait.

“I’d like to think about different kinds of criteria,” said Anthony Raynsford, a member of the Historic Landmarks Commission. “The community context, are they significant for this type of neighborhood? What type of events precipitated these murals?”

The criteria for a historic landmark includes whether it exemplifies “cultural, economic, social or historic heritage of the city of San Jose,” according to city rules.

In total, the comité presented 20 murals painted throughout San Jose. Fourteen of the murals are still standing, while six have been removed or covered. “Our history compared to dominant culture isn’t necessarily recorded the same way,” said Andrade. “And so when we’re looking at marginalized groups and the way we record history, we record it through struggle.”

Other speakers on Wednesday said the erasure of the murals equates to the removal of chicano culture in San Jose.

“That term era is false,” said José Valle of Silicon Valley De-Bug, a nonprofit social justice organization. “We’re still here. That era doesn’t live in the past, it lives in the future.”

Arroyo said that adding a portion of a building — where the murals are located — to the inventory does not require the consent of the property owner.

A letter will be sent to each owner of buildings with the murals, Arroyo said, and they can come forward to “object” or “ask for any clarification.”

Ultimately, the decision to designate the murals as historic landmarks lies in the hands of the City Council, after the commission makes its recommendation.

Contact San José Spotlight intern Mauricio La Plante at mslaplante19@gmail.com or follow @mslaplantenews on Twitter.

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