San Jose leaders helpless to stop destruction of celebrated mural
Community leaders say the mural at 899 South First Street is a celebration of Hispanic heritage and deters graffiti. A new property owner plans to remove it. Photo courtesy of the Guadalupe Washington Neighborhood Association.

A San Jose mural commemorating Hispanic heritage that deters graffiti is likely going to be painted over, despite community efforts to save it.

The mural, which spans the side of a gym on 899 South First Street in San Jose, was created in April 2016. It depicts Dia de los Muertos figures, labor leader César Chavez and honors a local folklorico dancer, Brenda Lopez, who died of cancer. Neighborhood leaders say the mural serves a dual purpose by highlighting cultural achievements and deterring gangs from tagging the building.

“Honestly, as soon as that mural went up, it was like all the problems went away,” Rosalinda Aguilar, acting president of the Guadalupe Washington Neighborhood Association, told San José Spotlight. She said the area is still a hotspot for gang activity.

But Jaeson Le, who purchased the building recently, told Aguilar and other community leaders he wasn’t comfortable with the art. According to Aguilar, Le said he wants to fill the building with tech workers and he doesn’t want them turned off by artwork he thinks could be interpreted as gang-related.

Le did not respond to requests for comment.

Volunteers painting the mural in 2016. Photo courtesy of the Guadalupe Washington Neighborhood Association.

Preserving local art

For years, local leaders have been concerned about the destruction of murals, which sometimes goes hand-in-hand with gentrification. In 2018, a property owner painted over the famous Mural de la Raza, prompting a $5 million lawsuit by the artist.

But community leaders in the Guadalupe Washington neighborhood say this is a new experience for them—in fact, the neighborhood has been adding murals, not losing them. Aguilar told San José Spotlight artists made two mini-murals over the weekend, one at the campus of Sacred Heart and the other on the side of a Willow Street hair salon. The community is also painting several utility boxes.

“Three years ago there were a lot less murals than we have today,” Aguilar said. “I think people take pride in them and want to protect them.”

Bob Froese, president of Beautiful Day, a group that helps beautify neighborhoods, told San José Spotlight his organization worked with the neighborhood association to create the mural. He said the artwork literally bears the mark of the community—local children dipped their hands in paint and pressed them along the mural.

“Clearly… it’s a piece of art that is important to that community, so that’s disappointing,” he said. “On the other hand, it’s on private property, so he can do what he wants.”

Community leaders say the mural helps prevent graffiti. Photo courtesy of the Guadalupe Washington Neighborhood Association.

Few landmarks

Numerous leaders have tried to dissuade Le with no success. Councilmember Raul Peralez, whose district includes the Guadalupe Washington neighborhood, told San José Spotlight he met with Le and described the importance of the artwork to the local community, especially in the wake of the destruction of historic murals in other parts of San Jose. He said Le was sympathetic, but ultimately didn’t change his mind.

“It is extremely disheartening,” Peralez said. “We even spoke with him about whether he could work with the same artist to produce a different mural, if he was looking for something else, and he said no… as a private property owner, our understanding is that he has that right.”

Peralez sent Le a letter on Oct. 1 urging him to keep the mural intact, notifying him that he has a minimum obligation to notify the artist about his intention to tear it down under the California Art Preservation Act.

A portion of the mural at 899 South First Street. Photo courtesy of the Guadalupe Washington Neighborhood Association.

Tomas Talamantes, the artist who designed the mural, told San José Spotlight he spoke with Le about preserving the mural but didn’t make any headway. Le also wasn’t persuaded by his argument that the mural was effective at preventing gang activity from escalating in the area.

“He believes, if it gets tagged, he’s just going to paint over it quickly so things won’t escalate,” Talamantes said. He added that Le is open to the idea of collaborating with the community on a new mural if tagging leads to more extreme behavior, like physical violence.

Zay, who declined to share his last name, is the owner of War Fitness Bay Area, a gym located in the building that houses the mural. He told San José Spotlight he’s sad to hear about the potential destruction of the mural, and he expects the rest of the community will be as well.

“The community here is very much involved so I’m sure they’re not going to go down without a fight,” he said. “It’s pretty meaningful, especially to the Hispanic community—we don’t have many landmarks.”

Contact Eli Wolfe at [email protected] or @EliWolfe4 on Twitter. 

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