Walking along the Tujunga Wash concrete basin in the San Fernando Valley community of Valley Glen, Neek and I were impressed with the enormity of the mural painted on the 13 feet high concrete sides. This is The Great Wall of Los Angeles, one of the longest murals in the world at 2,754 feet (839.42 meters) in length, stretching over six city blocks! Officially titled The History of California, this amazing work of art reminded me thematically of the book A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn.
For those of you who have not read it, A People’s History of the United States is not just a history book; it is a rich tapestry of stories spotlighting groups of people often neglected in ‘official’ history books. Zinn covers the 200+ year history of the nation through the perspective of ethnic minorities, women, and the working poor. Some of these stories can be seen in The Great Wall of Los Angeles, which takes that same perspective, but focuses on California.
The visionary artist behind this is Judith Francisca Baca. A UCLA professor, activist and co-founder of The Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC), Baca was hired by the United States Army Corps of Engineers in 1974 to improve the Tujunga Wash, which was considered an eyesore.
She had an idea to paint a history of Los Angeles from the days of the dinosaurs to 1910. A team of 80 youths from the juvenile justice program, ten artists and five historians collaborated under Baca’s direction to complete the first 1,000 feet, nine panels of murals in 1976.
But it didn’t end there. The Great Wall of Los Angeles was continued in the summers of 1978, 1980, 1981 and 1983. When the last painting was done in 1984, the history covered up to the 1950s. Over 400 youths, 40 historians and 40 artists under Baca’s direction over the course of six summers helped make this ambitious idea a reality. Though flooding, pollution and direct sun eroded the art over the years; the mural went through a major restoration in 2011 which restored the colors and vibrant beauty.
There are so many magnificent panels; it’s hard to single them out. There are a couple panels that made an impact on me personally. I was particularly struck by the artistry behind the panel on Thomas Edison. In the mural we see the image of Thomas Edison and floating behind him is the Chichimeca corn goddess whispering in his ear. This symbolizes the theory that Edison was born in Mexico and adopted by U.S. parents.
While some panels are impressive simply by their artistry, many make an impact because of the emotional weight they carry. Personally, I was extremely moved by the panel on Jewish refugees with the painting of the St. Louis. This was a ship carrying over 900 Jewish refugees trying to escape Nazi Germany that was denied entry to Cuba, Canada and the United States and had to return to Europe.
From the 908 passengers, 254 are known to have died in the Holocaust. The image of a ghostly figure emerging from the infamous ship mouth open in horror is a haunting representation of this terrible tragedy.
Another fascinating part of viewing The Great Wall of Los Angeles is learning about so many people throughout history that I had never read about. I never knew about Dr. Charles Drew, an African-American surgeon who pioneered methods to store blood plasma for transfusion and organized the first large-scale blood bank in the United States.
I was inspired by the activism of Luisa Moreno, who helped organize a committee to exonerate the youths in the Sleepy Lagoon murder indictments sensationalized in the media as the Zoot Suit Riots, yet disturbed to find out she was deported as part of the infamous Operation Wetback raids against Mexicans and Mexican-Americans during the 1950s.
I admired the heroism of Medal of Honor recipient David Gonzalez of Pacoima, who died digging out fellow soldiers buried by a bomb blast in the Philippines during World War II. It is heartwarming to see these principled people celebrated in this mural.
Neek and I were really overwhelmed and amazed by this work of art. It really is worth experiencing by viewing in person. It may take time walking the length of it, so on a hot day we definitely recommend bringing cold drinking water. But it’s certainly worth the journey!