July 13, 2022

Endangered Public Art: Murals Hold Memories for Denver's Chicano/a/x Community

When you live in a historic location, you might wish that the walls could speak and tell you about the people that came before you. But the residents of Denver’s La Alma Lincoln Park Neighborhood do not have to wonder what their walls would say—every day, they see these stories painted on the recreation center and other buildings.

The nationwide Chicano Movement of the 1960s and ‘70s integrated political activism with cultural education in arts, specifically murals, to reflect Chicano/a/x histories, bring art into neighborhoods, inspire pride in heritage, and strengthen communities in response to systemic racism, prejudice, and violence. Although the exact number is unknown, it is believed that more than 40 historic Chicano/a/x community murals exist across the State of Colorado. It is their ability to tell the often overlooked or erased histories that placed the Colorado Chicano/a/x murals on the National Trust for Historic Preservation's 2022 list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.

Threatened by gentrification and preservation loopholes, Denver’s public art is in danger. However, advocates like Lucha Martínez de Luna refuse to let Denver’s historic murals—and the Chicano/a/x culture that they represent—be destroyed.

LALP Mural_photoBenjaminRasmussen

photo by: Benjamin Rasmussen

“La Alma” by Emanuel Martinez painted in 1978, is located in the birthplace of the Chicano Mural Movement in Denver, CO where three early and important murals were destroyed. The mural is located on the La Alma Lincoln Park Recreation Center.

Murals as Historical Monuments

Paintings have a rich cultural tradition. Pre-Hispanic indigenous peoples such as the Mayans and Puebloans cherished wall painting. Lucha Martínez de Luna explains, “Chicanos in Colorado, a lot of them could trace their roots from when the Southwest was part of the Spanish Empire. Before Jamestown, the Spanish settled in New Mexico. And the first towns, post-European contact, settled in what is now Colorado were founded by Hispanos, Spanish descendants. But that history isn’t often recognized. Murals helped us tell our story in a safe space. They are a visual record of what was happening at that moment of time, in that community.”

While much of Colorado’s Chicano/a/x history has been excluded from textbooks, muralists have used their paintings to preserve their culture and their community. These indigenous and Latino/a/x voices live on through the unique aesthetic of Colorado’s art: textiles with geometric motifs and colorful portraits featuring brown-skinned, dark-haired people surrounded by flowers or vines.

By protecting important Chicano/a/x murals, Martínez de Luna hopes to preserve the memories they hold. And for Martínez de Luna, many of these memories are personal. Her father is Emanuel Martínez, who is widely credited for bringing Chicano/a/x muralism to Denver. Martínez was inspired by Mexico’s post-revolutionary art movement. After the Revolution, artists like Diego Rivera created murals to reflect the diversity of Mexican cultures. Murals were painted of and for everyday people, and they featured images of the working-class—like farmers.

Emanuel Martínez brought some of this artistic (and activist) spirit to Denver. “My father hitchhiked to Mexico, to study muralism with David Alfaro Siqueiros, one of the three most recognized Mexican muralists. Siqueiros encouraged him t o start painting murals in his own city. And that’s exactly what he did. He became a civil rights artist,” Martínez de Luna says.

The La Alma Lincoln Park Neighborhood was at the center of Denver’s Chicano/a/x civil rights movement, El Movimiento, in the 1960s and 1970s. Groups like the Westside Action Council advocated against police brutality and racism. Here, Martínez’s art found a sense of purpose. He painted his first mural—the first of many—outside of the housing projects in the neighborhood.

Martínez’s art struck a nerve with city officials. “They were going to evict us from our home in the housing projects. They told him he couldn’t paint murals because he wasn’t a city employee,” Martínez de Luna says. “And so, he trained to be a lifeguard at the pool.” Martínez was lifeguarding—and painting—at pools and recreation centers when many people of color across the country were still being segregated from public pools.

“That’s why these murals are so important. They became a way of saying, ‘hey, we belong here, and this is our history, and we won’t be ignored,’” says Martínez de Luna.

The Challenges of Preserving Pigments

The murals in La Alma Lincoln Park and across Denver have important historical value, but they are tricky to preserve. Many of the artists who produced the murals in the 1960s and '70s are getting older, so time is a factor in touching up these distinctive paintings.

Preservation agencies in Colorado are also limited by laws that overlook public art. The frustration about trying to protect murals is that Denver’s Landmark Preservation Ordinance does not include paint under the Landmark Department’s purview.

Artist Emanuel Martínez and his daughter, Lucha Martínez de Luna, in front of his 1978 mural "La Alma/The Soul."

photo by: Benjamin Rasmussen

Artist Emanuel Martínez and his daughter, Lucha Martínez de Luna, in front of his 1978 mural "La Alma/The Soul."

"These murals are legally viewed as paint and therefore can’t be legally protected. So while these murals are ‘character-defining features’ of the La Alma Lincoln Park district, the murals can’t be protected through the district ordinance," says Shannon Stage, the manager of grants and preservation services at Historic Denver, Inc.

Historic Denver is an urban preservation nonprofit that worked closely with the community to create the La Alma Lincoln Park historic cultural district, and continues to work closely with Martinez de Luna in advocating for Chicano/a/x Murals.

Stage explains that when a mural is described as a ‘character-defining feature,’ “it is identified as significant to the overall history of the district, but legally in a district you can do whatever you want with paint. So, the owner of a building with a mural on it isn’t required to keep the mural on their property. There needs to be a change in the City’s Preservation Policies to recognize murals beyond just paint.”

“The current hope is that the district designation and inclusion of murals as character-defining features will create more awareness of the murals’ significance and may encourage building owners to not paint over them in good faith,” says Stage.

Martínez de Luna argues that these district designations do not go far enough to protect murals. Since murals are powerful symbols of heritage, literally whitewashing over them can perpetuate the metaphorical whitewashing of history. She says, “They just use white paint to paint over these murals and they don’t put anything else on the wall. It’s an act of erasure that’s active and very intentional. It’s like trying to remove traces of Chicano history and heritage from communities that we helped build."

Mural by Alicia DeOlivera Cardenas for Crush Walls 2020, Untitled. Created in the style of the pre-Hispanic Mixteca-Puebla codices (books), the mural shows female figures holding signs of protest and toppling the sculpture of a ruler.

photo by: Chicano/a/x Murals of Colorado Project

Mural by Alicia DeOlivera Cardenas for Crush Walls 2020, "Untitled." Created in the style of the pre-Hispanic Mixteca-Puebla codices (books), the mural shows female figures holding signs of protest and toppling the sculpture of a ruler.

“San Luis-Sierras y Colores” by Carlos Sandoval, painted in 1986, commemorates the oldest town in Colorado, San Luis de la Culebra founded in the 1840s by Hispano settlers when the area was still part of Mexico.

photo by: Chicano/a/x Murals of Colorado Project/Joe Beine

“San Luis-Sierras y Colores” by Carlos Sandoval, painted in 1986, commemorates the oldest town in Colorado, San Luis de la Culebra founded in the 1840s by Hispano settlers when the area was still part of Mexico.

Advocating for Preservation

Through her nonprofit Chicano/a/x Murals of Colorado Project, Martínez de Luna is leading the effort to document murals before they’re destroyed and to revive the damaged murals that can still be salvaged. This preservation work requires a delicate artistic skill. CMCP is working together with the original artists to install plaques and apply MuralShield™ on historic murals. The product seals murals and protects the artwork from weather damage and sun fading.

These innovations bring some hope for the murals’ uncertain future, but Martínez de Luna explains that many of these artifacts are gone forever: “There’s potential, but there are very few murals from the '70s that were whitewashed. Most were sandblasted. There’s no way of recovering those.” Some whitewashed paintings can be uncovered if the first white layer of paint is stripped away to reveal the mural underneath. Sandblasting removes the painting from the wall entirely.

Huitzilopochtli, David Ocelotl Garcia, 2008, 8th Ave between Federal and Decatur, Denver, Colorado. The mural explores the creation story of the Mesoamerican deity, the patron of the Mexica/Aztec.

photo by: Chicano/a/x Murals of Colorado Project

"Huitzilopochtli," David Ocelotl Garcia, 2008, 8th Ave between Federal and Decatur, Denver, Colorado. The mural explores the creation story of the Mesoamerican deity, the patron of the Mexica/Aztec, Huitzilopochtli, whose name translates to “Hummingbird of the South.” Facing south, the central figures Coatlicue and her son Huitzilopocthli stand within a vivid supernatural realm. The artist describes “the characters, objects, elements, and symbols represent spiritual ideas and philosophies specific to the healing of the mind, body, and soul."

With Denver’s rapid gentrification, “it can feel like a race against time to try to save these murals,” Martinez de Luna says. That’s where her website comes into play. The Chicano/a/x Murals of Colorado Project maps out the murals. If a mural is destroyed, this digital record might help document that mural’s location, its artistic value, and its significance. The website references at least 40 Chicano/a/x murals in the state. Martínez de Luna invites users to add their own murals to the list.

She believes that preserving a mural is so much more than keeping the pigments on a wall. Denver’s murals document the role that the Chicano/a/x community played in Colorado history, and these art pieces show that Chicano/a people make Denver a better place today.

As Martínez de Luna says “When we protect these murals, we’re fighting to honor the history of civil rights in Colorado and the deeper histories of the Chicano and indigenous communities in the southwest. They’re historical artifacts, but they also give us hope and perspective for the future. That’s what we’re fighting to preserve when we preserve these murals. We want to recognize the community’s history and the people who painted that art. But the art also makes us think about the people who in the years to come will look up and feel like they belong because they see themselves in these murals.”

Donate Today to Help Save the Places Where Our History Happened.

Support the National Trust for Historic Preservation today and you'll be providing the courage, comfort, and inspiration of historic places now, when we need it most.

Laken Brooks is a current graduate student at the University of Florida. When Laken is not teaching or researching, she enjoys traveling, visiting free little libraries, and going to archives.

The National Trust's African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund has awarded $3 million in grants to 33 places preserving Black history.

See the List