Members of an art collective will hand over pieces of a mural on Friday morning — all that remains from three large murals painted in the early 1980s and moved into Cell Space in 2006.
The murals represent an archive of memory that spans two decades, from the time they were done as community projects through the 1990s, when they hung at the Real Alternatives Program, an alternative high school known as RAP.
“It’s our history,” said Ray Balberan, a longtime Mission activist who worked at RAP. He and Roberto Ariel Vargas, a former RAP director, made it clear that Cell Space was not to blame. “We take the responsibility for failing to keep track of them,” Vargas said at a meeting with the collective Monday night.
Reclaiming what was left of the murals is one of several efforts to preserve a time, said Sandra Cuadra, a Latina photographer, “when we were the Mission.” Many longtime Mission residents are participating in events such as a recent evening of story-telling about the neighborhood’s history at the Galería de la Raza and a photo exhibit earlier this spring at the Mission Cultural Center on the Tiny Locas, girlfriends from the 1980s who ran tight in the Mission.
“We are in post-gentrification,” Vero Majano, a 40-something filmmaker who grew up in the neighborhood, told Mission Loc@l at the Tiny Loca show. “We are the survivors of that. The posters, the photos, the films that we are showing are the archives of people surviving.”
In contrast to the anger that flared in the late 1990s when the Mission appeared to be changing at dot-com speed, Majano and others are anxious to share a history that many newcomers at the well-attended events are interested in hearing.
The murals — 15 or so four-by-eight-foot panels — held special significance because of when they were done, and because many local teenagers helped with them and went to RAP’s alternative high school or used its collection of social services.
Vargas ended up as a director and now works at UCSF, but when he first encountered the murals and RAP he was a teenager “in serious legal trouble,” he said. RAP helped him out of it.
One mural that informed his youth illustrated two young Latinos in cap and gown on one side with gang members depicted as skeletons on the other side. The message — education liberates, gangs kill — inspired him and others to change their ways. The second showed a young homeboy surrounded by Mission youth, their fists raised in a gesture of power. They stood to the left, and to the right was a man in a zoot suit in his low-riding car, a brilliant flash of blue. The third was a panorama of Mexican historical figures.
Carlos Gonzalez, a probation officer at the Youth Guidance Center, worked on several of the murals. They were all, he said, done as part of different community programs with RAP youth and others. One of the murals was the community component of HIV outreach to drug users.
Led by mural luminaries such as Ray Patlan, gang-bangers, drug addicts and kids on the edge all helped. Creating the murals helped saved some of them. Not all.
“The murals have a lot of significance,” Gonzalez said one Sunday as he worked on another mural at the guidance center. “The young kids who worked with us were doing dope and many of them were talented. Some of them started doing tattoos, others are still doing murals. Some are dead and gone, because we worked with a hard-core group of kids.”
After RAP closed in 1999, the murals remained on the second floor of the Sunshine building at 2730 Bryant Street. In 2005 they were taken down and stored in Vargas’s garage, until Vargas moved them to Sandra Sandoval’s apartment at Cell Space with the intention of restoring them. At the time, Sandoval was involved in music and worked at Cell Space as part of a caretaker’s program, said Dorian Johnson, the acting director, who has been a member of the collective for 13 years.
Sandoval, who could not be reached for comment, was evicted in 2008 after a lengthy legal battle, Johnson said.
Cell Space itself went through a complete reorganization in 2007 and nearly dissolved for financial reasons, he added.
Balberan and Vargas said they took responsibility for losing the murals because they failed to inquire about them after Sandoval’s eviction. Balberan said he could not explain why. “I don’t know.”
A reminder of the murals came in March when Vargas went to his wife’s Tuesday-night Aztec dance class at Cell Space. One of the doors to a storage area under the kitchen hung open. The inside of the door was a piece of one of the murals.
Word that the murals might have been destroyed spread quickly, and Balberan and Vargas began to work to recover what was left.
“The murals express Mission reality, our story and the big-time love affair with the social change culture and arts movement,” wrote Balberan in his request for the meeting with the collective that took place on Monday night.
Vargas and Balberan knew when the meeting began that the only remaining pieces were from the mural on education, which were on the inside panels of four storage doors. Johnson and the collective’s members were anxious to set up an exchange. Balberan’s offer to leave a photograph behind so that others would remember what had been was quickly accepted.
“No one knew anything about the murals being there, ever” said Johnson. “Sandra really didn’t have jurisdiction for them to be there. They are not in our records. I think she just kind of assumed that it would be OK, but never brought it to anyone’s attention.”
The murals never came up during their legal negotiations with her, he said. The apartment was left in shambles, but he doesn’t remember murals and said they could have been stored on the first floor and used as wood by people who had no connection to them.
When Cell Space faltered in 2007, there was a lot of cleaning and they’ve long had a problem with artists leaving behind old work, he said.
Johnson and the other collective members got one surprise on Monday night. Tom Phillips, a metal worker, announced near the end of the meeting that he had one full panel showing a male figure in a blue graduation gown holding a diploma. About a year ago, he said, “It was on a trash pile. I saved it.” It too will be returned.
Friday, July 2
de Young Museum
Golden Gate Park
Mission Muralismo celebrates the Graff Convention, organized by Annice Jacoby in partnership with Precita Eyes Muralists
5:00–8:45 p.m. Projections of the stunning street art of the Mission District
7:00–8:30 p.m. Featured presentations by Mission street artists
Friday, July 9
Back to the Picture
934 Valencia St. @ 20th St
7 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Artists talk: The Mission: An Art Scene in Transition. Where were we? Where are we now?