IRW: Hello my name is Isabel Rojas-Williams and I am the Executive Director of the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles. Today, I would like to introduce you to somebody that everyone in our city knows, Judy Baca. Judy is the founder of SPARC (Social and Public Art Resource Center) in 1976. We all know about what Judy has done with SPARC and the murals that they have created and her contributions to the arts and culture of the city, but many of us don’t know how all this began. How did she become the person that we know today? So we are going to ask her to tell us a little bit about her beginnings and how did she get inspired to create this organization, that this month, October, 2012, is going to be 35 years old. So Judy please tell us about yourself. We would like to know, when you were a young woman and you were a kid, when you were going to high school, I know that you created murals in 1970. I know that you went to Cal State Northridge for your Bachelors and your MA, and I know what you became, but I want to know about those times when you were a kid dreaming about what, how, and why. So could you please tell us a little about that.
JB: So where should we start, at the beginning? Maybe, we should start at the very beginning. I was born in a place now known as Watts 85th and Central to be exact. My mother was a single parent and we lived in a small house, a duplex. At the time, it was right after the war, 1946, Watts was actually filled with Turnip fields and chicken farms and a kind of vibrant African American Latino community. You could walk down to the corner and you could pick the chicken being sold there and they would ring the neck right then and there and then you would cook it. Or you could, as my cousins did with me when I was very small, small enough to fly between the hands of two of my bigger cousins, run through the turnip fields and steal turnips. Heaven knows what for because they tasted so terrible. I was always very disappointed when we went to steal turnips and they turned out to be when we ate them to so hot that they burned your mouth. I was raised with my grandmother, Francisca, who took care of me when my mother worked at the Good Year tire factory, and I lived with my grandmother and my aunt Rita, who, was and still is, a wonderful ranchera singer.
IRW: Did they speak Spanish to you?
JB: Oh yeah, it was a Spanish speaking house. Of course I went through the brutal transition of English in the schools and English only and the disallowance of Spanish speaking in the L.A. city schools. It was also coupled by my mother’s later marriage to an Italian when I was seven, who basically didn’t want us speaking Spanish in the house either because he thought we were talking about him. So I was raised with my grandmother, my tia Rita and my tia Delia, both named for flowers. My grandfather named them for flowers. Ortencia, Delia, and Margarita. My grandmother was in charge of me and she was a very wonderful, very spiritual, very indigenous woman who practiced healing in our house. Some of my earliest memories have to do with people coming to see her. Our house was so small that I would have to stand outside or put a chair outside for somebody to wait for her so that she could do what seemed to be prayers and make herbs for them and help them with healing.
IRW: So she was like a curandera?
JB: Yes, she was a healer. I think at that point she started training me when I was very small, because I would run between the people and I would listen and then when they would leave she would say ‘well what do you think is wrong with Mrs. Garcia?’ I would say, ‘Oh her husband doesn’t love her anymore, he has a new girlfriend.’
IRW: Haha, were you making it up?
JB: No, it was just what I heard. I would pick up the little pieces of information I’d pull together and she would say, ‘you’re right.’ As I think back about this I think she was training me to see and to hear people. And my aunt Delia was perhaps the biggest lesson of all because she was educationally handicapped. She never matured beyond a five year old and so she was the body and I was the brain. I would say to my aunt Delia, ‘lift me up so I can get the candy on the top shelf.’ So I had a big friend who was my age. My aunt Delia and I had a very close relationship all of her life. She just passed recently but she taught me about compassion and she really taught me about understanding people’s differences being in the condition that she was in. People say that she was in that condition because in the barrio where my mother was born, and where she was born, the first of them being born here and not on the other side in Mexico, a doctor delivered her with forecepts and damaged her brain.
IRW: What part of Mexico?
JB: We were originally from Chihuahua, near Hidalgo del Parral but My mother was born at the base of the Purgatory River, facing Kansas, in the bitter cold of Colorado. My mother was born in a place where Mexicans could live They were very discriminated against in Colorado.. My grandparents came up on the Santa Fe Trail in about 1918. So we were among the first giant wave of Mexican migrants, into the United States. There was a massive migration of Mexican people at that time because of the Mexican Revolution in progress. My grandfather was running away from the war in Chihuahua and Pancho Villa because he owned a store and traveled to the north where he would buy supplies and was robbed over and over again. When he left on the train to get more supplies after being robbed in the store and on his ranch, he told my grandmother, ‘if they come again give them everything.’ They never really said what side robbed them. It could have been the federal troops. It could have been the Villa troops but probably both. So at one point they were robbed simultaneously. My grandfather was on the train when I was robbed and was left in his long underwear on the side of the train and he placed the money in the diaper of the little baby sitting next to him, and pretending to be the husband of the woman that was with him so they wouldn’t take her away. And my grandmother was robbed at the ranch and she put the money into one of those lavanderia pots. So the joke was that they came with dirty money. So they left with one box and they came north and followed the Santa Fe Trail and went to Juarez where we had family. When they got to Juarez, the war was there too so they passed and went all the way to Colorado and then in Colorado, that’s where they began to build a life. My mother was born there, educated in segregated schools, in a place called Barrio Nuevo. It’s actually a very interesting little place alongside the Arkansas River. That’s one of the reasons I did the piece inside of the Denver Airport. The piece is called La Memoria de Nuestra Tierra, which is about that story of their migration. my formative years were formed by these critical three characters that formed the foundations of my life. I remember the trolley cars growing up in this region and going off on the trolley cars to go shopping iat the downtown Central Market. The trolley would take us to the top of Bunker Hill and then going down Angels Flight, we would get our groceries and go back up Angels Flight because that’s where you could catch the trolley car. Angels Flight was not purposeless. It was actually a really good way to get up the hill. That’s when I saw Simon Rodia building the Watts Towers.
IRW: Because you lived right there right?
JB: Yeah I lived there, and the trolley car would go by and I remember seeing him.
IRW: So that was like the first piece of public art you saw?
JB: Yes, I was amazed by it. There was a lot of religious art. I spent a lot of time in church.
IRW: I imagine with your three aunties taking you to church every Sunday.
JB: Hahaha, oh my god it was not only Sunday but I think we went during the week and I remember learning to meditate with my grandmother because I think its actually a practice that has kept me sane. I would hold the rosary and I’d sit there on the pew with her. As an infant I learned to be silent. Under the guise of prayer I basically really meditated. Calmed myself. I remember actually calming myself to the rhythm of her breathing and kind of learning to relax in that space. Those are really the formative things I remember. I remember my mother coming home from the factory and smelling like rubber. It being in her hair and her clothes because it was a tire factory, it was really horrible.
IRW: So when you were a child and your mother married the Italian husband you moved to Pacoima?
JB: We moved to Pacoima.
IRW: And how old were you then?
JB: I entered school in Pacoima at seven.
IRW: So at this point and when you saw the Watts Towers being built did it occur to you or did you think about who you wanted to become. Did you say to yourself “I don’t want to live in this place, I don’t want to stay outside of my house to wait for my grandmother to do her healing sessions. I want to have my own space and I want to create monumental art.” At what point did that cross your mind? Were you in grammar school? How did that happen?
JB: Well I never had any sense that we were poor. I didn’t think of us as being poor. I remember for Sunday dinners, it didn’t really matter that five extra people would show up because I lived in this rich family with so many first cousins and I still today enjoy the fact that I had so many cousins. My aunt Rita came to have eight children and my uncle Jess had nine and my uncle Mundo had four and now they have children and so there are quite a large number of Bacas.
IRW: This is great to me too because I go back to those days when we were having difficult times and to me those are the times that I miss the most. Those are the times that are most enriching in my life, when I learned so much through the contact with my family, my siblings and sitting at a big table all together, enjoying a Sunday meal, and we would eat whatever was available. In those days none of us were professionals and never thought that we would be because of the economical situation. That’s why I say I always go back and think about what did mark me and what did make you?
JB: Well I think what happened to me was when I entered the school I had a big trauma. One was that I was away from my grandmother, who was really my mother. You know, she was the one who took care of me everyday. And my mother’s marriage created this distance. We moved away from South Central, which is so far away, in the valley. I entered into a school and it was English speaking and the house turned to English only.
IRW: And the schools in those days, in Pacoima, was it like a white neighborhood?
JB: No, it was always mixed. Pacoima actually turned out in my research on the Great Wall, I was later to learn that the reason Pacoima was like it was, which was African American and Latino primarily, was because it was designated as an area for workers in the aircraft industry. My father was a Lockheed aircraft worker. So my mother and father used the GI Bill and they bought a little house in Pacoima. In those days actually, in Pacoima, you could buy with a $500 down on the GI Bill. Imagine such a thing. We had a big backyard with remnants of vineyards in it. I entered school and I was really lost, in both the English and then being separated from my grandmother, the sense of this new father and this new home. It was difficult for me, it was a very difficult transition and I had a very smart teacher in Kindergarten who set about putting me into painting. I didn’t participate. I was really silent. I didn’t speak English that well so she set up an easel for me and shiny tin cans with paint. I remember them as clear as day and I would paint painting after painting and I would be really happy doing that while they were doing there other reading lessons and other things, but I was a smart kid. I was always a smart kid in school. By third grade I was speaking English pretty well and became more articulate but I always had a discipline problem. I mean I never quite conformed. I think its still today the same thing. I pretty much don’t like being pushed around. I don’t like authority. In that I guess I’m sort of in suspended adolescence. Which also, is probably what made me not a very good wife when I got married at nineteen. But I did everything in a traditional way. I was very Catholic and I went through Haddon Elementary School. I later had the great pleasure of going back and through the Neighborhood Pride Mural Program, bringing in East Los Streetscapers . We sponsored them to do a fabulous piece on Burton Hall, who was the principal who let me go into the school. The way I got into school at that time was, I remember my mom bringing me in and setting me up on the counter and the principal is saying, ‘does she speak English?’ And my mother said, ‘Yes, she does very well.’ And I thought, ‘oh no,’ because I didn’t speak English that well but I did know how to recite a poem. And I knew how to do some prayers in English and Spanish. So I sat on the top of this counter and I said ‘Humpty Dumpty had a great fall,’ and I recited the Humpty Dumpty poem.. And that’s how I got into school. And then this teacher who I had this chance to speak to many years later who really used the arts as a method of orienting me and seeing that I really did well at the painting and I got a lot of accolades from the painting so it started that positive reinforcement of painting. Later, by the time I got into high school, I went through elementary school in the public school and by the time I got to high school it was more fraught. There were struggles between the Latinos and the African Americans and there was a lot of gang warfare going on at the time and a lot of difficulties between the racial groups, which I think had a great amount of influence in my formulation of the Great Wall. The Great Wall is only three miles from where I grew up, so I lived and breathed in that community and I went to Northridge University. That’s really was my neighborhood for most of my childhood. By the time I got into high school my mother really thought the only way I was going to survive the pachucas of Pacoima Junior High who periodically would call me out was to send me to Catholic School. I had my licks. I had my difficulties as I was growing up and then I went into Catholic school and that was even more difficult for me because it was more controlled. But I’m very grateful for the sisters of St Joseph who became really god teachers and really made me fall in love with learning things and did not try to do route learning. I was clearly a creative kid and what I needed was to be coached and cajoled into discovery and they were smart enough to do that. So they just fed me lots of books and I started reading everything.
IRW: and more religious art?
JB: Yes, I started doing more religious art. I would go every year to Vallermo and do a retreat with the Dominicans and I would make these giant banners, which were tie tied banners, which were the earliest work I did as public art. My first real public art was Simon Rodia and the Catholic Church. In high school I started to be known as the artist. How I came to be known as an artist was that people used to carry around these blue binders that were covered with cloth, they were three-ring binders, and that was everybody’s school materials and if you were lucky you got a little pencil holder to put in your three-ring binder. They would get really dirty and junky and not look nice after a while my friends would say, ‘draw me something.’ So I used to draw these really gorgeous dreamboats and there were all these really handsome men on the face of my girlfriends three-ring binders. For the boys I would do the same. I would switch them around and make beautiful girls so everyone would go around with these dreamboats on the face their three-ring binders so I sort of became known for that and also for my sardonic cartoons. I got in big trouble once for, on the blackboard before the nuns came in, doing this drawing of these naked nuns with their veils flying. I don’t know what possessed me to do that. I would just draw these crazy things on the board. I really came very close to be thrown out. And then at some point I ended up becoming Vice President of the class and people began to sort of appreciate my humor. It was always a little bit sardonic and a little bit tough. You know, I was struggling with my home situation and working; I started to work very young. I worked from the time I was fourteen so that I had the capacity to really determine my own life. I think one of the things that is really kind of a hallmark for me is a real need for independence; a real need for me to see my own way. To, in other words, make the determinations for myself. I wasn’t really a momma’s girl or a daddy’s girl. I was my own girl from a very young age.
IRW: and then you went to high school there and then when you went to Cal State Northridge for your Bachelor. Was this the time - the 60s - when you discovered your political inclinations or when you became more involved with the Chicano world, because at the time was that explosive political era where we were all involved in the politics. Did that influence you in the sense that you wanted to do public art to tell the masses of what was happening in your world or in the city?
JB: No, not really. When I went to Northridge I knew that I wanted to be in the arts so I became an art major. And my mother said, ‘well, if you’re going to be an art major, why are you going to do that? You’re going to be the first of us educated. Why would you choose the arts?’
IRW: you’re not going to make any money right?
JB: yeah, you’re not going to make any money. My mother was actually kind of an activist herself because she was a pioneer character. ortencia was a pretty amazing character, you know, she was and still is at 89 years old. In La Junta when the men came back from the war, the Mexican boys came back on a truck and they were all grouped together as they came back into town. They stopped at this bar, and this was a town where it would say, ‘Mexicans and dogs not allowed.’ Right? My mom sat in the back of the bus and in the balcony in the local movie theater . The schools were segregated as well. My mom tells stories of how they were taken out of the schools and their heads were dipped in kerosene because they thought all Mexicans had lice. My mother had this beautiful hair. They used to collect rainwater for her hair at home and then to have them do that, it was just horrendous. I mean, they were very beautiful young women and it was totally humiliating for them. At a certain point she went to work for the District Attorney in this town. And because the boys were all at war; her brothers were all gone, and there was a family of six, apparently nine children all together, only six of them lived.
IRW: Are you an only child?
JB: There were three of us, and my mother had two other children with her Italian husband, but only me, from the first one. Anyway, so what happened is the men came through on this truck and they stopped at this bar where they were not allowed to go. In the bar, there was a young man whose name was Whitey. El Blanco they called him and he had a piece of shrapnel in his head and they put a plate in his head and because he was in this bar, as my uncles told this story, one of the “crackers”, they called them crackers; the right wing white people, were so annoyed that the Mexican boys had come into the bar that he got up and took a bottle and hit Whitey over the head and he killed him on the spot. So the very first day home after they had been all over the world, was the remembrance and the reminder that you might have been free in the rest of the world but you’re back home boys, and its Colorado. There’s a certain brutality to Colorado. People don’t talk about it like they talk about Texas but Colorado was something. So my mother reported this incident to the federal authorities at some point. The people from the Federal Government came through to find out what was happening on the GI Bill. They had some reports of abuse and they were just not giving the GI Bill to the Mexican Veterans and so my mother left town after she did this. At the age of eighteen she came out here on a train with her friend Lucy Royball, related to the Royballs, they were best friends. They set up a little apartment and became Harvey girls in Los Angeles. So my mom actually made this trip here because of her activism. So when I went into school and I wanted to be an artist, she said, ‘why don’t you become a lawyer? You could sue somebody.’ That seemed to her like the model that she saw as a really useful model. I said, ‘I really want to be in the arts.’ And I knew it was compulsatory for me. I really needed to make art and really I thought sculpture was my focus and I really loved making sculptures but it was expensive. I was paying for my own schooling and I was working nearly full time at the same time as going to the University. Then I fell in love and I wanted to get married. So I was saving money and I basically, at a certain point, quit school. Just quit. I said, ‘I’m going to get married. What’s the point?’ So I went to go work in the factory, my father’s factory Lockheed and I became an illustrator. The illustration was really useful to me and it’s still useful to this day. So I was drawing airplane parts and learning how to do isometric drawings and architectural renderings and including G-jobs, which were jobs that had to do with making somebody’s portrait for a birthday card from the higher ups at Lockheed Aircraft. It was about a year before I got married, that I realized that I really didn’t want to work in the factory, so I went back to school. When I went back to school, I went back with my husband. I had the support I needed to be in school with another person that was going to school. He had just come back from the Bay of Pigs as a Marine. So there we were, both of us, in school and they blew up the administration building. I watched from Prairie Street as the building went up in flames and I was increasingly alarmed by the war in Vietnam. My friends were all getting shipped away and coming back a mess. Particularly the Mexican boys from the neighborhood, or most of the kids from my neighborhood in Pacoima were taken first. The tempo in the country, it was 1964-1969, it was a moment within American history, when it was impossible for you to be a young person and not to question everything.
IRW: I think that happened to all of us worldwide; it happened to me too. Whether in France, Chicago, Mexico or South America, the politics affected us for the rest of our days.
JB: Where were you at the time?
JB: You were in Chile. Well of course there was such an amazing movement there. I have to say something real interesting about when I first developed the first mural program. My model was the Chilean mural brigade. I wanted to start a Chilean mural brigade.
IRW: The Ramona Parra Brigade marked all of us and it was an amazing time.
JB: I just thought you know, because I had started working on the east side and, well I have to get there first, ok. What happened was, in 1969, I joined a protest outside of the administration building at Northridge, and I had checked out these cameras, because I was a student in the arts. I had these two and a quarter cameras and you had to pay for them if you broke them. So I was outside of the administration building in a giant protest against the war in Vietnam, and I believe for ethnic studies, we were basically advocating ethnic studies. My husband was an Anglo man and he was German from a huge Catholic family with twelve brothers and sisters. He didn’t know what to make about all this stuff but I was becoming increasingly engaged in what was happening to the Latino community, what was happening to the African American community. Particularly, how I saw disparate treatment of people who were minorities and in terms of who was being recruited for war. So, standing outside of the administration building, somebody alongside of me heaved a trashcan through the window and when the window broke, inside were hundreds and hundreds of what I thought looked like hornets, but they were cops in black and white helmets. They came pouring out. As they came pouring out they were grabbing people and beating them. I had these two cameras that I was holding on to and all I remember was thinking, ‘no not the cameras! How will I pay for them?’ I was more worried about the cameras than my own life. In youth you worry about things like that. And I jumped into these bushes and they grabbed somebody alongside me and beat him really badly. I think in that skirmish they even knocked somebody’s eye out, I remember that whole horrible. At any rate, I didn’t get killed but I got arrested and they took the cameras from me.
IRW: but they didn’t break the cameras?
JB: They didn’t break. I did get them back. That was my biggest concern. What it amounted to was I sat on the grass for hours with my hands tied behind my back with plastic cuffs because they didn’t have enough to put us all in jail. So I became an activist.
IRW: that was your baptism, right?
JB: that was my baptism. Watching the treatment by the police and the craziness of it all. The advocacy of what students began to say we were listening across the country and I became very engaged in what became Chicano Power and Chicano issues. That was about 1969 when I stepped out of the University. There I was, a painter trained in minimalist painting, trained in abstractionism. I knew a tremendous amount of color theory. I received a D in painting for doing a figurative work. I walked out of the University completely educated to do nothing. I thought, ‘how am I going to take what I know; what am I going to do with this?’ What was real clear to me was that I had this epiphany. I have told this story very often because it was one of those epiphany moments. My family had a big party because I graduated from the University. Sort of like a baptism or a wedding or something. It was in my apartment on Prairie Street in the student housing. Francisca was there, and she basically said to me, because she never spoke English, she said, ‘what is it that you do mija?’ So I was very proud of this portfolio. I just graduated right. It was my portfolio. I passed! So I put it in her lap and I started to thumb through the portfolio for her and for the very first time I saw it through her eyes. And she was just looking at it, you know, no judgment but everything in her world had meaning and everything in her world had a place. Everything she did, from what she grew alongside of the water fountain, to what she planted for shade or what she planted for scent or the way she made it easy for me to climb a tree so I wouldn’t kill myself because she knew I was going to climb it. She created the boards so I could climb up the pepper tree. The way she would figure out how to tie my hair up so; being kind of a little tribal character, she would let me run wild and she would tie my hair up so I wouldn’t get tangled up in the bushes. She had it figured out and when she saw this she said, ‘what is it for?’ And so I think I spent about twenty years trying to figure that out. What’s it for? What I knew, was that I really wanted to do something with the work and I thought of automatically was that I could teach and that I could deal with the situations I had seen for so many of my peers in terms of the struggles that I had in the neighborhoods where interracial warfare. Then I thought I would be an art teacher and so I began to pursue getting my secondary teaching credential. I still have a particular love of working with high school kids. I just think they’re funny and they’re fun and particularly when I was really close in age I think I was very good at working with them but I very quickly learned that the way the arts were being taught and the way educators were thinking about how to work in the Latino community, that it was very far from any truth I knew. So I quit. It was really over a teacher. My master teacher at Danas Junior High who I saw really destroy the drawing of a young boy named Julio who was like fourteen and who was drawing this amazing bird. I would go there once a week to do my master teaching and the lesson was, we were going to do these birds and Julio did this drawing of this amazing faceted bird. You know, all its parts moved and you could see that this bird could not only fly but it could have eaten a city or something. It was an amazing bird and I loved his bird. I was so knocked out by this kid’s drawing and from one week to the next I came back and the bird was gone. I said, ‘what happened to your bird?’ And he had replaced it with a hallmark image, of one of these doves. And I realized that the teacher had put up models in the classroom of ‘how many birds are there?’ on a wire. And she had drawn these hallmark renditions of birds. And of course, the teacher made that mark. So then in Julio’s mind his bird was suddenly wrong and the teacher’s was right and it shifted. You know about the inintolerance of youth? i could not forgive those of authority who made mistakes. You just want to chop off their heads. Off with their heads! Probably this teacher wasn’t a great teacher but it precipitatd me quitting grad school. I left student teaching and I went marching back in to see sister Louisa Bernstein. Now sister Louisa Bernstein was Mexican and Jewish. Her father was Jewish and her mother Mexican. She was a Catholic Nun and she was my mentor in my High School. When I said, ‘well, I quit.’ She said, ‘What?!’ She and I are still friends. I just said, ‘I cant study under people who are stupid and don’t know what they’re doing.’ And she said, ‘you can’t quit.’ I said, ‘why not?’ She said, ‘because you’re just going to keep quitting every time. So you have to finish.’ I said, ‘well I can’t go back to her because now she hates me because I quit.’ She said, ‘Ok I have an idea. You can do you master teaching here.’ So I went back to the High School where I taught and I became a teacher there and I had the best teachers. Within a year I was the head of the art department and within two years, we went from just a few art students to almost eight hundred art students. The department became the most powerful and most wonderful department. I started teaching this thing called Allied Arts for 9th graders and it was a really inspired set of teaching. It was really about having the arts be about the exemplification of the highest moments of the human senses. So in other words listening to voice and speech and poetry is really about your own voice and sound and sculpture was about touch and dance was about movement of your body. So I was teaching how to write music, how to write poetry, how to do visual arts and that became for me an exciting practice that has always followed me in terms of being able to work interdisciplinary. Also, it really coupled with scholarship. Beginning to say, ‘we don’t have to be artists who only work with one side of our brain, when there is two sides of our brains and we can actually be thinkers as well.’ So my students were doing collaborations and drawing the human figure. Each of them taking a part and blowing it up ten times the normal size and dropping it out of two story buildings. We were doing things like painting the first mural I ever painted in 1969, on the ceiling of our class room called ‘Alice through the looking glass.’ We just turned the whole ceiling into an OP-art kind of experience. We were using some of the techniques of the times, psychedelic imagery and it was a magnificent experience. And of course all good things like that must be stopped. It was just too free and too wonderful. I was marching up into the mountains with the kids teaching them to write poetry on a mountaintop. The diocese sent in a monsignor who was from the Navy to “clean up the permissiveness of the school”. This is when the war in Vietnam is going on and I’m taking my kids to marches against the war. The sisters are going with us. And the new principal decides that he’s not going to continue my contract and people protested. I questioned him using money from the arts for the new football field and I got fired. Then what follows is that the nuns get fired and the whole school is broken up and we become the American Civil Liberties Case. It was called the Alemany Eighteen. That was my first great experience personally of injustice and it was really like, ‘wow, you can be right and still get killed. I mean everything you love can be destroyed.’ And my sister was in the school. My sister-in-laws were in the school because Tom’s brothers and sisters, my husband’s brothers and sisters were in the school. The school went from 1200 students to about 800 or less than half of them because people would pull their kids out of school. It was a very big deal when they fired us all and I thought my life was over. It was one of the firsts of a pattern in my life. As it turns out, I thought my life was over, and over and over again. my mother always said, ‘God closes a door and then he opens a window’. I don’t know who’s opening and closing those doors and windows, but somebody is. In hindsight I think I could have been very happy doing that for a long time because I was really having a good time and I loved the kids. I loved the work I was doing and there was a real community. So it had all the parts: community, collaboration, and the arts. So when it ended, I ended up being an over educated under employed person and the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act began. And there was a possibility of a job, I saw advertised. My mother called me and at this time she is the director of the Pacoima office of the Department of Employment because now she has risen up in the state and she’s become a Director of Employment Offices. Her specialty is placing Spanish-speaking people. So she found this job and said, ‘you should apply for this.’ And it was teaching in the parks; teaching the arts in the parks. And again I had an amazing gift of a moment. The Department of Recreation and Parks had positions for twenty artists from all different disciplines to work in the parks of the city and to teach in the arts. I got the job. Hundreds had applied and of course they sent me to East L.A.. I began teaching in Hollenbeck Park, Wabash Recreation Center, State Street. I was teaching in some of the toughest parts of the city and I was teaching, not really what mattered, I was teaching macramé to senior citizens. I was teaching pre-school children.
IRW: Oh so nothing to do with painting?
JB: Nothing to do with painting and nothing to do with adolescents. So I would walk through a gauntlet of young men who were gang members and neighborhood guys hanging out to go teach elementary school children and pre-school children who would eat my materials. I didn’t even know how to deal with them. I would give them materials and they would eat them. I didn’t know how to work with little kids. I was just so unhappy teaching babies because they would all cry and I would say, ‘what do I do when they cry, you know?’ I was used to tough adolescents.
IRW: At this point you were already divorced right?
JB: No I was still married then. I was married and then on my way to being divorced. I was divorced by about twenty-four. So I did it all young you know, it was nineteen to twenty-four. At that point, Tom and I were really going into - I was becoming more of an activist and it was really difficult to be married to a German man at that point, in the middle of the movement.
IRW: Yeah, I imagine. So there you are in the middle of East Los Angeles the political explosion that is happening in the city and what happened to you at Northridge. I remember specifically the mural that you created in those days. How did that happen because you weren’t teaching art. Was it part of just wanting to go and create a mural out of the blue?
JB: Yeah, kind of what happened was I was working at one park called Evergreen Park and I was teaching little kids, like third graders and fourth graders from the Talpa School across the street. I remember opening the cabinets and these rats would jump out, you know, it was this old building and not really well maintained. The kids would start chasing the rats. They hadn’t built a new facility in the east side in I don’t know fifty years. And of course there was discriminatory behavior in the parks and I was watching all of that at the park level and I would walk through this gauntlet of young men and their was a group of young guys sitting and playing dominoes as I was going into the art class. They would say, ‘hey art lady! Lets see your art!’ I said, ‘Ok, you want to see it. I mean if you’re not kidding I’ll bring you something and you can see some of my stuff, but you got to show me some of yours.’ They said, ‘Ok.’ So pretty soon I started coming a little early and hanging out there with these guys and I started to see their drawings. A lot of them were doing tattoo work. That was before graff art so mostly they were doing gang markings in the neighborhood. They were mostly from Evergreen Gang. There were quite a number of young men but unfortunately a lot of them died. One of the closest ones that I had to me was a young man named Fernando and he and I became friends and we worked together for years. He was an amazing artist and also a leader. He could see what I was doing. He understood my work and he understood what I was thinking about. I said, ‘why don’t you come with me to the next school? I mean, go to the next park and help me with the next class?’ He started helping me out in the class. I had a couple of them helping me. Pretty soon I had gang members helping me with my elementary classes. They were in rehab. The Baca Rehab, which has been a method of my production for years. He said, ‘I can’t go over there.’ I said, ‘what?’ He couldn’t go four blocks out of neighborhood. I said, ‘you mean you really live like this? You can’t go from here to there?’ He said, ‘Yeah I can’t go over there.’ I said, ‘what happens?’ He said, ‘oh I’ll be shot.’ And of course that’s finally what happened to him in the future, after he was out of the gangs and everything, twelve years later. Anyway, I said, ‘what if we painted something together? Lets paint something together.’ And the places were filled with graffiti and it was like a lot of gang marking roll call stuff. I have a lot of those early photographs and you see it and there’s really nothing aesthetic about it but in some cases people started marking, where they would paint one name per step and so you would get this calligraphy going up the hill. They started to make marking White Fence, which had a particular way of making the W and F and the cerca blanco (?). So I started having these relationships in these parks with these young men. I think actually being a young woman my age was helpful in doing it. I wasn’t a challenge to them. I was just an artist coming in and out. They saw the work I was doing for the kids and then they became supportive of that. Finally, in the summer of about 1971 or 1970, I cant remember, I painted the first mural for Alemany in ‘69 and I think it was the summer of ‘70 that I formed the first group called Las Vistas Nuevas. We had kids from four different gangs from the neighborhoods I was teaching in and they made a treaty to work together. We painted our first site, which was across the street from Estrada Courts before Estrada Courts was painted. It was just about to begin and I met those guys and I gave them paint. El Gato (Charles “Cat” Felix) was there because what happened was there was a painter in the city yard, and we didn’t have real paint. We had these big five-gallon vats of toner in which you would add colorants. This stuff didn’t last very long. You could put pink into a big vat of white and it was never very bright. That’s what we painted with. So I started handing out paint to Estrada Courts and that’s what they painted with. I was going to do a piece there and I was all set to go and I had a design for it. It was a really wonderful design and the day I was going to do it, the men didn’t show up with the scaffolding because women were not really supported. We were really marginal. I mean they were not going to support – in some ways they would support lighter works that were not as conceptual because the work I was doing was very powerful. People would say, ‘oh you paint like a man.’ If you wanted to paint flowers and dolls - yes. And that’s what went up with some of the early work. The drawing I did was of a woman stopping the progression of men toward gangs and she was the leader. She was holding a male son and she was basically stopping his progression toward becoming a gang member.. I still have this drawing, its quite interesting. When I saw it again recently, I was sort of amazed by it. I thought, ‘wow that was pretty good thinking for that time.’ So Las Vistas Nuevas painted Costello Recreation Center (four pieces) that were boarded up windows that went that kids had broken and there were twenty kids in my team. The Casa Maravilla gave me the first money. I talked to Special Programs for Economically Disadvantaged Youth and I went to them and I said, ‘look you should let me work in the arts with these kids.’ They said, ‘that’s not work! We can only clean toilets and cut lawns.’ I said, ‘come out and ill show you that it’s work! And then will you give me the positions?’ Then I went to Casa Maravilla and when they saw what I was doing with the boys they said, ‘ok you can have – we can give you twenty positions. We can give you fifty!’ I said, ‘I cant do fifty I can only do twenty.’ And I couldn’t get supplies or equipment. They would give me all the kids in the world but I had nothing to work with. They had kids everywhere. It was federal money that came down after the riots and what they wanted to do was stop them from being in another riot. So they hired plumbers without plumbing equipment and they hired landscapers without landscaping equipment. So I got the first twenty in the arts in the city. First summer programs ever and I wrote that program and it became a regular program and it then became the practice within the city of L.A. for them to hire kids in programs that included the arts but it was a hard sell to begin with. So as I was painting “Mi Abuelita,” which was the second piece in Hollenbeck Park, I was still teaching my stupid classes in macramé for the blind. I don’t even think I know how to do it anymore. I was doing it I remember because the older women in my class couldn’t see so I had to do really big knots. Everyone was doing craft work in those days. But I was meeting at the same time with the twenty artists that had been hired on this program through Rec and Parks and they had a great deal of influence on me. I mean they were from everywhere. There were puppeteers, there were improvisational theater people, there were musicians and what was happening was that we would meet and we knew that we were an anathema to the Rec. and Parks Department. It was a theater director running the program and he was an amazing kind of guy. I never met anybody like him, me being from Pacoima. To meet these people from everywhere, it was really an amazing thing. I started taking improvisational theater, which really helped me a lot with the work I did with the kids. It helped me with team building and I still incorporate a lot of those techniques.
IRW: So you were painting “Mi Abuelita”…
JB: Oh when I was painting “Mi Abuelita” this amazing thing happened. So I would have to paint after I did my classes in the morning and in the afternoons I would be out there on my unpaided job. We had to have guards setup because rival people from four different neighborhoods were there and we didn’t know that somebody wouldn’t just come along and shoot us. So we had a system of whistles and we would send somebody to the top of the hill above the bandshell and they would whistle and tell us if it was a narcotics guy because they were always coming and shaking down the kids. I would say, ‘if anybody is holding please dump it!’ but I could never be sure because some of them were really heavy drug users. I had one guy Pepe who was a heroin addict. There was no way he was going to stop being a heroin addict and he was a good painter. So when he would get loaded sometimes I would just tie him to the scaffold with his belt. I mean we just dealt with what was there. We dealt with it. And Mr Salas a city painter would bring all the paint. Someone donated a metal scaffold they got form a garbage dump and I remember it had maggots in it. We had to wash it down because it had been in the garbage. So I’m hanging out on the scaffolding and I get a whistle that says ‘Cops!’ You know, a whistle for cops. So here come the cops again. I don’t even turn around and look back because the cops were always bothering us. I said, ‘cops are coming everybody! If any of you have anything you’re not supposed to be having you better go dump it or get out of here right now or you’re going to get arrested.’ Because I know I cant stop them so I’m waiting to see if anybody is going to clear and everybody is hanging and these two men walk up to me and one of them – I said, ‘oh my god you’re my boss.’ He was a man named Sy… Greben. He had come from the Kennedy Administration and been appointed head of the Department of Rec. and Parks. He was this brilliant guy. Later his daughter became the founder of the Armory. He had this idea about urban wildernesses and I had seen him at one of the big Rec. and Parks meetings but you know he was way off on the stage, and suddenly there he was down below me. He said, ‘do you work for me?’ I said, ‘yeah I think you’re my boss. I am really sorry I...’ You know, I was apologizing because I was painting one of their parks. And he said, ‘no, no, no I saw an article in the paper…’ because we were starting to make the paper. ‘Gang Members Put Down Knives for Brushes,’ and all that kind of stuff. He said, ‘am I paying you to do this?’ I said, ‘no, no, you’re not I am really sorry this is my own time. I’m not spending any of your money. Its none of your stuff.’ I was trying to explain myself, I mean I was really worried I was going to get fired and I needed a job. By that point I think I pretty much had left my husband and I was living on a dime. He said, ‘no, no, I want to know how to bottle what you do. I want to see you and I want you to keep doing this.’ I said, ‘really? Can I stop teaching my macramé class?’ that’s how I became the director of East L.A. murals. That day, that was it. The other thing that was so cool about him, was he never made me report to all those stupid meetings or wear Rec. and Parks clothes or anything like that. He basically said, ‘you can report to work at three o’clock in the afternoon. You just have to give us journals and reports.’ So I would do journal reports about the activities in the different parks and I started to do East Los Angeles, one after the other, at requests from the neighborhoods. So the mural lady – art lady – ‘Hey art lady!’ – they would call the mayors office and the art lady would be sent to Wabash Recreation Center to work with White Fence because I had just finished working with Varrio Nuevo and they were like competitors and it was like they wanted to have the same possibility. So I went from one park to the other and that’s how I did the early East L.A. murals. In 1974 I went before the City Council for the first time and argued for an East L.A. mural program first because I was not thinking big enough. And they voted me down. I went in and I wanted to do a mural brigade and I wanted it to be in the East side. I wanted to follow the dictates of the Chilean brigades because I thought, ‘wow we could really cover some footage if we actually worked in teams and choreographed it.’ I had been reading everything about it and I was thinking, ‘oh this is the way to go.’ That’s also when I was painting “Mi Abuelita” I learned about “Los Tres Grandes” for the first time. I didn’t have my Masters yet but I had tons of Art history and I had never seen one of the Mexican muralists. Somebody handed me a book of Siquieros and I went, ‘oh my god! Where is this and how do I see it?’ and then I went immediately to Mexico on an extended trip, as soon as I had a break.
IRW: That’s when you went and studied with Siqueiros?
JB: yes. Then I started really looking at the work of Los Tres Grandes. I went to study at the Taller Siqueiros in 1977.
IRW: So to go back, you were creating all these programs of murals in East Los Angeles and so this is 1974 and then 1976 comes.
JB: Well it was 1974 when I got thrown out and the City Council said, ‘No!’ and I talked to a very wise African American leader who was a deputy for one woman on the City Council, Pat Russell, and he said, ‘Judy, you think too small. Why do you think these guys from the Valley are going to give money to East L.A. They don’t care about East L.A.’ I said, ‘what about the gangs? And these kids? Etc.’ He said, ‘you don’t get it. They’re not going to vote to help them.’ ‘Really?’ – I said. It was another one of those big ah-hah moments. ‘You mean there’s no justice?’ Always, the big surprise is, ‘you mean its not just?!’ He said, ‘you need to write a city wide program.’ I went back to the council and the day that I was in the council, I wrote a program for the whole City of Los Angeles; for all fifteen council districts to hire youth at each of the sites to work with artists. Stipends for artists, paint, equipment all included. I wanted ten sets of scaffolding, two trucks, you know, thousands and thousands of dollars worth of paint. When I went before the council, I was so naive I didn’t even know they were voting when they voted and somebody started shaking my hand and said, ‘congratulations you just got it!’ It was a dream come-true. You know how much money it was? It was only $180,000, which was like to me, millions, but it was 1974 so it was a lot of money. So we bought ten thousand dollars worth of paint. We moved the whole operation into the old Olympic swim stadium in Exposition Park . I brought the kids I worked with from East LA.and South Central. Later Judithe Hernandez came and worked with me.. She wasn’t hired on the project right away; she came in later but Christina Schlesinger who was a co-founder of SPARC, who had been on one of my murals in 1973. Bernardo Muñoz who was with me on one of my very first murals came in. Arnold Ramirez who was out at the Great Wall was on that production. Artists could get a commission with Stipend, scaffolding, paint and ten youth hired as a crew. All they had to do was have an idea and a place to paint with the support of their community and a group of kids they wanted to hire. That was it. It was Los Angeles Muralism at its height. 400 works were done during that program without permits or ordinances.
IRW: Beautiful times and that’s what I wanted to leave with. I wanted to say thank you to you Judy for showing us that side of you that many people don’t know. SPARC is turning 35 this year and you have done great contributions to the arts and the culture of the City. I just wanted to show a little bit of the Judy that I know because I’m an art historian and I have researched you as I have many other muralists and artists in the city. So thank you and happy 35th year anniversary! And happy birthday, I know your birthday is coming up.
JB: yes thank you, it is Thursday.
Judy Baca went on to create a city wide program “when in 1976 she founded SPARC, the Social and Public Art Resource Center, which sponsors public art projects with the aim of fostering cross-cultural connections and promoting civic dialogue. It was through SPARC that she worked on The Great Wall of Los Angeles — a traditional mural started in 1974 and completed over the span of five summers. Created with the help of 400 youth painters, artists, oral historians, scholars and hundreds of community members, it offers a visual storytelling of California’s ethnic history."
Image below courtesy of © Robin Dunitz