The Politics of Representation: Navigating and Negotiating a NHL Nomination

Working with the National Historic Landmarks (NHL) program on the Chicano Park and Chicano Park Monumental Murals nomination has been a challenge, as I am constantly navigating and negotiating two worlds—one in D.C. and the other in San Diego, California. The challenge has been explaining the benefits and the significance of being considered for a NHL designation to the Chicano Park Steering Committee and properly articulating the cultural politics of Chicano Park in the NHL nomination report. The Chicano Park Steering Committee is a grassroots community organization that oversees the logistics of Chicano Park—they are the stewards and protectors of the park. The Chicano Park Steering Committee is composed of original park founders, Barrio Logan community activists, and Chicano Park mural artists. I found it necessary to be in dialogue with them throughout this internship, as their concerns and voice are important to the integrity of this nomination. I am, also, in the main office of the NHL program, where I have to learn the terminology and the politics that govern NHL nominations, which can pose certain issues that I did not anticipate. Throughout its existence, the community of Barrio Logan has faced marginalization at the hands of various government and private actors. At the turn of the century, the area was one of the few places in the city that did not have restrictive racial covenants; therefore, Mexican-Americans and Blacks were able to purchase homes and own business in the area. It was through malevolent racial zoning practices in the mid 1950’s, that the San Diego City government successfully converted the neighborhood from a strictly residential zone to a mixed-used area, which resulted in heavy industry to start operating in the neighborhood. The change in zoning ordinances did not only, permit hazardous industries to enter the barrio community, but it facilitated the planning process of the Interstate-Five Freeway through the area. Barrio Logan, like many other Mexican-American and African-American communities (i.e.: Barrio Logan, San Diego, California; Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles, California; Overtown, Miami, Florida; Tremé, New Orleans, Louisiana) during the implementation of the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, did not have conduits to the legal apparatus, and, therefore, were unable to prevent freeway construction projects in their neighborhoods, as White affluent communities had done (i.e.: Princeton, Hopewell, and Montgomery, New Jersey and Beverley Hills, California). In Barrio Logan, construction on the Coronado Bay Bridge started in 1967, causing further community displacement. Three years later, community activists were successful in preventing the construction of a highway patrol station under the Coronado Bay Bridge and the Interstate-Five Freeway on/off ramps. By organizing a twelve-day occupation of the construction site, the community activists were able to declare the land under the bridge Chicano Park on April 22, 1970. By 1973, the first murals at Chicano Park began to unfold. The transformation of a vacant lot into an urban park and converting the freeway infrastructure and the Coronado Bay Bridge into cement canvases of Chicana/o monumental works of art (murals) is a testament to the spirit and devotion Chicana/os posses towards overcoming structural social obstacles and maintaining cultural resiliency under abhorrent conditions of racial disposition. In 2013, Chicano Park and the Chicano Park Monumental Murals were listed in the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP). The woman that drafted the NRHP nomination mentioned to me that it took 14 years for community leaders to endorse the project due to misunderstandings they had of the NRHP. Barrio Logan community leaders were hesitant towards the NHRP nomination, as they were uncertain what the benefits and drawbacks of having Chicano Park listed on the NRHP would entail for the future of Chicano Park and the role of Chicano Park Steering Committee. Conversely, I been facing similar resistance from community leaders, as the Chicano Park Steering Committee is unaware of how a National Historic Landmark designation differs from the NRHP. The Chicano Park Steering Committee’s main preoccupation with the NHL nomination, however, is with what this designation will entail for the autonomy of their organization and the future of the cultural politics of the park. It is here where my rapport with the community of Barrio Logan benefits the nomination, as community members know that my motives are clear. Yet, even as an intern, I represent a State agent, and as I previously mentioned the Chicano Park Steering Committee’s former desconfianza with the NRHP nomination (and now the NHL nomination), is reflective of the detrimental social history between State entities and the Barrio Logan community—old wounds are hard to heal.

Danza Calpulli Mexhica meeting with the Chicano Park Steering Committee, July 2013

Danza Calpulli Mexhica meeting with the Chicano Park Steering Committee, July 2013

I am, also, facing a different problem that revolves around the politics of representation. I  have been drafting the comparable properties component of the Statement of Significance (section 8) of the NHL nomination report, and this component calls for the evaluation of properties, objects, and sites that are similar to the nomination under consideration, but that do not hold the same level of integrity/significance as the property, object, or site under consideration. Given Chicano Park’s uniqueness as simultaneously being a cultural and recreational area with what is, perhaps, the nation’s largest public Chicano art collection, it has been difficult to find comparable properties. The few properties that are comparable to Chicano Park and the Chicano Park Monumental Murals are either directly tied to the Chicano Civil Rights Movement, or Chicano Park and the Chicano Park Monumental Murals directly influenced the formation of these sites. Lincoln Park in El Paso, Texas and Columbus (La Raza) Park in Denver, Colorado, for example, are both comparable properties to Chicano Park but under different circumstances, as the Chicano Park Monumental Murals influenced the former and the latter is directly tied with an important leader of the Chicano Civil Rights Movement.

La Raza Park, Denver, Co

Located in Denver, Colorado’s Highland neighborhood, Columbus (La Raza) Park is considered by Chicano Scholars as an important site of Mexican-American history, because prominent leader of the Chicano Civil Rights Movement, Rodolfo (Corky) Gonzalez provided the impetus for grounding the cultural and political aspects of the Chicano Civil Rights Movement in Denver and at the park. During the Chicano Civil Rights Movement, the Columbus (La Raza) Park was the Denver’s epicenter of social justice rallies and Mexican-American cultural life, a tradition that continues to this day. On the other hand, Lincoln Park or El Córazon Del Chuco is located directly under the “Spaghetti Bowl,” a series of freeway over-changes and underpasses in El Paso, Texas. Lincoln Park is known as El Paso’s “Chicano Park” due to the similarities in its social history with Barrio Logan. Chicano Park. Lincoln Park, also, has murals that decorate the freeway over-and-under-pass pillars that hold-up the “Spaghetti Bowl.” San Diego, California based mural artists Felipe Andamé painted the first mural at Lincoln Park in 1983.
El Córazon del El Chuco

El Córazon del El Chuco, El Paso, Tx

Chicano Park, Lincoln Park, and Columbus (La Raza) Park are all important parks for Chicana/os across the nation, as they hold special meanings to the history and the making of a life for people of Mexican-American heritage in the United States. My challenge, therefore, has been articulating the significance of Chicano Park without inadvertently compromising the importance of Columbus (La Raza) Park and Lincoln Park to the Chicano Civil Rights Movement and the significant role they play in their respected communities.
Imagining a Place for Aztlán

Reading, “Imagining a Place for Aztlán” at the NPS office

As diversity programs, such as LHIP, continue to grow and create inroads for Latina/os in the conservation/preservation fields, we (as the future of stewards of National Parks) are faced with many challenges. We have a commitment to our communities and our country to ensure that we properly and respectfully represent the diversity of the nation’s past, present, and future.

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