STEVE INSKEEP, Host:
Now, decades later, that same mural is slowly being restored, as Mandalit del Barco reports.
MANDALIT DEL BARCO: In the early 20th century, Jose David Alfaro Siqueiros was one of the politically active muralists in Mexico who merged revolutionary ideas with public street art. In 1932, he was jailed for his radical militancy. And when he was released, he secured a six-month visa to Los Angeles.
DEL BARCO: Siqueiros being the idealist that he is and having fought in the Mexican Revolution, well, in Los Angeles, he fuses art and politics.
DEL BARCO: Writer Ruben Martinez says Olvera Street was meant to be an idealized version of a Mexican marketplace.
DEL BARCO: Assiduously avoiding anything controversial or political; just a quaint, ethnic theme park.
(SOUNDBITE OF SINGING IN SPANISH LANGUAGE)
DEL BARCO: Martinez's grandparents, heard on this recording, used to play guitar and sing at La Golondrina Restaurant on Olvera Street. He says while they were working downstairs, Siqueiros was upstairs on the roof, painting the mural.
DEL BARCO: And my grandparents were part of that staging, like an old, quaint folkloric Mexico. And Siqueiros was painting something that flew in the face of that. And it was a great subversive act.
DEL BARCO: To make the massive mural on the rooftop wall of the old Italian Hall, Siqueiros pioneered an experimental technique of spray painting, inspiring many graffiti artists who followed. In a 1971 documentary, Siqueiros explained he'd been commissioned to paint a romanticized, idyllic mural with the theme "Tropical America."
DEL BARCO: (Through Translator) But for me, "America Tropical" was a land of natives, of Indians, of Creoles, of black men. All of them invariably persecuted and harassed by their respective governments.
DEL BARCO: At that time in L.A., Mexican immigrants and Mexican-Americans were being rounded up and deported. Siqueiros' mural was a response to this and other events in the U.S. The central figure is an indigenous Indian peasant lashed to a double cross. And bearing down over him is the American eagle.
DEL BARCO: It was political commentary, plain and simple, on an 18-by-82-foot wall.
DEL BARCO: Photographer Luis Garza says Siqueiros called it "Tropical America: Oppressed and Destroyed by Imperialism."
DEL BARCO: He had the cojones to do it, facing City Hall. The chutzpah...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
DEL BARCO: ...of this man. How dare he, was the reaction by some.
DEL BARCO: The mural scandalized Olvera Street officials, who ordered it whitewashed. In a documentary, Siqueiros talks about having been censored.
DEL BARCO: (Through Translator) Without a doubt, my work was destroyed because of its theme.
DEL BARCO: Since the 1970s, Chicano artists inspired by Siqueiros' work, crusaded to preserve "America Tropical." They finally got mainstream acceptance and help from mayor and the prestigious Getty Conservation Institute.
(SOUNDBITE OF A COUNTDOWN)
U: Two, one. Breaking ground.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
DEL BARCO: It's pretty faint.
DEL BARCO: It is. But there's still enough there that makes sense to bring it back to the people. It's still a powerful statement.
DEL BARCO: Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.
INSKEEP: And you can see Siqueiros' mural at NPR.org.
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