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Murals Get Brushoff at Garfield

The school, long known for its wall paintings, removes some because of structural damage. The whitewashing is an eyesore to many.

February 27, 2006|Mitchell Landsberg | Times Staff Writer

To the extent that Leydi Garcia has a reputation at Garfield High School, it is not for being a rabble-rouser. A 17-year-old now in her senior year, she's better described as quiet and studious. "She's never been one of those students who's really visible on campus," said one of her teachers, Arlette Crosland.

That was before they started messing with the murals.

Garfield High, in the heart of East L.A., has long been known for its murals. Whole sections of the school are alive with them, with scarcely a wall left blank. There are murals celebrating the Mexican Revolution, murals documenting the history of Los Angeles, murals dedicated to Aztec myths, murals -- lots of them -- of bulldogs, the school mascot. Sometimes the themes are combined, as in the one of a bulldog sporting an Aztec headdress in the colors of the Mexican flag, with the United Farm Workers logo added on.

So when Los Angeles Unified School District maintenance crews started painting over murals late last year in the course of a much-needed campus-wide face-lift, people at Garfield took notice.

Leydi Garcia, for one.

"I'm going through some problems right now," said Leydi, who is hoping to attend the University of Redlands in the fall, "and when I see those murals, they give me confidence to do things. I'm not sure [why], but like, that's just the way I feel."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday March 02, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
Garfield High School -- An article in Monday's California section about the removal of some murals at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles said the school was 60 years old last year. Garfield opened in 1925, making it 80 years old last year.

In particular, she said, a mural depicting a clash of meteors in outer space "made me feel like I could go over the limits, not just reach my limits but go a little higher."

Yolanda Roura feels strongly about the murals too. An art teacher at Garfield for 16 years, she has guided the students who painted a number of them. She took special pleasure every morning when she saw a mural of dancers on the wall opposite her classroom. She doesn't know how long the mural had been there, but it had more tenure than she had.

Then, one morning last November, she found herself facing a white wall.

"When I came up the stairs and I saw the mural gone, my heart sank," she said, standing in the hallway where the mural had once been. "I thought, 'Oh, my God, they've done it.' "

That was the first mural to go. Later, the painters covered over a bulldog and a large portion of the outer-space mural.

In all, four murals were painted over, with more expected to vanish.

Principal Guadalupe Paramo explained that the murals targeted for elimination have been those on walls that have suffered structural damage. In order to repair the walls, she said, the murals had to go.

Still, she acknowledged that the decisions are not being made in an aesthetic vacuum. There was the space mural, for instance.

"I don't know what that represented," Paramo said. "An explosion? Rocks?"

Far from beloved, Paramo said, the mural drew complaints from students who thought it was ugly.

She said that only some of the damaged murals are being replaced. Some of the best ones will be restored.

"I love the art," she said. "I love the murals. But there were some murals here that were not, I would say, first-quality. The ones that are still around are ones that are of nice quality."

When Leydi Garcia saw the murals being painted over, she did something that surprised even her: She started a petition campaign demanding a halt. When she had close to 200 signatures, she took the petition to Paramo. It wasn't easy.

"Usually in class, I'm like the really quiet one. I just do my work and don't talk to anyone," Leydi said. "To talk in front of a class is really hard for me."

"Actually," she added, a bit shyly, "when I was talking to her about the murals, on the inside I was feeling like I wanted to cry."

When asked why the murals were important to Garfield, several students gave similar answers. Said Myrna Sandoval, the editor of the campus newspaper, the Garfield Log: "I think the murals bring a lot of life and color into the school, and they tell us where we're from.... It differentiates [Garfield] from other high schools."

Also, Sandoval and others said, the murals help deter tagging at the school. Students respect the murals, they said. The only people likely to spray graffiti on them are pranksters from rival Roosevelt High.

Sixty years old last year, Garfield has a storied history among Los Angeles high schools. It was immortalized by math teacher Jaime Escalante and the movie "Stand and Deliver." And it has a central place in the history of modern American murals, having produced several of the country's most prominent mural artists. In the late 1960s and '70s, it helped nurture a blossoming of Mexican American pride and creativity that is still palpable on the campus today.

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