Landmark Latino Mural in need of repair

Adams Morgan is in danger of being “de-muralized” — again.

One of D.C.’s oldest Latino street murals—perhaps the oldest surviving Latino mural in the city—is in dire need of restoration. Its nostalgic street scenes and witty Picasso references are barely discernable under a patchwork of cold, grey concrete applied to the wall last year to repair earthquake damage. And while activists have rallied to save it for the second time in less than a decade, they are still raising the funds and may have to postpone springtime rejuvenation plans.

Adams Mill Road mural after it was restored in 2005 (left, photo © Rick Reinhard), and today (right: photo © holacultura.com).

Adams Mill Road mural after it was restored in 2005 (left, photo © Rick Reinhard), and today (right: photo © holacultura.com).

Known by its title, “Un pueblo sin murales es un pueblo desmuralizado” (A people without murals is a demuralized people), it’s been a beloved landmark on Adams Mill Road more or less since the paint dried in the mid-1970s.

Through subsequent Diaspora waves and neighborhood gentrification, the mural has endured. It’s both a symbol of Adams Morgan’s general funkiness and a mental landmark for generations of D.C. Latinos, for whom special meaning is found in harmonious community scenes, as well as the critique of real estate speculation in what was one of D.C.’s first Latino “barrios.”

“People just love it. It’s just one of these murals that is revered by so many people,” says Kristen Barden, executive director of the Adams Morgan Partnership BID, whose organization is spearheading restoration efforts.

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Experts say street muralism is one of the most ephemeral of art forms. Over the decades, dozens of other murals have gone up and come down in around the city. An advertising billboard nearly “de-muralized” this particular spot in 2005, as D.C. performer and activist Quique Aviles explains in Hola Cultura’s 2012 web-documentary, Muralismo DC/DC Muralism.

That year, Aviles and other activists rallied to save the mural and recruited artist Juan Pineda. Pineda has agreed to return for this year’s restoration, as well.

So far, however, organizers have secured only about half of the $7,500 budget. Other requests are pending, including a D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities grant application that would cover the bulk of the outstanding funds, if approved. That decision is expected in April, according to a Commission spokesman.

“Without the DCCAH funding the project doesn’t have a good likelihood of happening this Spring,” Barden said in an email. “We would have to raise the additional money and that will take more time.”

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Manh Phung in front of the mural in February. Photo © Hola Cultura

Manh Phung, who purchased the building in 2007 but has operated his KoGiBow Bakery there for two decades, had the brickwork repointed last year to repair damage from the 5.8-magnitude earthquake that shook the region on Aug. 23, 2011.

He’s not chipping in for the restoration but says he wants to keep the mural, which he thinks contributes to Adams Morgan’s distinctive character—and property values. He says lots of people and even entire school groups turn up regularly to take photos in front of the historic wall-art.

Pineda, a graffiti-influenced painter who has created many murals in the Washington area, says it never occurred to him this one would require another facelift so soon. But he says, “It’s very important to restore and preserve it.

“It’s the largest and oldest Latino outdoor mural in Washington DC. It highlights the cultural movement of immigrants from the late ’70s and ’80s in the nation’s capitol,” he added. “It identifies us as a community—people with strong traditions and rich cultures.”

Painted during two sweltering weeks of the summer in the mid-1970s (depending on who you talk to it was painted in 1975, 1976, or 1977), the work is a sort of testament to that era. Latin Americans fleeing dictatorships and civil wars poured into Washington, many settling in Adams Morgan. Art and activism took root, as well, leading to a Latin American-style cultural flowering.

Rededication of the Mural at 18th and Columbia Rd. NW“It was hot. It was humid. It was wonderful,” recalls longtime Mount Pleasant resident Renato Salazar of that summer shortly after he and his family arrived from Chile, where General Augusto Pinochet assumed power in a coup d’état in 1973. Renato’s brother, Carlos “Caco” Salazar, the creative force behind the mural, recruited their entire family and dozens of other residents who, brandishing paint brushes, worked atop scaffolding. Other local residents dropped by with food and drink to keep the paint crews going.

“It was just the moment. The Chilean community came first. Then we had a whole crop of Nicaraguans, then people from El Salvador. They came in waves. It was a good time,” recalls Carlos Arrien, an artist and musician originally from Bolivia, who performed at the mural’s original opening ceremony.

“That mural was representative of those times,” says Arrien, who in 1975 started the Andean musical group, Rumi Sonko, (“Heart of Stone” in Quechua) that soon developed a following. “People were breaking the doors down to participate” in the cultural scene created by the District’s Latino Diaspora, he says.

Arrien recalls that Caco came up with a sort of “paint by numbers” approach that made it easy for people to take part even if they had no experience or even aptitude.

“He’d give you a bucket and a brush and put you to work. That’s the way the mural got done,” he says. “A lot of people painted that mural who’d never painted before and never painted afterwards.”

Rededication of the Mural at 18th and Columbia Rd. NWAnd decades later, the mural still retains a hold on the neighborhood’s affections.

“A lot of the scenes depicted in the mural are still happening today. It’s funny how much things change and how much they stay the same” says Barden, referring to such themes as real estate speculation and neighborhood gentrification referenced in the work. “It represents a sort of human struggle that everybody can identify with.”

—Christine MacDonald

Comments

  1. As a Latina living in Adams Morgan since the 1940’s, I can assure you that the Chilean community was not the first Latinos to arrive in that neighborhood. Credit must be given to the Puerto Ricans who first called Adams Morgan home. In that era as more Latinos moved in we shared a common bond with people from every Spanish speaking nation – we all spoke Spanish and we shared the same religion.

    • Carmen, Thanks for pointing that out.

      While the big immigrations began in the 1970s, according to the U.S. Census Bureau and other sources, of course there must have been other Hispanic communities in the city dating way before that era. Perhaps, Latin Americans honed in on Adams Morgan in the 1970s precisely because of there already was an established Spanish-speaking neighborhood? It seems possible. Anybody know?

      • Gustavo Paredes says:

        Of course, it is possible! Washington, DC has had established pockets of Latinos through quite a few neighborhoods since the 40’s. Carmen’s mother was one of those early pioneers. There were a series of stores on 18th Street, Mount Pleasant, and Columbia Road. In addition to the Puerto Ricans, there were Dominicans, Panamanians, Colombians and Spanish. It was after the US intervention in the Central American civil wars that demographics of the DC Latino community change. First, the Nicaraguans and the Chileans, then the Salvadorans followed by Hondurans and Guatemaleans. The Latino had an FM radio and TV station, and two movie theatres during the late 60’s. For instance, the Latin American Youth Center was founded primarily by Afro-Latinos.

        • Gustavo Paredes says:

          I forgot to mention the Cubans as part of the initial foundation of Latinos in DC.

          • Gustavo, Thanks for that background. We love to do more on DC’s Latino history. If anyone has ideas of where we could find archival photos and information, and who we should interview, please share. You could also email us offline at holacultura@gmail.com

  2. So sorry to hear it was damaged. I’d send in a contribution if I knew who to send it to. It was my first husband, Felipe Martinez, who invented the title that works in both Spanish and English. I think he designed the little buildings by the title too. He was another founding member of the Centro de Arte and worked on the mural. I even painted a bit of it myself: I was one of the paint by number volunteers!

    • Hope, Thanks for your message! It’s great to hear more about the history of this mural. The restoration has been delayed by funding issues but is still planned, from what we’re hearing. We will continue to cover this story, so please come back again! Regards, HC

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