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.
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.
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.”
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.
“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.”
And 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.”