By Frank Gormlie
As we were sitting in Victor Ochoa’s studio garage in Golden Hill the other day, I realized that even though we’d been friends since the late 1970’s, I didn’t know a whole lot about his earlier life before those heady days of the Seventies decade. I was wondering whether he remembered that I had helped arrange for him to be hired to paint murals at the Che Cafe up at UCSD – way back in in 1980 and 81. He did but he had a few different details.
“This is my favorite garage,” Victor said, as we settled in for our talk. Surrounding us on three sides inside the garage were painting materials and large plastic bins holding more painting stuff stacked up on shelves, brushes, cans of paint piled on each other, cans of spray paint in a shallow closest. There was a gas-powered airbrush machine that looked like a cross between a lawn mower and a Mars Rover.
In one corner, he had set up a type of shrine to his past, his family, his culture, with various memorabilia of his life. On another wall were posters of Pancho Villa and of more recent Chicano heroes, like Corky Gonzalez, and local activist Marco Anguiano. And along part of one of the walls were the books, the notebooks, the 3-ring binders, paper records, the manuscripts, the slides.
We settled in a couple of chairs on the cement floor, a bright sunlight beaming in from the one door.
Never shy or at a loss for words, Victor easily discussed his past – and described a couple incidents that changed his life. The world-renown muralist has over the years had exhibits in New York City, San Francisco, Mexico City, Tijuana, and also in Vancouver, Barcelona, Spain – and – he was most proud of this one – the Venice Bi-Annual exhibit.
Victor currently teaches art to high school kids at the MAAC Community Charter School, part time. He’s worked there for eleven years. He’s also an art consultant with the Jacobs Foundation – he’s been with them also for 11 years. He moved into Southeast San Diego 17 years ago, he told me. And he began researching the neighborhood in preparation of “doing a cross-cultural thing in Southeast with the Market Creek Plaza.”
When I walked up to his studio, I noticed a placard on the side of his truck parked outside, that referred to the restoration project of the murals in Chicano Park.
This makes sense, as Victor has most recently been involved with the Chicano Park Mural Restoration Project. There has been notable publicity about the restoration project in local news – and it’s very important work.
The Project lasted 13 months and 23 murals were restored, he said. The team worked from noon to nightfall. And in fact, Victor even wrote the book – literally – ; he was the editor of a brand newly published instruction manual on restoring murals in Chicano Ppark.
“You know, Victor,” I said, “you can know someone for 30 years, and not know much or anything about their past.” We then launched into a back-and-forth over the next hour and a half, with me peppering him with questions about his earlier days and roots.
Victor Orozco Ochoa was born 65 years ago in South Central LA. His father was also a Victor. His mother – who is 89 – is Luz Orozco. She stays with him off and on and also with his one sibling, a sister who lives in La Mesa.
Victor’s got two kids himself – both grown. His 23 year-old son is another Victor, who lives with dad. He’s a DJ, plays guitar and keyboards, and is a top seller at T-Mobile. His daughter – Xochitl is 22, goes to school, and helps out taking care of grandma.
I nudged the conversation back to LA. “We moved to East LA soon after I was born,” Victor told me. He rattled off a bunch of neighborhood names, Huntington Park, Bell Gardens, Monte Bello – neighborhoods in East LA.
Then Victor recounted a life-changing event that occurred when he was 7 years old.
“Immigration booted us out – back to Mexico,” he said. “Before being kicked out,” Victor noted, “”Operation Wetback’ was on and it was really rough.” I nodded, remembering studying about it years ago. “Operation Wetback” was a huge government campaign to remove Mexicans from the US. Victor said:
“That was really important to me. I lived as a Mexican in Mexico for about 10 years.
When I did return to LA, it was interesting to see, … I starting questioning things, racism and discrimination, and the general attitude about Mexicans.”
Victor remembers defending Pancho Villa in the Los Angeles schools, when teachers would talk about the history of Mexico – of course – from a US perspective. “They never taught us about the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hildalgo,” he said.
When the family was forced out and back to Mexico, at first they lived in his grandmother’s house in Tijuana – this was around 1955 – close to Cemetery Number One in Zona Norte. This is where Victor attended primary and secondary schools.
I asked Victor about what his father was doing during those days when the family lived in TJ.
“Before being kicked out, he had purchased carpentry tools to set up a carpentry factory. So, right away, he built a workshop and made cabinets, beds, and desks.”
Young Victor worked there as well, helping out his dad and the family. This is how he came to know carpentry skills and every year Victor makes floats on flatbed trucks for the Martin Luther King Day Parade in San Diego.
We discussed the days when he did return to East LA. “I was really good at school,” Victor said.
“My parents wanted me to continue my education. I moved in with relatives and friends [in East LA], sleeping in garages. I went to a bunch of junior and senior high schools in Monte Bello. I graduated from high school in 1967.”
The schools included a continuation school.
I asked him about his art skills at earlier ages.
“I did do art stuff most of my life. My mom noticed – she said when I was 5 I drew this guy with a hat, a tie, a suit, with hands and sitting down smoking a cigarette. The rest of the kids were just doing stick figures.”
“I’ve been very fortunate with my parents always pushed me to do what I love to do.”
Then Victor recounted an incident during junior high that occurred in Monte Bello that deeply impacted him. And now looking back, that incident reflects a role he ended up playing years later as an adult.
In his junior high school, the school had a policy that no one was supposed to speak Spanish to new students coming in from Mexico – kids who didn’t know English. Because of his family being deported, Victor explained:
I had begun speaking Spanish at 7 years old, so my Spanish was good. I was more fluent in Spanish … and English than most of the kids around [in East LA].
It turns out that a couple of the new students asked Victor – in Spanish – where the snack bar was. And he began telling them – in his good Spanish.
What happened next is still a little fuzzy to me, but Victor told me that when a teacher overheard him speaking Spanish, all hell broke loose with the teacher coming down on him, insulting him, insulting the other kids, insulting Mexicans …. Victor got mad and responded.
I hit the teacher. Didn’t think it was fair when they criticized me for speaking Spanish to these kids. I was taken to the principal’s ofice.
But when he got there, what he expected didn’t happen.
“The principal was really cool, he liked me.”
And the teacher who ordered Victor not to speak Spanish? Victor told me he never saw him again. Was he fired or transferred? He didn’t know. But the principal and Victor became such good friends that when he retired, Victor said:
“I was tight with the art teacher. So I drew a large portrait of the principal to give him – kind of cartoonish with a large head – and all the kids signed it.”
But the underlying incident, the one with the teacher, was just one of a pattern that he experienced and he was shocked, Victor told me, by the discrimination against Mexicans. There was none in Mexico, he felt – “everybody’s the same” he said.
The incident came to display one of Victor’s true abilities – the ability to be able to converse with people on both sides of the border, to be able to speak to Chicanos on this side and to Mexicans on the other side. And it’s been his art, his murals that have transferred this ability into another medium, one that lasts.
“Landscapes, figures, anatomy. Always painted, tempera to acrylics. … Never painted on canvas anything political until college.”
What was his first political art?
“Remember doing something about my faith,” he said, describing a more personal expression where a man is going through a pyramid, with different parts symbolizing his family, traveling through society. Later he did more blatant political art. He recalled one painting with an open book, a Mestizo face – Indian and European faces shouting at each other, an explosion.
After high school, he moved to San Diego to be close to his parents, who still lived in Tijuana -as they had never re-immigrated. He recalled living in what he called “East San Diego”, around 38th Street and University.
“That’s City Heights”, I corrected him – but it was true – back in those days, in the late Sixties and early Seventies, a good chunk of Mid-City was called ESD. He continued:
“I jumped into City College, got an AA in technical illustration, especially to design Vietnam war type vehicles.”
What did he mean?
“They taught us to design and air-brush designs on military vehicles.”
Did he ever use those skills on aircraft or military vehicles?
“I did work at Boeing Aircraft as a technical illustrator for a few years.”
He was going to San Diego State at the time and graduated in 1974, with a BA in Art with an emphasis on Education.
It was while he was in college that Chicano activists from Barrio Logan and their supporters took over land underneath the freeway – turf that would become Chicano Park. This was in April 1970. He remembers that fliers for the park take-over were made at City College in the Student Center.
“We all ran out of class to go to the park,” he said, then ticked off a bunch of names of people who ran out with him – people who would become well-known muralists at the park.
By now, Victor had become radicalized – like many of his generation during those days of the early Seventies. He never joined any of the numerous political organizations that exploded onto the scene, he told me, but he helped formed a group of radicalized Chicano artists, and they called themselves “Toltecas en Aztlan”.
“We had a group of artists, people used different names… we were associated with the Centro. Toltecs were known for their art.”
The group included Alurista, Queso, Guillermo Aranda, Mario Torrero, Armando Nuñez and others. They worked closely with the Department of Chicano Studies at State, and they also had an off-campus building, the Centro de Estudientes Chicano.
“Being a Chicano at that time wasn’t just an individual thing, you know.”
“I was a Chicano for US Chicanos and a Mexican for the Mexicans.”
His involvement in activism was solid, as he’s been a member of the Chicano Park Steering Committee, and used to work with the Committee on Chicano Rights with Herman Baca and David Avalos.
The take-over that resulted in a park unleashed the imagination of people like Victor. “We wanted a park,” he said, “but we also wanted a cultural center.” And then he launched into a brief history of the beginnings of what became the Centro Cultural de la Raza, or “the Centro” for short.
And then Ochoa explained an important connection – and process – that many admirers of the murals at Chicano Park probably aren’t aware of – and that’s how the Centro Cultural was extremely important to the development of the Park as an internationally-known site of Chicano murals. This connection is part of the story of how the Centro became into being.
“We got kicked out of the Ford Building and starting doing some stuff in the Centro.”
I said whoa, start from the beginning, as I wasn’t familiar with this history.
It turned out that back in 1970 – 71, one of the Toltecas, Queso – somewhat older than the others – had obtained permission from the City to use some space at the Ford Building in Balboa Park as a personal art studio. The Ford Building later became what’s now the Aerospace Museum.
Queso’s friends and fellow Toltecas ended up hanging out in the studio, using it as a resource for their artwork, and soon it had become a central hub for artists and politicos. But the City and San Diego’s establishment balked at what was happening in their pristine park. Victor said:
One time there was 300 cars outside the Ford Building – all Mexicans. They never saw so many Mexicans in Balboa Park before.
You know, we – our culture, history – wasn’t included in any of the museums in the Park.
So Queso, the Toltecas – all of them – were ordered out. But some activist-artists were not willing to leave the premises. “Some people chained themselves inside”, Victor said.
The police arrived. It was a tense situation which a high potential for an explosive confrontation, but there were negotiations going on between the protesters and the City in efforts to resolve the issues. At some point, Victor took over the negotiations on behalf of the protesters. He recalled that this was during the administration of Mayor Frank Curran.
“We were offered the tank,” he said, referring to the old, huge water tank that had stood barren across from the Navy hospital on the edge of Balboa Park for decades. It had been utilized as a water tank for some of the original park expositions, and then more recently it had been the City’s refuge and warehouse for stolen bicycles.
“They offered us $20,000 in physical improvements,” he added, and then listed a long string of additions, like lights, heaters, water, bathrooms, more doors. The protesters took the offer – and they moved into the tank and called it the Centro. Victor remembered the date of the grand opening of the Centro:
“June 11, 1971 – we did a blessing thing, doves were released – the place had been cleaned, painted, lights and heater units, they’d opened some doors …”
“None of us had painted a mural,” he admitted. So they just started painting, learning as they went – and their first canvases were the interior and exterior walls of the old water tank.
That was in mid-1971. It wouldn’t be for another 2 years before murals would be painted at Chicano Park. Victor explained the connection: the Centro provided the training grounds for the artists. Victor’s first mural was painted on the walls of the Centro, and he called it “Cuauhtémoc – the Duality” (Cuauhtemoc was the Aztec ruler overthrown by the Spanish).
This beginning would blossom into a lifelong pursuit for him, of becoming over time a master – yea – a maestro – at the profession, and now 40 years later, his name is in the reports, the writings or in the videos of any documentary on the murals or on the park itself.
The land for the park had been seized in April of 1970. Over the next 3 years, activists and community people cleared it and began using it as a park. Yet, one couldn’t avoid the fact that the park was punctuated and disrupted with countless gigantic, gray, ugly cement pillars – the park after all was at the bottom of a major traffic intersection – the I-5 ramp to Coronado. Yet, imagination was alive amongst the artists, amongst the Toltecas.
“We researched how to paint on the pillars. Planned to do it on the 3rd anniversary of Chicano Park for 1973. We started in March.
The Centro negotiated with Caltrans and the City to paint the pillars and ramps. Gave us a bunch of red tape – 6 months of talk – round and round.
We decided to do murals. We didn’t need their approval – just started painting.
In preparing for the event – the first murals – Victor described how he bought 300 brushes – and on March 23, 1973, 300 people showed up for the event and stayed for that weekend, joining in the painting. It was 300 because every brush was used. It was a real community event and effort.
“I was working to coordinate the murals with the Steering Committee. Went to meetings of the Steering Committee, represented the artists.
I was there technically for each group that painted murals.
And then he smiled, and said,
That’s why I wrote the book.
Originally published on April 26, 2013.