“Enroll in Chicano Studies”: Roberto Chavez’s 1970s Mural at East Los Angeles College

Mural detail, The Path to Knowledge and the False University, c. 1974–1975. Private collection; photo: Manuel Delgadillo.

There was new hope in 1974 for Chicana/o students at East Los Angeles College (ELAC), which had served the Mexican American community since its post-World War II beginnings in 1945. The college had a burgeoning Mexican American Studies Department, a hard-fought achievement brought about by the Chicana/o education movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The department’s goals were about to be illustrated—literally—through the production of a new mural on campus.

ELAC students were leaders in this movement. In 1967, they had established the Mexican American Student Association (MASA), promoting tutoring and speaker panel programs to address severe higher-education inequalities. MASA inspired other colleges; by the end of the year the student movement had spread throughout California. In mid-May 1967, the organization merged with United Mexican American Students and in 1969 was absorbed into the Movimiento Estudantil Chicano de Aztlán.

MASA Brochure, East Los Angeles College, 1968. Courtesy UCLA, Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library.

MASA Brochure, East Los Angeles College, 1968. Courtesy UCLA, Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library.

Simultaneously, resentment was brewing in the city’s eastside public schools, whose junior high and high school students staged riots (“blowouts”) to protest corporal punishment, high dropout rates, low college attendance, lack of Mexican American teachers and staff and classes in Mexican American history, and other grievances. About 10,000 students to walk out of their schools during the first two weeks of March 1968.

“Education Not Eradication,” East Los Angeles High School Blowouts, March 1968. Courtesy https://www.laprogressive.com/east-la-chicano-movement/.

“Education Not Eradication,” East Los Angeles High School Blowouts, March 1968. Courtesy https://www.laprogressive.com/east-la-chicano-movement/.

 

Following the blowouts—considered the first large-scale urban protests of the Chicano Movement—the desire for more radical solutions swept a number of educational institutions with large Mexican American student populations. (A 1972 state-commissioned report indicated that 77 percent of Mexican American/Chicano students attended junior colleges.)

ELAC students responded by creating La Vida Nueva. As Mario T. Garcia notes, the organization “facilitated the student movement’s goal to establish Chicano Studies programs and departments at two- and four-year colleges. . . . By the spring of 1969, La Vida Nueva had become the leading Chicano organization on campus and had successfully developed into one of the most active and recognizable movement organizations in East Los Angeles.”

The Path to Knowledge and the False University
Roberto Chavez
1974–1975; whitewashed 1979
Acrylic on stucco; 30 x 200 feet
East Los Angeles College, Monterey Park

The Path to Knowledge and the False University, c. 1975. Private Collection; photo: Manuel Delgadillo.

The Path to Knowledge and the False University, c. 1975. Private Collection; photo: Manuel Delgadillo.

 

In 1974, ELAC had an opportunity to merge its educational goals for Chicana/o students with those of the Chicana/o Mural Movement, a critical component of the larger Chicano Movement. In that year, Roberto Chavez, an art instructor for twelve years and chair of the college’s new Mexican American Studies Department, was awarded a $3,500 Instructional Development Grant on Mural Painting to teach a class in the step-by-step process of mural making. In September, as the fall semester began, he embarked on creating an enormous mural on the facade of Rosco C. Ingalls Auditorium.

Blue paint background and scaffold, The Path to Knowledge and the False University, c. 1974. Courtesy of Anatol Chavez.

Blue paint background and scaffold, The Path to Knowledge and the False University, c. 1974. Private collection; courtesy of Anatol Chavez.

 

Surprisingly, the auditorium, built in 1951, was one of only two new buildings—along with a sports stadium—that were constructed on campus after the college moved from its original location at Garfield High School. An impressive structure, the auditorium must have been quite an anomaly alongside the nearly fifty hand-me-down wooden barracks from the Santa Ana Army Air Base that had been donated to the junior college and that in early 1948 accompanied the students to ELAC’s new location at Atlantic and Brooklyn (now Cesar Chavez) Avenues to house classrooms and other programs.

The college brought in bungalows shortly after the auditorium was built. But as one alumnus recalls, “A token effort was made to provide classrooms in 1953—two, one story classroom buildings were constructed and several bungalows were brought in to substitute for some of the World War II barracks. These bungalows were no better the structures they replaced. The student suffered in these new bungalows from the lack of adequate heating in the winter and unbearable ventilation in the summer.”

“ELAJC to Move to New Site in February,” Los Angeles School Journal, September 22, 1947. Courtesy of the Seaver Center.

“ELAJC to Move to New Site in February,” Los Angeles School Journal, September 22, 1947. Courtesy of the Seaver Center.

All the more significant, then, that Ingalls Auditorium became the site of Chavez’s mural, The Path to Knowledge and the False University. It was, perhaps, a nod to the growing Chicana/o student population and a way to integrate them into the college’s overall mission.

he huge, smooth expanse of the auditorium’s west facade allowed Chavez to paint a mural 30 feet high by 200 feet long—his largest public work and at the time the largest painted in East Los Angeles. The mural dominated the landscape, sometimes serving as a backdrop to community and student events.

Detail, The Path to Knowledge and the False University, 1974. Photo copyright © 1974 by Oscar R. Castillo.

Mural detail, The Path to Knowledge and the False University, 1974. Photo copyright © 1974 by Oscar R. Castillo.

“It felt like ground zero for Chicano and Latino education in California,” remembers Sybil Venegas, the first female full-time staff member in ELAC’s Chicano studies department. “There was a palpable sense that we could change the world—that ‘cultura cura,’ culture heals. Our department offered classes on Mexican and Chicano literature, visual art and theater, and put on events such as a newly revived el Dia de los Muertos festival. But the street mural was the most visible and visceral embodiment of Chicano culture on L.A.’s Eastside.”

Cinco de Mayo Celebration, East Los Angeles College Campus News, May 4, 1977. Private Collection.

Cinco de Mayo Celebration, East Los Angeles College Campus News, May 4, 1977. Private Collection.

 

Stimulated by the cultural and political ideas of the growing Chicano Movement, Chavez painted a mural that brought together images of nature with symbols of deceit, war, and pollution. Its provocative title, The Path to Knowledge and the False University, suggests a criticism of educational institutions. As Chavez himself explained to the Los Angeles Times, the mural combined “the meaningful search for knowledge with meaningless educational activities.”

Yet, the juxtaposition of symbols of Chicano culture with those of war, industry, and death sends a message of oppression. When asked by students what his mural was about, Chavez would answer, “You want to know what [The Path to Knowledge and the False University] is about? Sign up!”

 

Details, The Path to Knowledge and the False University, c. 1975. UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center.

Mural details, The Path to Knowledge and the False University, c. 1975. Courtesy UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center.

 

The Path to Knowledge and the False University became a major cultural landmark in East Los Angeles. “It was the largest mural ever painted in the East L.A. area–and could even be seen while driving east from downtown Los Angeles on the 60 Freeway,” Venegas explained. “It placed East L.A. College within a burgeoning public art movement that would make Los Angeles the mural capital of the world. It legitimatized mural painting within the academic environment. And it connected East L.A. to early 20th century Mexico, when large public murals were part of the country’s revolutionary transformation.”

But the promise of a home for Chicana/o identity, history, and heritage on campus, visually captured in Chavez’s mural, was short-lived. In 1979, ELAC’s administration whitewashed the mural. “Why,” Venegas has asked, “had an institution that had supported Chavez, this mural, and the Chicano studies program taken away something many of us felt deeply connected to in one fell swoop?”

Los Angeles Times Clipping, October 14, 1979. Copyright © 1979, Los Angeles Times; photo: Jack Birkinshaw.

Los Angeles Times Clipping, October 14, 1979. Copyright © 1979, Los Angeles Times; photo: Jack Birkinshaw.

Some students and faculty believed that the mural was whitewashed because of administrators’ concerns about Chavez’s connections to campus political and social movements. Venegas explains further: “It has become clear that the whitewashing was part of a larger agenda by the new college president and the administration to blunt the progressive, political, and ethnic edge that had developed on campus. The college had recently eliminated its African-American studies program and, as it turned out, the mural’s erasure was the beginning of the end to the Chicano studies department’s crusading spirit.”

ELAC’s administration offered a simpler explanation. The auditorium, it claimed, required repairs. However, the wall containing the mural was the only one restored.

And what of Chavez? In 1980, he left the Chicana/o studies department and a year later resigned from ELAC. In 1982, he and videographer Jeff Boice produced The Execution, the artist’s response to the devastation and despair he felt upon his mural’s destruction.

 

Execution and Whitewashing Stills, The Execution, 1982. Courtesy Jeff Boice and Roberto Chavez.

Stills of execution and whitewashing scenes, The Execution, 1982. Courtesy Jeff Boice and Roberto Chavez.

In the video, Chavez paints a mural containing scenes of an execution and an apathetic audience. The mural then is whitewashed by a character who, Chavez explains, “plays the [college] administrator.” He adds, “I don’t think that I’m exaggerating in seeing the institution as a threat to Chicano art.”  “As the department shifted from activism to a less community-focused curriculum,” Venegas concludes, “the False University Chavez had warned us about in his mural hit home sharply and suddenly.”

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