Mural Stories in Denver
Below, read and listen to community members telling stories of Denver's early murals by clicking on the Soundcloud play buttons for each story.
Zapotec Designs in La Alma Lincoln Park
In the late 1960s, activist and artist Emanuel Martínez painted one of his first public murals—a decorative Zapotec design—outside his unit in the Lincoln Park Housing Projects, along with other building tenants. For painting it without permission, the director of Denver Housing Authority threatened to evict his family the same day. However, other residents watching the exchange between Mr. Martínez and the director shared responsibility for the mural:
“They said well, if you kick him out, you have to kick us all out of here because we helped too…there was maybe 60 people out there, I mean he can’t throw us all out… I had the support of the people.”
Mr. Martínez’s mural Zapotec Designs, 1969. Photo courtesy of Lucha Martínez de Luna.
Tenants signed a petition and agreed they all wanted the mural, and people in nearby housing projects wanted him to paint murals on their buildings as well. Even though Mr. Martínez was not commissioned or formally approved to paint the mural, DHA waited until his family moved out to remove the paint because he had community support. Through collective power, housing project tenants could beautify the building and mark public space on their own terms.
Aztec Sunstone in the North Side
Andy Mendoza is another Chicano muralist who began painting murals in 1974 when a priest at his church, Our Lady of Guadalupe (one of Denver’s first Spanish-speaking churches that welcomed Mexicans) encouraged him to paint something embracing his culture:
“I went up to him one day and I said ‘I’m Spanish like you,’ and I do have Spanish blood in me, but not like him, and he said ‘No, no, you got a beautiful culture, go study your culture, come back and tell me what you want to paint.’”
Mr. Mendoza and his brother painted the image of an Aztec sunstone in the church’s rectory with black-light paints. People would visit the church at night to see the mural glowing through the windows. The United Farm Workers co-founder Cesar Chavez saw the mural when visiting Denver and asked Mr. Mendoza to paint murals at the UFW headquarters. Even though there were pressures to assimilate into Euro-centric culture, muralism served as a way to share and connect with cultures that existed well before the European colonization of the Southwest.
Mr. Mendoza and his brother painting their mural in Our Lady of Guadalupe for a news article in The Sunday Denver Post. Photo courtesy of Andy Mendoza.
Significance of early murals
In talking about the Chicana/o/x Mural Movement of the late 60s and early 70s Lucha Martínez de Luna described how murals were rooted in the community’s rich and fluid history across time and from multiple points of view:
“There were different narratives being told, the murals were painted by the community… The idea of the murals… was about permanence, sense of place, being in this space, belonging to this space, and owning it.”
The Chicana/o/x Mural Movement is a continuation of indigenous traditions of storytelling, and includes everyone tied to the land and community.