Looking down Clarion Alley from Mission Street I see colorful painted surfaces everywhere, even on the asphalt. Since 1992 artists and craftsmen have enlivened the space with social, political, and cultural messages that express their point of view or showcase the community. Cartoons, caricatures, portraits and written commentary fill the walls. Artists rework the surfaces in this alley continually. Every time I visit, I see new murals.
One stretch of wall stands out for its stark simplicity and its black and white palette. This mural, painted in 1994, was the last work of Jesus “Chuy” Campusano (died 1997). Called “La Raza” it is inspired by Picasso’s masterpiece “Guernica”. True to the community, it is about the Chicano struggle for civil rights and dignity, leading to the United Farmworkers movement and continuing today.
Campusano was an artist who studied at the Academy of San Carlos in Mexico City (where Diego Rivera studied) and learned the techniques of master muralists. He was greatly influenced by other Mexican muralists, especially the 3 known as “Los Muralistos Mexicanos”: Diego Rivera, David Siquieros and Jose Clemente Orozco.
In 1974 Campusano was invited to paint the interior of the Bank of America Building at 23rd and Mission along with Luis Cortazar and Michael Rios. The result is a 90 foot long mural depicting the challenges and progress in the local community. Other commissions included the Daly City Library, the exterior wall of the Lilli Ann Building at 17th and Harrison, and parts of the Horizons Unlimited mural (now lost). In 1970 he cofounded the Galeria de la Raza in the Mission.
“La Raza” is painted on a whitewashed fence. It reads from left to right, a jumble of forms, characters, and arms. Looking at one recurring image in particular, the arms, note the progression:
- a single arm holding lightning bolts (possibly indicating violence)
- a single arm without lightning bolts
- a pair of arms in handcuffs reaching for a bird (freedom)
- a pair of arms with clenched fists now freed from handcuffs
- a pair of arms pushing forward as if punching
The United Farmworkers flag featuring a Huelga Bird (Aztec and eagle symbolism) leads the procession. It’s solid blackness gives it prominence in the mural.
Other images add to the story:
- A face looking backwards features gang tattoos (dots, a tear, a hammer & sickle) and piercings. This is the only left-facing profile in the mural. (possible reference to the Norteno gang which uses symbols such as the Huelga bird and dots as a logo)
- A cross appears on a bishop’s mitre, but it is placed near the ground, and above it is a 3-pronged implement, perhaps a pitchfork (a devil’s symbol) or guns. An arrow points to the handcuffs
- A bent and wrinkled old man carries a heavy sack
- Condominiums, symbolizing the threat of development and displacement, appear in the mural
- Right-facing profiles are snakelike, open-mouthed, angry, or shouting
- Bombs or torpedos lead the procession
Like Guernica, this mural mixes imagery; forms attach to adjacent imagery implying multiple interpretations, depending on how one looks at the work. The stylistic elements (jagged edges, arrows, bomb imagery) and coloring resemble Picasso, but Campusano tells his own story, rooted in the Mission and Chicano Community.
A picture of Campusano is tacked up at the upper right corner of the mural. Nearby Jet Martinez’s surrealistic landscape offers a glimpse at an elongated La Raza in the body of an outlined figure.