Antonio Chavez Camarillo wakes up everyday at 3 a.m. to get to work at Chicano Park by 4 a.m. He sets up a trash bag packed with cleaning supplies on a worn bench, takes a sip from a small Styrofoam cup of coffee and starts his work day with a prayer.
Chavez Camarillo, beloved by locals as “Tio,” is the official unofficial groundskeeper and guardian of Chicano Park, a national landmark established by a community uprising that took place April 22, 1970 in Barrio Logan.
A sprightly 78, Chavez Camarillo came from Guanajuato, Mexico to the US in 1956 when he was 17. He has tended and guarded the park for 40 years, and made it his duty to keep it safe and welcoming for everyone. He has no job, no title or salary— just an immeasurable love for the rich history the park encapsulates.
“Aquí llegué y aquí voy a morir,” he said. (“I arrived here and here I will die.”)
His devotional altruism, though rare in nature, is a testament to the do-it-yourself spirit and community pride that created the remarkable park. Today it is a national historic landmark, a point of pride and America’s largest outdoor gallery of murals.
Chavez Camarillo and many others, however, can still recount the tense struggle to wrestle the park away from the California Highway Patrol following a promise broken.
“It has a lot of history,” he said. “There has been a lot of suffering here. You can’t imagine the amount of history that has happened here— there can be books and books filled with it.”
In the early 1920s, San Diego’s bayfront Logan Heights community was home to the second largest Chicano barrio (“neighborhood”) on the West Coast, with a population of 20,000. When World War II ended, in 1945, a sudden change in zoning laws transformed elegant Logan Heights from a residential community to a gritty industrial area. A once neat and prim neighborhood of split-level Victorian houses, neat yards and free-roaming children was forcefully and forever changed.
By the 1950s Logan Heights had suffered an invasion of warehouses and auto junk yards that crowded out homes and local businesses. When Interstate 5 was built in 1963 the freeway bisected Barrio Logan and displaced even more residents. When construction of the Coronado Bridge was finished in 1969, Barrio Logan was again vivisected. Its population shrank to 5,000, a 75 percent decline from the early 1920s.
Alberto Pulido, a member of the Chicano Park Steering Committee and Professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of San Diego, said the story of Chicano Park is inspiring.
“It’s a story of rebirth,” he said. “It’s a story most definitely about resistance and it’s a story about self-determination. Those are all really important values that we hold regardless of where we are from.”
In the face of unwelcomed changes forced on Logan Heights by city, state and federal government, community leaders began to push for a neighborhood park in 1967. Two years later, on Nov. 9, 1969, the petition to establish a park under the Coronado Bridge was consolidated by a new state law that allowed the site and “other unused parcels of land near highways to be used as community recreational areas.”
City leaders thereafter were not responsive. Five months passed and there was no progress towards the park. On April 22, 1970 bulldozers appeared unannounced among the pylons under the bridge. Construction crews had come to develop a California Highway Patrol Station where the park had been promised. Unbeknownst to Barrio Logan residents, the land promised to be a park had been acquired by the state shortly after the Coronado Bridge opened.
Logan Heights residents were furious about the surreptitious acquisition of the community’s land by the city. That fury led to a community uprising. People streamed out of their homes, schools and jobs to occupy the land.
Jose Arteaga, treasurer of the Oldies Lowrider Car Club, said he remembered the day.
“I was 17 years old going to San Diego High School when they called us to come to see what was going on at Chicano Park,” he said. “When we got there they were already digging up the land and the police were trying to kick everyone out.”
Demonstrators arrived at Chicano Park at 7 a.m. and were joined throughout the day by residents, students like Arteaga and sympathizers. They formed a human chain in front of bulldozers and forced the construction to stop. Others began working the land with shovels, picks and rakes. Construction of the park was underway.
Activists from throughout North America drove, flew and hopped trains to Chicano Park to support the takeover which was made up by men, women and children. Police backed off.
Demonstrators planted cactus, magueys and flowers, and raised the Chicano Flag on a telephone pole. Also known as the flag of Aztlan, the Chicano banner is a green, white and red flag that resembles a Mexican Flag. Instead of an eagle is the symbol of the three-face image. It represents the Spanish (European), the Native and the Mestizo identity. The flag raising is reenacted every year at noon on Chicano Park Day.
Chicano Park’s story of community collaboration is now depicted on the forest of pylons holding up the Coronado Bridge. Patricia Aguayo, who painted several murals in the park, said art played an essential role.
“In 1970, when the park was taken over by the community, the city finally saw that the (people) weren’t going anywhere,” she said. “Their presence and chaining themselves to these bulldozers established ownership of the park.”
Residents gained legal ownership of Chicano Park in 1972. Residents and artists continued to homestead cultural ownership of the place. Salvador Barajas painted his famous “Founders Mural” on a wall. Mexican and Mexican-American political, human rights and artistic heroes were painted large like a walk-up textbook. Barajas recently added Chicano rights icons Herman Baca and Ramon “Chunky” Sanchez to his wall of fame.
Aguayo said the artists of 1972 helped to memorialize heritage.
“The other thing they did was claim the space with art, and not just any art but history, Chicano history, Mexican history,” she said.
Aguayo owns a free lending library in Barrio Logan that houses Chicano studies and literature for those seeking to learn more about the heritage. She said she aims to translocate the knowledge from a place of academic privilege to a location that is accessible to all.
Like an artfully-curated urban museum, a record of Chicano Park’s history is beautifully depicted on the walls and pylons refusing to recede into obscurity. Muralist Guillermo Rogel’s piece closely depicts the story of the “Chicano Park Takeover.”
Tio Camarillo has earned a spot on the mural, but his work continues. The way he is depicted on the mural is how he is today. Resplendent in a white sombrero and billowy white mustache, Camarillo tends to the land and keeps the park clean. He stands in solidarity with the volunteers and activists that created the national landmark.
“Here the community sees me as something good,” he said. “La comunidad es mi familia.”