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During the latter part of July 1994, four teenagers from the El Paso Housing Authority painted over graffiti at the northeast Texas Employment Commission building. In addition to a Mexican boxing icon, the mural included two flags, the American and the Mexican flags. Joe Tarin, the assistant executive director of the El Paso Housing Authority (HACEP), told the El Paso Times at the time that the mural was “simply a reflection of the community’s two cultures.” [3] But as the El Paso Times headline proclaimed in an article about the mural, northeast residents were “outraged” by it. [4] Why? Because it included a Mexican flag.

The mural featuring the portrait of Mexican boxer Julio Cesar Chávez and the flags was supposed to be art – an expression of the Hispanic community in El Paso – and a way for poor Mexican-American kids to stay out of trouble. It became a symbol of how the narrative for El Paso is set by the minority of the city. On one side of the controversy was the ethnic identification of most of the city, and on the other side was an Anglo minority upset about a painting on a taxpayer wall. The voice of the minority was led by former Northeast city representative Stan Roberts. This is the story of four Hispanic teenagers who set out to paint a mural that became controversial simply because it expressed the Latino culture of El Paso. This is a story, of many, that demonstrate how El Paso Hispanic culture is erased to be replaced by a more Anglo-centric cultural identity.

Two days after the mural was completed, the calls started to come in. “More than 25 calls in two days from Northeast residents upset about” the Mexican flag on the mural called then city representative Stand Roberts’ office. [3] Stan Roberts went on the talk radio circuit and on the news media in 1994 to tell El Pasoans that the mural was “no better than the graffiti it covered up.” [2] To bolster his claim of the mural being graffiti, Roberts alleged that the four Hispanic teenagers, who lived at the Eisenhower housing projects, were “ex-gang members.” [2]

In truth, the teenage artists were members of COMPADRES, an anti-drug and anti-gang program.

Cultural Identity Through Murals

The word “Mexican” is often confused in America as a race, when in fact it is an ethnicity. Most Mexicans are White. In 1930, “Mexican” was wrongly added as a separate race in the Census questionnaire. It was removed from census the following time the census was taken. [13] The often-misused term for Hispanics contributed to an identity crisis for El Paso’s Latino community. Murals on the public walls of buildings became a way to identify the Hispanic culture in America. Muralism began on México after the Mexican Revolution. The Mexican government had funded “cultural renaissance” murals to unify the country. The murals established a “cohesive Mexican identity”. In 1927, famous Mexican muralists like José Clemente Orozco and Diego Rivera started coming the United States to work on murals in America. [13]

Murals became a vehicle for identifying the Mexican identity both in America and in México. Across cities in California and Texas, Hispanics used street murals as a means of identity expression. In El Paso, murals in Segundo Barrio in the latter 1970s and the 1980s expanded out towards the rest of the city. The El Paso murals became “an expression of neighborhood identity and values” for the El Paso community. [14]

Joey Camacho and Lalo Gutierrez were two teenagers who worked on the controversial mural. They and the other two teen muralists were surprised by the controversy their art generated. Both had been tasked with painting the wall to cover up graffiti as part of their work for an anti-drug and anti-gang program they were involved in.

Lalo Gutierrez, the second of the four teenagers who worked on the mural, said the four teenagers “tried to do something positive and all of a sudden” it turned “negative”. For his part, Camacho says that his first mural on the wall of the Texas Employment Commission Agency building “was just a drawing,” adding that he was “not making a political statement.” Camacho told the El Paso Times that “people are reading too much” into the flag mural, adding that the mural “was just to take off the graffiti.” [1]

Ordering The Removal Of The Mural, Or Not

Officials at the Texas Employment Commission (TEC) ordered the mural be removed in August 1994 because of the controversy. Officials at the housing authority also agreed to the removal of the mural. [4] In the Northeast of El Paso, a TEC official told the newspaper, there is “a lot of American veterans and a lot of people from a variety of countries that (aren’t) represented by the Mexican flag.” [4] But lost in the controversy was what the art represented, a significant portion of the El Paso’s community.

The officials at the TEC and at the Housing Authority reacted to the controversy by simply agreeing to the demand that it be removed. None seem to have questioned that less than thirty vocal members of the Northeast and a city representative were the only ones demanding its removal. By simply agreeing to the removal, the officials did not bother to stop for a moment to understand the controversy and what it was teaching the teenagers who had painted it.

Texas state officials, all Latinos, and COMPADRES program art director Rocio Gomez both agreed that the teenagers were not intending a political statement with their mural. However, after the controversy arose over the flag, the teenagers who also agreed their art was not intended as a political statement, were not given the opportunity to reflect on their art and what it depicted before they were ordered to destroy it. The “kids are going to execute what we give them,” Gomez told the newspaper, apparently not realizing that the artists were being censored by a community minority. [4]

It took only 25 complaint calls and “a few letters” to order the removal of the mural that was representative of most of El Paso. In 1994, El Paso’s population was about 70 percent Hispanic. The El Paso Times quoted El Paso resident, Marion Kye about the controversy. According to the newspaper, Kye said that “we’re all American here, no matter what our roots are…it’s not right for them to put that flag here when so many of us don’t identify with it.” [4]

Another El Paso resident, Carlos Senteno, told the newspaper that is “what the kids wanted to draw, so be it.” Senteno added that the controversy over the flag was “taking something that was supposed to be good and turning it into something offensive because it doesn’t please every person in the city.” [4]

However, only a few days after ordering the mural removed, TEC officials backtracked on August 10, 1994. TEC officials said that they changed their minds after getting “many calls from people supporting the mural.” However, Stan Roberts told the newspaper that he didn’t care about the support for the mural, “I don’t want the flag…It’s wrong…We fly an American flag here…I don’t care what anybody says,” according to the El Paso Times. [5]

On August 11, 1994, Stan Roberts called the KLAQ radio station and said that the mural was “ugly” and “no better” than the graffiti it had replaced. [6] Roberts was just starting to betray the underlining reason for his dislike of the mural. A few days later, on August 19, 1994, he made his position clear when he told then-city representative Chalio Acosta that he would oppose six murals being considered by city council because murals “are an extension of graffiti.” Roberts added that the “damn Mexican flag” has no place on public buildings, according to the El Paso Times. [7]

A subsequent analysis of the city council recording by the El Paso Times suggests that Stan Roberts did not say “damned Mexican flag”. According to the Times’ article, using “professional studio recording equipment,” the newspaper found that Roberts had said, “to them, that’s their flag,” instead. The Times went on to add that the reporter “asked Roberts three times” why he had said that “damned Mexican flag”. Roberts did not deny using the language to the reporter, adding that he says, “that about other flags.” [12] Roberts, however, stood firm on his demand that the mural be removed.

The Multicultural Stew of El Paso

Roberts told the newspaper that he was not racist. Instead, he argued, “how come they only want to put them in the Northeast,” adding, “why not the West Side” of town, he asked. [7] The Northeast part of town is where the city becomes more of a “multicultural stew,” is how the El Paso Times described it in 1995. According to the 1990 census, Northeast El Paso was home to Filipinos, Korean, Japanese and Panamanians. They accounted for about half of the northeast community. Another 30% were German and Irish, leaving about 20% as either White or Latino. At the time, the Northeast was 18 percent of the population of El Paso. [9]

On August 23, 1994, city council voted seven to one in favor of funding the painting of six murals across El Paso by local students. Although none of the proposed murals were in Stan Roberts district, he nonetheless voted against measure, imploring fellow city council representatives to “respect his wishes for his district.” When it was pointed out to him that none of the murals were in his district, Roberts responded that although they were not in his district, one of the murals “borders my area and affects us.” [8]

El Paso is considered by many to be an example of cultural diversity working together. But El Paso residents argued the racism still prevailed in the city. In 1995, northeast resident Paul Ciddio told the El Paso Times he thought that “there is a very anti-Mexican attitude on the part of Caucasians as visualized by the reactions over the flag controversy.” [9]

The flag controversy generated several letters to the editor in support and against the mural. The mural remained and was not painted over as originally ordered. [9] However, in March 1995, the mural was back in the news. The number “187” was painted over it twice and graffiti was painted around it. The “187” was painted under the American and Mexican flags. What the number 187 was supposed to mean was not known. However, at the time, 187 was part of California’s Proposition 187 that denied access to state services, including schools, to undocumented immigrants. At the time, 187 was also used by gangs as a threat. [10]

Stan Roberts passed on March 4, 2016. Roberts served on city council from 1991 to 1999. [11]

Footnotes:

  1. Cindy Ramirez, “Teens say flag mural message isn’t political,” El Paso Times, August 13, 1994.
  2. Cindy Ramirez, “Controversy bewilders mural artists,” El Paso Times, August 13, 1994.
  3. “Mural controversy,” El Paso Times, July 30, 1994.
  4. Cindy Ramirez, “Residents outraged by mural,” El Paso Times, August 6, 1994.
  5. Cindy Ramirez, “Mexican flag mural staying put, for now,” El Paso Times, August 11, 1994.
  6. “Mural debate,” El Paso Times, August 12, 1994.
  7. Emily Jauregui, “Roberts lets remark on mural slip,” El Paso Times, August 20, 1994.
  8. Emily Jauregui, “City approves murals for Northeast park,” El Paso Times, August 24, 1994.
  9. Cindy Ramirez, “Communities keep their culture alive,” El Paso Times, January 30, 1995.
  10. Cindy Ramirez, “Graffiti over mural raises suspicions,” El Paso Times, March 5, 1995.
  11. Jamel Valencia, “Former El Paso City Rep. Stan Roberts diez,” KFOX 14, March 4, 2016.
  12. David Sheppard, “Tape recording shows Roberts was misquoted,” El Paso Times, August 26, 1994.
  13. Anna Purna Kambhampaty, “Mexican Muralists Changed the Course of 20th Century American Art. A New Exhibit Explores Their Influence,” Time Magazine, February 20, 2020.
  14. Eduardo García, “El Paso Segundo Barrio Muralism: Barrio History, Memory, and Identity in Community Artwork,” University of New Mexico, Chamisa: A Journal of Literacy, Performance, and Visual Arts of the Greater Southwest, 2021.

Martin Paredes

Reporting on public corruption, border politics, immigration and public policy in El Paso since 2000.