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Isabel Rojas-Williams, protector of Los Angeles’s murals

Photo by Phoenix Tso.


South Pasadena , CA United States

It’s a late summer day in the San Gabriel Valley. Wearing a fedora that’s both elegant and funky, Isabel Rojas-Williams sits at Nicole’s Cafe in South Pasadena, describing how she became fascinated with murals, because they reminded her of the political protest she engaged in as a student.

“I was working in East Los Angeles, and then I saw the murals being created, and I saw exactly what I was doing with the political messages on the walls, so that immediately connected me to the murals,” she said.

Murals flourished in Los Angeles in the 1970s, with artists putting up thousands of these grand works in neighborhoods from Santa Monica to Downtown, depicting the rich cultural and political history of L.A. Chicano artists spearheaded painting murals as a form of political expression, with prominent examples going up in neighborhoods like Boyle Heights.

In 2002, Los Angeles instituted a mural moratorium. Rojas-Williams was instrumental in writing the 2013 ordinance that finally allowed artists to paint murals on private property again.

The mural ordinance is groundbreaking for Los Angeles, and is an example of Rojas-Williams using art to express herself politically, a theme that goes back to her fight for democracy in Chile.

“Come Back as Brothers” mural on Alhambra’s American Legion building. Photo by Isabel Rojas-Williams.

Rojas-Williams was 22 when she fled her home country.

In 1973, Chile’s armed forces staged a coup d’état, deposing socialist-leaning president Salvador Allende, and installing a military dictatorship headed by General Augusto Pinochet. Pinochet’s regime would last until 1990, with tens of thousands of citizens being killed, tortured and imprisoned.

At the beginning of the Pinochet era, Rojas-Williams was a law student who spent her nights tagging the walls of Santiago with slogans in defense of democracy, as well as wheat-pasting flyers that did the same. Both activities put her in danger. She ended up fleeing to the United States.

Arriving in Los Angeles was a culture shock for Rojas-Williams. “In Chile, you don’t leave your family home until you have a degree and you get married,” she said. “You’re very well protected, so coming here to me was quite an awakening in every way.”

In 1973, when she arrived in Los Angeles’s Highland Park neighborhood, she lived next to the Southwest Museum, and witnessed Chicano artists doing something similar. They were expressing themselves politically by painting murals.

Back then, Los Angeles was known worldwide as the city of murals. The murals of that time were important in reflecting the upheaval that America was facing at the time.

“So many people who weren’t even artists, they took it upon themselves to paint the walls, with whatever means they had,” said Rojas-Williams. “With the Chicanos, it was fighting against discrimination and social justice.”

Buddha mural on Valley Boulevard, near Cal State LA. Photo by Isabel Rojas-Williams.

This was what Rojas-Williams had in mind 20 years later, when she helped draft an ordinance to protect L.A.’s murals. In 2002, Los Angeles banned the painting of murals on private property, after billboard companies filed a lawsuit, wanting the same right as muralists to paint on building walls.

By then, Rojas-Williams was living in Alhambra, and had gotten her Master of Arts in Art History at California State University – Los Angeles in nearby El Sereno. Her thesis is entitled, “Los Angeles Street Mural Movement: 1930-2009.” In 2010, she began visiting City Hall every day, lobbying officials to pass an ordinance allowing murals on private property. She raised money for mural restoration as executive director of the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles, and led tours of the life-sized works of art.

She helped write the mural ordinance that passed in 2013, distinguishing them from advertisements by defining them as monumental arts on walls that speak about the community. The ordinance allowed artists to get permits to paint murals again. Rojas doesn’t think it’s the ideal solution, but feels that it’s necessary in restoring Los Angeles as a center of public art.

“I hate to have a mural ordinance because there’s a sense of being spontaneous that doesn’t happen any longer,” she said. “However, because murals were illegal and because there’s a moratorium, we lost so many murals. So at least we have a record of what is there. And in a way, it feels that they are more protected.”

Like many other Americans, Rojas-Williams has been contending with the election of Donald Trump, and the issues that his presidency has pushed to the forefront again. She’s curating an exhibit called “South of the Border,” that will feature art from immigrants and the children of immigrants, as well as a panel with two DACA recipients and Mexican journalist Eileen Truax, who is an immigration expert.

This exhibit has become especially relevant after President Trump announced on Sept. 5 that he would end the DACA program in six months. This program protected undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children, and allowed them to work legally as well.

Rojas-Williams considers Alhambra’s Arts & Crafts homes and innovative Asian restaurants as part of the city’s artistic character. Yet she hopes that city officials will encourage the painting of more murals like the few that she’s seen on Main Street. She also hopes that artists today get more political with their work.

“If you are a visual artist, create artwork that talks about your rights, and issues that are affecting you,” she said. “If you’re a muralist, go and paint about that–if you’re a writer, if you’re a musician, if you’re a dancer, you can put the politics in everything we do.”

The political climate today may be similar to when Rojas-Williams arrived in the United States, but after surviving a dictatorship in Chile, speaking out doesn’t faze her. “Many people are afraid of expressing themselves publicly,” she said. “I experienced a war, so for me, I’m not afraid of anything.”

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