Portrait of the Times 

When Cesar Cruz denounced the mural in the El Cerrito Community Center, he started a citywide discussion of race, history, and art.

One Saturday morning last fall, conflict-resolution manager Brenda Gaspar helped the city of El Cerrito organize its first-ever "Diversity Forum." The gathering was meant to celebrate the city's "various cultures and lifestyles," as Gaspar put it, and was held inside the city's folksy community center, a barnlike structure that usually hosts after-school homework sessions and dance recitals. On this particular morning, about sixty people showed up, mostly city employees and a handful of curious residents who'd read about the free event in the newspaper.

The meeting began with five local speakers: One lesbian, one Native American, one African American, one Asian American, and one thirty-year-old Mexican American named Cesar Cruz. Gaspar had invited Cruz because she'd heard he was a passionate and erudite speaker on Latino culture. Cruz had majored in history at UC Berkeley and been active in the campus group MEChA, the Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán, or the Chicano Student Movement of Aztlán. He'd also recently been nominated for a Peacemaker Award from the county for his own work as a conflict-resolution manager at San Pablo's Downer Elementary School.

Even though she'd selected Cruz, Gaspar later admitted that she had her concerns. During their initial discussion, Gaspar said she had to remind him that the forum was not meant to be a stage from which to air complaints about racial injustice, one of Cruz' favorite topics. As a self-described "human rights freedom fighter," Cruz has participated in hunger strikes for various causes and, more recently, organized so-called "teach-ins" to protest cuts in education. "I made it very clear to him that there are platforms for that kind of dialogue, and this wouldn't be one of them," Gaspar recalled. "This was a day for celebration, a day to recognize that we can all live in harmony."

In spite of Gaspar's admonition, Cruz planned to read his poem 21 Fantasmas de Elle Seretoh -- in English, 21 Ghosts of El Cerrito -- which commented on some of the inequalities he witnessed around town on any given day, from the decision to locate a BART station in a lower-middle-class neighborhood to the way police officers chase away Hispanic day laborers from the local Home Depot parking lot.

When Cruz arrived that morning with his girlfriend he took his spot at the panel, overlooking the seated crowd. Cruz noticed a mural up near the ceiling, above the audience on the back wall of the building. He had never been to the community center before, so this was the first time he'd ever seen the artwork, which has been there for about twenty years.

At the center of the mural stands a large man, who some viewers have likened to Mark Twain or, less flatteringly, Colonel Sanders. To Cruz, it even appeared as if the "overbearing white man" was gripping a holster with his right hand, ready at any moment to pull out an unseen six-shooter. The man seemed to be a character from the mid-1800s, and the mural appeared to portray the settling of El Cerrito and West Contra Costa County. In the left corner, cowboys herded cattle. On the far right side of the painting, Indians worked the land.

Compared to the man at center stage, the Natives looked like an afterthought to Cruz. They didn't even have faces, he thought: They were hastily stroked brown figures, dashed off in the background. Cruz fumed. And while the other speakers carried on, he decided to ditch his poem to address the mural. "How could I ignore it?" he later recalled. "It was right there, above all of us. I had to address it in that forum, with that audience. So I thought, 'If the mayor's here, and the city council's here, let's bring it all out.' So I did."

According to Cruz and a few other witnesses, when his turn came to speak, he asked the audience to turn around and said something to the effect of "If that mural wanted to be historically accurate, it wouldn't show the Natives just peacefully tending to the land. It would show them getting rounded up and slaughtered. There would be blood everywhere, people dying. ... But no one wants to see that."

Cruz challenged his audience further. They'd come to discuss diversity, he said, and now it was time for action. They could either gloss over the violence committed against the Natives, as the painter had done, or they could reject the mural as inaccurate and offensive. Cruz said he stopped short of calling for the mural's removal -- he was focused on the problem, not the solution. But his indictment had made it clear to others in the audience: The mural had to go.

He had shocked his audience into silence. As he later recalled it, only one member, a middle-aged African-American woman, reacted to his comments, rising to her feet to applaud and yelling, "You tell 'em," and, "That's right, brother! You go!"

During a break after his comments, Cruz says he considered leaving. "I felt cheap, a sellout," he said, recalling his attitude toward the guidance Gaspar had given him a few weeks before the meeting. "They brought me there because they wanted to talk about how nice everything is in El Cerrito. And I wanted to talk about what's really going on -- but they didn't want to hear it."

Sometime during the break, Cruz says Gaspar approached him with news: She'd heard from city employees who were in the audience, and they'd decided to remove the mural as soon as possible.

Instead of feeling placated, Cruz said he felt even more unsettled by this development. "Now I felt like I'd been pimped," he recalled. "Here I was, the token beaner on the panel, and when I'd gotten upset about the mural, they'd take it down to appease me. Instead of wanting to deal with real racial injustices -- the day laborers or police harassment -- they were willing to do something insignificant, like take down a mural. That they'd take it down so easily with so little thought told me it didn't really mean that much to them."

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