Hundreds of Eastside community members expressed their thoughts about the future of Ortega Park after learning that redevelopment plans included the removal of its 18 cultural murals. Carlos Cuellar and Manuel Unzueta, two of the original park muralists, have their thoughts on the matter, too.
The art pieces, portraying Aztec, Chumash, and Chicano iconography, were originally slated for removal as part of the park’s $14 million renovation, but demands to preserve them and their legacy prompted the City of Santa Barbara to reevaluate this portion of the plans.
Cuellar and Unzueta — both accomplished artists, respected mentors, and longtime Santa Barbara residents — have personal connections to Ortega Park and to the work they created there, as well as some overlapping hopes for the park’s next phase.
Unzueta, who moved to Santa Barbara from the El Paso–Ciudad Juárez region as a teenager, frequented Ortega Park for most of his life and lives only a few minutes away in his family home. As a well-known artist and educator, he is associated with three of the park’s murals and numerous others throughout the city.
This isn’t the first time Unzueta has had a mural of his set for destruction. At least 20 of his murals in different places have already been destroyed throughout his career. Ideally, Unzueta said, the city could preserve three eligible murals, memorialize or repaint the others, and allow local young artists to create new art for the park.
To him, preserving art — especially of this kind — means also honoring the history, culture, and spirituality of a people.
“I feel that if they erase a mural in contemporary times, it’s because they have no respect or knowledge of the value of art,” he said.
Cuellar moved to Santa Barbara more than 32 years ago from Guadalajara, Mexico, and has long been a fixture in the local art and art mentorship scene. He also has spent much family time, particularly through soccer, in Ortega Park over the years. He worked on four of the park’s murals and has completed many others in the city.
Cuellar also cherishes the cultural value of the murals. He believes there’s a good opportunity to have local students repaint some of the murals and create new, more culturally diverse pieces for the park, potentially through the Santa Barbara Arts Alliance, a youth arts mentorship program he co-founded in 2005.
“We don’t need to save [the park]; we need to work with it,” he said.
Despite their minor differences in opinion, Unzueta and Cuellar see the redevelopment project as an opportunity to improve the park, and to empower the next generation of local artists to create — or re-create — cultural art pieces for it. As dedicated arts educators, teaching and mentoring young creatives has always been a passion for Unzueta and Cuellar, who both enlisted the help of local kids and students to paint and retouch their respective Ortega Park murals over the years.
Both artists also believe that decisions regarding the park and its artwork should reflect the community consensus, whether that means preserving or repainting existing murals, creating brand-new pieces, or some mix of it all.
Reaching such a consensus is still a work in progress. Behind-the-scenes miscommunication and accusations among citizen groups and the city have added a layer of controversy to the project, where some people feel unheard, tricked, or left out of the process altogether.
Several people, including Unzueta, said that they’d never even heard about the proposed demolition of the murals until recently, after the park’s redevelopment plans had already been drawn up. Upon becoming aware, neighbors, artists, and activists called on the city to gather more public input on the project, ultimately leading to an April 24 community outreach event at the park.
This week, the city’s Arts Advisory Committee will discuss the issue and decide whether to make a recommendation to City Council to host another community conversation about the murals. Meanwhile, activists, neighbors, and a contingent of local artists that includes Cuellar and some of the other original park muralists — the Save Ortega Park Art Committee — are planning to host a press conference in the coming days to officially declare their ideas for the park.