Chicano Park: A Story of Community Self-Determination

In San Diego, California, the story of Chicano Park is a story of community self-determination, in which local people united to turn tragedy into triumph and reclaim their Chicano heritage.

“Chicano Park is a testament to what communities can do when they stick together and make it happen,” says Tommie Camarillo, co-founder and chair of the Chicano Park Steering Committee.

The struggle for justice

It was April 1970, when community members of Barrio Logan, including Tommie, had enough. ¡Basta!, they shouted. Banding together, they stared down bulldozers to protest the construction of a state highway patrol parking lot where the city had promised a community park.

For decades, the community struggled against racial injustices.

  • In the 1930s, redlining cut residents’ access to credit and opportunity to build wealth.
  • In the 1940s, rezoning allowed an influx of industrial factories, junkyards and metal shops that polluted the land, air and water.
  • And, in the 1960s, construction of Interstate 5 bisected the neighborhood – taking out more than 5,000 families and severing the community’s connection to the bay.

A community unites

To fight back, the community organized. Hundreds of people occupied the park for nearly two weeks, while activists negotiated with city and state officials to reach an agreement. Shortly after, the Chicano Park Steering Committee formed to guide the park’s development.

Working with local artists, the community persevered through many years of struggle to transform the dull gray labyrinth of freeway columns into a colorful tapestry of murals expressive of Chicano culture. Today, more than 90 awe-inspiring murals spread across eight acres, bringing to life the social, political, and cultural issues of the Chicano people.

Reclaiming Chicano heritage

“Chicano Park is a sacred space on so many levels,” says Tommie. “It chronicles the history of preservation, perseverance, self-determination, healing and liberation – reflecting the stories of Chicanos and all communities struggling against racism.”

The community describes the park as being part of the ancestral home of the Aztecs called Aztlán, which they believe extended across the southwestern United States and Mexico. “By reclaiming Chicano Park, we’re reclaiming our heritage,” says Jesse Constancio, steering committee member. “What makes this park so special is that everything has come from struggle.”

An inspiration for all communities

Today, Chicano Park is a National Historic Landmark, as well as on the San Diego Historical Landmarks Registry and California Register of Historical Resources. It is the jewel of San Diego – a gathering place for all.

When WKKF Community Leadership Network fellows visited Chicano Park, they were inspired by the community’s spirit, perseverance and self-determination and the incredible murals that vividly tell that story.

“Whether you identify as Chicano, African American, Tsongan, Pacific Islander, Samoan, Filipino, Muslim American – regardless of what your struggle is – this is a place, a tangible visual aid, to the solidarity that we need to have with each other,” says Michelle Vilchez, WKKF Community Leadership Network fellow. “It’s a powerful place where we can come together.”

Watch fellows’ reflections on Chicano Park.

What you can do

  • Share this story and continue the dialogue about community struggle and self-determination.
  • Reach out to the Chicano Park Steering Committee and ask how you can support their work.
  • Take inspiration to lead or be an ally of community change where you live.

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WKKF Community Leadership Network