Visual Arts

Historic UH Chicano Mural Could Be Destroyed

Since 1973, César Chávez, Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata have had steady presences at the University of Houston. That's when Vietnam War veterans and then UH students Ruben Angel Reyna and Mario Gonzales painted the icons into the "Chicano Mural," located on the basement level of UH's University Center.

But now, due to a planned $80 million renovation to the UC, supporters of the artwork say that the mural -- along with Mexican, Mexican-American and UH history -- may very well be shown the door.

For 39 years, the mural has been a centerpiece of the Cougar Den (a.k.a., a hangout/lounge spot for students), thanks to the depiction of historical figures and scenes from the Spanish Colonial era, the Mexican Revolution and the Chicano Civil Rights Movement. Along with Chávez and Villa, Texas's José Angel Gutiérrez, a co-founder of the La Raza Unida Party, is portrayed in the work.

"In the 1970s, being the first identifiable group of Mexican-American students at UH, MAYO [Mexican-American Youth Organization] wanted to leave a gift for future students," says Lorenzo Cano, a UH graduate and associate director of UH's Center for Mexican-American Studies. "It's a beautiful mural that reflects a very important part of the history of U of H."

About a year ago, Cano says that he, along with Center for Mexican-American Studies director Dr. Tatcho Mindiola Jr. and some students, met with university administrators and the UC Transformation Project committee to talk about mural preservation options.

"They said that they would do a feasibility study and would see about keeping it there or potentially moving it to another place where it would actually be more prominent so more people can see it," Cano tells Art Attack. (In 2008, UH students approved a referendum to bear the brunt of the UC renovation cost via two separate fee hikes -- from $35 to $85 per semester in 2011 and 2012, and from $85 to $135 per semester in 2013 and 2014.)

"But this December when they presented their final plans, they couldn't even tell us where the mural would be," says Cano. "When we asked about the results of the feasibility study, they said that they never did it. That told us that they were really never serious about preserving the mural."

Cano explains that the latest plan is to move half of the university bookstore to the Cougar Den and in front of the mural. "That would totally cover it up. Nobody would know that it's there," says Cano.

Since the controversy has surfaced, so have several online petitions (including one on the Our New Anahuac Web site) as well as the "Save UH Mural" Facebook page.

Art Attack's attempts at reaching assistant vice president for UH student affairs Keith Kowalka, who Cano says is a key force behind the UC Transformation Project, were unsuccessful.

Instead, we were forwarded to UH spokesperson Richard Bonnin, who writes, "Preserving this important artwork continues to be a priority for the University of Houston, and significant progress is being made toward identifying the best options to fulfill that commitment." Bonnin adds that "options are currently under consideration," though he couldn't elaborate on what those might be.

The university recently hired an art conservator to see if the mural can be moved without compromising its integrity. The results of the conservation study as well as updated architect renderings are expected to be shared with the public by early April. UH expects to break ground on the project this summer.

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Steve Jansen is a contributing writer for the Houston Press.
Contact: Steve Jansen