DENVER — A mural off Eighth Avenue in Denver's Sun Valley neighborhood became a familiar site for drivers after it was painted in 2008.
The mural called "Huitzilopochtli," or Hummingbird Warrior, was the first mural David Ocelotl Garcia ever painted. The characters depicted in the mural represented his own family, and it was dedicated to his mother. Many community members also told him they saw their own relatives in the mural.
Just like the Hummingbird Warrior itself, the mural stood tall and untouched for the first decade of its existence on the building, at the time owned by an organization called Sisters of Color. At the time of painting, the space was a community center.
In 2020, Ocelotl Garcia received multiple frantic calls from people driving past the mural. They were distraught to see people covering it with white paint, literally whitewashing what had become a piece of community art.
"I got tons of phone calls, but I had phone calls of people literally crying, and I’m not being dramatic. It really was like that," Ocelotl Garcia said. "They were crying because they felt like something was taken from them. So this mural has a lot of characters in it that people actually adopted as their own personal family that they saw in there, whether it was their child, their mothers."
He promised those who were distraught that he would repaint his mural, even if he didn't yet know how that would come to be.
"I had a lot of emotions going through," Ocelotl Garcia said. "At the same time, I was real confident in fixing it. There was no doubt in my mind that I was going to paint it, recreate it. It just has to be here. That’s my responsibility, and because of that I was confident."
Ocelotl Garcia said at that time in 2020, new tenants misunderstood the contract and painted over the mural when the owners of the building were unaware. When the tenants understood they had made a mistake, Ocelotl Garcia said, they started to put a plan into place to make it right.
"They have been really great, supportive of what we are doing. Again, they apologized of what had happened and now they are real supportive of restoring the mural," he said.
The restoration process
In 2020, Ocelotl Garcia thought the only way to fix the issue was to repaint it. Then an idea was brought to him by Lucha Martínez de Luna with the Chicano/a/x Murals of Colorado Project.
"She brought that to my attention, saying 'what if we restore that mural?' That’s a whole different dynamic. That’s a whole different message into the incident. It’s a whole other possibility," Ocelotl Garcia said.
Grants helped the organization provide funding for Ocelotl Garcia to study a technique used in Los Angeles when murals there are covered by paint, graffiti or other damage.
After going to California to see the technique in action, Ocelotl Garcia tested it on his mural to see if it would work.
"It was just like suspense, like is it going to work? After a few attempts, we started seeing some results, and it was getting better and better to the point where I was confident, like wow, this is going to work," he said.
In the end, the technique that worked for him was applying a special solution to the mural using a paintbrush. He and his assistant Gavin Weir would then power wash it off, removing the white paint and exposing the original mural underneath.
"It’s kind of fun because it’s like, I will just be blasting away at the wall and it’s like, oh, there’s a face there. It’s almost like archeology or something. I feel like I’m digging up dinosaur bones. It's cool," said Weir, who had never seen the mural before working to restore it.
Like Martínez de Luna described, the restoration of the mural sends an entirely different message: that history, particularly Chicano or Latino history, should not be removed, especially in diverse areas.
"With gentrification and displacement happening at such a rapid rate in Denver and across the state, the feeling that these are going to be erased is just always on my mind," Martínez de Luna said. "I think what we did with this mural is really significant and very symbolic, because I consider it a resurrection of a mural."
The continued effort to preserve
As part of the effort to restore Huitzilopochtli, the Chicano/a/x Murals of Colorado Project also applied "mural shield," a type of sealant that will preserve and protect the mural from future wear and tear.
The shield is typically applied in two coats, using a commercial airless paint sprayer.
"This is really an excellent opportunity for us to memorialize some of the murals that really speak to the history, the culture," Martínez de Luna said.
Due to two grants totaling $23,000, the Chicano/a/x Murals of Colorado Project has been able to apply the shield to multiple murals across the city. Martínez de Luna identifies murals that are at-risk, like Huitzilopochtli. She also looks for murals of cultural or historical significance to protect, fearing building owners or tenants will try to cover or destroy murals across the city.
"I’m always worried that a mural is going to be painted over, because that is unfortunately part of what we have encountered, even at the very beginning when these murals were painted," Martínez de Luna said. "So it’s very stressful to think that we can’t protect these murals that are in our own communities."
Breezies Speciality Coatings & Paint has been commissioned to do the work of applying mural shield on murals all across Colorado. The owner, Florencio Granado, has his own deep connection to the Chicano movement and feels passionate about protecting the history of the art.
"I just think where I was raised in the Chicano community in my entire life, like full circle kind of thing," Granado said. "It’s just a really good feeling that you get from doing these and protecting and knowing that they are going to be preserved and fixed for life, that they can’t destroy them once we preserve it. So it’s kind of an awesome thing."
Still to come
With Huitzilopochtli now exposed and protected with mural shield, Ocelotl Garcia will continue to restore the paint in spots where it was damaged or removed during the processing of exposing it.
The mural can be seen at 938 W. 8th Ave., Denver, CO 80204.
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