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Group works to preserve murals depicting Chicano heritage in Denver

For decades, the most visual way to preserve the history of Chicano families was painted on the walls in the neighborhoods.

DENVER — Being the first means Emanuel Martinez wants his work to last.

"I'm considered the pioneer of the mural movement here in Colorado," Martinez said.

Martinez started painting stories on the walls about 50 years ago in neighborhoods full of Chicano families.

"Murals [are] probably, the most, in my opinion, the most dynamic form of art," Martinez said. "It's monumental in size and it belongs to everybody."

But the stories, he said, belong to his people.

"The education system has failed us there. They don't teach our history," Martinez said.

In places like what's now called La Alma Park, Martinez created images depicting the evolution of Chicano heritage in Colorado.

"I wanted to paint murals that inspired pride in our culture," Martinez said.

He wanted his murals and the work of others to be a part of the city forever. But, the reality is, Father Time and Mother Nature always win.

"Sometimes the wall needs some work, like some of the painting's peeling off," Lucha Martinez de Luna said.

Martinez de Luna is the daughter of Emanuel Martinez. She now serves as the Director of the Chicano/a Murals of Colorado Project. She offers mural tours to community members to create awareness of the growing need to restore aging neighborhood murals.

"People of color didn't have access to their history. They were not taught that in the schools. We were not represented in cultural institutions, museums," Martinez de Luna said. "So, these murals became our historical textbooks."

Martinez is happy to see that his loved one wants to preserve his work and the work of other artists around Colorado.

"I am so proud of my daughter, Lucha, for doing this," Martinez said. "A lot of these murals, when she was just a little girl, she used to help paint them. So, she's been around mural painting all her life."

Martinez de Luna said she knows how much work goes into these murals and how much maintenance they now require after decades of wear and tear.

"Essentially, they have to come in and pick off some of the paint, fix the surface, and then repaint that," Martinez de Luna said. "A lot of the advantage that we have is a lot of these artists are still alive, so they could actually come and restore it."

To restore is one thing. To resurrect is another.

"Most of my murals have been wiped out, and a lot of it is due to gentrification," Martinez said.

New buildings come in to replace the old ones, tearing down walls that were home to murals. Those are gone. But Martinez said other works can be saved.

Martinez said some new owners come in and literally whitewash history, like on a building at the corner of Ninth Avenue and Bryant Street in Denver which displayed one of the largest murals in the city at 350 feet long and 16 feet high.

"Somebody bought the building and just painted it all white and within a month it was just tagging and graffiti. It was horrible," Martinez said. "We do all this work and for what, for someone to just come in and wipe them out."

Now, the Chicano/a Murals of Colorado Project will try to remove the white paint and bring back the original images.

"The murals really are a smaller part of a social issue that we have," Martinez de Luna said. "That is systemic racism is when these properties become desirable and then we're dispensable."

This father and daughter are trying to change minds and help people understand murals are not just a part of the past. They are a part of Colorado.

"It feels different this time. It really, really feels like there's a chance we can protect these murals," Martinez de Luna said.

Martinez hopes that people can see the writing on the wall should stay there.

"We just want to save these murals because a lot of people that move in just don't really appreciate them. They don't know what the history is and they don't even bother to ask," Martinez said.

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