Portrait of the Times

When Cesar Cruz denounced the mural in the El Cerrito Community Center, he started a citywide discussion of race, history, and art.

One Saturday morning last fall, conflict-resolution manager Brenda Gaspar helped the city of El Cerrito organize its first-ever “Diversity Forum.” The gathering was meant to celebrate the city’s “various cultures and lifestyles,” as Gaspar put it, and was held inside the city’s folksy community center, a barnlike structure that usually hosts after-school homework sessions and dance recitals. On this particular morning, about sixty people showed up, mostly city employees and a handful of curious residents who’d read about the free event in the newspaper.

The meeting began with five local speakers: One lesbian, one Native American, one African American, one Asian American, and one thirty-year-old Mexican American named Cesar Cruz. Gaspar had invited Cruz because she’d heard he was a passionate and erudite speaker on Latino culture. Cruz had majored in history at UC Berkeley and been active in the campus group MEChA, the Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán, or the Chicano Student Movement of Aztlán. He’d also recently been nominated for a Peacemaker Award from the county for his own work as a conflict-resolution manager at San Pablo’s Downer Elementary School.

Even though she’d selected Cruz, Gaspar later admitted that she had her concerns. During their initial discussion, Gaspar said she had to remind him that the forum was not meant to be a stage from which to air complaints about racial injustice, one of Cruz’ favorite topics. As a self-described “human rights freedom fighter,” Cruz has participated in hunger strikes for various causes and, more recently, organized so-called “teach-ins” to protest cuts in education. “I made it very clear to him that there are platforms for that kind of dialogue, and this wouldn’t be one of them,” Gaspar recalled. “This was a day for celebration, a day to recognize that we can all live in harmony.”

In spite of Gaspar’s admonition, Cruz planned to read his poem 21 Fantasmas de Elle Seretoh — in English, 21 Ghosts of El Cerrito — which commented on some of the inequalities he witnessed around town on any given day, from the decision to locate a BART station in a lower-middle-class neighborhood to the way police officers chase away Hispanic day laborers from the local Home Depot parking lot.

When Cruz arrived that morning with his girlfriend he took his spot at the panel, overlooking the seated crowd. Cruz noticed a mural up near the ceiling, above the audience on the back wall of the building. He had never been to the community center before, so this was the first time he’d ever seen the artwork, which has been there for about twenty years.

At the center of the mural stands a large man, who some viewers have likened to Mark Twain or, less flatteringly, Colonel Sanders. To Cruz, it even appeared as if the “overbearing white man” was gripping a holster with his right hand, ready at any moment to pull out an unseen six-shooter. The man seemed to be a character from the mid-1800s, and the mural appeared to portray the settling of El Cerrito and West Contra Costa County. In the left corner, cowboys herded cattle. On the far right side of the painting, Indians worked the land.

Compared to the man at center stage, the Natives looked like an afterthought to Cruz. They didn’t even have faces, he thought: They were hastily stroked brown figures, dashed off in the background. Cruz fumed. And while the other speakers carried on, he decided to ditch his poem to address the mural. “How could I ignore it?” he later recalled. “It was right there, above all of us. I had to address it in that forum, with that audience. So I thought, ‘If the mayor’s here, and the city council’s here, let’s bring it all out.’ So I did.”

According to Cruz and a few other witnesses, when his turn came to speak, he asked the audience to turn around and said something to the effect of “If that mural wanted to be historically accurate, it wouldn’t show the Natives just peacefully tending to the land. It would show them getting rounded up and slaughtered. There would be blood everywhere, people dying. … But no one wants to see that.”

Cruz challenged his audience further. They’d come to discuss diversity, he said, and now it was time for action. They could either gloss over the violence committed against the Natives, as the painter had done, or they could reject the mural as inaccurate and offensive. Cruz said he stopped short of calling for the mural’s removal — he was focused on the problem, not the solution. But his indictment had made it clear to others in the audience: The mural had to go.

He had shocked his audience into silence. As he later recalled it, only one member, a middle-aged African-American woman, reacted to his comments, rising to her feet to applaud and yelling, “You tell ’em,” and, “That’s right, brother! You go!”

During a break after his comments, Cruz says he considered leaving. “I felt cheap, a sellout,” he said, recalling his attitude toward the guidance Gaspar had given him a few weeks before the meeting. “They brought me there because they wanted to talk about how nice everything is in El Cerrito. And I wanted to talk about what’s really going on — but they didn’t want to hear it.”

Sometime during the break, Cruz says Gaspar approached him with news: She’d heard from city employees who were in the audience, and they’d decided to remove the mural as soon as possible.

Instead of feeling placated, Cruz said he felt even more unsettled by this development. “Now I felt like I’d been pimped,” he recalled. “Here I was, the token beaner on the panel, and when I’d gotten upset about the mural, they’d take it down to appease me. Instead of wanting to deal with real racial injustices — the day laborers or police harassment — they were willing to do something insignificant, like take down a mural. That they’d take it down so easily with so little thought told me it didn’t really mean that much to them.”

Gaspar, meanwhile, denies ever telling Cruz the city would remove the mural. “I don’t know how Cesar came away with that understanding,” she said. “All I said was that someone told me that they’d look into it, and I passed along the information.”

Regardless of what the truth is, Cruz’ complaint had caught the community off guard and set in motion a formal review of the mural. Was it actually offensive to current or former residents of El Cerrito? “Nobody could say who that man was, or what the story behind him was,” Gaspar later recalled. “Nobody knew why it was there, or how it got there. Or even how long it’d been there. They just said they’d look into it.”

It was a remarkable turn of events for a work so previously unheralded. Few people in El Cerrito knew the work even existed until Cesar Cruz turned up to shoot it down.

As a member of the city’s Human Relations Commission, Joann Steck-Bayat attended the diversity forum, and had been moved by Cruz’ words. She recalls that Cruz was indeed told the mural would be removed. “We were all caught up in the moment,” Steck-Bayat said later. “Then you come to learn a few other things about it.”

Steck-Bayat volunteered to have the commission investigate the mural’s history. In a city like El Cerrito, where the city manager is the chief executive, the recommendations of such commissions can carry a lot of weight. Steck-Bayat would report her findings to Sandy Chapek, the city’s employee services manager, who would then submit her own recommendation to the city manager. In calm, consensus-driven El Cerrito, such reports often end up shaping the position of the city council.

Since El Cerrito had no formal procedures for removing a piece of public art, Steck-Bayat’s report was likely to break new ground. So she moved cautiously. “I didn’t want us to destroy a mural that was done by a known artist,” she said. She recalled a similar controversy in Richmond a few years ago when an activist complained that artwork hanging in the council chambers was racially offensive to African Americans. The issue died down after residents learned that the artist, Sargent Johnson, was himself black. “He’s got pieces in SFMOMA,” Steck-Bayat said.

To get a sense of the artistic quality of the work hanging inside the community center, she called John Wehrle, a local muralist whose work appears on freeways around the East Bay and California. One of his better-known pieces, “Revisionist History,” is located on San Pablo Avenue at Richmond’s city border. It’s an all-encompassing mural that attempts to give a nod to every culture that has lived here in the “past five hundred years or so,” Wehrle said. Decorative, elaborate, and celebratory in its narrative, “Revisionist History” is the kind of effort people in the Bay Area probably think of when they hear the word “mural.”

When Wehrle stood next to Steck-Bayat in the community center and looked up toward the ceiling, he knew at first glance he wasn’t in the presence of fine art. “I wouldn’t say the piece was amateurish,” Wehrle says now with a pause. “For the times, it was probably adequate. It was probably an ad hoc piece.”

The piece, it turned out, was commissioned around 1967 to celebrate the city’s fiftieth birthday and is drawn in what Wehrle calls a “1950s modern realism.” It was originally made for a Mechanics Bank branch on San Pablo Avenue.

When Wehrle took a closer look, he noticed that the tall man in the mural wasn’t holding a gun, as Cruz had suggested. He was holding his hat in one hand, with his other hand in his coat pocket. Wehrle also noted that the mural wasn’t actually a mural at all, in the sense that murals are usually painted as one contiguous image. The individual subjects of the community center’s panorama — the large man, the anonymous Natives, the cowboys herding cattle — were all painted onto separate pieces of fiberboard, cut out, and then glued onto the wall piece by piece, as if to fill the space. If the city wanted, it could even relocate or remove one or more of the images, like magnets on a refrigerator.

Steck-Bayat learned that when the mural first appeared in the Mechanics Bank building, it was as part of a much larger work with many more characters and scenes. But when the bank underwent a remodel in the mid-1980s, many of the pieces were removed, with some donated to the city and others perhaps tossed away or sold. The donated pieces ended up on the wall in the center, but when Wehrle and Steck-Bayat stood beneath the reassembled work decades later, it was impossible to know for sure which pieces had been the focus of the original configuration.

As Wehrle inspected the new mural, he also noticed that the glue was losing its tack, and that some of the pieces were beginning to warp. Fiberboard is a cheap particleboard that is sleeker and softer than plywood, but it’s also even more vulnerable to the elements.

As for the artwork itself, Wehrle remains polite in assessing the artist’s craftsmanship. “The artwork is a little fuzzy and unformed,” he told me. “The artistic style is … ambiguous. On the whole, it’s a generic historical work. … I guess you could say the work didn’t speak to me a whole lot.” He declined to value the piece. “It’s probably not worth much at all,” he said.

In short, he was reluctant to defend the mural as a piece of art worth fighting for. Yet he also remains suspicious any time a government body moves to take down art it once embraced. Under California’s Art Preservation Act, cities that want to remove public works are governed by a series of legal obstacles and protocols won by artists over the years. Wehrle himself has had to make the case for the survival of his own works, but in the case of a work such as the El Cerrito mural, he’s not sure the act would apply. Still, he steered clear of making an outright recommendation about what should be done, leaving that decision to city officials.

“Most cities deal with this issue sooner or later, and in every battle, it dictates the profile of the community,” he said. “There is something to be said for maintaining your artworks, and not getting rid of the ones that get old or people no longer enjoy.”

After meeting with Wehrle, Steck-Bayat filed her report on behalf of the Human Relations Commission. She aptly described his lack of enthusiasm for the piece and did her best to summarize the incomplete history that led to its placement on the east wall of the community center.

Still, two mysteries lingered. First of all, the artist remained unknown. “The artist’s name is a mystery,” Steck-Bayat later wrote. “Some thought it was done by a man in Hollywood, but others dispute that information. The information that seems closest is that the artist was a friend of the bank manager at the time.”

Secondly, who is the large man that Cesar Cruz fussed over? In her report, Steck-Bayat identified him as Don Victor Castro, but just who he was, and what he meant to El Cerrito, she didn’t say.

When word about the mural reached Tom Panas, the treasurer of El Cerrito’s Historical Society, he took a closer look at the character of Don Victor Castro. After all, Cesar Cruz wasn’t concerned with the mural’s artistic technique or fading condition; at the center of his objections was the presumed offensiveness of the image. Panas learned that Victor Castro was the son of Spanish-born parents. At one time, he also had served as a colonel in the Mexican army.

In other words, perhaps Victor Castro wasn’t the stereotypical white man Cruz had presumed him to be.

“At first, it looked like an oppressive white man,” recalled Brenda Gaspar, who continued to track the fallout from the Diversity Forum. “Then it turned out to be an oppressive Hispanic man.”

The acknowledged local expert on Victor Castro is independent historian Frances Conley, who now lives in the Strawberry Canyon retirement complex in Berkeley. She has written three books about the Castro family and its operatic ways, and describes Victor as one of the few “who wasn’t a drunkard.”

Conley was pleased that someone would take an interest in her research. “Once I’m gone, I don’t know who will want these files,” she said as she dug into a drawer of rainbow-colored files. At times, she reached for a volume of Hubert Howe Bancroft’s multivolume History of California on her bookshelf, expertly pulling down the specific text she needed.

In 1824, when Victor Castro was seven, his father Don Francisco Castro acquired one of California’s largest land grants from the Spanish king. The property, known as Rancho San Pablo, covered approximately eighteen thousand acres and incorporated much of what is known today as El Cerrito, Kensington, San Pablo, El Sobrante, Pinole, and Richmond. Don Francisco relied upon local Indians for laborers and vaqueros to raise his thousands of cattle, horses, and sheep. They also grew fruit, grain and vegetables, which they sold mostly to the nearby missions and Yankee traders, according to Conley’s research.

After Don Francisco died in 1831, half of his land went to his wife and the other half was split among his eleven children. Young Victor settled his plot near San Pablo Avenue, in what is now El Cerrito Plaza, an outdoor shopping mall. He married young, and fathered at least two children in his first marriage. He eventually remarried, fathered more children, and built a fourteen-room adobe mansion on the site.

According to several local historians, Victor Castro was the straight arrow of the family, the one who “never drank or swore or even gambled” during an era when San Pablo Avenue was best known for its saloons and brothels. Local historian William Mero writes that Victor Castro was “tall, immensely strong … a renowned horseman,” whose sobriety and sense of fairness were so respected that he was made a juez de campo, or what Mero translated as “Judge of the Plains.”

Like all rancheros, Victor needed workers. And there is some evidence that he participated in at least one slave raid to get them. In 1836, he assisted his older brothers Joaquin and Antonio on a kidnapping escapade, although details of their actions are unknown. We know Victor was held accountable, however, because documents show that the three men were reprimanded for their actions by General Mariano Vallejo, Mexican comandante for Northern California.

Slave raids, as the term suggests, were horrific events, often involving brutal mass kidnappings of Native families. To get a sense of what Victor Castro probably participated in at least once in his life, court documents from an 1845 slave raid led by his brother Antonio tell the story of the inhumanity and contempt Spanish settlers had for the Native Americans. According to Jose Maria Treviño, one of the party’s mercenaries, Antonio Castro paid two Indian guides to lead them into the mountains and brought them within striking distance of an unsuspecting village. The dozen men stormed the village around 8 p.m., firing muskets at their fleeing prey and, as Treviño recalled, “dragging them violently from their homes.” Several of the Indians escaped into the woods. Treviño told of one party member who admitted shooting a Native and then stabbing him in the chest with a dagger. The Native also suffered head wounds that left his “brains spilled out.” As Treviño recalled for the court, one party member looked at the still-breathing Native and remarked, “If there were any water around here, I would baptize him so that he would not die a heathen.” Instead, the raider shot him dead. Later that night, one witness told the court, another assailant encountered a young Native female, “and he grabbed her, taking her by the waist.” A gang rape followed. The witness said that afterward, their leader Antonio Castro “wanted to fool around some more … the man was absolutely fiendish.” In all, Antonio Castro’s slave raid netted 150 Natives, who were divided among the party’s leaders.

While historians have generally placed Victor Castro outside the genocide of the times, other accounts show that he was intimately familiar with the violence of the era. In one settler’s journals, the writer describes Victor ordering the execution of two Natives who stole from him: “In 1843, sixty or seventy Indians commanded by the brother of Yoscolo came to the Rancho San Pablo, stole several hundred horses, and then retreated. One of the owners of the rancho, Victor Castro, with his brother and four other Californians, and two domesticated Indians, went in pursuit. The thieves were found in the neighborhood of Mount Diablo. The little party approached, and succeeded in capturing two of the Indians, whom they put to instant death.”

Aside from this single act of corporal punishment, Victor Castro’s name usually appears next to acts of generosity and bravery, or skilled business maneuvers. Sometime in the early to mid-1860s, he wrapped all three of those virtues into one when he assisted the Mexican army in its war for independence.

Castro had made a fortune at the East Bay port. He owned a barge, and long before bridges arrived, he charged top dollar to ferry goods and people across the bay. Castro was born in the Republic of Mexico, but after the United States claimed the territory, he selected US citizenship under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Still, when the French invaded Mexico in early 1861, Castro headed the call for Mexican sovereignty and captained his barge to fight against the European invaders. He sailed with supplies for a small army: seven thousand rifles, barrels of gunpowder, and musket balls, along with uniforms for three thousand soldiers. He brought $1,000 in gold coins and a small militia of thirty Mexican men and another forty Americans — “men who were acquainted with the art of war,” as court documents from the era show. After porting on the western side of Mexico, Castro marched the party six hundred miles east to meet with rebel forces in Chihuahua.

“Don Castro fought bravely in Mexico,” historian Mero writes, “until the French were expelled and the Archduke was captured and shot.” After the war, Castro never received payment from the government he helped put into power. According to a lawsuit he later filed against the Mexican government, he was promised hundreds of acres in the state of Sonora for his services, which he never received. Mero writes that Castro was paid only $13,000.

By the time Castro returned to the East Bay, his vast rancho was shrinking. California statehood and the new legal system that accompanied it had shifted the rules on property rights. Native and immigrant squatters had also settled on his land, and boundary disputes between members of the Castro family had devolved into a litigious mess. The numerous claims for a piece of the rancho originally granted to Victor’s father Don Francisco eventually ended up in court in what was later known as the “Great Land Case.” After a California state judge took nearly two decades to untangle the claims and complaints, more than 150 people were awarded plots on the former Rancho San Pablo. Victor Castro was left with three hundred acres.

Still a powerful man in his later years, Castro served as an elected official in Contra Costa County. He worked to widen San Pablo Avenue for the cattle trade between Martinez and Oakland, a move that ultimately served his own business interests. His two-story adobe on San Pablo Avenue became a welcoming place for traveling dignitaries and one of the region’s architectural landmarks.

Victor Castro died in 1900, still bitter about the legal headaches caused by his family members in the “Great Land Case.” Although he left thousands of dollars and real estate to his friends and second wife, he left only a pittance to those he felt had wronged him. In his will, Castro wrote, “To my daughter Isabelle, who with my other children by my first wife have brought lawsuits against me and involved me in much trouble and sorrow, I leave my forgiveness and ten dollars.”

At the start of the 20th century, El Cerrito’s population was 900. By 1956, it was a robust 17,000, many of whom lived in postwar suburban homes that began popping up near San Pablo Avenue and then spread west toward the water and east toward the hills. That same year, during a fierce battle between developers who wanted to build apartment buildings at the site of Castro’s adobe and historians who wanted to preserve it, the structure was destroyed in a blaze set by an arsonist who was never captured.

The arsonist’s success still upsets local historians, in the way that a long-lost love pesters the soul. “To the extent the city had any history, that was it,” Conley recalled, shaking her head. “It would have made a great museum.”

Today, Victor Castro’s place as a major pillar in El Cerrito’s settlement is undeniable, even if landmarks bearing his name remain rare. Historians like to portray him in near-saintly terms, a man of ethical heights and self-discipline stuck in a time and place when such character traits were especially noteworthy. Still, documents also prove that Castro was hardly removed from the violence and tragedy committed against Native Americans. Like most historical figures, the real Victor Castro probably rests somewhere between these two stereotypes, lost in the exchange of files among historians from one generation to the next.

Now, other than the gently warping artwork in the community center, all that remains to mark Victor Castro’s life in El Cerrito is a bronze plaque where his adobe once stood, across from a Borders bookstore and not far from a Macaroni Grill restaurant.

After Joann Steck-Bayat submitted her report to the city, El Cerrito residents Peter and Rosemary Loubal read about the controversy in the West County Times under the headline “Mural Draws Criticism.” The October 17 story said the mural was on the fast track for a takedown.

Peter Loubal was shocked to see the city government flirt with censorship so quickly. Loubal, an immigrant from what is now the Czech Republic, has lived under regimes that deploy public art without dialogue and remove undesired images just as effortlessly. The swiftness of this process had an antidemocratic air about it, and the lack of citizen protest was equally disturbing to him. “But I could understand why no one wanted to touch this one,” Peter said in his Czech accent.”Who wants to be considered racist?”

Since their arrival in El Cerrito more than ten years ago, the Loubals have taken full advantage of the democratic process. They actively shape El Cerrito’s community discourse through their own grassroots campaigns. Shortly after they arrived, they organized a movement that prevented AMC Theatres from erecting a five-thousand-seat theater complex in their neighborhood. And the couple is currently entrenched in the tall trees vs. views of the bay debate. “We’re normally very progressive and typically liberal,” Peter Loubal says. “We’re also vocal criticizers of just about everything … everything that needs to be criticized.”

After reading about the mural, Peter and Rosemary visited the community center to get a look at the piece. Peter came away with two impressions: first, that what he had just viewed was not art per se. He prefers to call it an “artifact.” But two, neither was it racist. If public art is racist based on the omission of cultures or the crimes committed against them, he reasoned, then all public art would need to include everyone.

So Peter protested the mural’s removal and Rosemary spoke later that winter at the next meeting of the Arts and Culture Commission, which had been created just about a year earlier. Usually, the commission meetings are passive sessions for discussing what arts programs the city should engage in. But the Loubals brought some politics to the event. “Why would we want to remove any artifacts from El Cerrito?” Rosemary asked at the meeting. “We have so few.”

Meanwhile, across town, Art Schroeder had read the same article in the West County Times. The 96-year-old Schroeder is president of the El Cerrito Historical Society. Like the Loubals, he considered his own personal experience in formulating his opinion about the mural, and concluded that the piece was offensive for the same reasons that Cruz had. Schroeder grew up in New York, on the border of an Indian reservation. “I got inoculated across the Hudson,” he recalls today. “I’ve got the Native Americans very close to my heart.”

Schroeder has lived in El Cerrito for fifty years and has an extensive home library on Native American history. He, too, did some reading on Victor Castro, and was particularly upset by General Vallejo’s reprimand of the young ranchero for his part in the 1836 slave raid. “The only reason Vallejo didn’t challenge him to a duel,” Schroeder suggests, “is because Vallejo was a general.”

At the next meeting of the city council, Schroeder filled the chambers with some unusually passionate oratory of a type the council doesn’t often hear. Once again, he railed, the Natives have been left out of the narrative of this land.

“By allowing this mural to remain, we are choosing to ignore the genocide against the Native Americans,” Schroeder told the council. “Here we are in the 21st century, in a great town with a great government and a great community. And what do we have hanging on the wall to celebrate it? A person who kidnapped Indian children and was reprimanded by General Vallejo.”

Schroeder had his own reasons for embracing the mural as an issue, he later said. As he approaches the end of his life, he said, he can no longer sit idle when the chance arises to speak out against an injustice. “At my age, I just can’t tolerate this shit without doing something about it.”

Art Schroeder thought his comments had fallen on deaf ears. “They probably thought, ‘Here goes one of Schroeder’s escapades again,’ so they weren’t about to assist me.”

In fact, just the opposite had occurred. City administrators took note that the president of the El Cerrito Historical Society had argued for removal of the mural. “If Art goes to something, people tend to think he’s talking on behalf of the historical society, when he’s just talking for himself,” said Panas, his colleague in the society. “It’s understandable.”

On March 3, Sandy Chapek wrote the city manager that she’d received recommendations from two committees endorsing removal. Since the grand opening of the city’s new swim center was just four weeks away, Chapek suggested that the mural be removed before the ribbon cutting. The new swim center abuts the community center, and the event would draw large crowds.

“Based upon the recommendations of both the Human Relations Commission and the Arts and Culture Commission, the city crew has been asked to remove the mural in time for the swim center grand opening,” Chapek wrote in her memo. “The crew will take as much care as possible in the removal process. It is our intent to donate the mural to the historical society.”

Chapek’s memo surprised the Loubals, who figured that removing an artifact would at least entail discussion by the city council. But the memo suggested that workers had already been ordered to take it down, even though it didn’t say who had ordered the removal.

The memo also surprised Joann Steck-Bayat, who said that the Human Relations Commission had never formally voted to recommend the mural’s removal, but simply “tossed around the idea.” Chapek, for her part, insists that she correctly interpreted both commissions’ underlying intents.

Following the public release of Chapek’s memo in early March, Rosemary Loubal addressed the city council at its next meeting on March 15. “Removal of artifacts because they offend a group in power has an ancient history,” she began. She indulged in some theater of hyperbole, if only to make a grander statement. “I feel the Human Relations Commission did not go far enough in their criticism of the mural,” she said, and then listed all of the people and cultures the muralist excluded: “Working women, gay and lesbian figures, people of all races present in California at that time, the fat and the thin, the young and the old, poor and rich, the sick and people with disabilities.”

Rosemary asked the council members to draw up some rules governing the removal of historic artifacts. She also asked them to resist being so beholden to one voice. She used an example of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan that dynamited two 2,000-year-old Buddha statues that had been carved into a mountainside, because the ruling class was offended by the content, not the craft.

“Let us not rush to be the Californian Taliban,” Rosemary said.

From the perspective of the public, no one really knew what the council members were thinking. There was no official discussion of the mural at the March 15 meeting, and since it wasn’t formally on the council’s agenda, Rosemary Loubal’s comments amounted to nothing more than a public rant, albeit a timely one. Yet someone evidently made a decision after the meeting. City manager Scott Hanin said since it was his understanding that neither committee had taken a formal position, he said he instructed city staff to leave the issue for the time being. “There are no current plans to take it down,” he wrote in a brief e-mail interview.

The swim center opened on April 3 and the mural remained in place. Mayor pro tem Sandy Potter told the West County Times the following week that she’d personally requested that the mural stay put until the council could weigh in on the subject. “It became clear that enough people were interested,” she told the paper.

Steck-Bayat said the city has proposed a novel “joint meeting” among the Human Relations Commission, the Arts and Culture Commission, and the historical society. Although a date hasn’t been set, she says one option already being discussed is to paint another mural on the opposite wall that celebrates Native Americans.

That’s a solution Art Schroeder would endorse. “It’s high time we did something for the Natives,” he said.

Meanwhile, Tom Panas, treasurer of the historical society, called for an official vote of his group on the subject of the mural. Over lunch, and despite president Schroeder’s stance, the society took its first official position: Keep the mural as is. According to Panas, “I didn’t hear one ‘nay’ at the meeting” — which included Schroeder.

For now, the controversy that seemed to arrive from nowhere has temporarily cooled down, probably in advance of the next heated debate. After the three-way commission meets, perhaps as early as this summer, yet another report will be issued to the city manager’s office and the process likely will repeat itself. When the item finally reaches the city council for comment, the opinions on both sides will have been sharpened to fine points. Assessments of Victor Castro’s character will have become more detailed, and soliloquies about the genocide committed against Native Americans will have grown more impassioned.

In short, El Cerrito’s efforts to have a discussion about diversity seemed to have worked. The Diversity Forum spawned a citywide dialogue about race, albeit not in the way that anyone planned. Cruz’ comments were taken seriously, and once his words registered with those who hold power in the city, the wheels of democracy slowly spun into action. The community was left to determine for itself whether the mural’s artwork is actually offensive. And as muralist Wehrle noted, the stakes are high: Every time a public artwork goes up or comes down, the decision shapes the community’s profile.

“I’m not sure anyone knew it was there in the first place,” says Britt Johnson, a longtime El Cerrito resident who has followed the incident. “So this controversy seemed to sprout up out of nowhere, honestly. We’ve never gone down this road before, but maybe that’s because we don’t have much public art, so we’re not sure how to handle it. But I tell you, we’re trying.”

Cesar Cruz, however, has been surprisingly uninvolved in the search for a solution. Since rising to speak at the Diversity Forum on that Saturday morning last fall, he hadn’t revisited the community center until just recently to appear in a photograph for this article. On the day of the original event, Cruz even left the forum prematurely, before the afternoon discussion group began. After weighing what he considered the contrived nature of the event, he came to the conclusion that his own personal message didn’t fit the one being promoted at the meeting. “I just got tired of it,” he recalled, “and I looked at my girlfriend and said, ‘You know what? Let’s go.'”

So it wasn’t until recently that Cruz first learned that Victor Castro isn’t holding a gun after all, and that he’d fought for Mexican independence. He said those details matter little. “I still think it should be taken down,” he said. “It’s inaccurate and offensive.”

One week after the forum, Cruz said, someone with the city called to ask him to consider sitting on a panel to discuss creating a new mural. Cruz said he can’t remember who called, but adds that he declined. He is no artist, he noted, and would rather see a muralist take his spot on the dais. And other than that brief conversation, which no one else interviewed for this story ever mentioned, Cruz said that was the only communication he ever had with the city regarding the mural. “They told me they’d call me,” he said. “They never did.”

Had the city ever called him, however, Cruz might have been too busy to take the call. In March, he began organizing the “March 4 Education” from the school where he worked as a conflict-resolution manager to the steps of the state capitol, 75 miles away. In April, just two weeks after Cruz was let go by Downer Elementary for what school officials called “poor job performance” and what his supporters viewed as punishment for his political efforts, Cruz was joined on his march by about fifty students, parents, and teachers. They spent the week of spring break walking from El Cerrito to the governor’s office to protest budget cuts in education and to demand the state forgive a 1991 bailout loan to the West County School District. Before leaving, Cruz had said he received a promise of a formal meeting with Governor Schwarzenegger. But when the contingent finally arrived on a Friday, the governor was either sealing his deal on workers’ comp legislation or had already left for his Los Angeles home for the weekend. Cruz met with an aide instead.

So, feeling snubbed and complaining that the governor hadn’t met the marchers’ demands, Cruz organized the “Fast 4 Education,” which began on May 10 in front of Oakland City Hall. The event attracted a lot of ink and flash, but the venue seemed odd. Not only was Oakland not within the West County School District, city governments — just like school districts — are partly at the mercy of the state’s budget. Still, Cruz told reporters that his fast would last “indefinitely,” until the group’s demands were met.

When the strikers propped up tarps in Frank Ogawa Plaza to provide some cooling shade, Police Chief Richard Word personally yanked the stakes out of the ground, prohibiting a “tent city” on city property. Officers also cited the group for hauling in a portable toilet without a permit, and Chief Word told the campers they would be arrested if they slept overnight in the plaza. Finally, after six days of spectacle during which the strikers went home during the evenings and presumably continued their fasts there, famed union organizer Dolores Huerta arrived to support Cruz and told him to move his operation to the larger stage in Sacramento. “You’re in the wrong place,” she said.

The following day, Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown walked out of his office to visit the group. He said he too supported their activism, but also suggested that the group would find a more suitable audience in the state capitol. In fact, if they wanted to head north, Brown said he’d even arrange for an Oakland Parks and Recreation van to drive them there.

Cesar Cruz agreed, and moved on to his next cause.

Seen This Work?
Then send clues here.
The mural that now hangs inside El Cerrito’s community center was created by an unknown artist. We’d like to find him or her. The mural first appeared in 1967, when a manager from Mechanics Bank allegedly commissioned the piece. Former bank employees say the image was used for a postcard advertisement, and the artist’s name may be on the back of those cards. In the mid-1980s, the bank underwent a remodeling and the mural was reconfigured. Some pieces were donated to the city; others were destroyed or given away, the story goes. We’re collecting clues, and would appreciate your help.

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