Alumnus and muralist Oscar Martinez returned to the University to witness his mural showcase, despite the controversy it sparked 45 years ago when it was painted.
On Feb. 21, the presentation of the mural was split into two separate viewing events; one was held at the Illini Union and the other at the Spurlock Museum, where the mural panels were recently installed. The mural was originally completed by Martinez in 1975, and located at the previous La Casa Cultural Latina Center.
It continues to be a symbol of the Latinx student experience and marks their hope for a new and improved La Casa in the next few years.
“As soon as we got the keys to La Casa we found out that it was scheduled to be demolished and that’s when I suggested, ‘Why don’t we do a mural that all students can feel that they’re a part of?” Martinez said. “So that once we leave the University, future generations can be connected to the mural, and actually I must say, it worked.”
Having the murals welcomed by the University and being placed in such prominent areas of foot traffic is contrasting to how the murals were viewed during the time Martinez started painting them. According to Martinez, creating the piece was considered a defacement of property but to him it was a necessary reaction to sustain La Casa’s existence, which had just opened during that time.
The event was spread out through the day and was filled with old and new faces among faculty and students that mingled and reminisced on their time at the University. At the Illini Union, the first noticeable thing while going upstairs to the brunch area is the large mural panel of a woman reaching for the sky. Next to it is the second panel, that Martinez refers to as “The Graduate,” of a person in a cap and gown reaching down to those below him/her.
As people linger analyzing the captivating details of the panels, forming many clusters, Martinez walks in and everyone starts to surround him greeting and praising his work. He talks to each person, smiling and engaging with as many people as he can, from undergraduate students he has never met, to old friends.
The Spurlock Museum had double the amount of visitors, including previous directors of La Casa, Chancellor Robert Jones and Latino student activists from different generations. The bright sky peered through the surrounding windows as you walked in and were met with a table of glass beverages and nametags. Further inside the museum, the light became dimmer and the three large mural panels with a human figure in each claimed their space. Chatter grew louder and louder as people greeted each other and discussed the murals. A coordinator with a microphone started to grab the attention of the crowd, all went silent, waiting to hear the guest speakers/contributors of the mural.
Each guest speaker either participated in the installment of the panels or were impacted by the mural, including student activists. Generations of Latinx students have faced challenges at the University and have constantly sought for proper representation and resources due to being such a small percentage on campus. Martinez created the mural in protest against the destruction of La Casa. In 1992, Latinx students led more protests feeling that their demands were still unmet.
Although not all were met, they achieved a new La Casa, a Latino/a studies department, and more Latino/a faculty members and students. Marielse Valezquez, an alumni and activist, said that when she started school, the mural was the first thing she noticed at La Casa and seeing it now made her realize she lived in almost every panel of the mural.
“I was the student that the machine tried to mold, take in, and spat out as I dropped out of college for several years. I was the student sitting head down pondering my place here, looking for a community, for a place to call home,” Valezquez said. “I was then also the beholder of three degrees from this institution now part of the machine holding that very same diploma to a new generation of students.”
The “machine” she refers to is shown on one of the mural panels that is labeled, “University of Illinois” where it shows students going in and out of. Valezquez interprets the machine as something she was able to overcome despite her struggles. She said that she is glad that the University is acknowledging the history of Latinx students like her, instead of trying to erase them.
Alicia Rodriguez, academic advisor of the Latino/a studies department, spoke about students, especially activists like Valezquez and Martinez, who made sacrifices for change.
“Oftentimes students are put in the position of being the moral conscious of the University and it’s a shame that the students have to do that, but it’s necessary,” Rodriguez said. “Some have trouble finishing because they’re doing such important work, but they are the moral conscious of the University and that’s going to continue, I think, forever.”
According to Rodriguez, there is still a lot of progress to be made for the retention of Latino students who face challenges such as family obligations at home, financial crises and mental health crises while they try to adapt to the University. She says that they are still underrepresented and marginalized to some degree.
The mural panels installed at the Spurlock Museum are planned to be there for the next ten years. By then, Martinez and others expect a new La Casa building due to the poor condition of the current one.
“First of all I wanted to thank Chancellor Jones for being involved with this whole process even if it was at the end, thank you for opening all of the inboxes,” Martinez said. “And I want to not let you off the hook, we do expect a new La Casa, state of the art, like no other the University has seen before.”
Martinez said he has aspirations for the future of Latinx students and the home that grounds them. He consistently speaks of the importance of students throughout previous movements that was kindled after the mural was made in the first La Casa.
“To listen to the speakers my only criticism about that was, I wish there was a student, a current student, getting up there and talking. That’s the only part that kind of bothered me a little bit,” Martinez said. “Because it was not about me it was about the students and without the students, including when I was a student here, none of this would have happened at all.”
Martinez said that he advocates for the students, and back when he was a teacher, he would get in trouble for defending them. He said that students are clients, and should be respected and assisted by faculty members, especially by Latinx professors who have the power to defend them.
Ivan Saucedo, a senior majoring in Latino/a studies, said that this event was the highlight of his week and that La Casa has made him feel like he was a part of something.
“I feel like La Casa and the Latino/a Studies department are a backbone to my academics here just because of the support and the resources that both departments have,” Saucedo said.
“In ten years I feel like La Casa is going to be like the African-American Cultural Center across the street because honestly they have a state of the art facility, as well as because brown students are making an impact on campus.”
According to Martinez, the mural panels represent the importance of telling your story before you die. He hopes that these murals spark conversations about personal experiences and allows for the sharing of different ideas and cultures.
“I managed to paint the mural and like I said before, having to be looking out for the police every few minutes, it was even more stressful on me,” Marinez said. “But I did it. I guess I didn’t think a lot about what I was doing in terms of the potential problems in doing what I did. I was dedicated and I believed in what I was doing and once you believe in something, it’s a part of your heart and who you are, and you do it.”
This article was written in collaboration with student members, Acacia Hernandez and Jose Zepeda, from the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.