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Chicano Park's History Could Fill a Museum – and Activists Think it Should

Neighborhood activists have decades’ worth of archives on the history of Chicano Park. They have a name picked out for a future museum, and a website. What they don’t have is a building — that’s where they hope the city steps in.

Tommie Camarillo was under the San Diego-Coronado Bay Bridge in Barrio Logan in 1970, protesting for a dozen days with community members who occupied land that was about to become a California Highway Patrol station. Her 2-year-old daughter was there, too. A picture of her kid holding a shovel ran in the newspaper.

Camarillo put the news clip in a stack of papers documenting what it took to get the city to ditch the patrol station and build Chicano Park. She’s kept track of everything that’s gone on in the park – the murals, the installation of a sculpture of Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, the construction of a kiosk, its formal recognition on the National Register of Historic Places and more.

“Walking into Tomi’s house is like walking into a library,” said Josephine Talamantez, who serves on the Chicano Park Steering Committee with Camarillo. “She’s got shelves and binders and binders and binders.”

Talamantez is trying to get Camarillo’s binders out of her home and into a proper museum and archival library. She’s already got a website and a name, the Chicano Park Museum and Cultural Center, and now Talamantez and the board members of the nonprofit she helped start are working to lease a city-owned building that butts Chicano Park.

The brick building at 1960 National Ave. was leased by San Diego Continuing Education, the San Diego Community College District’s adult education arm, for almost four decades. Last fall, the district vacated the building for its new $49 million campus in Barrio Logan.

Talamantez said the city should turn the building over her group without opening it to other bids.

“That building was initially part of the whole negotiation for this land, Chicano Park, back on April 22, 1970,” she said. “We took over this land along with that building.”

Talamantez said there were verbal agreements back then to turn the building into a community center. When the community college district wanted to lease the space, she said, community leaders agreed because the district said it would only be there a short time while it built a new campus.

“We just didn’t know it was going to take 37 years before they moved out,” Talamantez said.

The group envisions the Chicano Park Museum and Cultural Center as a museum, archival library and community center that offers art exhibitions, cooking, language and science classes and meeting space. Talamantez estimates the building will need about $5 million worth of work to add things like climate control and open galleries. She said an architectural firm donated a design of the retrofit and now they’re working on raising money to build out the space.

It’s been a bit challenging, though, said Talamantez, since they don’t yet have a lease on the building. She said she’s worried the city will ignore its own policy that says it can, in certain limited situations, exclusively consider a single proposal when leasing city property, and instead put it out to public bid.

Councilman David Alvarez, who represents the district, said he’d like to see the Chicano Park Museum and Cultural Center take up residence in the building. He said the city’s been discussing leasing information and insurance requirements with Talamantez and her group to get them ready to move in.

He stopped short of saying the city wouldn’t let others bid on the space, but said he’s confident either the Chicano Park Museum or another community-minded nonprofit would eventually go there.

“The building was always meant to be returned back for community use,” he said. “But redevelopment dissolution meant big, long delays.”

He said he’d like to see the building relate more to Chicano Park and its history.

“This is what we need to do for this wonderful park,” he said. “Because right now at Chicano Park there’s no center of facility where visitors – and we have thousands of visitors to that park; I mean, every time you go there there’s a tour bus or something going on – and we don’t have a welcome center that gives them the history and what’s what.”

Talamantez is glad to have Alvarez’s support, but she’s suspicious of the city.

And if it looks like the city isn’t going to give the space back to the community, she thinks the community would step up like they did back in the ’70s when they established Chicano Park in the first place.

“Knowing my community, that’s going to be our building no matter what,” she said.

 

Correction: An earlier version of this post misspelled Tommie Camarillo’s first name.

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