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The Community: Celebrating Emigdio Vasquez

Linda Thomas

My association with Emigdio Vasquez began in the fall of 1990 with a knock on the door of his apartment in the basement of his parents’ home on Cypress Street in Orange. I first heard of Emigdio when my daughter, who was taking a course at Santa Ana College in the history of mural painting with Shifra Goldman, asked me to accompany her on a drive around Orange County to look at murals painted by Latino artists. One stop was the Friendly Center, next door to Vasquez’ 1979 mural El Proletariado de Aztlán.


As a faculty member of the School of Humanities at Irvine Valley College, I had recently been asked to serve as managing editor of the college’s journal of writing and art, The Ear. Each year for eight years, the journal had solicited and published work by writers and artists in Orange County, and I hoped that during my tenure, I might hear voices and visit neighborhoods that could help to grow the community created by The Ear.


More than thirty years have passed since that first meeting with Emigdio, but I must have telephoned him and requested a meeting to talk about how his work might be featured in The Ear. My field is writing, so I enlisted the help of a colleague, Jim Dobbs, the college’s art historian, to accompany me on that first visit. Up a driveway, down a short flight of stairs, and when the door opened, there stood Emigdio, round face, dark hair combed back from his forehead, the dark mustache and soul patch, a directness in his dark eyes that I thought came with an artist’s habit of looking.


What I saw of the apartment were two rooms, windowless, the second room filled with stacks of Emigdio’s canvasses leaning against the walls. He painted not only murals, but oils on canvas, as well—portraits of friends and historical figures, scenes from his neighborhood there in Orange. Two things emerged from that initial meeting: first, I began to drive around the county to see Emigdio’s murals—at that time, seventeen—and to photograph portions of the murals that I found especially interesting or beautiful. Eventually, my photo of the girl with the cotton sack thrown over her shoulder, taken at the Manzanita Park mural, Toward the Twenty-first Century, in Anaheim, became the cover for the Spring 1991 issue of The Ear.


The second outcome of that initial meeting was an invitation to return to Emigdio’s home to conduct an interview aimed at learning the history of Emigdio’s passion for art, in particular, art that depicts the political, cultural, and social struggles of his Chicano community. During that interview, I recall sitting on the floor of Emigdio’s front room, surrounded by shelves of his books on art and politics, and pressing the levers on an old recorder that I had brought from the college Humanities Center, holding up a microphone as the two men talked. Prof. Dobbs sat on the sofa, asking questions, while Emigdio sat in an overstuffed chair. He spoke easily, clearly willing and eager to talk about his life immersed in the lines, values, and colors of his world.


The following spring when I hosted a reception for the new issue of The Ear, Vol No. 8, Prof. Dobbs and I, with the help of Emigdio, had selected among Emigdio’s paintings and hung them in the A300 hallway gallery of the college, just outside the door of the Humanities Center where a lively evening of guests and contributors enlarged the community that Emigdio imagined for his work.


By the following fall, IVC’s student organization, MEChA, Movimiento Estudiantil Chicana/o de Aztlan, and its faculty advisor, Francisco Marmolejo, had made contact with Emigdio and drawn him into the students’ efforts to bring awareness of Chicana/o culture to their campus. He was invited to participate in events such as Cinco de Mayo, Dia de Los Muertos, Kindercaminata, and by 1992, Emigdio had begun to paint a mural for Irvine Valley College, titled, La Educacion y El Trabajo.


Emigdio painted the IVC mural on a portable canvas that originally stood against a wall in the college cafeteria. As he worked on the painting, students would visit him, ask questions, and watch him demonstrate techniques of painting in public spaces. It was a time of growth and vision for what a colleague calls “the little college in the orange grove,” a time when faculty and students were served by an administration that respected creativity and consciousness. That time came to an end, and IVC and its sister college, Saddleback, underwent years of repression by a governing board and administration. During those twenty-five years, Emigdio’s mural languished in anonymity, splattered with ketchup in the cafeteria, then scuffed by passing shoes and backpacks in the hallway of the old library building.


Shortly after Vaszuez's death in 2014, Lisa Alvarez, IVC professor of writing and literature, a visionary and activist who saw Emigdio’s mural for the treasure it is, began to speak to the administrators of the college and the college district about the need to restore the mural and to rehang it in a place where it would be safe and visible for generations of students. She argued, presented evidence, cajoled, embarrassed, and by the fall of 2015, the college found a location for the mural, suspended in the ceiling of the college library where it would be lit from a skylight and visible to all who entered and studied there. The college agreed to have the mural repaired by Higgy Vasquez, Emigdio’s son, and much work was done to engineer the hanging of the forty-foot long mural, funded by the Office of the President of the college. That September, a celebration on campus brought together communities not only from the college but from the Chicano community, Emigdio’s family and friends, and IVC retirees like myself who’d had a hand in bringing this iconic maestro of art to Irvine Valley College.

If you would like to see Emigdio’s mural at IVC, visit the library there in Irvine. If you would like to see his paintings collected by his friend and patron, Fred Ortiz, many are on exhibit at the Hilbert Museum of California Art in Orange until August 3. While you are there, step outside the back of the Hilbert onto Cypress Street, walk three blocks north, and spend some time looking at El Proletariado de Aztlán. The community Emigdio envisioned continues to grow.

Photos: Roy Bauer, Dissent the Blog


Linda Thomas is a retired community college writing professor. She now volunteers for Sea and Sage Audubon as a birder and naturalist.

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