Born and raised in Watts, California, Judy Baca is a Mexican-American whose work shows a clear interest in the connection between social justice and the arts. Growing up, she felt a disconnect between the venues for art and accessible spaces for her community, stating that most people from Watts were either uninterested or uncomfortable with galleries and museums. Baca addresses the lack of accessibility of art for low-income communities in her murals, which are extremely public. Not only do they comment on issues that are important to lower-income communities, the works themselves are housed within those very communities.
Her most prominent work is the famous “Great Wall of Los Angeles” (formally known as “The History of California,” created from 1974-1983), one of the longest murals in the world, housed on 2,754 feet of a wall of a L.A. drainage channel in the Valley. Created by a team of artists, historians, and juvenile delinquents, the mural provides an alternative history of Los Angeles (often times using it as a model for California or the United States as a whole), giving voice to a number of movements that have not been paid much attention because of their representation of minority groups and their concerns. Providing a visual history of this area from prehistoric times to the 1960’s, it is a testament to the working peoples of Los Angeles, representing their role in the shaping and development of this city. While the work never addresses Environmental Justice directly, EJ is present in a number of the mural’s sections as the artist addresses other social issues and memorializes inter-racial harmony.
One example of the presence of Environmental Justice in the mural is the section referencing the construction of Dodger’s stadium, titled “Chavez Ravine and The Division of the Chicano Community.” It depicts how freeway construction reshaped the city of Los Angeles, much to the disadvantage of the low-income Chicano communities forced to relocate or suffer environmental and health damages. This clearly identifies an Environmental Justice issue—like we saw with CCAEJ, this section shows how it is communities of color that are taken advantage of and forced to live near environmental hazards such as freeways (with implied health effects). This section of the mural also points out that abusing a group of people can lead to greater problems, like the division of communities.
Additionally, the mural touches on issues of Environmental Justice in its representation of post-war America. Titled “Farewell to Rosie the Riveter,” this section not only laments the loss of the working woman after the end of World War II, it also shows the intense suburbanization that came out of the New Deal programs and the economic benefits of the post-war industrial boom. The mural comments on the race relations of this time, displaying whites moving into perfectly manicured homes (with a moving truck labeled “whites only”) while impoverished people of color move in the opposite direction, towards the rising towers of the city. Suburbanization is a key concept in understanding Environmental Justice, and Baca’s image captures it tastefully and poignantly.
Finally, the fact that the mural was produced on the wall of a drainage channel in Los Angeles calls on questions of environment, privilege, and accessibility. Baca’s mural shows us how a number of groups, views, struggles, and challenges can be represented by art. All of the working-class histories portrayed in the mural are relevant to current EJ struggles, even if they just provide the background (from a non-white perspective) of these issues.
Baca’s mural raises important questions: is this a fair representation of low-income Angelenos? Is it in fact objectifying to reduce a group’s struggles to just a few images on a wall? Is it offensive that this history was presented on the side of a drainage channel and not in a museum or gallery?