There was a time when El Salvador Park was the place to be on a Sunday afternoon.
Santa Ana residents packed the park to meet friends, listen to music, and check out the brilliant low-riders passing by, all part of a vibrant Mexican scene in the city.
On Sunday, August 28, Santa Ana celebrates this heritage and its people with a free community event billed as the first Chicano heritage festival hosted by a city in California. The festival will feature live entertainment, a car show, art and cultural exhibits, food trucks, and more from noon to 8 p.m.
It will all take place at El Salvador Park, where the adjacent neighborhood has been home to generations of Mexican American families and has seen a number of significant moments unfold.
“We highlight, commemorate and recognize the residents who have contributed to this community,” said Councilman Johnathan Ryan Hernandez, who along with Councilwoman Nelida Mendoza helped organize the festival in the working-class neighborhood of Artesia Pilar.
The celebration, funded by $50,000 from the city, follows a proclamation presented by Hernandez and Mendoza last year recognizing the month of August as Chicano Heritage Month. Next, Rep. Lou Correa, D-Santa Ana, introduced a similar resolution in Congress end of July.
On Sunday, Correa will present his resolution, which has been signed by various members of Congress.
“I’m almost in tears,” Correa said. “Having a Chicano resolution tells me that Santa Ana recognizes the contributions of a Chicano activist movement from the 60s and 70s when many people fought for recognition, fought to be part of the history of the America.”
That includes people who fell through the cracks, Hernandez said. Not everyone has a success story. And many in the neighborhood have had their share of tough times, he noted.
“What I look forward to is celebrating our resilience and the stories of redemption and triumph,” Hernandez said.
One such story is that of Nati Alvarado, Jr., a 61-year-old resident who grew up three houses from the park and whose family history in the city dates back nearly a century.
Alvarado recalls a childhood when the park “was our backyard,” with Little League baseball games and a community center that saw black and Latino kids playing together in peace. But at the age of 15, he was a father and a drug addict. It took years to turn his life around, he said, but Alvarado has since spent decades working with young people, trying to break the cycle of poverty through his nonprofit and as a pastor of a local church. One of its programs registered some 1,600 children for activities at the park this summer.
“It was a difficult period, from the 70s to the 80s, with violence and gangs. El Salvador Park had a really bad reputation, and I was part of it in the 70s,” Alvarado said. “But there was a community of people who came together” and “changed the history of El Salvador Park and our city in general,” he said.
Muralist Marina Aguilera said many young Latinos had nothing to do with gangs, but she said that was not how the police viewed them at the time.
“If you were Latino and dressed a certain way, they thought you were a gang banger,” Aguilera said.
She was part of a group called “Buena Gente” or “Good People”, which worked with young people to “change the stereotypical and negative stigma surrounding Chicano youth and bring positivity to Chicano culture”.
Aguilera also spoke about the low-rider culture in Santa Ana, where car clubs are still popular, as well as the dozens of murals depicting Mexican life that were once seen across town but painted by employees. from the city. This includes his own works, such as a now-defunct piece that depicted two ’57 Chevrolets at El Salvador Park.
“The city covered them. I feel like the hierarchy tried to erase Chicano culture,” said Aguilera, who goes by the name “La Artista Marina Aguilera” and is said to be Santa Ana’s first female muralist.
Another mural that was painted in the park, done by Aguilera and a group of artists, begins to appear as the edges of the new paint peel off. This mural depicts “the story of how the Latin American community was treated”. One section shows farmers picking strawberries. Another depicted men “doing construction and building the city”. And another showed “immigration and the police throw you in jail if you’re brown,” she said.
“It depicted (a) life that many were living at the time,” she said, claiming her mural was “screaming to come out” at El Salvador Park.
Over the years, the park has seen a number of significant moments, according to resident Manny Escamilla, who is working on a book about the city’s history.
– In January 1971, the park was part of a three-day march and demonstrations outside police stations with over 150 Chicano high school and college students protesting the Vietnam War.
– In June 1972, several hundred black and Latino students gathered at El Salvador Park to demand changes to schools, including a mandatory ethnic studies curriculum.
— In October 1972, agricultural worker leader Cesar Chavez met residents of El Salvador Park to speak out against a proposal that would have banned labor strikes and boycotts.
– In the summer of 1992, approximately 500 Latino gang members from across the county gathered at the park to codify a truce that reduced drive-by shootings in the city.
Hernandez said residents were also involved in the Chicano National Moratorium March on the Vietnam War, when on August 29, 1970, Los Angeles Times reporter and Santa Ana resident Ruben Salazar was killed by a tear gas projectile fired by a Los Angeles sheriff’s deputy. Hernandez would like to see Santa Ana honor Salazar, the first Mexican-American mainstream media journalist to cover the community, by officially acknowledging his former home.
“We were always proud to know that (Salazar) had roots here,” Hernandez said. “This story helped me when I was a kid. I want to accentuate these stories so people can be proud of where they come from.
For longtime residents, the festival celebrating Chicano culture is a new source of pride.
“It’s been a long time coming,” said Aguilera, the muralist whose family dates back to the early 1900s in Santa Ana.
Mendoza, the councilwoman who worked to bring the festival to Santa Ana, said the inaugural event, which she hopes will become annual, is an important way to celebrate Chicano culture and the community at large.
“We want to send the message that the city of Santa Ana truly values all of its residents,” she said.
Meanwhile, Alvarado, who grew up three doors down from the park, prepares for the festival.
“For us, being able to hold the first Chicano Festival at El Salvador Park means a lot to me and my friends who lived in the community in the 60s and 70s,” he said. “At the time, it was the perfect place to take a Sunday afternoon cruise. It was packed.
Come Sunday morning, Alvarado will be there – with his 1969 El Camino on display.