A great piece of art inspires, defines a community, and provokes ... even when it depicts a giant hot-sauce bottle and a soccer game. In 1994, Vincent Valdez created such an art piece (facilitated by a mural-design contest sponsored by Tabasco McIlhenny), on the exterior wall of Luther Burbank High School, where he was then a 16-year-old student. Working with mentor, and current Blue Star Contemporary Art Center educator, Alex Rubio, Valdez spent his spring break creating the epic soccer match between an Aztec warrior and a Tabasco-wielding player above the title “Hispanic Soccer! Muy Caliente.” It was visible on the South Side from I-35 near the I-10 interchange. There it stayed for 16 years, becoming a Burbank beacon, and a physical reminder of one of the school’s favorite sons who went on to a full scholarship at Rhode Island School of Design and critical success as a young Chicano artist known for taking on social strife.
And then, overnight, the mural disappeared. “I was just passing by I-35 on Friday evening,” said Arthur Valdez, Vincent’s father, who still lives near Burbank. “It was still up. Then on Saturday around 12:30 or 1 p.m. I drove by and looked; it was gone. I did a double-take.” Valdez, like many of his neighbors, was deeply angered by the mural’s swift and quiet removal. To him and a group of 280-plus people in the neighborhood and on Facebook, the mural’s destruction symbolizes yet another outsider imposing his or her will on the modest community.
“The lifespan of a mural is never certain,” said Vincent Valdez by phone from his Los Angeles home. “That’s just the way it goes. But there’s an underlying issue in the way the district handled the situation.”
The QueQue accompanied Arthur Valdez and concerned Burbank alums Fernando Velazquez and Pete Herrera to the high school early Monday morning. Valdez wanted to give the principal, Mona Lopez, his personal perspective. Velazquez, who spearheaded last year’s effort to save Burbank from closure by SAISD, was met with hugs and encouragement from enthusiastic staff members — “Don’t let her get away with it!” Told Lopez would not arrive until 9 a.m., we killed time admiring Valdez’s still-intact cafeteria murals of rock stars, also completed during his high-school days, and a 1966 class photo showing a young Arthur and his future wife. When we heard a loudspeaker announcement that all faculty and staff would meet at 9, Valdez inquired at the front desk whether Lopez would actually be available to speak that morning. The staff didn’t know, so Valdez said he would wait for her in the entrance lobby.
Just then, we were met by a police officer and an assistant principal; two other police officers appeared at the front door. “Can we help you?” asked Assistant Principal Roy Gregg. Valdez explained he wished to speak with Lopez, and Gregg said Lopez would call Valdez after 4 p.m. Valdez, an affable man of slight stature, held his ground. “That was a gift to the school, and all of a sudden it’s gone,” he said in an even tone. “I’m very, very upset about it. `Lopez` never spoke to anyone in the community about it. This is our community, not her community.” Before we left, Valdez added, “I’m going to take this all the way to the top. I just want to know what her main reason is.” After we were safely outside, the two police officers at the doors left the campus. “They were here just for us,” Velazquez said.
The Valdezes, Velazquez, and Alex Rubio are offended that neither Lopez, school-board representative Adela Segovia, nor anyone else in San Antonio ISD reached out to the community to gauge interest in preserving the mural, or contacted the artists about it. They point to the painting contractors’ seemingly overnight transformation of the westward-facing wall from vibrant art to blank slate as further proof that the paint job was meant to be completed with as little community interference as possible.
According to Segovia and SAISD spokesperson Leslie Price, had they known the mural was Vincent’s this controversy may never have happened. Segovia said painting over the mural was part of a long-planned facelift for the school. During the year-long process of identifying areas that needed sprucing up, the principal walked Burbank’s campus with the paint contractors, flagging important murals with signatures for preservation and letting others go. Not seeing Valdez’s signature on the soccer mural, they decided to whitewash it.
Price seconded that explanation in a separate phone conversation. Segovia and Price said both the wall and mural were weathered and chipped, though Rubio said if he were contacted, perhaps he could have arranged for a restoration. As for Valdez’s missing signature, which is prominently featured in a photo belonging to Arthur Valdez, “maybe it fell off,” offered Segovia.
Actually, Vincent Valdez said, the signature washed away in a rainstorm that started pouring just after he and Rubio signed their work. But parties we spoke to said many teachers, staff members, students, and neighbors would have been able to identify it as Valdez’s work. In fact, it was part of a tour sponsored by the San Antonio Museum of Art that Valdez led just last year. “All the `Burbank` teachers knew who painted it,” said Arthur Valdez. “The district decided it didn’t matter.”
Price and Segovia said they did not reach out to anyone to discover who painted the mural or whether it was salvageable. Segovia at least accepts partial blame. “It was a judgment call across the district,” to repaint the mural, she said. “Maybe it’s my fault for not doing the research.”
“It’s very unfortunate that this occurred,” Price said. “There was no intention to disrespect the work of this artist.” She also said the district is taking steps “to avoid something like this happening in the future,” by cataloguing the several murals that decorate schools throughout the district. Both stressed repeatedly that none of Valdez’s other murals would be touched.
For some, including Velazquez, who’s calling for Lopez’s resignation, that may not be enough.
“It’s additional insult to the bigger injury of the City trying to shut down the school,” said Vincent Valdez, referencing an SAISD plan released last year recommending the closing of Burbank to save money. During public meetings last fall, residents turned out in droves pleading to keep the school open and helped elect Segovia, who ran for her school-board seat on a pledge to save Burbank.
If the alums are passionate about their alma mater, they’re just as inspired by Valdez’s mural. “What it demonstrated was that individuals are able to do more than their surroundings,” said Andro Mendoza, Burbank ’86, a marketing professor at Northwest Vista. Albert Cruz, ’02, said when he recently returned home on vacation from his New York banking job, he took a visiting friend straight to see the mural as an example of the community’s Hispanic pride. “It’s a symbol of Burbank, it’s a symbol of community, and it’s a symbol of an individual who has done great things. … The decision to paint over it seems to have been done with mal-intention, or at least with a great deal of ignorance.”
A table of neighborhood flyers greeted participants in Saturday’s E3 Summit, the fifth meeting in Mayor Julián Castro and District 2 Councilwoman Ivy Taylor’s Eastside redevelopment initiative. Historic Dignowity Hill was represented, of course, and there were one-sheets for East Terrell Hills and something called the Jupe Addition. But no love for Denver Heights, where much of the City’s demolition action has happened during the past year `see “East Side land mine,” April 28`. (We’re looking forward to future infill development, Taylor told the audience, although that wasn’t on the day’s agenda. “We’ve got a lot of vacant lots.”)
In attendance at Sam Houston High School (recently pulled from the district chopping block): many representatives from Frost Bank, whose scion Pat was hosting, Wells Fargo, several real-estate agents, and City departments galore. Also spotted: a few community members and representatives, including Taj Matthews, and elected reps Castro, Taylor, and County Commissioner Tommy Adkisson, who found time away from his open-records battle with the Express-News (release those emails, Tommy!) to issue what many took as an apology for so little Eastside action during his 12-year tenure.
Calling himself “a poster child for failing forward,” Adkisson said, “I’ve struck out, but I don’t mind it,” and then essentially handed the ball to City Manager Sheryl Sculley, saying, “Sheryl, you’re where the rubber meets the road.”
Sculley obliged with a report on the enforcement efforts promised back in January when the summiting began. Twenty-five of the 50 additional officers funded by federal stimulus money were assigned to focus on prostitution and narcotics on the East Side, resulting in a 20-percent reduction in violent crime and an 11-percent reduction in property crime over last year. The City had exceeded its goal of increasing stray-animal pickups by 50 percent, she said — according to Animal Care Services, they’ve nabbed more than 900 strays in District 2 since the beginning of the year, compared to 446 in the same timeframe last year — which has resulted in fewer dead animals on the street as well. Her forces have also secured some 361 vacant buildings through May, attaching liens to the properties to recoup the expense, and cleaned up 3,400 tons of bulky trash, 500 tons more than in the same period in 2009. Their efforts have been focused on the area’s main corridors, and, “the anecdotal feedback is that we are making progress,” she said. The update was more vague when it came to large economic-development projects. The priorities identified by stakeholders at the first summit roundtables were name-checked, including the Friedrich Building, the Sutton Homes, Wheatley Heights, and the Walters Street charette (draft report coming soon), but details were scarce.
Police Chief William McManus followed in Sculley’s footsteps and reiterated some of the City Manager’s good news with an emphasis on “long-term process.” His troops have logged a 29-percent increase in prostitution arrests, he said, and a 24-percent increase in narcotics-related busts, adding up to the highest reduction in crime of any area in the city. “The amount of narcotics seized is just astonishing,” he said.
Enthusiasm was less pronounced in the workshop on home improvement, where there wasn’t enough focus on grants, as opposed to loans, said two attendants — more on that in the June 23 Current, along with a report on the City’s pioneering partnership with Trinity University to address community schools.
Jaws of life
In the nick of time for your summer outings to the theme park of your choice, the QueQue chewed the fat with David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for the Occupational Safety and Health Adminstration (aka OSHA), who has lately been issuing some strong words to the entertainment industry, which includes fun-plexes like Six Flags Fiesta Texas and SeaWorld.
Forget your own experiences with neck-snapping rollercoasters and hand-biting dolphins in the petting pond for a moment, and focus on the plight of amusement-park workers. While we always sympathized with ride gatekeepers wilting in summer’s high-noon sun, OSHA had more serious reasons to take a second look at conditions for these workers, as well as those in theaters and movie studios.
“In recent months OSHA has seen the deaths of several workers in the entertainment industry; those deaths were caused by hazardous conditions,” Michaels said. “It has become clear to us that hazardous conditions exist across the industry.” Though he couldn’t name names due to pending investigations, we’re guessing the recent death of Dawn Brancheau, a SeaWorld trainer pulled underwater by a killer whale, made a big blip on the OSHA radar. Once the results of the investigation are released, we’ll be interested in whether Brancheau’s death gets treated as a “willful violation” of worker safety, subject to the highest OSHA violation fine of $70,000. Michaels, again speaking generally, said such violations are based on reasonable employer knowledge that something is dangerous.
We wondered if previous similar or related incidents contribute to a finding of “knowledge.” “Oh, absolutely,” said Michaels. We asked because people like Naomi Rose at the Humane Society International and others in anti-animal captivity organizations have argued for years that previous fatal and severely injurious interactions between trainers and captive marine animals prove the behavior isn’t a fluke. After SeaWorld San Diego trainer Kenneth Peters was dragged underwater by another killer whale in 2007, escaping with puncture wounds and a broken foot, the California division of OSHA issued a report stating it was “only a matter of time” before a fatality like Brancheau’s occurred. The department later rewrote the report to “only stick to the facts,” after engaging in two days of talks with SeaWorld management. Tilikum, the whale that killed Brancheau, had been involved with two previous trainer fatalities. Last weekend, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals staged a protest outside of SeaWorld San Antonio highlighting, among other things, this very fact.
Whether SeaWorld gets cited for a “willful” OSHA violation, a more common violation carrying an up to $7,000 fine, or no violation at all, Michaels wants establishments like SeaWorld (and convention centers, theaters, and amusement parks) to know OSHA is keeping an eye on them, and if Congress passes the Protecting America’s Workers Act to increase penalties for OSHA violators, the entertainment industry will not be spared. “A human life is worth a lot more than $7,000,” said Michaels. “You can quote me on that.”
While fishing families along the Gulf are in for a world of hurt from the still-spreading BP oil spill — as are the crabs, shrimp, and redfish they depend upon — a larger open-water fish found in every grocery store in America may be facing more disastrous consequences: the western Atlantic bluefin tuna.
“That is one species I am most concerned about,” Gary Graham, a longtime marine-fisheries specialist with Texas Sea Grant Extension, told the QueQue. “That area where that well was is near, if it’s not the ground, it’s very near a very important spawning ground for bluefin tuna.” Before the industry dialed back commercial tuna production in the Gulf in the 1980s in response to dwindling stocks, both Japanese and U.S. fleets targeted the waters near the site of the Deepwater Horizon rig that exploded on April 22, he said.
Adding to his tuna worries is Graham’s belief that the fish had released their eggs into the Gulf in the days before the well blowout. “Fish produced during that time never did fetch a price because the fat content was low,” indicating they had already spawned, he said.
While the adult bluefin have likely headed out to the Atlantic Ocean, researchers with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are drawing thin-meshed plankton nets near to the spill area, seeking to quantify the impact of what has become the largest offshore oil spill in U.S. history on the larval tuna. And the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity has filed a formal petition for the listing of both the western and eastern Atlantic bluefin tuna as endangered species under U.S. law.
Due to the tuna’s wide-ranging habits, they have to be managed internationally. Three months ago, a motion supported by the U.S. to list the Atlantic bluefin at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species was voted down after intense lobbying by tuna-hungry Japan, causing activists to declare the body had “set the species on a pathway to extinction.”
Like everything spill-related, the full scope of the impact on the tuna will take time to become clear. “In terms of knowing how the spill may affect the bluefin tuna, the western stock, that will be some time before we know,” a NOAA spokesperson told the QueQue. “We tend to rely on landings data … and you don’t land these babies until they’re a lot bigger.” •