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Who Keeps Whitewashing Boyle Heights’ Anti-Gentrification Mural?

“We’re not going to let the gentrification of Boyle Heights go under the radar," says Viva Padilla, the founder of the anti-gentrification collective who collaborated with local artist Sergio Robleto to create the Posada-inspired art. They both have their suspicions of who is responsible for it.

6:55 PM PST on December 1, 2023

“If you don’t know this ‘hood, you’re going to know this ‘hood,” Viva Padilla tells L.A. TACO. “We’re not going to let you get away with it.” 

Padilla says this while standing beside the mural of local artist Sergio Robleto that she contracted as part of her anti-gentrification campaign in Boyle Heights. Padilla is part of a collective of tenants at 2125 E Cesar Chavez known as El Apetito-La Finessa collective, who have banded together to defend the building where the mural sits.

The José Guadalupe Posada-inspired mural features three fine-line musicians in the form of calaveras (skeletons). The powerful words “Brooklyn Ave. is not for sale” crown the trio. Underneath the skeletal figures’ boots, it says, “El lugar de los musicos norteños por 50 años.” 

The statement affirms what this approximate corner of East Cesar E Chavez Avenue and South Chicago Street has been best known for for the last 50 years: as a space where local norteño musicians were always available to hire for any gig, similar to Mariachi Plaza up the street. 

“Posada’s style is based on satire and a political statement,” says Robleto about his mural. “A lot of his work went against the established style of the time, so it was fitting for this mural to be in the Posada style.” 

The words being placed over the characters imply that the calaveras are singing these words, he tells L.A. TACO. Robleto grew up in Downey and Whittier and has proudly worked as a high school art teacher for 15 years. 

However, the words on top of the mural were buffed over with white paint on Wednesday morning, a politically inclined action known as “whitewashing, which is the often politically inclined action of painting over a mural as a form of erasure. Both Padilla and Robleto allege that Tiao Properties is responsible for the whitewashing of their mural. 

Artist Sergio Robledo stands next to his mural before the top text got whitewashed this week. Photo via Robledo.

“An eyewitness told me that at two to three in the morning, they saw the property manager's granddaughter paint over it.** (sic). This is the property owner behind this,” they both wrote in a collaborated Instagram post addressing the second time it happened yesterday. Robleto had re-painted the statement on Wednesday afternoon, only for it to be whitewashed again on Thursday.

Padilla has reached out to neighboring businesses to request surveillance footage but has been unsuccessful.

“If there’s one thing that I’ve grown a tough skin on, it’s murals being vandalized,” he says. “My emotions were affected for sure, but it also made me see that on their end, it showed their cards—they have something to hide since usually these developers pretend to be down with the culture, but really aren’t.”  

Padilla, who is a book author and runs an independent book shop named Re/Arte, located in one of the units owned by Tiao Properties, started the collective. Other members include the Oaxacan mom-and-daughter team behind El Apetito restaurant and La Finessa, a beauty salon that currently rents out the commercial units owned by Tiao. The owners of El Apetito also live in a residential unit located on the property. 

Viva Padilla and Rosa Garcia, two members of El Apetito-La Finessa collective. Photo via @el_apetito_finessa_colectivo/Instagram.

“The owners of Tiao attended a neighborhood council meeting and proposed their idea to turn our units into a market hall and used the exact words ‘so that the local artisans can sell their wares.’”

“That is textbook Brownwashing and pandering,” says Padilla.   

L.A. TACO reached out to Tiao Properties for comment on Monday morning and they opted instead to send letters of support for the project. From their “immediate neighbors, as well as the Department of City Planning Recommendation report regarding the project,” said their email in a response.  

“We feel our neighbor's letters and the City report best address your inquiry. All these documents are a matter of public record, as they’ve been submitted to the East Area Planning Commission,” the email continued. The sender's name was not in the email. 

As for the next move, Robleto has not re-painted the words back on again because they are planning a larger mural by a group of artists. He hopes to start on the larger mural this Sunday.  

Boyle Heights is the home of arguably the most violent resistance to gentrification in the country, thanks to the notorious actions of the anti-gentrification group Defend Boyle Heights in the early to mid-2010s. At times, the group spray painted “fuck white art” over new art galleries that opened in the area and allegedly broke the windows of a new third-wave coffee shop that opened in the area. 

“That way, they can’t whitewash that as easily,” she tells the L.A. TACO. 

Many called the group's actions aggressive, but their actions seemingly slowed down the development of certain parts of the neighborhood compared to neighboring communities like the Downtown Arts District and Lincoln Heights. The group’s actions also inspired a T.V. series on cable television named “Vida.” 

Like these anti-gentrification activists before him, Padilla, who has roots in the neighborhood and lives there but only recently opened her business two years ago, is committed to the fight: “We’re not going to let the gentrification of Boyle Heights go under the radar.”

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