By Liliana Marquez
During the summer of 1979 Arthur D. Avila, who was the East Los Angeles College president at the time, ordered the removal of a mural titled, “The Path to Knowledge and the False University” located at the west wall of Ingalls Auditorium.
The mural, which upon its completion in 1975 became the largest mural ever painted in East Los Angeles, was created by artist Roberto Chavez. The mural was whitewashed within a week of Avila’s request without Chavez’ knowledge.
The artwork consisted of two parts in which Chavez promoted Chicano studies classes at ELAC to encourage people to enroll. He also used it to support the Lettuce Boycott.
The United Farm Workers, led by Chavez, called for a nationwide boycott in 1970 where they demanded the lettuce pickers to be allowed to form their own union.
Chavez was born in 1932 in East Los Angeles and grew up in Maravilla, a barrio located in the eastside of the city.
He is considered a big contributor to the Chicano art movement in East L.A.
The son of an immigrant from Mexico, who left his country in 1920 after the Mexican Revolution, Chavez said he started drawing when he was about 4 years old influenced by the cartoons he saw in newspapers and magazines.
“What I attempted of course was out of my own mind and I realized that if I tried, I could do it,” Chavez said.
Chavez was also influenced by his father’s cartoons. He said that the first time he noticed them was when his father wrote a letter to his brother and drew a cartoon on the edge of the paper.
That made Chavez aware of the ability of making his own cartoons, rather than just looking at them.
“That gave me a different way of looking at the cartoons that had attracted me in the Sunday papers and the magazines. I didn’t just see them as for what they were, but I saw how the artist had manipulated them,” Chavez said.
“I was visually aware of how the characters, the panels that I was looking at, and enjoying had been put together by a human hand.”
When Chavez was 14 years old, he felt drawn to the work of French artist Pierre-Auguste Renoir, who is considered one of the leaders of the Impressionist art movement.
“I was already quite taken with seeing all that work. His work was a series of flower paintings. The paint on surface of the canvas came to life. It wasn’t static, it was almost like it was wiggling in front of you. It was very dynamic,” Chavez said.
“I had already been drawing since I was much, much, younger but the idea of trying to achieve that kind of excitement and completeness in thinking is what really grabbed me.”
Chavez attended Belvedere Junior High School and then went to James A. Garfield High School before enrolling at Los Angeles City College from 1949 to 1952.
His love for art took him to the University of California, Los Angeles in 1955 where he received a master’s degree in pictorial arts, graduating in 1961.
Then he received his teaching credential from California State University, Los Angeles in 1963.
Chavez came to teach at ELAC as a part-time instructor and became co-founder of the arising Mexican American Studies Department in 1968, which later on became the Chicano/a Studies Department in 1979.
He went on to become a full-time instructor in 1969 and became department chair in 1971.
During his time as chair, Chavez hired new faculty, created a new curriculum and started Chicano/a classes about Chicano art as well as Mexican art.
Chavez also taught at UCLA, Los Angeles Trade Technical College, College of the Redwoods, the California Department of Corrections, Pasadena City, Rio Hondo, Southwest and Santa Monica community colleges.
After the whitewash of his mural, Chavez and the ELAC community fought to repaint it or create a new one on a different location, but another artists also wanted to paint their own, which led to a competition.
The arts committee reviewed the proposals from each artist and after Chavez received the most of votes during the first and second rounds, artists David Botello and Wayne Healy, better known as the East Los Streetscapers, won the competition.
“The Path to Knowledge and the False University,” which is Chavez’s largest public work, is well-documented thanks to photographer Oscar Castillo, who took a large number of photos of the mural.
In 1980, Chavez left the Chicano/a Studies Department to teach at the Art Department. A year later he resigned from ELAC.
From 1950 to 1954, Chavez was part of the United States Navy where he was a photographer.
“I’d have to say that in the past I enjoyed photographs as another way of looking at the world but in modern times I haven’t really taken much. They have never done what a real painting does,” Chavez said.
Chavez’s work was recently exhibited at the ELAC Vincent Price Art Museum.
The exhibition called, “Roberto Chavez and the False University: A Retrospective” ran at the VPAM from Sep. 13 to Dec. 6. This was Chavez’s first retrospective in Los Angeles.
Some of his works exhibited at the VPAM included the self-portraits “The Artists As Tokyo Joe” (1959), “Self-Portrait in the Blue” (1963) and “Self-Portrait with Beard” (1979).
His work has been shown at various institutions like the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. where his “El Tamalito del Hoyo” oil on masonite painting from 1959 is currently exhibited along with the “Self-Portrait with Speedy Gonzales” (1963) oil on canvas painting.
Chavez, who now lives in Arizona, said he currently has some artworks in progress.
“I’ve always been working and have things that are unfinished or waiting for one thing or another or are temporarily abandoned,” Chavez said.