Updated: Feb 9, 2021
It’s something Latinx students on campus have been waiting for since they left campus almost seven years ago, and it finally happened. The murals have returned home!
The morning of February 21st, 2020 was the official dedication of the two murals at the Illini Union. Students, faculty, and alumni were invited to the second floor of the Union where they could snack on desserts, carefully observe the newly installed murals, and speak to Oscar Martinez, who painted these murals, and the alumni for which these murals mean so much. The celebration continued that evening at the official event publicizing the murals displayed at the Spurlock Museum. Chancellor Jones along with Alicia Rodriguez, an advisor in the LLS department, other notable speakers, and Oscar Martinez himself, all gave speeches thanking the University and more importantly, thanking the students and all those involved in this historical event.
In 1974, the murals were painted by Oscar Martinez, a UIUC student at the time already taking 26 credit hours. For many years, there had been protests from Latinx, black, and other marginalized students that resulted in the establishment of the first La Casa on Chalmers street, and later the establishment of the Latino/a Studies program (Look out for another article coming soon to learn more about Latinx/ Hispanic history on campus). This was all they had, along with a very limited amount of funding. However, the University gave these students a building scheduled to be demolished, so what were they to do in order to keep this building? Oscar painted these murals as a result as well as to claim their rights as marginalized students on campus.
“I didn’t believe I was doing something wrong, but something meaningful.” ~Oscar Martinez
However, this was no easy job for Martinez. On Friday (February 21, 2020), we had the chance to talk to Oscar himself and he explained the obstacles he had to overcome as a first-generation, low-income, and Latino student. First, all financial resources came out of his own pocket; he had to use his own materials, so he had to use watered down paint in order to make it last longer. Additionally, while painting the murals, he was technically defacing school property. Jokingly, he told us that he frequently had to be looking out at the window and kept the side door open in case he had to run out if the police were to arrive. At the time, and for many years after, he even believed that the school did not know who it was that painted the murals, only to find out years later that the President of the University had directly asked the director of La Casa to stop him. He was never stopped by the University or any other authorities. He fought and continues to push through barriers that confront the Latinx community on and off-campus.
The murals, of which there are five panels currently on display (two at the Union and three at the Spurlock museum), show a wide array of inspiring and historical images that have several layers of meaning for Oscar, other alumni, current students and faculty, and truly anyone that identifies as Latinx. To describe just one of the panels, the first you would encounter while walking up the southwest stairs of the Union would be La Victoria. First, it’s an unapologetic brown woman holding forth a paper in one hand and a bright ball of light in the other. Laid out in front of her is a skeleton, from which marching protesters emerge. Another figure behind this woman wears a graduation cap and displays an open palm on one side and a balance scale in the other. The scale, on which is the American flag, has money on one side and “Derecho Humano” - or human rights - on the other. These scales are heavily tipped to one side, and you can guess which one that is. The other panel in the Union is The Graduate and the bigger one on display in the Spurlock is El Trabajo. We encourage you to stop by and get a closer look at the murals and the history they represent.
When asked what the murals being displayed at the Union meant to him, Oscar mentioned that it felt almost as if we were reclaiming a space that had never been ours. The Union was never a space Latinx students felt welcome, and can still be a challenging place for incoming Latinx students to get adjusted to. However, the murals being displayed on the second floor near the RSO offices brings a new meaning to the space for Latinx students. Having the panels displayed at the museum also brings forth another level of meaning to students on campus. This outward display of the Latinx culture, experience, presence, and power on campus is something else entirely to Oscar, and all students on campus. When we asked other students and staff the same question, they expressed similar feelings of happiness and appreciation:
“You see the painting La Victoria and it’s like… damn. You see the painting... and it’s like picking up your ancestry. ” ~ Jailine Salgado, Sophomore
“These paintings represent the activism and the push to continue to have a space in the university… [these paintings] are tangible.” ~ Diana Roman Sophomore
“Seeing the murals up at the Union and at the Spurlock represents the staying power of Latinx students and alums on this campus [...] they represents the value that we put in education as latino people, [...] our culture, and the fact that art is the one way we show who we are.” ~ Jorge Mena, Assistant Director of La Casa Cultural Latina
The display of the murals is a step in the right direction. It is a way to welcome students on campus and ensuring that this continued history of struggle and victory is not forgotten. But it’s not enough. As of right now, it is obvious there are not enough resources being allocated to the Latinx programs of study and cultural centers on campus. Our population on campus has outgrown La Casa, which has become a cramped but homey building in which we gather. One of the demands of the 1992 protests - that the University work to increase the Latinx population on campus to match the Latinx population in Illinois - has still not been met. Monetary resources are severely lacking for several programs (check out our other article coming soon). With the newly restored murals all on display now, and which will be on display for the next 10 years, anyone can enjoy their vivid imagery and critically important history. However, there is hope for a (near) future in which these murals will be celebrated in a new and bigger La Casa, establishing more support and voices to an underrepresented group on campus.
Watch a small portion of Oscar's speech from the evening event below.
"To create strong, positive changes, even though we have a long way to go."
This article was co-written by Fatima Valerio