Juan Pineda climbs the scaffold and gets ready for another day of painting. For more than two weeks, the 29-year-old artist has been restoring a mural originally painted when he was an infant. Although he is of a different generation, Pineda knows well the importance of this art.
Pineda works all day on the three-story mural at the intersection of 18th Street and Adams Mill Road NW, a labor of commemoration of a time when this part of Adams Morgan had a more vibrant Latino culture. It is a celebration of the past, when immigrants from Latin America used art as a means to communicate their hopes and dreams, as well as their fears.
"There are a lot of symbols and symbolic meanings they have in this mural. As an artist, I feel pretty proud and enthusiastic to be part of this historic movement and to be able to restore it," Pineda says.
The 1977 mural, entitled "A People without Murals is a Demuralized People," is one of the oldest, largest and last remaining murals in D.C., according to community activists in the area. It was originally commissioned by Centro de Arte, a Latino arts organization that no longer exists.
The mural includes images of Latino life in the community long before Adams Morgan became a fashionable place for bars and clubs. The mural also features chilling premonitions of businessmen playing Monopoly, with the community and a Big-Brother-esque Cyclops watching the neighborhood. At the center and top of the mural is the image of the Washington Monument, tying together all aspects of D.C. life in Adams Morgan in the late 1970s.
One of the mural's originators, Renato Salazar, says it is a bridge connecting one generation of Washington Latinos to the next. He and his brother Carlos ("Caco" for short) were among the members of Centro de Arte, which helped kids in various summer art programs. The Salazars painted the mural after immigrating here from Chile, Carlos in 1975 and Renato in 1976.
"The mural has elements of Latino life which are still represented. It's relevant because it's demonstrative of the neighborhood which, although it has changed a lot, still has people living the same lives. Even 30 years later, it is a bridge in the sense that everybody appropriated it," Renato Salazar says.
"That mural was respected by everyone in the Latino community, and it has never been even slightly damaged by graffiti."
Salazar also says he has heard rumblings from people who don't think the restoration is true to the original work. Pineda has not changed the images but works primarily with spray paint and has used some colors that are brighter than the ones used in 1977.
"I've heard some people's comments who weren't pleased with it. There are some changes in the color, but it's not bad. The color has a freshness, and using the paint canisters gives it a different look. I love it," Salazar says.
Today, the mural's restoration is being overseen by Sol y Soul, a D.C.-based nonprofit arts and activism organization. Sol y Soul primarily presents performance art throughout the city, but Quique Aviles, its artistic director, remembers murals from his youth in the area and saw a need to save this historic one.
"I lived around here and used to see all the murals which were in this neighborhood," says Aviles, who moved from El Salvador when he was 15. "As the Latino community began to disappear, so did the murals. I lived around 14th and Irving Street growing up, so when I saw the murals going away, I decided something had to be done. . . . This mural was surviving, but it was in terrible condition."
Two years ago, Aviles, along with his wife, Hilary, the managing director of Sol y Soul, began to seek funding for the dilapidated mural. The D.C. Commission for the Arts and Humanities gave them $2,000 as seed money for the project.
Altogether, Aviles says, the project is going to cost $10,000. The organization has funding for the mural from diverse sources, including the mayor's Office of Latino Affairs, an Advisory Neighborhood Commission in Adams Morgan and the office of D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1). The Ludacris Foundation, headed by the rapper Ludacris, also contributed to the project.
Olivia Cadaval, a folklorist for the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage at the Smithsonian Institution, is documenting the mural refurbishments. "The Smithsonian is honored to collaborate with projects which are grass-roots and are in our back yard," Cadaval said. "This is in the movement of popular art."