In 1973, a commercial sign company painted a three panel mural on the south wall of Dearden's department store. The pictures--Toltec stele at Tula in the panel on the viewer's left, the Mayan pyramid of Kukulkan at Chichen Itza in the center panel, and an Aztec soldier, symbolizing Mexico's determination to be free from foreign invaders, in the panel on the viewers' right(1)--were selected by Dearden's management from books about Mexico's history.(2) Seven years later, a varnish was applied to protect the mural and enhance its colors. However, by the mid-1980s, the mural was peeling again. The owners were told that nothing could be done to save it,(3) and rather than repainting the old three-panel mural, they commissioned a new one.
Elloy Torrez, one of several muralists considered for the commission, was told about the department store and its customers by Manuel Gutierrez, Dearden's art advertising director. Formed in 1910 by Edgar Dearden, an immigrant from England, Dearden's maintains a credit bureau for its clientele, many of whom are immigrants from Mexico and Central America. Customers used these records to prove they resided in the United States in order to become citizens under the 1986 Immigration Reform Act.(4) Gutierrez also told Torrez that he wanted the mural to portray families and the bonds between generations. Another Dearden's employee suggested that a birthday party could tie the themes together. After being awarded the commission, Torrez spent three months developing the composition. His first design included a spiritual theme represented by a staircase leading to the heavens. After researching themes presented by artists ranging from Alfaro Sequeiros and Diego Rivera to Norman Rockwell, Torrez removed the staircase and focused on portraying a wholesome Latino family, which he hoped would not only "appeal to the Chicano, but also to every man in the street who walks by".(5) The center of Torrez's mural depicts a young Latina mother presenting a birthday cake to her one year-old daughter. According to Torrez, the members of the multi-generational family depicted in the mural range in age from one year to 96 years, and together represent the life cycle. His models were friends and family member, and the renditions are based on his photographs of the people.(6) The elderly woman sitting on the rocking chair was the 96 year-old grandmother of a friend and the girl holding the grandmother's knee is a niece of Torrez's wife, Margaret. The man holding his daughter was modeled by Torrez's brother, the woman leaning forward is a friend of Torrez, the woman holding the birthday cake was modeled by Margaret, the boy is Margaret's nephew, and the baby on the floor is based on a portrait of Margaret as a baby. Margaret's grandmother, a friend of Torrez sitting in a chair, the man's daughter, and Torrez's two nephews complete the picture. Torrez linked his mural to the mural that previously filled the wall by including a painting of the Kukulkan pyramid over the fireplace.(7) He also included a portrait of Frieda Kahlo on the wall to make her better known and recognized by the people who shop in the store.(8)
Footnotes:1 "Updating L.A.'s Cultural Complexion," by Zan Dubin, Los Angeles Times, November 20, 1988.
2 Interview of Douglas Dearden by Michael Several, June 25, 1985.
4 "Good Credit," by Ed Leibowitz, Los Angeles Times Magazine, October 19, 1997, p.8
5 Dubin, Op. Cit.
6 Interview of Elloy Torrez by Michael Several, January 18, 1989.
8 Interview of Elloy Torrez, Op. Cit.
The text has been provided courtesy of Michael Several, Los Angeles, January 2000.
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