Mural Brings New Life to Neighborhood


With each deliberate stroke of their color-laden paintbrushes, volunteers recently brought new life to a beloved landmark in the Gardner Neighborhood of San Jose, and in the process, brought the possibility of new life to the neighborhood itself.

Up until late April, that landmark was a faded spray paint mural of an Aztec calendar on the back of an old cement handball court in Biebrach Park. A young man from the neighborhood, Antonio Torres, created the mural in 1995 as a testament to the heritage of many of Gardner’s Hispanic residents.

The new Aztec calendar mural is now bursting with color, thanks to the work of more than 25 volunteers who worked through the annual Beautiful Day spring service event, held primarily over the weekend of April 28 and 29. An estimated 3,500 volunteers worked at 26 South Bay sites during the event for the faith-based nonprofit by the same name.

Reviving the mural was a dream of the Gardner Advisory Board for nearly three years, but leaders said a lack of funding kept the project on the back burner. When Beautiful Day organizers showed up with plans to revive the mural using donated materials and labor, it was an answer to prayer, said board president Rudy Martinez.

“What this means is, it’s a renewing,” Martinez said while watching volunteers on scaffolding and ladders paint the 16×25-foot wall, as well as a 5×16-foot side wall.

“I think this mural is going to bring a lot of peace to the neighborhood,” said 18-year-old Jacob Palomares-Mason, who grew up in Gardner. “It’s bringing this community together once more.”

According to residents, there was reason to grieve in the past year after the neighborhood experienced disappointment. Shrinking city budgets meant the end to long-time programs held inside the park’s community center. Despite protests from residents, the recreation staff members they knew and loved were shuffled out, and the center was leased for free to an outside nonprofit provider. Some in the neighborhood felt like they lost the center of community life.

A Perfect Candidate

As the neighborhood adjusted to the changes, two Beautiful Day lead organizers, Jim Buchanan and Bob Froese, were canvasing the neighborhood scouting locations for the April service event. Last year the two retired police officers oversaw fix-up and clean-up projects all over the Alviso Neighborhood.

A photo of the original mural prior to repainting. It was created by neighborhood artist Antonio Torres in 1995 using only spray paint.

During their tour of Gardner, they spied the fading mural and thought it was a perfect candidate for volunteers to spruce up. Buchanan and Froese said they tried to find someone from the neighborhood to get permission to revive the mural, but at first couldn’t seem to make a connection with anyone. They went ahead anyway, enlisting the help of muralist Julie Franco, who set about planning an entirely new painted version of the Aztec calendar.

When volunteers came out a few weeks ago to power spray the wall, it didn’t take long for word to get back to leaders o,f Gardner’s tight-knit community.

Right away someone called Patricia Palomares-Mason, who is not only Jacob’s mother, but also a sort of neighborhood mother, referred to lovingly by local youth as “mama”, “mom”, “Tia” (aunt), or “Auntie.” She serves with Martinez on the Gardner Advisory Board, and has lived in the neighborhood since migrating from Mexico with her family in 1962.

Fearing someone was getting ready to paint over the mural, she wasted no time finding out what was going on.

‘There’s No Catch’

After making contact with Buchanan and hearing the plans to repaint the mural, her first response was negative.

“I was so upset,” she said. “I broke down and said, ‘no, that can’t happen.’”

Although it was fading away, the mural was a neighborhood centerpiece, a source of great pride, she said. Graffiti taggers left the mural alone out of respect. A mural just across the street on the side of a market was tagged less than a year after it was created.

With just about a week to go before the big volunteer event, Buchanan and Froese met with the Gardner Advisory Board to share their plans.

Palomares-Mason said she was waiting to hear what the catch was. The men told the neighbors there was no catch. Beautiful Day wanted only to serve the neighborhood. Besides the mural, the men were overseeing repairs and clean-ups at nine other sites around Gardner, as well as seven more sites in the Burbank neighborhood.

When they could see the offer was “from the heart,” she said the group agreed with the plans. She told others from the neighborhood, ‘”Somebody is stepping up to heal a bit of our wounds.’”

Two days before the service weekend, Buchanan and Froese invited Palomares-Mason to roll the first stroke of primer onto the wall. She burned sage before the work, as a blessing to the old mural, as well as to the new creation ahead.

Then, as she lifted the roller, she stopped in tears for a few moments.

“I had to honor and respect (the original artist),” she said. “I had to let go of his painting to make room for the new painting.”

New Blessings

On the Friday before the event Buchanan and Froese erected scaffolding, and Franco and some helpers penciled in the mural’s outlines.

The next morning Palomares-Mason and her son Jacob took part in an Aztec blessing of the site, along with Aztec dancer Yacachictoltic,

Yacachitoltic addresses the assembled crowd during the blessing ceremony.

or “Hawk Face”, also known as Jaime Bello, Ivette Bonilla, and Bernice Aguilera, called Cuauhxiuhitl, or “Eagle of the Blue Turquoise”.

Martinez, a Christian, contributed a prayer to Jesus during the ceremony. Afterward he explained that the Aztec ceremony was an acknowledgment to the heritage of the residents, “where we come from.”

Bello said he readily agreed to come to perform the blessing. He who grew up in the Gardner Neighborhood and even lost a friend to violence in Biebrach Park years ago.

“We love and care for this neighborhood,” he said. The community had seen problems in the past, “but they work together to solve them. That’s what community is all about.”

New Life

Franco and the other volunteers labored all day Saturday and Sunday under a blazing sun to complete the new Aztec calendar. It now stands as a bright beacon to the neighborhood.

On Saturday afternoon the Gardner council hosted a barbecue in the park for volunteers, as a way to say ‘thank’ you for their work.

Reflecting on the old mural, and what was taking place in the coming of the new artwork, Palomares-Mason said, “It’s about celebrating life, celebrating community, and learning to come together as a community.”

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  1. Karen Buchanan says:

    Thank you for the great article. Working on the mural was a labor of love. Many of us were there to rain God’s love on his people through us. We have made new friends in a neighborhood we didn’t even know existed 6 months ago. It was a very special couple of days, and we’re so happy about the neighborhood’s reaction to the “new” mural!