The mural’s lively colors catch your eye as soon as you enter Ramona Gardens.
An orange road that starts on the left turns vibrant red, matching the rooftops of the buildings in the housing complex. The red turns bright blue, as it enters a water drop with the image of a girl drinking water. The liquid falls from a stem from which grows a fist that symbolizes brown power.
The stem is planted by the mural’s main focal point, an indigenous woman drinking her water at the end of the road. It’s a simple but also complex representation of the past and present of Ramona Gardens.
“Toma Más Agua’’ shows how Ramona Gardens residents want to be seen. The road is a path taken on foot or on bikes (as seen on the mural and as seen in the neighborhood), but also a new path that changes the stereotypical outlook on the community. A path that always leads to Ramona Gardens.
Murals have been part of Ramona Gardens’ history for more than half a century, but this recently-painted work led by Raúl Gonzalez (@mictlanmurals on Instagram) has brought the community together. The mural highlights indigenous roots/culture, community health, and embracing the legacy of those community members who have passed away.
“Toma Más Agua” is a direct message to those Gonzalez refers to as people of the sun, to remember their ancestors and take care of their health by staying hydrated. The mural is “keeping water sacred and relative to the community by promoting our indigenous roots and the importance of water, ” explained the artist.
The mural was created as part of the California Endowment’s Building Healthy Communities initiative, to help promote healthy lifestyles. Legacy LA, an organization that works with area youth and is part of that initiative (as is Boyle Heights Beat), helped coordinate the mural.
“Being surrounded by a freeway and only having a liquor store for groceries can’t be healthy for us, ” said Michelle Benavides, who has lived in Ramona Gardens for about 22 years and works at Legacy LA as a Youth Organizer and Campaign Lead.
“The mural is a great reminder to stay healthy by drinking our water,” Benavides said.
The Ramona Gardens public housing development is an isolated community of about 2,000 residents, bordered by a major freeway on the South and a row of factories on the East. Many of its residents suffer from health issues related to living conditions created by decades of social injustice.
On the Northwest corner of Murchison and Lancaster, “Toma Más Agua” is one of the first murals you see when you enter Ramona Gardens from any of the entrances on the West side of the development.
Gonzalez, an artist who is no stranger to the community, has restored two other murals in Ramona Gardens. He finds joy in painting walls because he says there is a need for positive images in Los Angeles.
Gonzalez enjoys being able to contribute to the culture and by being a resource to the community through art.
A Community Effort
The process of painting the mural was a community effort by local youth. There were assisting artists who helped guide the youth in the process. It took a few weeks to design with the community and about ten days to paint it.
“Every mural we paint has to be inclusive in every way possible, from design to execution,” states Gonzalez. ”It’s an educational process, and transparency in the process is essential, for maximum participation from the community, because the artwork belongs to the people.“
“It’s always a beautiful experience to work together,” he said.
The new mural has special significance for residents of the Ramona Gardens project and the surrounding community.
“Seeing this mural makes me smile because I see people from my community represented in the mural,” said Benavides, who added that the art piece is a great way for outsiders to learn more about the community and its history.
“Toma Más Agua sparks curiosity, creativity and inspires others to learn more about the community and its history.”
When “Toma Más Agua” was in the beginning stages of the designing process, the creators were made aware of two figures in the community who were violently killed near the location of the mural and who impacted many lives there.
Both Jonathan Valdovinos (Novah), an aspiring artist, and Jose Figueroa (Deks), a beloved community member, were added to the design. With their charismatic charm, both young men showed potential to change Ramona Gardens for the better. They were heavily involved and loved by the community, and now their legacy will live on in public art.
Benavides, who was a friend of Novah’s, said that art was one of his favorite things.
“When coming home from work or leaving to work, the mural is a reminder of community love. and art being a form of healing” Benavides said.
In a community like Ramona Gardens, which is rich with a sense of culture and where residents grow up together and form bonds, mourning the loss of a community member is tough. By adding the figures of Novah and Deks, “Toma Más Agua” provides comfort. The mural also brings the healing power of art to the heart of Ramona Gardens.
Gonzalez, the artist, added that murals themselves tell stories, culture, and history, which should continue to be a part of neighborhoods in Boyle Heights.
“I think that images representing our indigenous roots and culture are always a good medicine for the soul,” Gonzalez states.
“Murals are important because they are a powerful tool in the hands of the people. Murals are not ‘street art’ that glorify a single artist,” Gonzalez said. “Murals are public art for the public, created by the people and beneficial to the community it’s painted in with knowledge and spiritual power. Murals are the people’s stories that give strength to the community.“
History of murals in Ramona Gardens
There are dozens of murals in Ramona Gardens that have deep meaning and significance to the community – and also great historical value. In the 1970s, a number of Chicano artists used the walls of many of the Ramona Gardens buildings, to create artwork that is still visible.
Some of these murals touch on the Latinx roots and indigenous history in Ramona Gardens. The mural of the Mexican flag on Lancaster, the busiest street of Ramona Gardens, represents the community’s largest demographic group taking pride in its culture. “The Hazard Grande” mural which commemorates the homeboys and homegirls shows the esoteric relationship between the gang and the neighborhood.
The “Toma Más Agua” reflects the Ramona Gardens residents’ goals of staying educated, healthy, and in touch with their history.
“Murals bring communities together and represent the community’s dreams and goals,” said Benavides.