The Tortilla Flats Mural Project explores and documents the stories and lives of the people who lived in the early to mid-20th century Westside Ventura neighborhoods, at whose heart was “Tortilla Flats.”
It is a story of a population who were born in the first decades of the 1900s, but whose early lives were grounded in the previous century. They lived through the Depression and wars and a society that was changing far too fast to even comprehend.
They were the first generation to give the township of Ventura, California a sense of community, by participating to an unprecedented degree in Ventura’s social, economic, political, and cultural life. In other words, they built this town.
The stories depicted in the 3 murals, 2 of which were located on Figueroa Street, are universal and reflect the common experiences of many working-class people. We have used their past as a foundation to examine our own sense of identity and place. Their history is rarely told. Before their experiences pass away completely from memory, we wanted to capture their simple but resonant stories.
The mural, in its first incarnation (1995-2001) was the largest public art piece in Ventura County – 6 feet tall by 507 feet long. For six long years, a local and worldwide community enjoyed this rich, artistic endeavor. Also, for six years the forces of nature took their toll. Time and weather deteriorated the mural beyond the point of being restorable. The original mural, painted on wooden panels, was dismantled and distributed to the many families and supporters involved with the project.
We figured we would find pictures in the local history museum. However, when we visited the local Ventura Art and History Museum, it became apparent that the neighborhood had not been documented.
We realized we were going to have to research the story ourselves. Armed with an aerial view photograph of the neighborhood area (roughly south of Main St, to the Ventura River as a western border, to the Ocean, to the pier as an eastern border), a tape recorder, and a video camera, we began our interviews of Tortilla Flats residents.
Our first interview was with Buddy Gibson, Simon Camarillo, and Johnnie Barrios, at Tony’s Pizza –one original business that survived the neighborhood’s removal.
Moses and his family moved from Tortilla Flats when he was a year old. Nonetheless, his family was known to residents, and he knew family names. This was critical in gaining the confidence of residents, many of whom hadn’t had contact with each other since the neighborhood dispersion.
Moses primarily asked questions during the interviews, (while I videotaped the session); where did you live, where did you go to school, where did you shop, how did you have fun, and what did your parents do? We began reconstructing a map of the neighborhood- collecting pictures, collecting stories, collecting names.
Not long after that, the City of Ventura offered some Artist Fellowship grants. Artist projects could receive a maximum of $5,000. I contacted Moses, suggesting that we apply. I am a runner and had been running by a long nondescript wall enclosing a couple of oil tanks, on lower Figueroa St. across from the Ventura. Co. fairgrounds (Seaside Park, an actual park /baseball field/ horseracing track in the Tortilla Flats days, early 20th century -the 1940s).
The land was owned by Texaco. I contacted them through a number on a sign on the chain link gate. Fortunately, the woman heading their Public Relations dept. was an art appreciator and realized the PR opportunity in allowing a community mural to be painted on the wall.
I remember that Moses and I were getting the mural written up on a computer at ART City, the night before, and a fax from Texaco, giving us formal approval for the mural location arrived the day the mural proposal was due. As it was, we received only $1500.00 for our ambitious project-a 500’ mural based on images from the Tortilla Flats neighborhood.
We became amateur oral historians. One interview led to another, word was getting around that we were collecting stories and photos. We had the great fortune of hooking up with Suzanne Lawrence, a docent at the museum, who also performed historical reenactments.
She recognized the value of what we were doing, beyond gathering material for our mural. She volunteered to transcribe the audio-taped oral histories, which were, at the time of the first mural, over 100 hours. We continue to this day to record and transcribe (thanks to Punky-) oral histories and to collect photos and relevant historic materials.
This is thanks to the Tortilla Flats Reunion committee, another branch of the Legacy project that developed from the early days of the first mural. As was mentioned, many of the families had lost contact with each other, since having to relocate when the Freeway came through in the fifties. Most of the folks we were interviewing were born in the 1920s and 30s. Moses’ generation was considered “youngsters”.
Many families relocated up the Avenue, to the projects. The interview process was reconnecting people from the neighborhood. We collected stories and images, and I say images as many scenes existed only as stories and descriptions, for a year before any mural design or painting commenced.
People lacked the discretionary income and equipment to take pictures of every detail of their lives, as we were able to do today. This was a lower-income, mixed-race, and religious neighborhood, where people spoke Spanish, English, and Chinese.
While collecting oral histories, (we had yet to make a drawing or put paint to a wall,) we decided to use the $1500 grant money to throw what turned out to be the first Tortilla Flats Reunion, in Nicholby’s Nightclub, then located on the corner of Oak and Main Streets, downtown Ventura.
We brought Lalo Alcaraz, a cross-over Mexican American favorite of the residents’ era, to perform at what became an annual reunion event that continues today.
We were fortunate to receive donations of paint and supplies for the mural. The wall was already primed when Texaco determined that it was going to sell the property in the future, necessitating the installation of plywood on the wall.
This plywood was of construction grade, not the marine-density plywood one would normally utilize for exterior mural work. The installation labor was provided by volunteers and Texaco employees.
When the mural was finally designed and approved by the city, I was able to scale up the drawing on the wall. Moses became the official “Project Coordinator”, and MB the “Artistic Director”. We would agree to a couple of days a week that we would be laying out the paints and coordinating mural painting on the wall. Folks would just show up.
As time went by, we attracted regulars, and some accomplished local artists, who would fine-tune the community painting. A few of these lead artists I recall are Judy Suzuki, Lisa Kelly, Shawna, and Eric Richards- but there were others. I too picked out a few panels and painted them practically single-handedly.
In the end, I tightened up the painting by adding outlines.
On a few occasions, we altered a panel because someone came by the wall with an archival image or story that made for an image more authentic. It was a very powerful and sometimes grueling experience, as we were both working at jobs in addition to the mural project.
We decided to give people the opportunity to sponsor a panel for $100, thereby raising some expense cash. It is possible to see these sponsors’ names on the panels that still exist. We had also made the decision that the mural was to be a self-guided walking tour, of sorts.
Each panel had a title and some narration, in both Spanish and English, hand painted by our talented artist ally Kelly Man. The quality of the first mural was uneven but heartfelt. We logged over 100 participant painters in the year that it took to complete the mural. The opening ceremony was in 1995.
During the mural painting year, Moses had been in a car accident and injured his back. Still, he always showed up to coordinate the painting, even while walking with the assistance of a cane!
The mural was up for 5 years when the elements of sun and moisture took their toll on the substandard materials, we used on the first mural. It was never seriously graffitied on while it was up. Expansion and contraction of the plywood were causing it to delaminate, and the paint was chipping off.
Rather than let the mural further deteriorate, we decided to take the mural down and disperse panels to whoever wanted to cart them away. In one day, the mural was down.
Some panels still exist in people’s homes and garages. Many folks eventually donated the panels to the Pierpont Inn, where an employee, a woman interested in local history was able to store them.
The time came when these panels could no longer be stored there, and miraculously enough, the remaining panels made their way BACK to our studio at Bell Arts Factory. We displayed a few of the better-preserved panels at the MVC Exhibition. The life of the first mural, completed through dismantling was 1995-2000.
From Moses: THE REST OF THE STORY: What we thought was going to be a simple art project, a mural, turned into a much deeper endeavor. We had no way of knowing how rewarding it would be to 1) uncover deep and rich stories of Ventura’s hidden past and 2) to meet some of the best people Ventura has ever produced.
Armed now, with engaging research and the willingness and talent, we, along with some artist friends created the largest public art piece in the original Tortilla Flats Mural, much enjoyed by an appreciative community in Ventura and beyond.
The project also spawned a Tortilla Flats Reunion Community which to this day continues to sponsor annual events. We continued to interview ex-residents of the old neighborhood for additional stories and photos for our archives.
The second mural is a City of Ventura Public Art Project, funded by a percentage for the Arts in conjunction with the Figueroa St. Improvement project and is located, ironically, at the 101 Freeway underpass, @ Figueroa St., Ventura CA 2008-2009. It reconfigured the original vision of the first mural, though used state-of-the-art materials. This mural includes much of the imagery of the first mural and incorporates vintage photographs on ceramic tiles, set in mosaic panels. It still exists.
77 painted panels and 44 photo-printed tiles set in mosaic, installed on 4 57’x13’ freestanding steel structures. In 2008, in partnership with and under the sponsorship of the City of Ventura the Tortilla Flats Mural was recreated. A new and original public art piece, based on the research of the first mural, was created by the project originators, artist MB Hanrahan and Moses Mora.
This mural memorializes the former residents, businesses, and cultural institutions of the multicultural neighborhood (known as “Tortilla Flats”) displaced in the 1950s when the 101 Freeway was built through Ventura.
It is permanently installed on Figueroa St., under the 101 Freeway overpass, in Ventura CA. This street is traveled by over a million people a year and is a major local and tourist thoroughfare. This expansive mural was commissioned by the City of Ventura Cultural Affairs Dept., financed jointly by the City of Ventura Public Works Program and CalTrans.
This current commissioned project was based on a 500-foot community painted mural the artist team of MB Hanrahan and Moses Mora produced in 1995. The artists acquired the photos and stories depicted in the mural by conducting oral history interviews with original residents, eventually compiling over 100 hours of taped conversations, which have been transcribed.
The new mural was installed in April 2008, and a street party reception was held on Saturday, May 31st, 2008, from 11 am – 2 pm. The location of the reception was at the mural site itself, located on Thompson Ave and Figueroa St in Ventura, CA. The mural is located next to the railroad tracks, on a site formerly covered by homes. It is situated under the 101 freeway. Ironically, the mural is located at the underpass of the very 101 Ventura Freeway, the construction of which caused the displacement of the Tortilla Flats neighborhood.
“As described… the original mural came down in the year 2001. We were not so surprised when in 2004 the City of Ventura sought us out to recreate the mural because we knew that the project was too good to disappear forever. In May of 2008, the new and improved version of the mural was unveiled to the public for their continued enjoyment and education.”
“After the mural came down, we would hear, from time to time, something to the effect that the Tortilla Flats mural would be funded and resurrected as a public art project. Eventually, in 2002, I believe, a decision was made to improve the Figueroa St. corridor from downtown to the ocean.
A percentage for the Arts condition in the funding created the opportunity for a new Tortilla Flats mural to be designed for the desolate space under the 101 Freeway overpass at Figueroa and Thompson. Referred to as the “Figueroa Improvement project”, that is how the second mural came to exist in the shadow of the Freeway that caused the demise of the neighborhood depicted.
The amount of money allocated was $32,000.00 for the art. There were no existing surfaces under the freeway, and CalTrans disallowed any structure to be connected to the freeway structure. In addition, any “walls” would have to be see-through, and not easily scaled.
We tried to abbreviate the 500‘mural but ultimately felt that editing the story or images, as such, weakened the strength of the mural artistically and defeated its purpose content-wise.
Instead, we divided the images into 4 loose categories-the neighborhood, the environment, commerce, and recreation. We developed the concept of 4 16’ high fabricated steel support structures, faced with perforated steel.
The “mural walls” would be painted different colors, and each had a distinctive silhouette that echoed the shaped, painted, MDP* wooden mural panels that would be attached to it. We decided to choose some of our archived photographs, and have them printed on ceramic tiles.
We “framed” the photo tiles with mosaics containing broken dishes and small artifacts contributed by Tortilla Flats residents. Though more ambitious (and expensive) than the city had been anticipating, our proposal for the new and improved mural was compelling enough to be approved.
We the artists, however, never received any more funding than originally offered. The mural images were redesigned and scaled to the new venue, and this time, MB painted all the panels. We began work on the new mural in 2003. The new mural was dedicated in 2005…so now, with this endeavor of presenting the History and Legacy of the Tortilla Flats neighborhood, we have been involved in this project for 20 years.
*Marine Density Plywood
Location: 1903 building 2 West Main, West Main Street, and South Ventura Ave. Ventura CA 93001, the east-facing exterior wall.
Designed by Moses Mora and MB Hanrahan; painted by MB Hanrahan
We painted the mural with acrylic paints, on Polytab. Polytab is a synthetic non-woven material that one can paint on and then affix to walls or other surfaces at another time. The mural panels were then affixed to the wall with acrylic gel.
As it was a very ambitious project, we completed areas of the mural in our studio, then affixed panels as completed.
The painting took place from 2019-2020, eventually consisting of 15 image panels, accompanied by text descriptions in English and Spanish.
This project was entirely funded by public donations. As panels were completed and installed, we posted pictures of the panels and offered the public the opportunity to ”sponsor” the panel for $1500.00. Every panel was eventually sponsored. We used the same method of financing this mural that we did with the original Tortilla Flats Mural. Because we worked with ArtsVentura, a non-profit organization, the community’s donations were tax deductible. ( Nonprofits usually deduct a processing % from the money collected, and the artist will get 1099, FYI)
The project began on July 2017, completed/dedicated on 3/1/2020
Background: The building is owned by the Addison Family Trust. The owner was in total support of this mural, primed and repainted the wall, anticipating the eventual mural.
The Addisons submitted a letter stating their support for and sponsorship of the project to the Public Art Commission and Historical Preservation committee for approval for this mural on the historical 1903 building at the corner of Ventura Ave. and South Main St. Ventura CA. This was all in accord with City of Ventura Public Art guidelines, and because the building is classified as “historic”.
That building in fact housed Tortilla Flats businesses Feraud’s bakery, a market, and a barbershop, eventually owned and operated by Phil Marquez.
The owner initially suggested we could use the wall for a mural design that was rejected from another location/grant project. (That project was successfully redesigned and realized at a later date.).
The Legacy mural stylistically references the original Tortilla Flats mural (1993-1995) and the Figueroa underpass (2003) recreation, We positioned the individual mural scenes between the windows and doorways on the wall, preserving the 1903 architectural design. Referencing graphic novel style layout, and the historical tradition of painting huge advertisements on the sides of buildings, each historical vignette will be accompanied with a narrative in both Spanish and English. Integrating a narrative in the mural design was a very effective element of the original mural, as people can “self-guide” themselves along the Art, and become instantly educated about Tortilla Flats history while viewing the mural.
The Paintings are sepia-toned, with other tones added in the style of hand-colored photos. The mural references the diaspora of displaced Flats residents who moved up Ventura Avenue, the westside businesses frequented by Tortilla Flats residents, and the parents and children who worked seasonally in the walnut and apricot orchards in the North Avenue ranches and farms.
Timeline and process: We are planning a Westside 15 year anniversary celebration of the Tortilla Flats/Figueroa project in 2018. This 1903 building/ Tortilla Flats Legacy mural had a community dedication that started at the Ventura County Museum, and culminated at the mural 3/1. 2020, not long before the world went into Covid 19 lockdown.
North to South
Images included: composite images of adults and youth harvesting and processing walnuts and apricots in Canada Larga orchards. ( 3 separate panels: the walnut picker’s hands; the kids; the apricot splitters )
Phil Marquez barber shop interior, antique barber pole,
Ventura Rubbish; early neighborhood trash collection/Tortilla Flats neighborhood map
Las Palmas label and chile de-stemmer
North Ventura Ave. citrus packing plant interior ( No. Ventura Ave. and Orchard)
interior Bennie’s market,
Wo Hing laundry,
Tortilla Flats neighborhood map
Columbo St/union Ice co., (woman in the yellow coat)
Nehi bottling Co. (wedding party)