Children’s book captures ‘The Spirit of Chicano Park’
New bilingual title explores the struggles behind the San Diego landmark
Beatrice Zamora had been thinking about writing a children’s book about Chicano Park for years. Like many Barrio Logan residents, Zamora always felt a special connection to the park, known for its striking murals painted on the pillars supporting Interstate 5 and the San Diego-Coronado Bridge.
But for Zamora, who has worked most of her life as a teacher and educator, the Chicano Park murals were only part of the story.
“So many people come to visit this park and so many times I’ve been there and people come up to me to ask questions, and it occurred to me that people don’t understand this park,” Zamora says. “I’m always thinking about the future, and the kids need to know that not only is this park important and came from community struggle, but they also need to understand they have a role to play in this world. That they also need to find their voice, speak up and take action as these people did in 1970.”
Presented in both English and Spanish, “The Spirit of Chicano Park/El Espíritu del Parque Chicano” attempts to convey not only the history of the park itself, but also how that park is representative of the multi-generational struggles of the neighborhood itself.
Written by Zamora and illustrated by San Diego artist Maira Meza, the book follows two young children, Bonky and Bettie, who have just moved to Barrio Logan with their family. When the two go to explore their new neighborhood, they’re immediately moved by the vibrant murals of Chicano Park but are soon approached by a mysterious spirit named, simply, La Señora. She tells the children about the history of the park and the neighborhood, using the murals as a guide.
“I wanted to give back to San Diego. I really admire what I’ve seen the community do to take care of that little piece of land,” Zamora says. “The fact that they had to fight the city to get that little piece of land after their community had been bisected and attacked, first by building the Coronado Bridge and when they built the I-5, it was devastating for the community.”
After retiring from teaching, Zamora found herself with some time on her hands. She rejoined the Chicano Park Steering Committee, whose members call themselves the “stewards of the park.” With a children’s book in mind, she began interviewing some of the major activists in the original 1970 movement.
Once she had a framework, Zamora began to think who might make for a good illustrator. Fortuitously, she attended a fundraising event at the Centro Cultural de la Raza and met Maira Meza, who was working as a painting instructor. Meza showed Zamora photos of her work on her phone. Zamora noticed Meza already had paintings of the kiosco stage at Chicano Park, as well as works of lowriders and people within the Barrio Logan community.
“I immediately said, I think you and I need to talk,” Zamora recalls.
And while Meza says meeting Zamora was “meant to be” and told her on the spot she’d illustrate the book, she still felt a sense of nervousness.
“I immediately thought, ‘What did I just do? I’m not qualified to do that,’” says Meza, who was born in Logan Heights and raised in Chula Vista. “This is the first Chicano Park book like this. That’s such an honor, so I felt intimidated.”
The two began meeting regularly at Ryan Bros Coffee in Barrio Logan to storyboard the book. While children will certainly find Meza’s illustrations accessible, she did weave in touches of surrealism suitable for a story about two children being guided by a spirit. Zamora says the “La Señora” spirit was inspired by Tommie Camarillo, the co-founder and chair of the Chicano Park Steering Committee. And while it’s easy to get caught up in the literal nature of the book’s title, Zamora says it’s meant to be multilayered.
“I love the title of the book, because the spirit of the park is the artists, the love, everything that they’ve given to the park,” Zamora says, who chose to release the book on her own Tolteca Press (toltecapress.com) with proceeds going to the Chicano Park Steering Committee. “The spirit of the park is the people that continue to take care of it.”
While “The Spirit of Chicano Park” took a year to complete, the book’s release comes on the heels of Chicano Park’s 50th anniversary, as well as the opening of the Chicano Park Museum and Cultural Center. Zamora says she thought about sitting on the book since the COVID-19 pandemic would make it difficult to promote its release. And while the creators would love to be making appearances for the book, Zamora says the response has still been encouraging.
“Even though we haven’t been able to be out there doing book signings and readings, many people have been telling me that I still needed to do this,” Zamora says. “They’d say, ‘we’ve been needing a book like this forever.’”
“I just shipped one to Texas, and I thought, ‘How cool, this person doesn’t even live here and they want to know about the park,” adds Meza.
Both creators are confident that the messages of the book will resonate with readers of all ages, whether they live in San Diego or not.
“I hope that people just take away from the book that they have a voice and it’s up to them to use it for what they believe in and what they want to carry on,” Meza says. “It’s not just a story about a park, it’s a story about a community who found their voices and used those voices.”
“Yes, there’s the park itself, which is a piece of land, but it has a spirit behind it,” Zamora says. “It inspires these artists and these movements, but at the same time, these artists and movements inspire the park.”
“The Spirit of Chicano Park/El Espíritu del Parque Chicano” by Tolteca Press; 2020. 54 pages.
Combs is a freelance writer.
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