Cultural identification, aesthetics, and storytelling will all be part of the next mural project planned in Palm Springs.
The mural, planned for a wall at the Demuth Park Community Center, will tell the story of Filipino history, culture, and people of Palm Springs and the region. It’s being driven by Bayanihan Desert, a self-described “loose-knit group of friends, family, and colleagues” who came together several years ago to connect about issues concerning Filipinx and Asian American and Pacific Islander communities in the desert.
“Early on, we had been thinking about creating a mural to acknowledge the overlooked stories of Filipinos here in Palm Springs and the many ways we have contributed to the cultural, economic, and creative histories of the region,” explained Mara Gladstone, director of programs at Desert X Biennial, and spokesperson for Bayanihan Desert Public Arts. The idea for a mural came together throughout the last year, and pieces fell into place.
One of the critical pieces was identifying artist James Adam Labuen Garcia as the creative visionary for the project. Known as gaNyan in the art world, he was born in Palm Springs, graduated from Palm Springs High School, and attended College of the Desert. While pursuing his undergraduate degree at San Francisco State University, he was the lead artist on the school’s Filipino Community Mural.
“He is a terrific artist, an experienced muralist, and has created other community-minded mural projects in California,” Gladstone said. “But he’s also a homegrown talent.”
Why create the mural at Demuth Park? The neighborhood, formerly known as the Veterans Tract, included an enclave of Filipino Americans following World War II. Filipino farmworkers, chefs, and hospitality professionals established their homes and built multigenerational, multicultural communities beginning in the early 20th century.
Gladstone explained that the term “Bayanihan” is an essential part of Filipinx culture; it is the pursuit of cooperative unity, being in the community, and helping others.
In California, Filipinos make up the most significant percentage of Asian Americans: The Coachella Valley has a rich Fil-Am history, including much that is not recorded. Elders often serve as oral history books.
“So many families who migrated here in the 1940s-1970s still live and work in the Veterans Tract — now Demuth Park — neighborhood and surrounding areas. And there are some amazing stories,” Gladstone said.
Filipino agricultural workers were a significant part of the Coachella Valley grape strike in 1965, which preceded the California Grape Strike and the creation of the United Farm Workers union. Santos and Lynda de Jesus made Bob Hope and Bing Crosby’s favorite bar snack, Santos Cocktail Cheese, on the other side of the valley at the Palm Springs Tennis Club.”
Gladstone said these legacy families are still in the area, and there are also more recent residents, “Who, like many of us here, come here for jobs and nice weather.”
“There are many people who were born here, spent time elsewhere, and have returned to the region to work, take care of their families, and enjoy the desert,” she said. “The Filipino population can be seen in every industry here in the Coachella Valley. We are the backbone that moves our desert community forward. We are your teachers, are part of agricultural history, hospitality industry, we are taking care of you in hospitals, we are artists, community organizers, cultural and community leaders, small business owners. We constitute the fabric of this region.”
Filipino history in the Coachella Valley will play a large part in the mural’s final design. The process of deciding that design will include research, community forums to gather input and archival images, conversations with the artist, and the development of public programs and education.
Bayanihan Desert hopes to see the final design of the mural approved by the city in the summer and a formal dedication in the winter of 2023.
Gladstone explained that providing visual representation in the arts, education, leadership, and politics allows underrepresented communities to represent the Filipinx history, “acknowledge that we are also here, and have contributed greatly to the Coachella Valley.”
“We believe this mural — the first of its kind in the desert — can celebrate invisible histories and bring communities together,” she said. “The proposed mural can also provide a way for future generations to see themselves and be inspired to continue the legacy of contributing to the desert.”
Although the mural represents the Filipino culture, Gladstone points out it’s important to remember that art is for everyone.
“We hope that people of diverse cultural and racial backgrounds will learn from and connect with the mural as part of our collective history and humanity,” she stated. “Culture is not monolithic, and we would hope that representing the beauty and diversity of our heritage is important to all of us here. I think many of us will be surprised at the connections we share.”