ENCINITAS — There is no question the “Encinitas Harmony” mural that was installed on the wall of the downtown 7-Eleven in January is masterfully painted. What some have argued for the past four months is that the image instills racial stereotypes.
Raul Villamar, a Latino downtown business owner, is deeply, culturally offended by the mural panel that depicts Mexican immigrants landing on the beach in a panga boat, a vessel that is associated with drug smuggling.
“It’s a slap in the face,” Villamar said. “There’s no history behind it, why not through the desert or mountains, why a panga?”
Villamar said a better representation of Mexican immigrants would be hard workers in the agricultural fields, families applying at the federal building as his family did, or even immigrants crossing the land border illegally as is true for some.
Villamar’s family is fourth generation Americans from Mexico. For decades he and his family have lived, attended college, owned businesses and participated in politics in North County.
He and his family have also encountered unwarranted prejudice that has ranged from racial slurs to disrespectful acts.
Villamar recalls one troubling incident 10 years ago in which his brother was pulled over by police blocks away from his home, in a predominately white part of town, in his just-purchased cherry red 1967 Impala.
He said the police officer told his brother there were reports of a “criminal” driving the car. The incident caused his brother to immediately sell the Impala.
Villamar said the mural of illegal immigrants in a panga boat promotes the unjust point of view that Mexicans are illegal immigrants and criminal.
Villamar has tried to share his objection to the art with the storeowner, the city and the 7-Eleven franchise administration.
He said he has been let down and received no response, or at best an impersonal email.
Villamar added he is not alone is seeing the art as culturally offensive, and will continue to contact franchise administration and government officials to voice his concern.
This is not the first piece of Encinitas art that has received objections. The statue nicknamed the Cardiff Kook has been mocked and dressed in costumes. The “Surfing Madonna” mosaic installed on a railroad underpass was called too religious, removed and relocated.
Former Councilwoman Teresa Barth said she does not have a particular opinion on the mural, but said she is glad the piece is getting people talking.
“Art does stimulate conversation and that’s always a good thing, to examine reactions to art,” Barth said. “My position is when public art is created, controversy occurs.”
Jim Gilliam, city arts administrator, said city guidelines for visual art do not allow images that are pornographic, violent or display graphic nudity.
He added guidelines do not dictate content, and the mural in question is on private property.
“The First Amendment protects the right of the artist and public,” Gilliam said. “The artist has the right to exhibit work, and the public has the right to dislike it and express that. They’re equal under the law.”
The mural’s artist, Micaiah Hardison, said he heard there have been complaints directed to the storeowner. At this point he has not communicated with Villamar or been contacted by him.
Hardison gifted the mural to the city at large. He also painted the former seascape mural on the same wall as a gift in October 2000.
Hardison said after he completed formal art training and moved back to the area he thought of refreshing the previous mural. Paint Encinitas, a nonprofit that promotes public art, gave him a nudge to do so by putting him in touch with the new storeowner, and fundraising to cover some of the costs of supplies.
The mural is constructed in three sections. The middle image of the iconic Swami Self-Realization temple is painted directly on the building wall. The two side images are painted on removable panels, which Hardison said would be changed out periodically.
Hardison said when he initially heard that there was opposition to the image of immigrants arriving by boat he considered changing it out, but was encouraged by others to keep it up on the principle of free speech.
Jax Meyers, founder of Paint Encinitas, stands behind the mural.
“There are many different perspectives,” Meyers said. “Art is a neutral place to take that all in. It’s only making a statement if we decide it does.”
Hardison said his intention in creating the artwork is a far cry from Villamar’s interpretation. He describes the piece as representing the diversity of people living in harmony in Encinitas.
Hardison said the image of immigrants arriving to shore is a tribute to their fearlessness.
“It’s not just about coming here, it’s about escaping hard situations to make a better life, and lay a foundation down for their children,” Hardison said. “They’re risking everything to make it onto the soil, they’re heroes.”
He said he used Latino friends as models, and painted a conglomerate story of people he knows.
“Other people who are illegal immigrants themselves relate to that image,” Hardison said. “They are not shameful, embarrassed or mad.”
He added that he understands it is not the only story on immigration, but feels it is important to recognize the bravery of illegal immigrants who live here in anonymity because of their legal status, and are not duly recognized for their contributions.
Hardison said he is open to discussing the mural with Villamar.