Alicia Rojas in front of her defaced “Poderosas” mural (all photos courtesy Alicia Rojas)

This week, a Costa Mesa public mural celebrating influential Latinas from Orange County was defaced by white supremacist graffiti. Created in 2020 by Alicia Rojas, the 74-foot-long mural featured panels bearing portraits of eight poderosas, or strong women, on a painted background of lush foliage. The panels were relocated to Heritage Park in Santa Ana last year, but were replaced by the women’s names and poetry verses in English and Spanish.

On Monday, October 31, an unknown suspect scratched off some of the names and spray painted “white power” and “PEN1 737” over the mural, a reference to the Public Enemy Number 1, identified as a white supremacist gang by the Anti-Defamation League.

“This is an active hate crime investigation and no arrests have been made yet,” Roxi Fyad, a representative of the Costa Mesa Police Department, told Hyperallergic via email.

Poderosas” was initially conceived by Camilo Romero to honor local Latina luminaries, including his mother Isabel who lives at the site. He reached out to Rojas, who has a background in community murals, and she organized an all-woman crew to collaboratively paint the cinder block wall outside Isabel’s house. The eight poderosas include labor leader Dolores Huerta; Frances Muñoz, California’s first Latina trial court judge (who passed away last month); and Sylvia Mendez, plaintiff in a historical school desegregation case that took place several years before Brown v. Board. It also features lesser-known historical figures like Modesta Avila, who was convicted in Orange County for protesting inadequate compensation for her land by sabotaging the railroad being built through her property in the late 19th century.

Rojas says she was notified about the vandalism by Isabel. Photos and video that neighbors took show the alleged suspect, who appeared to be a white male, shortly after the daytime attack. 

“When I saw it, I felt bullied all over again. I was that 12-year-old girl who came to New Jersey from Colombia. People spat at me and told me to go back home,” says Rojas, who emigrated from Colombia to the US as a child. “Those words need to come off today,” she thought. “Those words are the ones that don’t belong.”

She spent Tuesday cleaning off the graffiti with help from fellow artist Mariángeles Soto-Diaz, and support from the community “People brought empanadas, water, hugs. I had about 20 visitors. I didn’t expect that,” she says. Rojas has also started a fundraiser to help cover paint and an anti-graffiti coating.

Creation of the Poderosas mural

“Alicia’s work has always focused on bringing communities together collectively and positively; such is the case with this beautiful mural,” John Spiak, director and chief curator of the Grand Central Art Center (GCAC) in nearby Santa Ana, told Hyperallergic via email. “For someone to deface such a project shows a genuine lack of understanding by that individual of what it is to be part of the caring and diverse communities that make up Orange County.”

Rojas is currently an artist-in-residence at the GCAC, where she is working on a project that juxtaposes the migration patterns of honeybees and humans, to be unveiled next spring.

“Since Trump, racism feels louder, not that it hasn’t been there, but people are more emboldened to come out and say these things,” Rojas notes. “It makes me want to be careful but does not discourage me. I have to continue to tell these stories, it’s part of documenting America.”

Matt Stromberg is a freelance visual arts writer based in Los Angeles. In addition to Hyperallergic, he has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, CARLA, Apollo, ARTNews, and other publications.