Struggle, Progress and Paint: The Surprising Story of the MU Patio Mural
- Watch a short video about The Unfinished Dream mural featuring the artists
- Read about the student protests that led to its creation and other campus art
- Discover who's who and what's what in the mural key (scroll to bottom)
Ever notice the 20-foot-tall mural on the south side of the Memorial Union? You've likely walked past it on your way into or out of the building or, sitting at a picnic table in the south patio, you might have looked up from your work or lunch and wondered about the faces and figures depicted in it.
For most of 2021, when The Unfinished Dream mural turned 30, few people were on campus to wonder about or even notice it. Now that students are back, the time seems right for a belated anniversary celebration and—through hearing from the artists who painted it, students and administrators who participated in its creation and others—to take a look into its dramatic backstory, and why it remains surprisingly relevant today.
Welcoming a New Era
During a 2021 visit to campus, Bay Area artists Kim Anno and Miranda Bergman discuss the mural they painted in 1991.
The mural was commissioned in 1990 by the Office of Student Affairs and the Campus Art in Public Places Work Group to portray UC Davis' transition to “a campus of true diversity, reflecting the richness of its many cultures and supporting its growing underrepresented populations.
“The mural will help people be less ignorant of the contributions of people of color,” said artist Miranda Bergman at the 1991 dedication ceremony. “I hope we create something beautiful and inspiring to help the struggle ahead.” Bergman, from Berkeley, together with Kim Anno, from Oakland, were selected to paint the planned mural from among 28 artists who submitted proposals.
“We’re welcoming and ushering a new era into California,” said dedication ceremony emcee Denise Isom, graduate student assistant to then-chancellor Theodore Hullar. “In the mural, people will be able to express who they are in a complete way.”
The story of this mural, The Unfinished Dream, is bound up in campus climate and the concerns of UC Davis students as the 1980s were coming to a close, in global events and—most of all—a climactic student protest.
‘We Need Action’
Nelson Mandela was released from prison in early 1990, after 27 years of imprisonment by the apartheid regime in South Africa. For many student activists, the freeing of Mandela, an inspirational figure locked away since before they were born, felt like a momentous shift.
At the start of May 1990, around 200 students marched to Mrak Hall to protest what they perceived to be discriminatory practices in the Spanish department and to highlight the need for higher retention and recruitment rates among students from underrepresented communities. By the middle of the month, four students motivated by these and related concerns had launched a water-only hunger strike on the steps of Mrak Hall.
Something serious felt like it needed to happen.
— Andrea Gaytan '92
The strikers—José Quiñonez, Andrea Gaytan, Gopal Dayaneni and Ahmanal Dorsey—demanded three things: an official investigation into the alleged racism in the Spanish department; an increase in the number of full-time faculty members in the ethnic studies programs and the immediate establishment of an ethnic and cultural center on campus.
“The administration has been promising us each of our demands since 1960,” said Andrea Gaytan ’92, one of the four striking students, as quoted in a May 1990 issue of The Aggie. “We need action, not rhetoric.”
Six Days in May
“It was a huge culture shock arriving from LA, where I was raised, to Davis,” Gaytan remembered, noting that Davis in the late 1980s felt much smaller and more rural than it does today.
Now dean of the Davis Center at Sacramento City College, Gaytan returned to UC Davis as staff in 2009, eventually serving as the founding director of the AB540 and Undocumented Student Center, the first physical center of its kind in the United States.
She was struck by how different the process of planning and funding this new center looked compared to her own experience as a student at UC Davis. “[The students] advocated, they used completely professional means to build a case, argue it, develop a plan ... and then basically hired me to implement their plans,” she said. “Students didn’t have to starve themselves on the steps of Mrak for this.”
Arriving to Davis at the tail end of the 1980s, Gaytan recalled the sense of isolation and unease she felt in not seeing her own experience reflected in the environment where she had come to learn, and how little identity-based support was then in place for students.
“I think [UC Davis] was doing a good job for many of its students, but there were a lot of us who felt left out of discussions and didn’t see ourselves represented in staff and faculty and administration, who didn’t see our stories being told in the classrooms and our experiences taken into account,” she said. For Gaytan and her friends, this served as motivation to start advocating for the institution to do more for all of its students.
“Something serious felt like it needed to happen,” Gaytan said, “and we decided a hunger strike would be the best way to do it … because of course we wanted to be non-violent, we wanted to be effective, but also wanted to draw public attention to the situation.”
The strike—which began on May 14, 1990—lasted six days and concluded with an agreement between the students and university administration on a plan for adding ethnic studies faculty, a cross-cultural center and investigating concerns about discrimination in the Spanish department and elsewhere on campus. “I’m pleased that these issues, about which the students feel very deeply, have been clarified and that our planning for a cross-cultural center and for addressing racism is proceeding so well,” said then-chancellor Hullar in The Aggie.
As the strikers broke their six-day fast with crackers and apple juice, Bob Chason, associate vice chancellor for Student Affairs, remarked, "one of the lessons that was learned in the discussions … was that we really weren’t that far apart.”
A Campus Crossroads
While a mural wasn’t among the strikers’ stated demands, Gaytan noted that it had been a topic of discussion among student activists, as well as with administrators like Griselda Castro, a now-retired assistant vice chancellor in Student Affairs and career-long champion of art on campus. “But we figured by the time a public piece of art would be up for display, we would have starved to death,” said Gaytan, laughing. “And we wanted students to be able to give input.”
Between the Memorial Union and the north end of the Quad is a natural campus crossroads, and generations of UC Davis students have come together here to meet, relax, study—and also to protest. “People would congregate in the [MU South Patio] courtyard,” Gaytan recalled. “The fountain wasn’t there at the time, and it was a great location for a public piece.”
To me, it has a deep feeling of justice that that mural is located there.
— Andrea Gaytan '92
It was also the epicenter for shanty-building on campus. “Shanties” were symbolic structures, usually constructed of wood and painted with slogans, which became widespread on college campuses in the 1980s initially as a way to protest against apartheid. “It was kind of like a flash mob construction project,” said Gaytan. “It became a real nuisance to the administration because they were unsightly, they were unsafe.”
As the anti-apartheid movement neared its peak in the late 80s, the south patio was often teeming with shanties. "They would grow, they would multiply … the university would come and take them away,” Gaytan recalled. "So, that mural [The Unfinished Dream] also symbolizes to me that that’s a space where student voices had been heard … To me, it has a deep feeling of justice that that mural is located there.”
Painting the Dream
Before work on the mural could begin, artists Miranda Bergman and Kim Anno held a listening session with students to gather feedback on their initial design.
“The room was full of people standing up, giving feedback, shouting down ... it was a raucous meeting, but that was the way we came to it,” remembered Gaytan. “Miranda and Kim were amazing to work with. We hadn’t been used to getting listened to before.”
In May 1991, after about a year's planning, Anno and Bergman got to work on the mural. The four hunger strikers could walk by and watch it being painted, along with the rest of campus. Students from the Art department came out and helped with the work.
"We were creating something that was a container for a lot of dialogue,” said Anno. “And resolution of conflict, after coming out of the hunger strike … we were trying to figure out how to have a bridge to create a new world.”
What Can a Mural Mean?
Some of the most significant mural sites around the country have emerged out of community activism. Balmy Alley in San Francisco's Mission District and Chicano Park in San Diego's Barrio Logan are two prominent California examples cited by Maceo Montoya, visual artist and associate professor of Chicano/a Studies at UC Davis.
“Both sites brought together activists and artists to raise their voices in solidarity,” said Montoya. “The Unfinished Dream fits squarely into a community mural tradition of artists seeking ways to fuse their political activism and cultural expression.”
We were creating something that was a container for a lot of dialogue.
— Kim Anno
Some students in the activist community at UC Davis had reservations about The Unfinished Dream when it was first completed. "The university really highlighted the mural as a symbol of how far they'd come,” said Gaytan. “It felt a little like a piece of their PR machine to kind of cover up their image after the hunger strike.”
Gaytan said that this view has changed for her over the past 30 years. “Ultimately, every time I pass that mural, I feel some satisfaction,” she said. “That students’ voices, and the hard work of people like Griselda [Castro] on staff, were able to accomplish it.”
Fulfilling the Promise
Following its establishment in 1992 as part of the campus resolution to the hunger strike, the Cross Cultural Center (CCC) was housed in the Ag Extension Building on a temporary basis, with the promise of an eventual move to a permanent home. The center was conceived as a place where students from underrepresented and under-served communities could build community and have a safe place for dialogue outside the classroom. In 2012, the CCC finally moved into an expanded, permanent space in the newly completed UC Davis Student Community Center (SCC).
Today, the SCC is home to an array of identity-based centers and spaces in addition to the Cross Cultural Center. In her role as assistant vice chancellor in Student Affairs, Castro was instrumental in securing funding for the building’s construction. “I'm very grateful I was able to fulfill the promise to build a center,” she said.
More Progress, More Murals
True to its origins, the SCC is also home to two murals: Nurturing the Dream, by artist Susan Shelton and The Practice of Freedom, by Malaquias Montoya, artist and professor of Chicano/a Studies and Art at UC Davis.
Castro, who commissioned both murals, sees in them a continuation of the story that began with The Unfinished Dream. “There’s a progression, in my mind,” she said, “from The Unfinished Dream to The Practice of Freedom to Nurturing the Dream, which is [about] nurturing the spirit.”
A third piece commissioned by Castro, The Voice of Lupe, was a direct response to a 40-year-old community wound. Susan Shelton returned to create the mostly ceramic piece, located outside the AGR Room in the Walter A. Buehler Alumni Center garden.
The Voice of Lupe, following a pattern that began with The Unfinished Dream, was commissioned as part of a formal resolution agreement, as a symbol of reconciliation and healing between two sides where before there had been pain and mistrust. “Art is very important in capturing history,” said Castro, who came out of retirement to help facilitate the agreement, “and it also has a healing aspect.”
The Dream Today
Public art's power to embrace conflict and catharsis—as well as community aspirations, was on the minds of artists Miranda Bergman and Kim Anno when they visited the UC Davis campus in late summer 2021 to see the mural and sit down for an interview.
"I think particularly on a university campus, [art] gives students something to wonder about—think about, research,” said Anno. The ones that really work, added Bergman, are pieces that truly engage and reflect where they are located.
Contemplating how The Unfinished Dream might look different if it were painted today, the artists noted that gender fluidity and the Black Lives Matter movement would have to be represented. “We titled our mural ‘The Unfinished Dream’ because it is unfinished … still,” said Bergman.
In Gaytan's view, the mural and symbols like it can help raise awareness and inspire people to be determined and keep going in the face of obstacles. "The work is constant, and the commitment is going to be a long-term one," she said. “Being on a university campus as vibrant as UC Davis is a great place to work toward ending injustices.”
For Castro, that UC Davis is on the cusp of becoming a Hispanic-Serving Institution, or HSI, serves to show how far the university has come. “The Unfinished Dream was a mural about the work in progress, and the miles to go,” she said. “Many miles have been covered, but it’s still in progress. Still evolving.”
Symbolism in The Unfinished Dream mural
Left: To the far left is a visual rebuttal of the Eurocentric worldview, represented by an ancient Greek marble statue “facing off” with a group of sculptures from Chinese, Egyptian and other non-European cultures which have also developed complex cultures and modes of artistic expression through time.
Middle: This section highlights the struggles and contributions of groups and individuals towards a more just world. Students from underrepresented communities on campus helped select influential figures to appear in this section, which is anchored by a large, open book. On one side of the book, a scene of Martin Luther King Jr. delivering his 1963 “I have a dream” speech, from which the mural takes its name. On the other side, the 1990 UC Davis student hunger strike is depicted, which helped accelerate change on campus and led to the creation of the mural.
Right: In this section, architecture and other cultural symbols represent a vision for a world where the brilliance and worth of every culture's contribution is engaged with and celebrated.
- Hermes, deity from ancient Greek religion.
- American eagle, representative of Native American culture.
- Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent, from pre-Columbian Mexico.
- Nefertiti, Egyptian queen whose reign brought social change.
- Mask, from the Sepik River region of New Guinea.
- Chinese demigod that guards the sacred temple from evil, and representative of ancient Chinese culture.
- Coatlicue, Aztec mother of all gods.
- Mien woman from Southeast Asia sewing traditional embroidery.
- Viola Gregg Liuzzo (1925-65), Italian-American woman murdered by the Ku Klux Klan while working for the Civil Rights Movement in Alabama.
- Kintpuash aka Captain Jack (c. 1837–1873), chief of the Modocs, who fought against white colonialists and was hanged at Fort Klamath, California.
- The Civil Rights March on Washington in 1963 where Martin Luther King made his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
- The 1990 student hunger strike at UC Davis that established the Cross Cultural Center, among other demands of concern to students of color.
- Don Pedro Albizu Campos (1891-1965), leader of the Puerto Rican Independence Movement.
- Che Guevara (1928-67), Argentine doctor who became a leader of the Cuban Revolution.
- Malcolm X (1925-65) champion of Black liberation who helped to transform the civil rights movement into a force for human rights and self-determination.
- Dolores Huerta, farm worker who became a national leader of the United Farm Workers Union.
- Native American woman of the Karok nation wearing traditional basket hat.
- John Brown, an abolitionist who advocated an armed uprising against slavery.
- Harriet Tubman, former slave who became a nurse, scout, and intelligence agent for the Union Army in the South, as well as an abolitionist who guided more than 300 slaves to freedom in the North.
- Asian cane field worker in Hawaii, representative of the myriad of Asian immigrants who came to the U.S. through the islands.
- Chinese embroidered bird.
- Japanese paper crane, a symbol for a world free of nuclear weapons.
- Mystery bird
- Bird representing the national rights of the Palestinians.
- Zoroastrian bird from Iran.
- Rainbow phoenix, representing everyone and our human right to freedom and equality.
- Pillars from the Dogon of the Guinea coast, West Africa.
- God’s Eye, or prayer wheel, with Peter’s projection world map superimposed, representing the hope for readjustment from Eurocentrism to Multiculturalism.
- Mayan pyramid from pre-Columbian Mexico.
- Roman column.
- Traditional Native-American bird motif from the Haida nation of the Northwestern United States.
- Japanese pagoda
- Detail from stone relief in the Mayan city of Chichen Itza, (432-1100 A.D.).
- Mezuzah, door ornament containing a blessing for the home, from Jewish culture.
- Gothic European ceiling detail.
- Pacific Island bamboo porch detail.
- Turret from the Soviet Union.
- East Indian miniature detail.
- Pakistani door detail.
- Egyptian wall relief.
- Wheel of Life detail, from the national flag of India.
Resources and Further Reading
- UC Davis Student Expression
- Cross Cultural Center
- Third World Forum Exhibit — Archival materials and interviews on the topic of UC Davis campus activism, including additional photos from the 1990 hunger strike.
- ART 571: Mexican and Chicano Mural Workshop (4) — Introduces students to the technique and design process necessary. to execute a mural in the tradition of the Mexican Mural Movement. Taught by Jose Arenas.
- Guide to Outdoor Sculpture on the UC Davis Campus (PDF)
- History of the UC Davis Memorial Union
- Honoring the Hunger Strike of May 1990 — Video from a 2015 event at the Cross Cultural Center.
- New York Times article from May 1990 about the hunger strike.
- Wide Open Walls — Sacramento
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