A Walking Tour of Public Art Sites in East San Jose
Eastside San Jose is one of the city’s most vibrant, colorful, and historic areas. A large part of this district was once commonly referred to as Sal Si Puedes (Get Out If You Can), a name that reflected the many physical and socio-economic challenges for the community residents.
Traveling through the streets of the Eastside it is easy to become immersed in the vibrant and engaging community it is now, busy with people, colorful buildings, lush community gardens, shopping centers, expansive parks, inviting eateries, and a buzz of activity. You will find when you look at images within this website, or walk in the community, that an image of César Chávez may catch your eye, or artful elements: metal gates with intriguing yet familiar patterns; mosaics that tell a story, or cantera stone sculptures. There’s an unseen story of the Eastside, one that we would like to share with you.
Eastside Art & History uses six key sites in the current Mayfair and Arbuckle neighborhoods to provide an introduction to the Eastside history, culture and its important legacy. Each of these sites is connected to the past that is largely unseen today, and each has public art that speaks directly to the history, culture and people who have made the Eastside so remarkable. Eastside Art & History brings these locations and artwork together to shed new light on familiar surroundings.
The Eastside story is much larger than this project; Eastside Art & History is not a comprehensive history of Eastside San Jose. It is hoped that this project will deepen understanding and appreciation of the area’s history, and spark interest and imagination to learn more.
Please, explore and discover!
Eastside San Jose, today one of the city’s most vibrant, colorful districts, has a long and rich history. This area has been continuously inhabited for nearly 13,000 years. Muwekma is the name of one of the bands of Ohlone people indigenous to this area. The land was plentiful with game and edible foliage and the Muwekma thrived; creating homes, fabric and other necessities from the abundant tule reeds, stone, bone and wood. Expeditions of soldiers arrived in the 1770s to claim the lands for the King of Spain, and the first Spanish civilian settlement in California, El Pueblo de San José de Guadalupe was established in 1777. The Spanish, and later, Mexican governments encouraged settlement of territory now known as California by the establishment of large land grants called ranchos; land-grant titles (concessions) were government-issued, permanent, unencumbered property-ownership rights to land. These were largely devoted to raising cattle and sheep initially for hides and tallow and later, as the population surged, these shifted to farming to support the forts, mission and settlements. The Muwekma were decimated by disease and this appropriation of land.
With establishment of the Republic of Mexico on November 19, 1823, San Jose became Mexican territory. In 1835, the Mexican government granted the massive Pala Rancho to José Higuera. This rancho, primarily for pasture of cattle, is part of the territory that is now Eastside San Jose; other parcels of land that make up Eastside were also used for cattle as well as dairy farming.
In 1848, the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo was signed, ending the Mexican-American War. This established San Jose as US Territory and was to have guaranteed certain land protections to Mexican land owners. In general these agreements were not honored, and many Mexican landowners lost their ranchos. The area’s agricultural industry began to grow as California became a state in 1850, with San Jose as its first capital.
Eastside: Mayfair and Sal Si Puedes
In the early part of the 20th century, downtown and west San Jose developed rapidly; by contrast the east side remained outside of San Jose city limits. The Mayfair fruit packing plant, for which the Mayfair neighborhood is named, owned a substantial tract of land on both sides of Silver Creek and was a major business in Eastside starting in 1931, providing many jobs, but at low wages. By 1941, there were 11 major canneries in San Jose. Agricultural and cannery work created increasing demand for workers; over time this industry brought Mexican, Filipino, Portuguese, Italian, Puerto Rican, Chinese, Japanese, German and other immigrants to this area both as farmers and farm laborers. Mexican workers settled in San Jose’s east side beginning in the 1920s, many of whom relocated from the Almaden area where there had been employment in the quicksilver mines. Immigrant cannery workers began buying land and building homes in east San Jose but the area remained underdeveloped, with no paved streets and little infrastructure. The neighborhood was nicknamed Sal Si Puedes (Get Out if You Can) due to unpaved street flooding and mud from Silver Creek, civil and worker rights issues, poverty, crime, and police violence.
During World War II, San Jose experienced racial tension in neighborhoods on the city’s western and eastern edges where large populations of African-Americans, Mexican-Americans and Japanese-Americans lived. Large numbers of African-Americans from the Southern states came to work in San Jose’s growing wartime manufacturing industry. Most of the Japanese community were removed and interned in war detention camps in the course of the war. Anti-Mexican violence based on the earlier zoot suit riots in Los Angeles took place in San Jose in the summer of 1943. The Bracero Program, which from 1942 through 1964 allowed male workers to come from Mexico for temporary agricultural work — under what came to be recognized as abusive conditions — also impacted the community.
César Chávez moved with his family to Sal Si Puedes in 1948 and soon became deeply involved with Our Lady of Guadalupe Church (then Mission Guadalupe). It was here in the early 1950s that he began working with organizer Fred Ross and the newly formed Community Service Organization (CSO), organizing Mexican-Americans to vote and to improve living conditions. Long-time activist Ernesto Galarza’s book Merchants of Labor (1964), an exposé of the abuses within the Bracero Program, was instrumental in ending that program; the ending of the Bracero Program in turn supported César Chávez’s work to unionize farm workers.
In the face of poverty, lack of services and violence, a strong, vibrant, resilient community emerged in Eastside San Jose. The rich history of this community has barely been revealed in this brief overview. A number of resources have been listed under Resources below. The many people, events, and places of Eastside San Jose are a valuable part of what San Jose is today. Enjoy the journey.
1. Emma Prusch Farm Park (647 S. King Road)
Public Art: A Monument to the Last Barn (Gloria Bornstein, 2006)
Emma Prusch Farm Park, on the northwest corner of Story and King Roads, is a visual reminder that, not so long ago, before the freeways and shopping centers, this was once verdant farmland and orchards.
While orchards were prevalent in the Eastside, dairy farming was another thriving agricultural business in the area, especially along San Jose’s eastern foothills. Owned by the German immigrant Prusch family, Emma Prusch Farm Park was once a large working dairy; from today’s King and Story Roads intersection, the Prusch dairy farm extended north and west, well beyond what is now Interstate 280. Daughter Emma Prusch (born in San Jose in 1876) bequeathed 87 acres to the City of San Jose upon her passing in 1962. The deed to the City specified that the City “will make said park a place of relaxation, recreation, and enjoyment for the people of the City of San Jose, and in such a manner as will, to extent that such can be reasonably done, give to said park a rural county character and atmosphere.” Several acres of the donation were designated for the Police Athletic League (PAL) for the purpose of youth sports and now house a soccer field, baseball and softball stadiums (located on the north side of Highway 680). Emma Prusch Farm Park consists of the remaining 47 acres from the original gift.
Today the park features a range of innovative farming projects to help broaden awareness of farming and agriculture; these include an heirloom orchard and garden project, operation of a 1930’s vintage Aeromotor Windmill to draw up the water from the original 440’ deep well, free roaming heirloom ducks and chickens, a large animal barn, and more.
Importantly, the park is now also home to a rapidly growing movement of urban farming and the park includes the City’s largest community garden. In a community where for decades the residents toiled in farm and agricultural labor to produce food for other people, increasingly there are urban farming projects that help members of the community grow food for themselves. Veggielution, one such urban farming project, is also in residence in Prusch Farm Park.
2. Mayfair Community Center and Gardens (2039 Kammerer Avenue)
- Garden of Strength (Fernanda d’Agostino, 2009)
- At the Community Garden: the entryway cut metal gates by Victor Mario Zaballa display Opuntia, a familiar cactus for many who traveled here from Mexico. A source of edible nopales and prickly pears, Opuntia are grown in the community garden for food. Commissioned by the Mayfair Improvement Initiative. (1997)
- While most public art very visibly honors elements of the historic and cultural legacy of the Eastside, there are some tributes that are not so obvious: community members whose families marched alongside César Chávez shared that they planted avocado trees in the Community Garden in tribute to Chávez because he so loved them and would sit beneath avocado trees to reflect and write.
The Mayfair Park and Community Center and Mayfair Community Gardens are today a hub of vibrant community activity in the area around S. Sunset and Kammerer Avenues, next to Silver Creek.
While central to the Sal Si Puedes neighborhood, over time the neighborhood took on the name of the Mayfair Packing Plant which, at one time, owned this and adjacent land. The Mayfair Packing Plant facility was located on what is today Packing Place, across Silver Creek from the Mayfair Park and Community Center’s site. This was one of many packing plants and canneries throughout the Santa Clara Valley that processed the vast amount of fruit and produce harvested from the area, packing it into boxes and cans that were then shipped throughout the world. While many migrant workers labored in the orchards and fields, the processing plants also employed local and migrant workers; many in this highly diverse work force immigrated here from Mexico, the Philippines, Italy, Portugal, Japan and China. These packing plant jobs came to be considered very desirable as they tended to provide more consistent work, better wages and comparably better working conditions than other agricultural labor in the area.
City of San Jose records indicate that in 1953, the Mayfair Packing Plant donated land on Kammerer Avenue for the site of the original Our Lady of Guadalupe Church building; this building was later moved 300 yards onto the present Our Lady of Guadalupe Church property and is named McDonnell Hall.
Mayfair Community Gardens is located on land that was once the edge of a large family farm. This all-organic community garden is the oldest in San Jose, predating the 1977 start of the City’s Community Garden program. At 2.75 acres it is today the second largest community garden in San Jose (the largest being nearby in Prusch Park), providing more than 120 plot ranging in size from 100 – 600 sq. feet. Community Garden members include more recent immigrants to the area, adding to the long-standing cultural diversity of the people living and working in Mayfair neighborhood.
3. Mexican Heritage Plaza (1700 Alum Rock Avenue)
- Untitled (Anne Chamberlain and Victor Maria Zaballa, 1999)
- Placita de Las Estrellas by Sayako Dairiki and Jonathan Hammond. A set of four stone mosaic panels set into the ground on the small exterior plaza behind the bell tower is a tribute to artists who were inspirational to the people of the neighborhood: Los Tigres del Norte, Luis Valdez, Linda Ronstadt, and Carlos Santana. (2012)
- Corazon y Espiritu de Mayfair (Heart and Soul of Mayfair), the mural on the Plaza’s King Road exterior wall, was created by Precita Eyes Muralists as a visual celebration of the Mayfair neighborhood. Commissioned by the Mexican Heritage Corporation. (2004)
The Mexican Heritage Plaza is a vibrant presence at the corner of Alum Rock Avenue and King Road. The beautiful, enclosed plaza features a 500-seat theater, classrooms and gathering spaces, and lush gardens landscaped with plants representing the various cultures that shaped Mexico including those that reference indigenous, Spanish and Arab cultural influences. Opened in 1999 and now under the long-term management of the School of Arts and Culture, the Plaza is the realization of many community dreams and aspirations: a place to gather, celebrate and learn; to sustain, transmit and share cultural identity and traditions; and to foster continued creativity throughout the community.
In the 1960s this was a very different place. This was, in effect, a corner of the Sal Si Puedes neighborhood, home to many farm and agricultural workers who for many years had been underpaid and labored in harsh, unjust, and unsafe working conditions, with no protections under existing labor standards.
A Safeway supermarket was located here. It was here that César Chávez organized and led other workers in picketing the store; this was one of the early demonstrations that launched the grape boycott that spread across the nation and helped build the United Farm Workers movement.
This intersection is the pivotal corner where human and workers’ rights marches and demonstrations that start further down King Road in the Sal Si Puedes neighborhood turn onto Alum Rock Avenue to head west out of the neighborhood and into downtown San Jose.
Arts and culture have long been a very important and integral part of life in the Eastside. Music, song, and theater were an important force in the social fabric of the community and also in the activism that gave rise to the struggle for human rights. These gave expression to social issues, building unity, lifting spirits and inspiring people to action. Musical groups like Los Tigres del Norte had an extremely strong presence in the community. Creative political theater artist Luis Valdez started successfully writing and producing plays while at San Jose State University, then going on to found El Teatro Campesino which was, and still is, an important vehicle for creative expression of socio-political issues and exploring cultural values; this in turn inspired the rise of theater companies in San Jose like Teatro Visión and Teatro Familia Aztlan, both with origins in the Eastside. Dance, like Los Lupeños de San José, helped connect people to folkloric dance traditions they may have left behind, and to pass it on to the children born and raised here. The locally-owned and broadcast radio station KLOK had a strong presence along with the locally-focused newspaper La Voz del Pueblo. R & B artist Clifford Coulter, born and raised in Sal Si Puedes, released his 1970 debut album entitled Eastside San José which includes a track called “Sal Si Puedes.” All this and more formed the rich cultural fabric of the Eastside; a spirit that today lives on throughout the community.
Further reading: School of Arts and Cultural at Mexican Heritage Plaza
4. Our Lady of Guadalupe Church (2020 E. San Antonio Street)
Public Art: Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe (circa 1967), the glass mosaic mural created by Katherine Oppenheimer, Marie Hutton and Lois Cronemiller featured prominently on the side of the church depicts key images of the area’s history: early encounter between the Ohlone and the cross-bearing Spanish expeditions with reference to the indigenous origins of the Mexican people, the creation of the nearby Mission de Santa Clara, agriculture and the rise of the United Farm Workers movement. Commissioned by Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Parish.
Our Lady of Guadalupe (OLG) Church has been an important force in the Sal Si Puedes neighborhood since its founding. The church was originally established as Mission Guadalupe in 1953 to meet the need for masses in Spanish brought about by the swell in immigration of Mexican and Mexican-American families in the late 1940s who came here to seek work in the area’s flourishing agricultural industry. César Chávez and his family had moved permanently into the area in 1948.
City of San Jose Historic Landmarks Commission documents describe how St. Martin’s Church in the Burbank neighborhood of San Jose donated a building to Father Donald McDonnell, a Jesuit missionary who was deeply devoted to his work in this community, for a church in East San Jose. César Chávez, an active member of the Church community, and others sawed it in half and, together with his brother, they brought it to a site on Kammerer to a parcel of land donated by the Mayfair Packing Company (the site where today the Mayfair Community Center is located.)
Under the guidance of Father McDonnell and the members of his clergy, the OLG Church community grew quickly in community organization and in effecting community change. In addition to its primary function as a place of worship, it served the community in many other ways: it provided a place for social gathering, celebration, and maintaining culture, and provided needed resources, training and social assistance to immigrants and Mexican-Americans.
The parish helped to foster many socio-economic and anti-poverty groups and movements. In the late 1950s-early 1960s, Fred Ross, Sr., a founder of the Community Services Organization (CSO), accessed the strength of the local community through the OLG Church parish. People and ideas that César Chávez encountered here, notably Fr. McDonnell, inspired and helped shape his lifework as an activist. Father McDonnell introduced Fred Ross, Sr. to Chávez who in turn mentored César Chávez in community organizing and together they set up the first series of CSO neighborhood meetings in Sal Si Puedes. The United Farm Workers (UFW) movement was born of these early organizing efforts. César Chávez organized and launched his first boycotts in these early days in his career; his non-violent strategy and tactics would make him the face of the farmworkers’ struggle for civil rights beginning in 1965 with his first boycott at the corner of King Road and Alum Rock Avenue at a Safeway grocery store that was on the site that is the current location of the Mexican Heritage Plaza.
The work of Chávez and several other activist organizations that grew out of the work done by residents of this neighborhood was far-reaching, with national impact. In 1968, Robert Kennedy, in solidarity with César Chávez and the struggle for Civil Rights and the Farmworkers’ movement, attended Mass at OLG Church alongside the civil rights leader, making a public appearance as part of his campaign for the Presidency.
By 1962, the chapel was too small to accommodate the growing number of parishioners. The community came together to purchase nearby land on San Antonio Street to build a bigger church. Parishioners who were skilled in the building trades donated their time, talent, and materials to construct a place of worship large enough for all. The new church building was completed in November 1967.
The original chapel building, named McDonnell Hall in tribute to Father McDonnell, still stands behind the main church building. Designated an historic landmark by both the City of San Jose and the State of California, McDonnell Hall is under consideration for National Historic Landmark status.
Further reading: Our Lady of Guadalupe Church
5. Plaza de San José Retail Center (1700 Block of Story Road)
Public Art: Coatlique Shopping, Tula Sentries, and Mandalas (Einar and Jamex de la Torre, 2005)
The southeast corner of Story and King Roads is today the site of Plaza de San José, one of the three major retail centers that now dominate the landscape that was once orchards and dairy farmland. New generations of community members, reflecting continuing evolution of diversity, participate in the increasing economic vitality of the area.
The intersection of Story and King Roads is just south of the Highways 101-280-680 interchanges. Today these highways are primary traffic arteries for the region, but their construction was extremely controversial as it effectively divided in half the Sal Si Puedes neighborhood. Preparation for its construction, which began in the early 1970s, wiped out many homes, displacing many Sal Si Puedes residents. The interchange became a source of further frustration as it remained unfinished and the unconnected interchange hung ominously over the neighborhood long past its initial planned completion date. In January 1976, this situation inspired an infamous prank attributed to Councilmember Joe Colla who, working with union leader Mike Kraynick, activist Velma Million and others, arranged for an old Chevy to be lifted by crane up to the edge of one of the freeways and there it perched for several days in silent protest of the unfinished interchange. Construction re-commenced and finished not long after the prank took place.
The King and Story intersection has long been an important focal point in the Eastside: many protest and social justice demonstration marches originated here and traveled along King Road; others began at San Antonio Road near the Guadalupe Church, and some from Alum Rock Avenue; marches followed the route along King Road, and headed west at Alum Rock Avenue into the heart of downtown San José. This route is today commemorated by the City of San Jose as the César Chávez Memorial Walkway in honor of the historic marches led by César Chávez and is marked by signs. This route continues to be important to the community: in 2006 100,000 people gathered at this corner and marched in solidarity for immigration rights following this same route into downtown San Jose; marches in subsequent years have continued to do this.
The intersection of Story and King Roads and this corridor served another important aspect of the community’s cultural life. This was the hub of the favored car cruising route for those who expressed their sense of culture and creativity through the customization of their cars, popularly known as lowriders. The practice of cruising this corridor was at its height in the 1970s and early 1980s; each weekend, hundreds of young people would parade their cars down the corridor and congregate in the parking lots of the commercial centers at the intersection. The nearby Tropicana Night Club drew a significant crowd out to enjoy the nightlife. In 1986, a City ordinance designated the area a no-cruising zone effectively ending this practice. Nonetheless, the lowrider culture grew and gained popularity beyond the borders of San Jose; it inspired the creation of San Jose-based Lowrider magazine in 1977 that today reaches an international readership.
Today many salute the days of the height of the lowrider culture and its connection to Mexican-American culture by parading their cars on Cinco de Mayo, Mexican Independence Day and other major community holidays; these include traditional lowriders as well as non-customized cars dressed with Mexican flags draped across the hood of the car or attached to antennas. Starting at this intersection, they follow the same route as the marches to downtown San Jose. Many of these car clubs are committed now to community-building fundraisers held by way of car shows. Funds often are redistributed to community causes such as Christmas toy drives and food and clothing drives throughout the year.
Within the community there is a growing interest in indigenous Mexica culture, which many of Mexican-American ancestry feel connects them to their cultural origins. This re-emergence of indigenous culture is supported by local cultural arts organizations who are recovering traditional language, dance music sacred songs, ceremonies, plant medicines and cuisine. This cultural work contributes to ongoing initiatives to promote health and wellness in Eastside communities.
6. Tropicana Shopping Center (1630 Story Road)
Public Art: Cultivating Community (Valerie Rapps, 2011)
The Tropicana Retail Center sits at the southwest corner of the Story and King Roads intersection. This was the first of what are now three commercial retail centers to occupy this intersection.
Before the shopping center and related development, this tract of land was a lush commercial orchard. In the early decades of the 20th century Sal Si Puedes residents and migrant workers labored here, picking fruits and packing them in boxes for transport to packing and canning plants in the area. Today there remain Eastside residents who recall working in these orchards. The harsh working conditions in this and similar orchards and agricultural sites, and the related impoverished living conditions of the workers deeply affected César Chávez and others to activism for workers rights.
In addition to the orchards, dairy farms continued to exist in this area across the street to the east and northeast up until the late 1960s. By the mid-1950s, orchards and farms began to give way to development projects: Tropicana was the name given to the first modern development with tract homes that appeared in this area which included the Tropicana Retail Center along its outer edge.
Eastside Art & History, a project of the City of San José Public Art Program (SJPA), grew out of the realization that there is significant public art within the Eastside that strongly reflects the history and values of the community. This is in part because in recent years the City of San Jose has developed a number of key facilities in these Eastside neighborhoods including the Mexican Heritage Plaza, Mayfair Community Center, and improvements to Emma Prusch Farm Park; other significant improvements have included upgrades to the Mayfair Community Garden and two major retail developments at the intersection of Story and King Roads. Public art has been part of all of this development, created by artists who worked closely with the community to explore ideas which are clearly reflected in the artwork.
Recognizing this as a unique resource, in 2009 SJPA commissioned Mara De La Rosa, community cultural historian and folklorico artist, to research and develop recommendations about how to use this public art and key locations within the Eastside neighborhoods to raise awareness about the history and culture of this area. Her work was done in consultation with the Alum Rock Cultural History Corridor Advisory Committee convened by (then) City Councilmember Nora Campos. Eastside Art & History is a result of that effort, and was undertaken in part with a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.
- Mexicans In San José by Nannette Regua and Arturo Villarreal, (2009, Arcadia Publishing, ISBN-13 978-0-7385-6930-7/ISBN-10 0-7385-6930-5)
- Muwekma Ohlone: Learn more about the history and culture of the Muwekma Ohlone, the region’s indigenous people.
- Los Braceros Program: From 1942-1964 under the Bracero program more than 4.5 million Mexican nationals were legally contracted for temporary agricultural work in the United States at subscale wages under substandard conditions, with significant long-term impact on the business of farming and the culture of the United States. Learn more about the Bracero Program.
- César Chávez:
- Cesar Chávez Foundation Site Information.
- César Chávez Memorial Walkway Download the full route map and learn about the historic march route into downtown.
- The U. S. National Park Service has recommended five sites related to César Chávez be designated in the category of “new national historic park”: McDonnell Hall at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in San José, CA is one of these. Learn more about this in the National Park Service César Chávez Study.
- Joe Colla and the I-680 prank: San José Mercury News story by Scott Herhold about the famous I-680 prank.
- San Jose Public Art Program
- San Jose Local History: California Room at the San Jose Public Library
Note: The content on this page was originally a stand-alone website, launched in 2014. The content was transferred to this page in 2021. Images were sourced by the City of San José Public Art Program and original sources are unknown – unless credited, History San Jose does not hold copyright and cannot provide publication permission.
Eastside Art & History is a project of the City of San José Public Art Program funded in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.
All public art was commissioned by the City of San José Public Art Program unless otherwise indicated.
Eastside Art & History would like to acknowledge the following individuals and organizations whose contributions to this project were invaluable:
Maria De La Rosa | Diana Pumpelly Bates
Alum Rock Cultural History Corridor Advisory Committee
Assemblywoman Nora Campos (former City of San José District 5 Councilmember)
Rudy Chavez Medina
Fr. Javier Reyes
With special thanks:
Salvador Alvarez, Jr.
Elisa Marina Alvarado
Hon. Xavier Campos, City of San José District 5 Councilmember
Chris Esparza, San José Arts Commission
Father Jon Pedigo, Our Lady of Guadalupe Church
Staff of the School of Arts & Culture at Mexican Heritage Plaza
And to the artists whose artworks are central this project:
Victor Zaballa and Anne Chamberlin (1951-2008), Mexican Heritage Plaza and Mayfair Community Garden
Sayako Dairiki and Jonathan Hammond, Mexican Heritage Plaza
Precita Eyes Muralists, Mexican Heritage Plaza
Fernanda D’Agostino, Mayfair Community Center
Jamex de la Torre and Einar de la Torre, Plaza de San José
Gloria Bornstein, Emma Prusch Farm Park
Katherine Oppenheimer, Marie Hutton and Lois Cronemiller, Our Lady of Guadalupe Church
Valerie Raps, Tropicana Shopping Center
Eastside Art & History was made possible with support from City of San José and the National Endowment for the Arts.