The Cruz crew: Juan Cruz and some helpers are sprucing up his iconic mural on Syracuse’s West Side. MICHAEL DAVIS PHOTO
“When we designed the complex one of the things that we wanted to do was to make sure that this was viewed as the community’s,” said Martin Yenawine, principle partner in the project. To celebrate the 20th anniversary of Onondaga Commons, Yenawine has hired artist Juan Cruz to return from Puerto Rico and reinvigorate the mural he painted there in 1990. “It’s weathered pretty well but it’s gotten a little shaggy,” said Yenawine of the mural which faces Shonnard Street. The colors have faded a bit. There are a few major cracks in the plaster and some flakes have fallen off. No graffiti mars the work, though.
The mural was a true community effort. It was quite a big job—more than a hundred feet across and 30 feet tall at its highest point. Cruz, who was a youth organizer with the Spanish Action League at the time, got neighbors of all ages involved, seeking suggestions and handing out brushes. Cruz designed his composition based on the input of those who came out to participate. The result was a sprawling scene that reflected dreams for a better community.
The longest stretch of the mural shows clusters of newly built homes, picket fences, swing sets, slides, tall trees and gardens. Young couples with infants, gray-haired guys, happy dogs, musicians and beat cops all get along with each other.
The tallest section is a patchwork of symbols. In the center a sun smiles with full lips and downcast eyes. Multicolored birds circle above. A huge polka-dotted owl perches within a green square. Other rectangles hold a fruit tree, toy soldiers, a carousel horse, a snake, a fish and a piggy bank. The smallest contains a simple self-portrait. Each symbol has a personal meaning for Cruz. For example, the snake represents a fresh start because it sheds its old skin.
Although the core of the mural will remain the same, this is more than a touch-up job. Cruz will have to work fast: In a month he’ll be back in Puerto Rico. By then he’ll need to repair the surface, prime, draw and repaint.
Cruz plans to redraw large sections and paint with more intense colors. “People want to see colors brighten up the neighborhood; that’s what I’m here for,” he said. Planned work includes making the owl more alive, as Cruz put it, and fixing the horse. Right now a window cuts off the horse’s front legs at the fetlocks. He plans to work on the project every weekday, weather permitting.
Locals are still anxious to help out. Some who lent a hand as kids are coming back to help again with their own children. Cruz loves running into these old friends and seeing their lives turning out positively. “On the West Side you always hear bad stories but there are also good stories,” he said.
Cruz is as passionate about motivating children as he is about art. “On the news there are so many crimes, young people with nothing to do. I grew up in New York City and there was a lot of gang violence. I was involved in gangs. It don’t pay off, man, it don’t pay off. Lucky for me I had drawing.”
When asked about returning to his role as youth organizer Cruz remarked, “I’m a little older now. I don’t have the energy to chase kids but I’m willing to teach and do my own thing. You always have to give something back to the community, that’s the way I feel.”
After five years in Puerto Rico, Cruz plans to take up permanent residence in the United States again soon. “I like the four seasons. I thought I hated the winter; it was getting in my bones. In Puerto Rico it’s hot all year round. . . all year round. I want my four seasons,” explained Cruz. Syracuse should be proud to have him back.