Icons of Santa Cruz: Mosaic project Watsonville Brillante aims to represent city’s entire cultural heritage

Detail of the mural on the Second Street parking garage in downtown Watsonville
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Transforming an anonymous parking garage, artists led by Kathleen Crocetti are creating a gigantic, quiltlike representation of Watsonville’s human story, a portrait of the city’s soul created with small pieces of ceramic tile. This “mind-blowing” work might be the most ambitious public art project in Santa Cruz County’s history.

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Crossing the county line, northbound on Highway 1, just south of Watsonville, you can see it. At that point, it’s nearly two miles away but, with an assist from the late afternoon sun — and if you’re blessed with good eyesight — you can make out the top of it.

That thing you’re straining to see is a parking structure, in the middle of downtown Watsonville, the kind of massive blocky mountain of white concrete that urban planners and architects consider a necessary evil and a generic marker of Anytown, USA.

But this particular parking garage is a different kind of animal. In the summer of 2022, the giant multi-story parking structure that shares a block with the Watsonville Public Library and the Santa Cruz County Superior Courthouse is halfway to a stunning transformation. Some time at the tail end of 2024, it will no longer be an anonymous parking garage. It will be a gigantic quilt-like representation of Watsonville’s human story, a portrait of the city’s soul created with small pieces of ceramic tile.

This is Watsonville Brillante.

In early June, what might be the most ambitious public art project in Santa Cruz County’s history reached its halfway point.

The first half, which is complete, consists of four large vertical mosaic murals conceived and designed by San Francisco artist Juan R. Fuentes, who grew up in the agricultural labor camps outside Watsonville.

The second part of the project is only just beginning. That includes the decoration of the much smaller but more numerous horizontal spaces between the levels of the parking garage.

The last of four murals from artist Juan Fuentes — "The Flower Grower" — was unveiled June 7 on the Second Street
The last of four murals from artist Juan Fuentes — “The Flower Grower” — was unveiled June 7 on the Second Street side of Watsonville’s downtown parking structure, as part of the Watsonville Brillante public art project.
(Kevin Painchaud)

The vertical pieces, the largest of which covers about 2,400 square feet, are all done. What you’ll see with that eagle eye from Highway 1 is the hairline of a girl named “Hermanita” (little sister), the only mural on the structure’s southwest face on Rodriguez Street. Around the corner, on the southeast-facing wall, stands the first two completed images, both 60 feet tall, depicting the area’s primary economic activity. They are, respectively, “The Strawberry Picker” and “The Apple Picker.” And, on the opposite side of the structure, overlooking Second Street, is the fourth and newest member of the Fuentes family of murals, “The Flower Grower.”

The second part of the project involves the 8-to-10-foot-long horizontal faces between the huge vertical murals, 185 of them all together. On June 7, the first 15 of those were unveiled. The vision is to illustrate the ethnic heritages of Watsonville’s people — Indigenous, Latino, Asian, European, African, Polynesian, and more — with symbols and depictions both beautiful and meaningful.

Kathleen Crocetti’s vision

The Brillante project represents the efforts of hundreds of local volunteers and donors. But the woman at the front of that parade is Kathleen Crocetti, a Santa Cruz middle school teacher and long-time Watsonville resident.

Teacher and artist Kathleen Crocetti
Teacher and artist Kathleen Crocetti cuts tile in her art space in Watsonville. Crocetti’s vision of a five-year vision to cover a downtown parking structure in mosaic tiles to reflect Watsonville’s cultural heritage has reached its halfway point.
(Kevin Painchaud)

Crocetti envisioned Brillante and launched the five-year project in 2019, in the process elevating the Chicano-style printmaking artwork of Fuentes, Watsonville’s crazy-quilt of ethnicities, and the art of mosaic tile all at once. It meant mobilizing an army of volunteers to put the tiled panels together in her workshop, the Muzzio Mosaics Art Center a few blocks away, during a shutdown international pandemic. Depicting the ethnic identities of the community also required an enormous outreach effort to get local residents to come forward with artistic designs of their particular cultural or ethnic background. Where the vertical panels represented the work of one accomplished artist, the horizontal panels will come from the artistic vision of hundreds of Watsonville’s people.

“The common thread is to connect all the residents of Watsonville,” said Crocetti whose own artistic contribution will be limited to her ethnic background constituting Italian, Croatian, and Irish. “That is the big idea.”

Even at halfway finished, the Brillante murals are already a colossal achievement in public art in Watsonville. The artist Fuentes, said Crocetti, “is a role model for the artists of Watsonville. He’s in virtually every Mexican-American museum in the country.”

Fuentes, 71, was born in New Mexico, but grew up in the farm worker communities as one of 11 children, mostly in Monterey County, just across the county line from Watsonville. He graduated Watsonville High School in 1969, and though he lives in San Francisco, he still has many members of his family in the Watsonville area.

“Everybody’s kind of blown away,” said Fuentes of the local reaction to his enormous mosaic murals. “My nephew told me, ‘You know, we’re out there looking at your murals and people we know walked by, and we were like, my uncle did that. And they, were all, Nooo, I don’t believe you.’”

Fuentes works in the high-contrast linocut/woodcut style. For years, he has centered his work mostly on portraits, most often of people representing different backgrounds — Latino, Mestizo, Indigenous — and in the context of anti-war or anti-colonialist themes. The Brillante mural “Hermanita” is typical of much of his work: an effort to portray the dignity, spirit, and humanity of his subjects. Fuentes emerged at the same time that the Chicano poster movement of the 1960s and ’70s was flowering, giving a new generation of Latinos a vibrant political voice.

Galvanizing his artistic and political sensibilities was his presence in the aftermath of the landmark 1968-69 strikes at San Francisco State College (not SF State University) when a coalition of students of color initiated a strike over the lack of diversity both on campus and in the school’s curriculum. “One of the reasons I ended up at San Francisco State,” said Fuentes, “was because of the struggle for ethnic studies.”

By the end of 2024, all the horizontal spaces
By the end of 2024, all the horizontal spaces between the large vertical murals will be covered in mosaic tiles as part of the Watsonville Brillante project.
(Drone photo by Inspira Studios)

When Crocetti first approached Fuentes with the Brillante idea, he was uncertain. “At first, I wasn’t quite sure what it represented or what it meant. And I didn’t know much about mosaics. I wasn’t sure how it would translate with my work. I was like, ‘Well, there are a lot of lines in my work.’ I just couldn’t imagine it being done with these little pieces of tile. So I’ve learned a lot, and like anyone else, I was just blown away [by the end result]. They’re so beautiful, and the fact that the community has been involved in them from the beginning, they kinda don’t even belong to me anymore. And that’s really the fabulous part.”

The first two Brillante murals reflected what Fuentes saw as the humanity and the often unacknowledged backstory of the thousands who work in the agricultural fields of California. “The Strawberry Picker,” for example, a barbed wire separates the stooping worker and ancient Latin American mythological imagery, including a sun in the style of the flag of the artist’s native state of New Mexico. The barbed wire, said Fuentes, represents the U.S./Mexico border and the inherent separation between the worker and his ethnic birthright that the border symbolizes.

“Hermanita,” the largest of the four Fuentes murals, was not, said Fuentes, inspired by a specific young woman. She is, instead, symbolic of women’s struggles to make a better lives for themselves and their families. Fuentes has four older sisters. They, more than anyone else, served as the inspiration for the image. “My sisters were so influential in my development as an artist and our family,” he said. “They all worked in the fields. One of my sisters used to work in the pajama factory that used to be there in Watsonville that’s gone now. And my other sisters worked in the canneries there for years.”

The new image, “The Flower Grower,” is different in that it portrays an Asian-American, representing a female Japanese worker in the nursery industry. “When I was growing up in Watsonville, I had classmates who were Japanese and lived close to where I lived. I asked one of my classmates if she had any old photographs of her family working in the fields and she sent me this cool old photo of her grandparents and her uncle working in the fields.”

A volunteer applies tiles
A volunteer applies tiles to an art piece that will eventually be mounted on a downtown parking garage as part of the Watsonville Brillante project.
(Kevin Painchaud)

At this point, the Brillante project shifts to the design and creation of the horizontal panels. The few panels unveiled this month, said Crocetti, “gives people an idea of what’s to come.”

Watsonville’s incredible diversity – 120 identities

Crocetti’s outreach work and her research into Watsonville’s demographics have yielded, so far, 120 different ethnic/cultural identities, each of which she plans to represent on the parking structure. “I just left it open for people,” she said. “Whatever you want to call yourself, however you identify.”

The panels wrapping around the building from Second Street will unfold a chronological story. The ones now on display already represent a wide variety of cultures from the native Amah Mutsun Ohlone peoples to Yaqui to Oklahoma Seminole to the empire of Spain.

“We’re now starting to work on the next section,” she said, “which is a lot of Asian groups, so we have Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino coming next.”

Another of the project’s goals is proportionality — Watsonville’s large Latino population will be represented by, for example, at least one symbol or icon from each of the 32 states in Mexico.

What was originally a five-year project is on pace to wrap up by the beginning of 2025. But even then, Watsonville will continue to change and evolve demographically. Crocetti said that Brillante will work to depict the city’s present as well as its past, believing that people of various mixed backgrounds will find their identity right alongside everyone else. In the end, Brillante is aiming for nothing less than to be an artistic demographic illustration of Watsonville’s people. After two and a half years of long hours in her workshop, Crocetti and her many volunteers are finding a second wind as the project shifts its focus.

“Our most recent arrivals,” said Crocetti,” are people from the Middle East. So believe it or not, we have people from Iraq, Qatar, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait, Yemen, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Armenia, Pakistan, Turkey, Syria, and Israel — in Watsonville. I mean, that’s so exciting.”

To see the mosaic murals of Watsonville Brillante, exit Highway 1 on Riverside Dr/Highway 129 and take a left toward Watsonville. About a mile on Riverside, take a left on Rodriguez Street. The murals are just past the Post Office.

Learn more about Watsonville Brillante; toscan the proposed designs and suggest representative imagery, and tovolunteer in the project, gohere.

A mosaic in Watsonville
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)