J. Sergio O’Cadiz Moctezuma: El Artist
By Gustavo Arellano
In an Orange County long accustomed to treating its Mexicans with malice and scorn when it bothers to think about them at all, few cases are more infuriating than that of J. Sergio O’Cadiz Moctezuma.
Here is a talent, an artist as adept with a pen or paper as he was with paint or concrete. Who could take on municipal art projects or Chicano murals, and adjust his wokeness based on the commission without ever compromising his essence. Who could express himself through realism or abstraction out of Escher with the same ease.
In an Orange County that always loves its art to be as trite and nostalgic as possible — think the Plein Air movement, Wyland’s ocean murals, orange-crate label art, or the nostalgic cuteness of Paul Frank and Shag — O’Cadiz’s catalogue makes them look like crayon-box Picassos.
His work makes OC stare uncomfortably at what it never dreamed of when it came to its Mexicans: unapologetic. Proud. Talented. Successful.“My idea of America,” he once told the Los Angeles Times, “is the right to be as Mexican as I want.”
And for those sins, Orange County has long declared war on his legacy.
A fountain outside Fountain Valley’s City Hall turned into planters before getting demolished in the early 2000s. A 600-foot wall mural in the city’s Colonia Juarez barrio that tackled the Mexican American experience, that brought international acclaim that O’Cadiz, was left to fade away then torn down altogether and after residents dismissed it as an earthquake hazard. Concrete artwork on Santa Ana City Hall became blocked by an annex.
And earlier this month, as Cypress College put its final touches on the O’Cadiz retrospective this essay commemorates, one of his murals off Raitt Street in Santa Ana was completely whitewashed after an unknown artist began to restore it, outraged that the city had let the work’s once-vibrant city scenes degrade to chipped ghosts.
In one of the richest counties in the United States, it’s dangerous to be a talented Mexican, as O’Cadiz and his family still are finding out nearly 17 years after he passed away.
But in la naranja, the times are a’changing. And the artist that still leads the way after all these years is O’Cadiz.
I’m a latecomer to admiring Sergio. I knew nothing about him until about 2008, when I did a slideshow about Orange County’s Chicano murals for my former publication.
In the photo accompanying the Raitt Street mural, I noted that there was no signature affixed to it, so terrible in shape it was even then. An anonymous commentator emailed me to note the mural was by O’Cadiz, and that it wasn’t the first time we had neglected one of his treasures.
Intrigued, I began to research his life. He was born in 1934 in Mexico City to an economist who enrolled his son at a Jesuit-run school to develop his burgeoning talent. After establishing himself as an architectural designer in Mexico's capital, O'Cadiz migrated to Orange County in 1962 and was quickly recruited to work with legendary architect William Blurock, whose Brutalist-inspired buildings were beginning to sprout up across Orange County — and found their beauty through O'Cadiz.
He worked on office parks and schools alike, many which still stand: sculptures at Willard and Lathrop middle schools in Santa Ana, murals at Monroe and Fremont elementary schools in the city. With thick-framed glasses, short hair, and a Van Dyke beard, O’Cadiz became an artistic sensation, able to navigate John Birch-era Orange County while maintaining his artistic independence. He was a true bohemian, someone as comfortable in the boardroom as he was on the streets. And because of that, his art in Orange County became ubiquitous.
In short, we once loved him.
But by the time I began to research him, only fans of Chicano art remembered O’Cadiz. I scratched at his story from time to time over the years until I finally connected with his daughter and archivist, Maria del Pilar O'Cadiz and decided to do a full feature on her father.
I remember visiting Pilar’s home in Santa Ana, sitting with her for hours as she told the story of Sergio. From time to time, she’d get up and go to a well-kept room just outside the main home, which served as the repository for hundreds of his works: sketchbooks and sculptures. Large frames and small. Landscapes, women, boats, and Mexico.
“It's about time Orange County remembers my father,” Pilar told me for my story, which published in 2012. “After all, Orange County loved him before.”
We still don’t truly love O’Cadiz. But thanks to this exhibit and school, we now have a chance.
Outside this very art gallery stands O’Cadiz’s piece de resistance: Cypress College itself.
He was part of the original team that designed the campus in 1967. As part of his tasks, O’Cadiz created the gargantuan promontory that juts out of the Cypress College Complex building, one that dwarfs anyone who walks underneath it and looks like — depending on your worldview — it’s emerging from the earth to announce its existence, or is the remnant of a spear thrown by a vengeful God demanding we mere mortals acknowledge it.
It, in short, is a masterpiece — and too often taken for granted.
Don’t worry: I’m as guilty of this as you are. Cypress College faculty have kindly invited me to lecture multiple times over the past 15 years. Any time I visited, I’d always look at the deceptively titled Library Mural(named as such because the building that O’Cadiz’s piece is part of used to be Cypress College’s original library) and marvel at how audacious it was. Wonder what all the squiggles and scratches represented.
Only until agreeing to write this essay did I realize O’Cadiz did it.
I always thought Library Murallooked in bad shape, and it could’ve been another sad case in O’Cadiz’s career, another beauty ignored to the point of having to be thrown to the dumpster. But leave it to Cypress College to do something the rest of Orange County hasn’t bothered to do with O’Cadiz: care.
In 2016, administrators and faculty began the careful task of not just restoring Library Mural, but also ensuring it would outlast us all. They set a template for caring for Orange County’s neglected Latino artists that other patrons and institutions should learn from.
I believe that Cypress College did the restoration because it was the right thing to do, but also because it sees a metaphor of itself in O’Cadiz: forgotten by the rest of Orange County, despite its talent, and just waiting for everyone else to love it.
In the meanwhile, Instagram the hell out of Library Mural and make its fame go viral. Let’s make it iconic not just to Cypress College, but also to the Southern California experience—because if LACMA’s Urban Lightinstallation could achieve such fame, so can O’Cadiz’s ultimate gift, you know?