Diego Rivera's Pan American Unity

William Maynez
Innovation Showcase

City College of San Francisco (CCSF) is home to a world treasure called Pan American Unity, a mural by the famous Mexican artist Diego Rivera. This true fresco was painted locally as a gift for the college in 1940 at Treasure Island's Golden Gate International Exposition (GGIE).

As a practitioner of the ancient fresco buono technique he learned in Italy, Rivera dissolved finely ground earth pigments in distilled water and painted directly on a diaphanous coat of lime-rich moist plaster. The resulting chemical reaction is such that the image is not on the surface, it is the surface.

The fresco discipline dictates the nature of the painter. Constrained to paint while that day's plaster is damp, the artist has to be supremely confident and physically robust. Badly rendered portions and unpainted dried plaster have to be painstakingly chiseled off. Rivera worked herculean stretches attended by a variety of assistants from around the world. The finished durable surface is color fast: The hills of Siena do not change color.

Durability as Understatement. College personnel first appreciated the scope of its stewardship responsibility in 1999, when a Getty Conservation Institute expert admonished us to think about conserving the mural for the next two hundred years. The daunting obligation of long-range stewardship had not yet occurred to us, but it had to Rivera: The hues continue to get richer for the first 100 years.

The mural was created on 10 robust steel-framed panels bolted together and weighing about 23 tons. At 22 feet high by 74 feet long, his largest contiguous work completely spans the narrow lobby of the college's Diego Rivera Theater. After losing an unmovable mural in the 1933 Rockefeller affair, Rivera used panels to make his works portable.

The college is fortunate to house additional legacies of the GGIE's Art in Action program. Subsequent WPA projects on campus included the Science Building?s visionary murals, a homage to Rivera, which depict women and people of color involved in science.

For Now and For Posterity

Student Docent Program

To ensure free public access--our paramount mandate--CCSF developed a student docent program to staff the mural approximately forty hours a week. Under the auspices of the art department, docents acquire the knowledge to create individually polished presentations, some bilingual. The scope of the available information allows for a variety of presentations. ESL docents have used their stint to polish their public-speaking skills, rewarding both the students and the instructors.

The docents provide tours for scheduled field trips as well as for people who just drop in. Visitors to the mural have included art conservators, future leaders of the Middle East, members of the Berlin legislature, tourists from all over the world, and untold numbers of school children.


We are fortunate to have a growing wealth of information about Rivera's 1940 visit to San Francisco. Much of this information, from historical details to juicy gossip, is the gift of the family of Emmy Lou Packard, Rivera's primary assistant and secretary in 1940. Rivera's first visit in 1930-31 resulted in murals at the San Francisco Art Institute and the Stock Exchange. His San Francisco visits bracket the time he spent in the United States.

Some of our students have become adept at translating documents from Spanish, while still retaining the flavor of the original words. Students from our "Diego Rivera: Art & Social Change" class enrich CCSF's Rivera collection by doing research at other regional centers. A few students have remained in contact for years and have done graduate work on this or similar topics.

Poring over copies of letters and other documents in CCSF's collection, students and instructors alike have had the alarming realization that today in an age of email, important historical information is being irrevocably deleted. In Rivera's correspondence, we sometimes have a copy of the draft as well as a copy of the letter as sent. Important insights can be inferred in the shades of differences between the two. Sometimes, however, the challenge is just to decipher people's handwriting.

The correspondence has allowed us to appreciate the prescient local patrons who brokered the visits and who generously endowed colleges, museums, and libraries. Although these patrons initiated a subscription to have Rivera return to triple the size of the mural, the U.S. entry into World War II and the eventual segue into the Cold War precluded Rivera's return.

Recently, a number of dresses and artifacts have been uncovered in a long boarded-up wall at Frida Kahlo's Casa Azul in Mexico City. Significantly for us, one of the dangling-hand earrings Frida wears in Pan American Unity turned up. The whereabouts of this gift from Picasso had long been a mystery. In addition, Diego's secret archive, which he intended to be kept from the public for only 15 years after his death (in 1957), is currently being conserved. We eagerly await the opportunity to access this cache of 26,000 documents after it is cataloged.

Interdisciplinary Use of the Mural

We joke that we can teach just about any course using the mural. The ESL department creates writing assignments about themes in the work, as well as using it to illustrate action verbs. The art department uses mural imagery as a point of reference for student painting projects. Political science classes see that the figures of Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Charlie Chaplin, and Henry Ford are a veritable front page of the times. Rivera was immersed in international intrigue because he sponsored the fugitive Leon Trotsky's 1937 asylum in Mexico. After a botched attempt on Trotsky's life, the artist, fearing a similar threat, went into hiding just before coming to the GGIE. He entered the U.S. accompanied by Chaplin's wife, Paulette Goddard, but that's another story. As Rivera worked on the CCSF mural, a Stalinist hit man finally assassinated Trotsky in Mexico.

Sharing the Mural With the World

Web Access to the Mural

The bilingual website, www.riveramural.org, provides a convenient way to become acquainted with the mural, including enlargeable images, samples of archival memorabilia, and a brief historical background. A legend identifies characters in the mural. Sixty-six years after it was painted, we are in contact with three people who are depicted in the mural. Links connect to interesting websites, to work done by instructors in various disciplines, and to a bibliography of books by and about Rivera. The website is used by classes as far away as New Zealand.

Taking the Mural on the Road 

A traveling exhibit (http://www.ccsf.edu/Resources/Mural/RiveraExhibit) showcases the mural and is comprised of a 20-foot-long mural reproduction, several large didactic panels, a table with artifacts, and a flat-panel multimedia presentation. This presentation includes high-resolution mural images, and in a video interview, Guadalupe Rivera Marin relates her father's great respect for education.

The exhibit has appeared in state offices, city halls, museums, fairs, and schools. Some events were augmented by CCSF's A Family, Teacher, and Student Guide to the Pan American Unity Mural and by programming developed by the host sites. The mural's image has been seen worldwide, from a Victoria and Albert Museum (London) catalog to CNN.com. All the San Francisco works are included in a forthcoming book on Rivera's major murals.

Nurturing Mexican Connections

Creating North American Art

The official name of the mural is Marriage of the Artistic Expression of the North and of the South on this Continent. This was Rivera's rallying cry for American artists to use North America's indigenous creative vocabulary rather than badly rehashing European styles. As World War II heated up, the sentiment was echoed by Los Angeles Museum Director Roland J. McKinney as he prepared to unveil a three-gallery pre-Columbian show: "If Europe blows up and destroys its cultural heritage, the Americas can turn for inspiration to their own, indigenous art, the art that predates Columbus."
The college took advantage of a Fulbright scholarship in fall 2000 to host a noted Mexican art historian who shared valuable observations and methodologies with us. Named director of the Museum of Modern Art upon his return to Mexico, he remains our friend and valuable advisor.

In late 2004 our growing Mexican connections resulted in the government of the state of Veracruz donating a hand-carved stone replica of a 3,000-year-old Olmec head. Nine feet tall and weighing 14 tons, El Rey traveled 2,500 miles by truck and was installed next to our theater in a sunken garden designed to evoke the ambience of Casa Azul. Our El Rey DVD documents the installation and the dedication ceremony.

International Advisory Council

Rivera's daughter chairs our International Advisory Council (IAC). This council comprised of scholars, art dealers, and museum directors, among others, meets here periodically to give an outside perspective on our stewardship. Her Fundacion Diego Rivera and the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program recently sponsored a mural painting encounter in Mexico City. This gathering of over 125 artists and people from related disciplines from 13 countries was a vivid reminder that art truly can change the world. Artists demonstrated the ability of murals to change the lives of people in inner cities, prisons, schools, and other places.

Our mural was a part of a fair celebrating the completion of the Bay and Golden Gate Bridges. Rivera even cleverly encrypted the dimensions of the Golden Gate Bridge in the dimensions of the mural. More importantly, he meant for the mural to serve as a metaphoric bridge between neighboring cultures. As he had hoped, the Pan American Unity mural has served to generate and continues to nurture a dialogue between City College and Mexico.

Looking to the Future

Center for Pan American Unity

As the college's new performing arts center complex is being built, we are making plans to use the existing theater site to house a newly created Center for Pan American Unity. This plan involves reorienting the mural facing north, the original intent of Rivera and the architect, Timothy Pflueger. This would allow visitors to step back to simultaneously see the mural's dualities, and the mural would always be visible from outside the building through a glass facade.

Apart from housing the collection and providing a small performance venue, this new space could serve as a forum for addressing compelling issues of California's changing demographics. A lively artistic and intellectual atmosphere could help serve the bootstrap function of engaging underrepresented Latino youth. Often, the greatest hurdle in recruiting students without a higher education legacy in their family is just getting them on campus. Once they are on campus, though, the college offers a full spectrum of professional support services.

The IAC suggested we start performing the functions of the proposed center now. Collaborating with the Mexican Consulate, we hosted a free concert by the renowned London and Mexico City based flautist, Elena Durán, a Chicana who started her music training in local public schools. The concert showcased the fruits of an education.

Continuing Our Stewardship

On our watch, the Diego Rivera Mural Project is striving to be a good steward by ensuring the mural's accessibility and by maintaining its structural integrity. We recognize our role as the current link in what will be a long chain of people caring for the mural.

Diego loved history, but hated to tell a story the same way twice. In his autobiography we've caught him sometimes creatively fudging the truth. Archives keep history alive by demonstrating that long-held beliefs are not immutable; people can sometimes come up with better stories by looking differently at the same facts. The mission of our archival stewardship is to gather ephemeral information for contemporary scholars and conserve it for future scholars with new insights. In a hundred years, if we've done a good job, we may be a footnote in our own collection.

William Maynez is the Physics Lab Manager and a Rivera historian at City College of San Francisco (CA).