Latinos in California: A Cultural Heritage in Search of a Museum

Times Staff Writer

It is a day in August and invasion is in the air. Hastily organized bands of Spanish soldiers struggle north toward Monterey, desperately trying to keep that oceanside outpost from being overrun by the Russian army.

Reaching Los Angeles by way of the San Gabriel Valley, a small expedition led by an army lieutenant camps near the Los Angeles River, only to experience three earthquakes--temblors that seem to rumble continuously through the afternoon and night.

But with the sunrise, the mood changes and the expedition encounters a band of local residents who, a chaplain notes in his journal, reside near the Los Angeles River in "a delightful place among the trees."

Not a Scene From a Movie

Despite an apparent juxtaposition of story elements that could be familiar to anyone who watches movies or television, this snippet is not taken from a script.

Rather, it is a small sample of the experiences of a Spanish expeditionary force venturing north from Baja California in August, 1769, a sample that is a part of a rich though largely publicly unrecognized history that may finally be on the verge of gaining a museum in which its full story can be carefully laid out. It is the history of California's largest minority group, Latinos.

But if a California state museum of Latino history is established--Assemblyman Charles Calderon (D-Alhambra) was preparing last week to introduce a bill to appropriate $8 million to find a site and build the museum--it will not be without a great deal of politicking disrupting the process. Much of it springs from conflicting ambitions and personal priorities within the Latino community; a power struggle among local museums may also play a role.

And it all is being played out against a backdrop of urgency. Although initial state support would not provide funds to start acquiring a collection for the Latino museum--state museums have recently made it clear private funding is necessary for collection acquisitions--museum professionals agree many potentially valuable materials in larger private collections are in danger of being broken up at auction or donated to out-of-state museums. This trend has developed, museum insiders say, because California lacks a proper museum to house them.

Ann Reynolds, chancellor of the California State University system and an observer of the movement of privately held art and artifacts, said that one major Latino art collection assembled by the late Vice President Nelson Rockefeller already has been split between museums in San Antonio and San Francisco because no suitable home for it could be found in Southern California. At least one other major privately held Latino art collection in Los Angeles is believed to be in danger of being donated to an out-of-state institution, according to local museum experts.

"I have a sense of urgency about the notion of a Latino culture museum," Reynolds added. "The private collections are diminishing in number and many are being sold and further disseminated. It seems to me that this wonderful multicultural city ought to have the most major Hispanic collections."

Museum Focus Not Clear

The proposed Latino history museum's precise focus remains somewhat unclear. It would obviously emphasize history, but Calderon and other supporters say the significance accorded 20th-Century events compared to earlier history remains to be determined as would the question of whether the museum would include art.

As proposed, the 53,500 square-foot museum would have at least five galleries, as well as storage, library and auditorium space. Gov. George Deukmejian has not indicated whether he would sign a bill appropriating the money for the museum, but most observers believe a veto would be difficult in an election year because the state already has put up money for other ethnic museums. Most observers think the Calderon bill will pass the legislature, though it may be extensively amended to take into account questions of siting and funding.

Finding a collection to go into the museum would be a challenge but museum experts agreed that, at least in the beginning, borrowed holdings from other museums would be necessary to flesh out exhibits. Some artifacts are likely to be available in small collections or individual pieces; some materials may be available at UCLA or in other University of California facilities.

The museum proposal faces potential controversy on two fronts. One involves the institution's location--a state study last year done under terms of an earlier bill sponsored by Calderon picked four possible finalists. The other controversy will be over who runs it once it is built.

That a state-supported Latino history museum is a concept whose time is long overdue is a notion widely supported among Latino politicians, community leaders and historians. But several areas of potential conflict include where the museum will be and how it is to be administered. City Councilman Richard Alatorre, for example, who has expressed keen interest in having the museum located in his councilmanic district--an area that includes two of the four finalist sites. Calderon reportedly told consultants retained to study site selection last year that he had no personal investment in whether his own assembly territory was designated.

Alatorre insists he would not make siting the museum in his district the price for his support of the Calderon legislation, but Calderon said in an interview that such a deal would have to be considered if things got to the point that Alatorre's support meant the difference between establishing the museum or watching the idea wither.

"I would hope that we can take the politics out of it," Alatorre said. "The fact of the matter is it's long overdue. I would hope that (political) considerations do not get in the way of moving forward the selection of the site. Who runs it is, at this point, premature."

Private Group's Plan

And at the same time, a nonprofit group called the California Museum of Latino History--incorporated in 1984 to work for establishment of the museum--has proposed that administration of the museum be turned over to it and that its director, Antonio Rios-Bustamante, be appointed to the state museum's head. The private group's plan for the publicly financed museum building includes a 1,000-square foot office for Rios-Bustamante and a 4,000-square-foot board room, both with 14-foot ceilings, as well as a 400-square-foot private washroom, with shower, for members of the board.

Rios-Bustamante said the proposed architectural features do not necessarily represent his organization's final plan and that, in the case of the the enormous board room, in particular, "the museum will not collapse if there is not (that room)." He said the board room could be used for fund-raising events.

At another level, the site selection process, done by private consultants working under supervision of the California Museum of Science and Industry, has established the dynamics for a struggle within the Los Angeles museum community. One of the four finalists for location of the Latino museum is the existing Exposition Park complex, where open land is now so scarce some museum administrators there say they would oppose addition of yet another museum because it could endanger expansion plans by existing facilities.

Aurelia Brooks, who heads the recently opened Museum of Afro-American History and Culture on the Exposition Park museum strip, said additional museum complexes would seriously disrupt what little greenbelt area remains and potentially impair the surroundings that attract visitors. Expansion space for the Afro-American museum and other institutions nearby could be endangered by location of still another new facility in Exposition Park, Brooks said.

Another of the finalist sites is the Southwest Museum in Mount Washington, whose existing collection of Native American art and artifacts could contribute significantly to the Latino museum but which remains in a financially precarious position itself. Secret negotiations to merge the Southwest Museum with the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History fell apart several weeks ago after The Times reported the natural history museum proposed to move all or most of the Southwest Museum's exhibitions to a proposed new facility in the San Fernando Valley. It was a controversy in which an enraged Alatorre charged that members of the boards of the Southwest and Natural History museums were guilty of "conflict of interest."

But to Calderon, sitting in his cramped local office on the second floor of an office building in Montebello one day recently, traversing the political mine field that stands between his dream for the museum and actually opening it remains worthwhile.

"My experience is that there will be personalities that we will have to deal with, personal agendas that will have to be addressed and antagonisms that have to be smoothed over," Calderon said. "(Latinos) are like anybody else, and I suspect there will be posturing."

In addition to Exposition Park and Southwest Museum, the site selection study identified the El Pueblo State Historic Park in the Olvera Street area downtown (which includes the Terminal Annex U.S. Postal Service facility that is to be vacated next year) and the campus of East Los Angeles College.

Calderon said that The East Los Angeles Community Union (TELACU), which has expressed an interest in acquiring the Terminal Annex building when it is vacated, had offered at least temporary quarters for the museum there. A TELACU spokesman said the community organization hopes to attract both the proposed Latino museum and the Los Angeles Children's Museum to the property.

He asserted there is a clear irony since Latino history and culture--which many observers see as the most dominant element in California's evolution--still lacks recognition in an official state museum while state funding has already been provided to build and open the Afro-American museum as well as another museum on the Holocaust that is part of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. State funds have also gone to a Japanese-American cultural museum.

"I think the notion of a Hispanic museum has been around for a long time, but the leadership has not been there," Calderon said. "Why (the leadership) has not been there I don't know, but the whole notion or concept of the museum did not get going until there were people in the Hispanic community who were willing to make it a reality.

"We are growing (but we are) still in the infancy of our actualization as a community insofar as our ability to interact and get something like this going. Why it has taken so long is difficult to explain, (but) I think there obviously has been no motivation on the part of the dominant (Anglo) culture to recognize in any permanent or special way the contributions of our community."

In Calderon's view, the inevitable demographics of California--by the year 2040, projections say 40% of the state will be Latino, as well as a strong majority in the Los Angeles to San Diego corridor--make a Latino museum not just desirable but essential. "The importance of the museum in my mind is so everyone will know what Hispanics have contributed as Americans or as Californians so that you can see the (Latino) culture is not an entity in and of itself but as a smaller part of a whole and how it interacts with the whole."

The legislation to set up the museum, Calderon said, would appropriate $7 million to $8 million to find and acquire a site, build the museum and organize its operation. Additional annual operating subsidies of about $1 million would also be required, Calderon said, echoing findings of the feasibility study last year that recommended the four sites.

Designation of the site is perhaps the most politically touchy aspect of the situation. Jay Rounds, executive director of the Los Angeles Conservancy and head of the 1987 feasibility study when he was on the staff of the Museum of Science and Industry, noted that having the museum situated within any politician's district would be perceived as an obvious windfall in terms of attracting Latino voter support. Rounds said Calderon had not pressured the feasibility study staff to propose sites in the area he represents, though East Los Angeles College is in Calderon's territory.

But the politically powerful Alatorre, who is fond of making light in private moments with Calderon of the differences in personal approach between his own close-to-the-streets earthiness and the more yuppie-like assemblyman, may see the museum site as something in which he has a more personal investment. Both Alatorre and Calderon agreed that the councilman favors the two potential sites in his district.

"Richard would consider it a great honor if the museum were to be placed in his councilmanic district, as, I think, would any elected official," Calderon said. "Whether or not he would insist upon that if it meant killing the whole notion, I don't know, but my guess is that he would not. I don't believe he would deliver that ultimatum, but if he did, then I would attempt to deal with it in a realistic way and attempt to determine if it is possible to (go along with Alatorre's wishes and) still have a museum I feel can make everybody proud."

"Certainly, the two sites in my district are appropriate," Alatorre said. "But I would not stand in the way (of designation of something else). The ultimate siting is not as important as making the museum a reality."

The Latino museum represents a different sort of personal investment for Rios-Bustamante, a historian who holds a part-time teaching position at Cal State Long Beach. He said he first started trying to form his private museum organization in 1980. Eventually, it grew to include a cross section of prominent Latino historians and community figures.

"Our organization involves the major scholars in the field," he said. "Just as if you were organizing a surgical hospital you would want to have surgeons involved, of necessity we would have to be involved in any (museum) effort."

While both Calderon and Alatorre agreed that Rios-Bustamante and his group will not necessarily play any direct role in the museum if it is established, the two elected officials said the private organization has worked diligently to see the museum established and that this past history justifies some role in the museum when it is formed.

Juan Gomez-Quinones, a Stanford University historian who is a director of the private organization, noted that the small community of Latino history scholars in California is represented virtually in toto on the private group's board. "I am very strongly committed that if there is going to be a (museum) effort, that it be a professional and worthwhile one," he said.

David de la Torre, executive director of the Mexican Museum in San Francisco, a 12-year-old private facility focusing on Latino art, said the Latino history museum will be inexorably tied to the political system unless it can wean itself from the ongoing requirement for state operating funds.

"Everyone knows that the Hispanic community is one of the fastest growing and already is one of the most important segments of society," De la Torre said. "I think the Hispanic community is just beginning to feel its oats in terms of contributing to nonprofit organizations which are their own."

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