A Vital and Important Symbol for the City : The mayor should get Pueblo commission up and running
David Alfaro Siqueiros’ ruined 1932 mural, “America Tropical"--painted and then painted out on a wall overlooking Olvera Street--is a work of art that lies close to the secret soul of Los Angeles. A searing comment on the abuse of native peoples, it shows an Indian lashed to a gibbet before a pre-Columbian pyramid as an American eagle bares its talons above him. To the right, a peasant revolutionary takes aim at the eagle or perhaps at the Indian himself, who looks on first glance like Christ crucified but on second like a man facing a firing squad.
By 1932, when Siqueiros fled his Mexican homeland, Mexico’s peasant revolution had betrayed at least part of its origins, and fascist “Gold Shirt” thugs were terrorizing communists and labor organizers alike. Siqueiros, who was both, may well have had more than one oppressor in mind when he produced this work. Be that as it may, the Los Angeles vigilantes who had the work painted over in deathly white have now become a grim part of the very history Siqueiros sought to present: History includes the whitewashing of history.
To Los Angeles’ great good fortune, the Getty Conservation Institute has taken on the task of removing the white paint, stabilizing what remains of the 18-by-80-foot mural and erecting a rooftop pavilion to welcome visitors. The institute, with the Friends of the Arts of Mexico Foundation, will have spent nearly $1 million by the time the project is completed.
But will it ever be completed? Amazingly, the institute has had to hire a full-time employee solely to cope with the overlapping local bureaucracies. The institute clearly has done its part, but, after six years, the city has failed to meet it halfway. As a result, this extraordinary project may be in jeopardy.
Mayor Richard Riordan, who still has not appointed the commission that is to take over the Olvera Street Pueblo--the original Los Angeles settlement--from the city’s parks department, should do so with dispatch. And he should appoint commissioners who will make historic preservation their top priority. The first question to ask any proposed general manager for the new agency should be: Do you have what it takes to bring the Siqueiros project to completion?
If the mural is made the key criterion, then in the end everyone down to the smallest merchant will benefit. Arthur Frommer, whose long career in tourism began with “Europe on $5 a Day,” ranks the allure of “visiting” the past below only the need for rest and the appeal of natural beauty as a motive for vacation travel. Cities that find a way to make their history visible attract tourists and even conventions, he says; cities that don’t, don’t. For proof, we need look no further than Santa Fe, which did, and Albuquerque, which didn’t.
Some of the happier history of Los Angeles is made visible in the festive air of Olvera Street and the tranquillity of the adjacent Our Lady of the Angels mission. But the buried pain of Angeleno history--and indeed of all North American history as a history of conquest--is made visible at Olvera Street only in Siqueiros’ mural. We urge the mayor to help make this masterpiece the national attraction and local shrine it deserves to become. Los Angeles is a city whose secret soul was painted over. It is time to start removing the paint.