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Old Treaty, New Battle : Group Fears Portrayal of Historic Cahuenga Events in Metro Rail Art

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In 1847, the Campo de Cahuenga was a site of peace, the place where Mexican and United States leaders settled their hostilities during the Mexican War.

Today, the Campo de Cahuenga--a historic monument in Universal City--is a site of conflict. But the troubles now are over art and how to observe the events that happened there more than a century ago.

In a dispute that illustrates how history can be interpreted from diverse points of view, an artist’s plans to adorn the walls and pillars inside the future Universal City Metro Rail station in North Hollywood have come under fire from leaders of a local historical society.

Margaret Garcia De La Paz, selected by community leaders to craft artwork for the station incorporating local history--including the signing of the Treaty of Cahuenga--said that in addition to highlighting the treaty in her designs, she wants to include depictions of Native American culture around the time of the California mission period.

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A look at some of her preliminary artwork for the station reveals brilliantly colored porcelain-on-steel and cast-iron designs that incorporate Mayan Indian symbols on pillars and handrails. She has not yet developed all her ideas, including sketches of the Native American life.

But leaders of the 47-year-old Campo de Cahuenga Historical Memorial Assn. say the use of Mayan art is inappropriate, and fear De La Paz intends to portray the decimation of local tribes--as well as the signing of the historic Cahuenga peace agreement--as the domination of whites over other races.

“The Mayans had zip to do with the Valley,” said Jim Gulbranson, curator of the historical association, which commemorated the signing of the treaty with a historical re-enactment Sunday.

Guy Weddington McCreary, president of the group and an influential Studio City real estate developer whose ancestors helped settle the area, charges that De La Paz is perpetrating “revisionist history.”

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McCreary wants the station art to reflect the treaty’s significant place in U. S. history and to show how the agreement led to California statehood and exemplified the concept of Manifest Destiny, a mid-1800s slogan promoted by those seeking to expand the nation’s territory.

De La Paz, who is collaborating with Los Angeles architect Kate Diamond on the project, says the criticism is unwarranted and premature. And she doesn’t want her creativity hamstrung by preconceived notions of her work.

“People attack when they are afraid,” said De La Paz, who is of Mexican and Native American heritage.

“It’s easy to say, ‘This site is where we conquered California.’ But there is more to it. Let’s recognize the people who lived here before. I’m trying to be inclusive,” she explained. “This site deals with my culture, including Gen. Andres Pico, who signed the treaty on behalf of the Mexican government. And it’s part of the heritage of many people who live here. There are other peoples to be remembered too.”

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She added that she and Diamond agreed to use the Mayan G symbol, which represents infinity, as a recurring motif on tiles in the station simply because it could be used easily on both walls and pillars. The design looks like a string of capital G s.

Although the subway stop won’t open for at least five years and the artwork is mostly in the conceptual stage, the debate has simmered for months in part because of miscommunication between the Metropolitan Transit Authority and McCreary.

Last October, McCreary sent letters to MTA commissioners explaining the association’s concerns.

Maya Emsden, MTA’s art director, responded promptly in writing, but McCreary didn’t open Emsden’s reply until January because it was sent to the association office and not his home.

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While Emsden is willing to discuss the association’s concerns, she notes that it was a diverse community advisory group that unanimously selected De La Paz in a process designed to prevent a single individual or organization from controlling the artwork.

McCreary and members of the association, which led efforts to construct the adobe building that sits on the site where the Treaty of Cahuenga was signed, said they deserve the right to review De La Paz’s renderings of events concerning the treaty.

Ultimately, however, the final say over the look of the station and the art inside rests with De La Paz, Diamond and MTA contractors, with the MTA serving in an oversight role, Emsden said.

Jim Berg, former publisher of a North Hollywood arts magazine and a member of the community panel that selected De La Paz, described the dispute as “a classic confrontation of two historical images of Los Angeles.”

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“There’s the booster image of Los Angeles as the land of opportunity. It says the missions brought God to the Indians, who were passive and agrarian. And then there is a different interpretation--that Indians were basically forced onto the missions, that it was virtual slave labor and that it made them susceptible to diseases that very quickly wiped them out.”

Berg and others said De La Paz’s willingness to look at history through a different lens made her work appealing.

But some members of the historical association, including McCreary, who served on the MTA’s advisory group for the station, do not see it that way. McCreary was not a member of the artist selection panel.

De La Paz said she is willing to talk with McCreary or anyone else for that matter. She also notes that she has asked Bill Mason, former curator of the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles, to review the wording of the narrative that will accompany her work.

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She is reading a number of history books, manuscripts and articles, including one written by McCreary, as background for the narrative she will write, said Mason, who has already conferred several times with De La Paz.

“The problem in Los Angeles is, we’ve been blighted by chamber of commerce historians,” Mason said. “For example, it’s a prevailing self-conceit on the part of Americans that they were liberating California by signing the treaty (of Cahuenga). The U. S. weren’t really liberators. There were very few in California who wanted annexation. The area was 95% settled by Mexicans.”

Observed De La Paz: “Sometime in 1995, maybe we can attain the same level of civility that was attained in 1847 when the treaty was signed. It was an honorable peace. That much, we all agree to.”


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