Mexican Marketplace Evokes Tinges of Home


Inside the Olverita’s Village store at the north end of Olvera Street, a woman strolls in with a request: “Do you have norteno boots for girls? The ones that are about this tall, in white?”

“She’s talking about the charro ones,” Teresa Velez said coolly to another employee, who hustled the woman into the shoe section.

Velez didn’t have to see a picture or get more details. At Olverita’s, a cramped, color-saturated gift shop that specializes in traditional clothing from virtually every region of Mexico, the workers know their jarocho gear from their huichol gear as plainly as teenagers know their Nikes and Reeboks.


“I sometimes have people that come in and say, ‘What’s the traditional dress from Colima? I’m presenting myself in it and I don’t know what it looks like,’ ” Velez said. “The people have to know about the history of their regions. They come to Olvera Street. The whole street is Mexico.”

Well, si and no. And that, in an odd way, is part of the street’s appeal.

Situated in a downtown district officially known as El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument, Olvera Street is a narrow, brick pedestrian lane lined with shops, sizzling taco stands and open-air restaurants. A leafy plaza lies at one end of the street, just north of the Hollywood Freeway and City Hall.

Some consider the street the birthplace of Los Angeles. It features the Avila Adobe, built in 1818 and billed as the “oldest existing house in Los Angeles.”

But like many things in this city, the surface doesn’t necessarily reflect reality--or history.

“Olvera Street is an imagined space, an invented space,” said William Estrada, a curator for the monument and a doctoral candidate in history at UCLA.

“There are a lot of innocent interpretations. I’ve heard, ‘This is the oldest street in L.A.’ or ‘This is what L.A. looked like 200 years ago.’ Olvera Street was created in 1930 by an Anglo woman, Christine Sterling, who wanted to create a Mexican marketplace.”


At least 25 historic buildings dot the area, such as Avila Adobe, built in 1818, and La Placita, the church built nearby in 1781 that remains a venerated and popular house of worship for the Latino community.

But the Olvera Street of restaurants, gift shops and noontime mariachi music on the plaza grandstand is relatively new, almost contrived. Still, this doesn’t preclude the street from morphing into “real space,” Estrada said.

When churchgoers spill out of La Placita on Sundays, with flocks of children in white suits and dresses, many stroll about the plaza or sit on benches, snacking on churros or paletas, frozen fruit bars. Newly arrived immigrants are drawn to the plaza simply for what it evokes in them: tinges of home.

“I usually can understand the difference between invented and imagined space and real space,” Estrada said. “That’s the thing about Los Angeles, sometimes I see a blur.... [Olvera Street] has acquired a kind of genuineness, a la L.A.”

Olvera Street’s history has been a little blurry since the beginning. Originally Wine Street, the street was renamed after the county’s first judge, Agustin Olvera, in 1877.

By the early 20th century, as the city’s commercial center moved south toward present-day downtown, the area known as El Pueblo languished into slumhood. A substation for the city’s electrical streetcars provided constant noise and traffic.


Then came Sterling, who started a campaign to save the city’s historic center in 1926. The City Council closed Olvera Street to vehicle traffic in 1929. And the following year, on Easter Sunday, Sterling’s market opened to what historical accounts called “great festivities,” with promises to “preserve and present the customs and trades of early California.”

True to Sterling’s vision, merchants along Olvera Street still sell earthen wares from Oaxaca. But shoppers also can find kitschy Mexican favorites, such as lurid T-shirts honoring tequila, or absurdly oversized sombreros. American flags sell alongside Mexican ones.

Mothers and students from all over the Southland come to find regional costumes for holidays and performances. And self-professed Chicanos come to stock up on revolutionary books or T-shirts emblazoned with Emiliano Zapata or Che Guevara.

Tourists, meanwhile, make sure Olvera Street is never a lonely place. The smells of freshly pressed leather belts and cooking lard call them. The smells call people such as 61-year-old Sacramento firefighter Trini Campos and his wife Pamela, 49. Campos last visited Olvera Street 50 years ago with his Mexican grandmother, who, like him now, came looking for a little bit of home.

Despite Olvera Street’s less than authentic past, people such as Campos and Estrada still feel that sense of “genuineness” from the area. “Everyone falls back on their history,” Campos said. “If you want a small part of it, come here.”

Velez, the shop manager, said the Mexican American community prizes Olvera Street for the feeling of proximity that it gives then.


“This street represents the not-forgetting, from the guarache to the molcajete,” Velez said, referring to sandals and a stone mortar and pestle. “When we’re here, we’re closer to Mexico, to that Mexico.”

So what lies in the future for a quasi-historic Mexican boardwalk created by a woman named Christine Sterling? A little of everything--this is Los Angeles, after all. Plans are underway to restore more of El Pueblo’s buildings and open more museums, including one for local Chinese American history and another for Italian American history at the Italian Hall. There also have been talks of a transportation museum.

Olvera Street is the “heart of L.A.” and is going a through period of revival, Estrada said. “In a postmodern way, it really is a window or prism through which we can see the whole city.”