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The still-beating heart of L.A. history

To many an outsider, Los Angeles is a stage set. It’s a city constantly pretending to be something it’s not.

“L.A. is a stand-in for the rest of the world,” said historian William David Estrada. “Our local mountains have been the Alps. Our deserts have been North Africa and China. That’s one of the reasons people think of L.A. as a plastic, superficial place.”

Estrada made this observation as we stood in the old plaza downtown, a place officially known as El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument. A film crew was working nearby, filling up part of the plaza with fake lampposts and other props.

“It’s supposed to be Philadelphia,” a crew member told us. “For a pilot.”

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The plaza is the oldest spot of inhabited real estate in Los Angeles, a place steeped with enough tragic and heroic local history to fill several novels. It’s in the movies all the time. Charlie Chaplin filmed scenes from “The Kid” there in 1920, Estrada told me.

But rarely has the plaza played itself in the movies.

The film crew rolled out a prop clock marked Philadelphia Time and placed it at the entrance to Sanchez Street, a brick-lined alley whose name doesn’t appear on most L.A. maps.

Most Philadelphians know their city’s rich history. It’s a source of great civic pride.

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But like most Angelenos, I’d never heard of Sanchez Street. I didn’t know until Estrada told me that it was the site of the bloody 1913 Christmas Day riot. And that I was standing at the spot of “the defining social event of 19th-century L.A.,” where in 1834 a member of the Pico family married an Alvarado with a Figueroa as the best man.

Estrada told me that Emma Goldman, the famous radical, came to the plaza to give a speech at the Italian Hall in 1912. And that the residents of nearby French-Town celebrated the centennial of Bastille Day there in 1889. An Asian family ran a grocery store facing the plaza -- until they were forced out by the World War II internment of Japanese Americans.

Estrada, a 56-year-old Los Angeles native, knows that history because he has dedicated more than two decades to listening to the “ghosts” of the plaza’s past.

“If these trees could talk, they’d have a lot of stories to tell,” he told me as we stood in the shade of the plaza’s tall Moreton Bay fig trees, planted in the 1870s.

Outsiders think we Angelenos live in a place without history.

And we locals think of the plaza as a Disneyfied version of L.A.'s Mexican and Spanish-colonial past. We go there for Mexican food, or to be amused by the tourists who buy sombreros from its vendors.

But the plaza is about so much more.

“My cultural DNA as an Angeleno is tied to this place,” Estrada told me. “It’s the spot where Los Angeles identity begins.”

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I’d come to the plaza with Estrada hoping for some insight into a question I have: What does it mean to be from Los Angeles?

Being an Angeleno and a Californian used to mean that your family probably came here from someplace else seeking opportunity and reinvention. With each passing year, however, that’s less true. Now, for the first time in its modern history, most of us Californians were actually born here, according to a recent USC study.

We are, collectively, growing old on this stretch of Earth between the San Gabriels and the Pacific.

For those of us yearning to understand our shared roots, Estrada’s recent book is essential reading.

“The Los Angeles Plaza: Sacred and Contested Space” is a three-century epic of conquest, change and conflict, with a multiethnic cast.

Black settlers from what is now Sonora, Mexico, helped establish the first settlement in 1781. The labor of Tongva Indians helped raise the plaza’s church in the 1820s. The histories of L.A.'s Latino barrios and Chinatown also begin at the plaza, which was the site of one of the great crimes of Los Angeles history, the Chinese Massacre of 1871.

In 1909 the City Council banned free speech in public areas except for the plaza -- which became a gathering spot for anarchists and radicals of various stripes, including the Mexican revolutionary Ricardo Flores Magon. Chinese nationalists founded a military academy there in 1903 to train men to fight the Manchu dynasty.

Gradually, the center of respectable, Anglo-dominated L.A. moved west, Estrada told me. And official L.A. began to erase from the city’s consciousness most of the plaza’s rich and turbulent history.

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“L.A. began as a multiethnic settlement,” Estrada told me. The history of the plaza, he said, teaches us that L.A. has always been defined by cultural mixing.

The Yankee merchant Abel Stearns arrived in 1829, married into a Spanish-speaking family and became a naturalized Mexican citizen. Solomon Garcia Smith, part Irish, part Mexican and a resident of the adjacent community of Sonoratown, became the first L.A.-born world boxing champion in 1893. And the Japanese American radical Karl Yoneda protested at the plaza in the 1930s with his wife Elaine Black, a daughter of Russian Jewish parents known in the L.A. press as “the Red Angel.”

All that history is part of the fabric of Los Angeles. But because L.A. is still turning its back on the place it was born, most of us still don’t know it.

You can pay the city to use the 130-year-old Pico House as the backdrop for a movie; on Wednesday it was pretending to be Paris in the 1960s. But L.A. residents can’t wander inside to see the courtyard that was once the most elegant interior space in the city. It’s been closed to the public for decades.

If you walk around the historic site’s scattered city-run museums you’ll find timeworn displays and nervous employees, who expect to be laid off any day.

True, there is the excellent Chinese American Museum on Sanchez Street. And there are plans to build a Plaza de Cultura y Artes dedicated to Mexican American history on Main Street.

But the plaza doesn’t just belong to L.A.'s residents of Chinese and Mexican descent. It belongs to all of us.

And if we don’t value that place -- and insist that the city invest in it too -- we’ll never be able to answer the question of who we are.

hector.tobar@latimes.com


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