Los Angeles has a Mexican American mayor, a Spanish-language name and the largest Latino population of any U.S. metropolis.
But until now it hasn't been able to sustain a permanent major museum or cultural center dedicated to that teeming constituency. For decades, local Latino politicians and arts officials have watched with mounting frustration and embarrassment as Chicago, New York, Dallas, Long Beach and Omaha opened Latino- and Latin American-themed cultural institutions, while proposals for similar projects in Los Angeles languished in draft stages or, in the case of the Latino Museum of History, Art and Culture, virtually shut down after only a few years in operation.
That may change Saturday, when LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes, a $54-million cultural center that will include exhibitions on the city's Mexican American heritage, educational programs and live performances, opens to the public. Officials hope the center will serve as a focus of Mexican American and Latino cultural activity and help bring coherence and historic authenticity to the patchwork of tourist attractions and historic sites in the area centered on Olvera Street.
"We want to compare, or to counterpoint, the historic aspect of Los Angeles and the presence of the Mexicans and Mexican Americans with a bold here-and-now presence in terms of music, in terms of film, in terms of food," said Miguel Angel Corzo, LA Plaza's president and chief executive.
Situated on a 2.2.-acre lot dominated by two rehabilitated and remodeled structures, the Vickrey-Brunswig Building and Plaza House, LA Plaza straddles the state historic site where an 18th century Spanish settlement once stood. The center isn't a museum per se, although an inaugural exhibition, "LA Starts Here!," will illustrate the historic roots of L.A.'s Mexican American population with a number of historic artifacts and documents, several on loan from other museums. They include a carved wooden cross with obvious indigenous influences, United Farm Workers posters and a cereal box bearing the image of former Dodgers pitcher Fernando Valenzuela.
But officials decided that the not-for-for-profit center, with a full-time staff of 18, no endowment and an annual operating budget of $850,000, didn't have the resources to be a collecting institution. Instead, it plans to collaborate on exhibitions with cultural entities across the United States and Latin America. "Collecting is a sure way of becoming a repository for everybody's grandmother's portrait," said Corzo, former president of the Colburn School and of the University of the Arts in Philadelphia as well a former director of the Getty Conservation Institute.
Instead, LA Plaza will present a regular slate of activities that will include live musical performances, film screenings, community family days, lectures, garden tours and cooking classes. "This is about the stories of Latinos and Mexicans, and that's what we want to capture," said Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina, one of the project's earliest supporters and, by all accounts, the person most responsible for bringing it to fruition. "It won't be just a place of exhibits. It'll be a place about ideas."
A portion of the funds for the historic rehabilitation of the center site and the campus construction came from supervisors' discretionary funds, typically used on capital improvement projects, such as library and park upgrades, that Molina has been squirreling away for years. In 2004, LA Plaza became an official project of Los Angeles County, which will be responsible for its maintenance and operations.
But even with the county's backing, the center has been hampered by repeated delays. "It did take a long time, and it's really a shame it took this long," Molina said.
The center has generated other controversies. Several years ago, a third building adjoining the complex was demolished to make way for the new complex, dismaying preservationists.
Then last January, construction crews working in an area just south of La Placita Church inadvertently unearthed human skeletal remains from what had been a 19th century Roman Catholic cemetery. Construction was temporarily halted after concerns were raised by Native American groups, archaeologists and officials of the Los Angeles Archdiocese, whose records indicated that all the dead interred in that area had been relocated when the cemetery closed in the 1840s.
Corzo said he's working closely with "all interested parties" to find a way to respectfully memorialize the former cemetery while also allowing the center to incorporate the site into its educational mission. He said that the archdiocese's detailed records of the dead provides a wealth of historically useful information about the makeup of Los Angeles during the period after Mexico's War of Independence from Spain to the Mexican American War, which resulted in Los Angeles' becoming part of the United States. For the next several months, "LA Starts Here!" will occupy most of the center's first floor. The second floor is largely taken up with a hands-on interpretive history center, "Calle Principal," that re-creates some of the stores and other features of Main Street in the 1920s, when the area surrounding LA Plaza served as a first stop for many of the city's newly arrived immigrants.
An outdoor stage with seating for up to 1,400 people will be used for concerts and other activities. A 30,000-square-foot garden invites strollers, and a pathway that cuts across the site will supply a pedestrian link to downtown attractions.
LA Plaza's seismically retrofitted interior space was designed by L.A.-based Chu+Gooding Architects. Its grounds were designed by Rios Clementi Hale Studios, also of Los Angeles.
By phone, Carlos Tortolero, president of the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago, which he founded in 1982, praised LA Plaza's opening.
"It should remind everybody that the mexicanos have been there from Day One," he said.