L.A. Now

Mexican American museum a valuable new L.A. asset

The oldest gathering place in the city now has the city's newest cultural attraction.

LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes is across from the old plaza downtown. It's a museum and cultural center dedicated to Mexican Americans and Mexicans.

I don't belong to either of those groups. But I decided I really needed to visit LA Plaza anyway because I'm a native Angeleno and lover of L.A. culture, and I know that Mexicans and Mexican Americans are at the center of my city's history.

The people who run LA Plaza have decided to take this inescapable truth and slap me with it.

"This is our culture. This is our story," proclaims a large sign in one of the windows of the new center. "By 2040, Mexicans and Mexican Americans will comprise 50% of California's population."

It's pretty much impossible, in my opinion, to proclaim yourself an ethnic-majority-to-be without sounding chauvinistic. After all, you're basically telling everyone else: You'll soon be a minority, get used to it.

My family is from Guatemala, a group that has always been, and will always be, an L.A. minority. When you're Guatemalan, you're used to being slighted. So I pressed on.

It was Palm Sunday, and I had to fight big crowds just to park. At the Methodist Church, a mod-looking Jesus was being sentenced to death in a Passion play. There were children chewing churros and tourists squeezing between the stalls on Olvera Street, where I found Guatemalan handicrafts for sale.

But there was no line to get into LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes, and this was unfortunate, because even before I stepped through the front door, it was clear that this new center is an important addition to the city's heart.

LA Plaza is housed inside two 19th century brick buildings that were, until recently, dilapidated eyesores. Now they've been restored. The trash-strewn lots next door have been transformed into an open-air space with a stage and gardens — a second plaza across from the original one.

Many of the gathering places on or near the old plaza have been shuttered for years, including the nearby Italian Hall, where Emma Goldman once spoke, and most of Pico House, once the city's finest hotel. If you visit the plaza on a weekday without tourists or churchgoers, the place feels half dead.

In this seemingly forgotten corner of the city, LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes is something new and big. By sticking to her guns and pressing for years to get it built, Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina has made a loud, official declaration of the importance of L.A.'s original town square.

Unfortunately, to create this big footprint, the builders dug up the abandoned Catholic cemetery in the lot next door. Before protest brought the work to a halt, they had pulled out the remains of 118 dead Angelenos, many of them of Native Americans. (Until the controversy is resolved, that area of the property will remain fenced off.)

It saddens me to report that the insult to the native peoples of Southern California is repeated, much more subtly, inside LA Plaza's gallery space.

An inaugural exhibition called "L.A. Starts Here" occupies the first floor. In its rooms, the story of the founding of the city is presented much as Jamestown, Va., was when I learned about it in L.A. public schools in the 1970s — as the struggle to bring "civilization" to an untamed frontier.

The prior existence of a Tongva village adjacent to the site of L.A.'s founding is barely mentioned. The indios are mere extras. "People of reason" created the area's first farms and towns.

The curators seem to have felt the need to give their Mexican American target audience a new historical myth to replace the ones they grew up with. Your ancestors were pilgrims too, the exhibits are saying. You are not outsiders in this city. You've always been here.

That's a misstep, but one I was ready to put aside as I took in what else the place had to offer.

I was thrilled to see so many of the best-preserved artifacts of 19th century Southern California returned to the heart of old L.A. — the leather-bound English-Spanish phrasebook used by Pio Pico, the last Mexican governor of California, and the brightly embroidered shawls that belonged to the Sepulveda family.

And I liked the references to some largely unknown episodes of the 19th century, including the founding of the Spanish-language newspaper El Clamor Público after the Mexican War — which encouraged the defeated Californios to assimilate into U.S. society but also defended them against Yankee outrages.

One room celebrates the awakening of Mexican American L.A. in the decades after World War II, including the career of Eastside activist Edward Roybal, who had one election stolen from him but persevered and eventually was elected first to the L.A. City Council and then to Congress.

The young people of L.A., Mexican American or not, should know these stories, because they are the foundation of the city we inhabit today.

Up on the second floor of LA Plaza, an exhibition called "Calle Principal" re-creates the feel of Main Street in the 1920s. You can walk into mini-versions of the bookstores and groceries that catered to the Spanish-speaking Angelenos of the day. It's like a Mexican version of Main Street U.S.A. in Disneyland.

But it shouldn't feel that way, because the plaza of the past was a culturally diverse place. I know this from reading William Estrada's "The Los Angeles Plaza," which tells how people of European, Asian and Mexican heritage interacted there. Estrada reveals, among other things, that a Japanese family operated one of the groceries inside the future home of LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes.

I don't expect LA Plaza to tell me that story. A Mexican American museum, by default, celebrates Mexican American accomplishments. And I could always visit nearby museums dedicated to Chinese American and Japanese American history.

But I wish I didn't have to learn about my city's past in such a splintered way.

Standing inside LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes, peering through a window at the old plaza outside, I thought of all the different people who've gathered there over the years, speaking Spanish, English, Tongva, Japanese, French, Italian, Chinese.

How nice it would be, I thought, to have one museum that could tell the full, rich, varied story of the city they built together.

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