Challenges met, a new cultural jewel opens on Olvera Street

In years past, the space in and around Olvera Street –including the main plaza, the Pico House and the old Plaza church– have been the go-to spot for Angelenos looking to celebrate Cinco de Mayo commemorating the Mexican victory over the French at the Battle of Puebla. Or for a small sect of misguided, drink-happy people, the place where they go to celebrate what they incorrectly believe to be Mexican Independence Day.

This year, a new participant in the May 5 festivities was the recently opened Plaza de Cultura y Artes. Housed in the historic Vickrey-Brunswig Building and Plaza House on North Main Street, the new museum was promoted as “the nation’s premier center of Mexican American culture,” with President and CEO Michael Angel Corzo offering the mission statement: “”We are committed to celebrate and cultivate an appreciation for the enduring and evolving nature of the Mexican and Mexican American culture here in Los Angeles and beyond.”

In honor of Cinco de Mayo, LA Plaza offered free admission for the afternoon and organized an outdoor concert that featured everything from traditional Mexican to traditional French music. With my mother on my arm, I made my way downtown on May 5th to take in the sites and sounds of Cinco de Mayo.

I’ve never really been a stranger to Olvera Street. This is where my sister and I came when we were little, with our grandmother’s miniature poodle in our arms, for the yearly Blessing of the Animals. This is where my mother and I came shopping whenever I needed a new costume or more earrings, back when I used to be a miniature folklorico dancer.

Yet for all my past experience with this place, I had never spent Cinco de Mayo here. For one, I often objected to the fact that the holiday was often –and unfortunately, continues to be—just an excuse to get drunk for many people. To this day, whenever I hear someone utter the phrase “Cinco de Drinko,” my skin crawls. Not wanting to subject myself every year to potentially offensive situations, I opted to just spend the day at home.

Moreover, I knew large numbers of people routinely descended on Olvera Street on this day, with families and small children swelling the crowds around the central plaza, where mariachis, without exception, played throughout the day. Wishing to avoid large crowds and sticky children, I avoided Olvera Street on this day.

Lastly, there’s the fact that –except for in the state of Puebla itself—Cinco de Mayo is not a widely celebrated holiday in Mexico. With two parents who grew up in Mexico, and with neither of them being from Puebla, Cinco de Mayo was never a significant holiday during my childhood. As my mother once pointed out to me, Cinco de Mayo was more popular in the U.S. than in Mexico.

Nevertheless, I knew I needed to see how this place celebrated this holiday, given the recent addition of LA Plaza’s museum.  I wanted to really get a better understanding of how Los Angeles’ historic core has evolved as a shared space over the years.

A mariachi serenade stood beneath a multi-colored balloon archway at the entrance to LA Plaza. Arm-in-arm, my mother and I went inside, not knowing what to expect. Inside, we were greeting by a grass lawn littered with tables and holiday revelers enjoying the sounds of the band playing the outdoor stage at the opposite end of the enclosure.

A quick turn to the left and we were in the museum, being greeted by smiling faces and informational pamphlets. That day, only the first floor of the museum was open; the second floor, featuring a full-scale recreation of historic Main Street, was closed for the day. All we had access to that day was the first floor’s exhibits.

Those exhibits began with the 1781 settlement of Los Angeles through the 1930s repatriations to the 1960s civil rights movement. The first floor exhibit ended with an out-of-the-way photo booth, wherein visitors could sit and tell their personal stories.

My mother, a first grade teacher, eagerly prompted me to take photos of all the displays she liked, wanting to incorporate them into future lesson plans for her kids. One of her particular favorites was printed on a column near the museum entrance, reading:

Where we’ve been…
Where we’re going…
Who we’ve been…
Who we are…
Where we’ll be…

“What did you think, mama?” I asked as we finished our tour and meandered through the gift shop laden with “ethno-chic” accessories like $200 silver filigree earrings and $300 turquoise necklaces.

“I thought it was nice,” she responded, with a slightly aloof tone in her voice, hinting that she had just a little more to say on the matter. “Well, I don’t think it’s for everyone,” she finally added.

“It looks like only a really educated person could come here and learn something,” she said. “Some of the ideas here, I don’t think everyone could really get what they’re about.”

Sometimes, mama really does say things that get you thinking. Not content to come to this part of town and not visit some of the shops, we left the museum to wander through Olvera Street proper.

Subtle changes emerged upon crossing Main Street into the central historic plaza. The crowds got bigger. The sound of music and the smell of food became more pronounced. A grandmother and her granddaughters walked hand-in-hand, the former pointing out things that reminded her of her youth, the latter, tugging at the red, white, and green bows in their hair, looked on enthusiastically. Next to the stuffed burro at the street entrance, a mother and father heatedly argued over some unknown topic as their crying toddler looked on. “That’s what you get, bitch! Just like last time!” the mother shouted, spitting in her man’s face.

Upon seeing this last bit, my mystified mother shook her head in disbelief. Yet as disconcerting as it may be to watch a grown woman spit on the father of her children, the collective images we had been presented with throughout the afternoon constituted as real an image of historic downtown as could be hoped for.

The official LA Plaza web site describes the museum as “the nation’s premier center of Mexican American culture,” calling it also “an experience unlike any other.” Yet perhaps my mother’s assessment was correct. The museum may not be for everyone.

The Plaza de Cultura y Artes officially opened its doors on two separate occasions. The first was on April 9, 2011, when it held its inaugural gala. Five hundred people were in attendance, including Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, actors Edward James Olmos and Eva Longoria, social justice icon Dolores Huerta, and the darling of Spanish rock, Julieta Venegas. Boasting the glitziest of the glitzy, this event featured a private cocktail hour followed by dinner and dancing in the party tent set up in the museum’s adjoining lawn.

The second event was the grand opening held on April 16. The new museum was officially presented to the general public alongside brand new exhibits and the sounds of several native Angeleno bands. The lines for admission literally wrapped around the corner, as parents and children awaited entry to Los Angele’s newest museum.

The museum was built amid a minor scandal in its own right. In the middle of the construction process, bones from a long-forgotten cemetery were accidentally unearthed. Uproar soon followed among several members of the Gabrielino Native Americans, who maintained that the newly discovered bones were those of their ancestors.

An official statement by Corzo in response to the discovery of the bones reads as follows:

The presence of Native Americans, a rich part of that story, is included in LA Plaza’s exhibits.  Recently, a former cemetery and human remains were discovered on the center’s campus.  This has sparked concern, community dialogue and no doubt will generate further education about the rich and complex history of Los Angeles.  We want to reassure you that:

•    LA Plaza has taken all precautions in safeguarding the integrity of the cemetery site and human remains.  And if further remains are found, construction will stop to assess the situation.  Native American representatives have been serving as on-site monitors.

•    LA Plaza has redesigned its campus to protect the area of the former cemetery.

•    Throughout construction and with the discovery of the cemetery, LA Plaza, Los Angeles County Officials, and all contractors have operated in accordance with all applicable laws and regulations, as well as archaeological protocol and will continue to do so.

•    In addition, LA Plaza has been working with all interested parties to develop a consensus for a plan for respectful re-internment.  It is LA Plaza’s hope that a permanent memorial be created to honor those buried and to educate visitors about the rich history of the site.

In 1781, a small group of 44 pobladores settled a place that would come to be known as the great City of Los Angeles.  Like our region, LA Plaza began as a dream 17 years ago.  Today, it takes its place among the great cultural institutions of the nation.  The story of Los Angeles is this – that there is greatness in small beginnings.

In spite of some calls to halt construction, plans for the museum’s completion moved on, allowing the April openings to proceed as planned. When the museum offered free admission in celebration of Cinco de Mayo, planning, promoting, and wishful thinking all came to a head during historic downtown’s busiest time of year apart from the Christmas holiday season.

The museum has now joined the ranks of Los Angeles’ most recognizably “Mexican” places. Yet being Mexican in Los Angeles can mean different things to different people. Hardly a homogenous block, Mexican Angelenos have widely varying interests, personal lives, education, and opinions. A place geared toward Mexican interests can’t fully address all of them.

While the Plaza de Cultura y Artes may not be able to do so, it would appear that Olvera Street and the historic core have somewhat managed to. Somewhere over time, the Plaza — and its elegant new museum — has morphed into a space shared by Angelenos of every kind. This year’s Cinco de Mayo celebrations highlighted this fact perfectly.


Click here to go to LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes main page

Click here to get a look at LA Plaza’s official grand opening

Click here to read what LA Plaza has to say about the historic cemetery

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