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Los Angeles has a Mexican-American mayor and the largest Latino population in the country. Now, it has a new museum and cultural center celebrating the city’s Mexican roots.
La Plaza pays tribute to the complex histories and identities of Mexicanos, Californios, Mexican-Americans and Chicanos: everyone from musicians in the group Ozomatli to the 44 settlers who arrived from Mexico in 1781 to establish the city of Los Angeles, aka “El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora la Reina de Los Angeles de Porciuncula.”
La Plaza President and CEO Miguel Angel Corzo says the original pobladores colonized the region for Spain. Now, his center’s mission is to collect and preserve the folklore of those who followed.
“There is a tremendous tradition in our culture of storytelling,” Corzo says. “We’ve all sat and listened to our grandfathers and grandmothers telling stories. The stories are mesmerizing.”
That includes stories of forced deportations to Mexico during the Great Depression. U.S. government agents drove out a million people, many of them American citizens. In one video shown at La Plaza, Emilia Castaneda tells what it was like to be rounded up and packed into railroad boxcars in 1935.
“We had to be there early to board a train, and it was very crowded,” recalls Castaneda, who later testified at the California state Senate hearings on Unconstitutional Deportation and Coerced Immigration. “We were crying. Who wouldn’t be crying? We were going to an unknown place. What did I know about Mexico?”
“It was the secret fantasy of every vato living in or out of the pachucada to put on the zoot suit,” says actor Edward James Olmos, who starred in the hit Broadway musical and film Zoot Suit.
A series of riots erupted between white sailors and Marines stationed in L.A. and the zoot-suited Latinos. Racial tensions in 1942 led to the famous “Sleepy Lagoon” murder of a young Mexican-American, Jose Diaz, in an L.A. barrio.
Another exhibition at La Plaza features the story of the late Los Angeles Times journalist Ruben Salazar, whose anti-war writings inspired Chicanos in East L.A.
“We seem to lose more of our people in Vietnam in proportion to the rest of the population,” Salazar says in one video clip.
In 1970, during the so-called “Chicano moratorium,” a peaceful protest in an East L.A. park, L.A. sheriff’s deputies shot and killed Salazar. It was another famous event Latinos in the city can’t forget.
The museum’s current exhibition spotlights other movements, by farmworkers, Chicano youth and undocumented immigrants.
“The revolution continues for all of us,” says labor organizer Dolores Huerta in another video. “Our lucha, our struggle, is not over.”
The heart of La Plaza is the oral histories of Latinos. Visitors can contribute their own tales in a recording booth with less than perfect audio.
La Plaza’s own story is controversial and has even offended an even earlier culture in the area. The center is housed downtown across from L.A.’s historic Olvera Street, next to an old Native American burial ground. During construction, crews dug up the more than 100 human remains.
“They were taking bones out with buckets and bags,” says Bernie Acuna, chairman of the Tongva tribe that has lived in the region for centuries. “I think it’s very disrespectful and a desecration of our ancestors. We were the original Los Angelenos. We were here before anyone was.”
The old burial ground remains fenced off, and the center’s current exhibition makes mention of the Tongva Indians. The county supervisor who helped create La Plaza has repeatedly apologized to Native American descendants, but the tension speaks to the ongoing story of multicultural Los Angeles.