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Telling the story of the founding of Los Angeles, new cultural center LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes, with its inaugural “L.A. Starts Here!” exhibit, opens this Saturday. Housed on the site where Los Angeles was founded in 1781, LA Plaza’s 2.22-acre downtown campus includes two historic and recently renovated buildings, the Vickrey-Brunswig Building, and Plaza House.
The $54-million cultural center is the realization of an idea by Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina, 1st District, more than 15 years ago. Molina believed the city lacked a venue dedicated to the celebration of the unique Mexican American culture in Los Angeles. Molina provided some funding for LA Plaza directly from her discretionary funds.
“We are proud of Los Angeles’ and the region’s newest cultural center, the first and only of its kind in the nation,” Molina said. “Not only have we brought a first class cultural center to the people of Los Angeles, but we have also revitalized the historic core of our city. More than 17 years ago, as some of us recall, this site was a blighted area with dilapidated buildings.”
A fan of the work Molina has done to make LA Plaza a reality is Councilmember Tom LaBonge, 4th District.
“It’s a great time to visit Olvera Street and see the work that Supervisor Molina has done to make LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes a reality,” LaBonge said. “You’ll be a proud Angeleno to find the history there. I’m urging all the people of the Fourth District to come and enjoy this new Mexican American cultural center; a living, breathing monument to our heritage.”
The center is an official project of Los Angeles County and joins other county-run museums, including the Natural History Museum, the George C. Page Museum, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
A cultural center more than a museum, LA Plaza will not have a permanent collection. Its first exhibit, “LA Starts Here!” will be on display for 18 months and highlights the historic roots of the city’s Mexican American population, from its colonial genesis to present day. Items displayed include United Farm Workers posters, a “Zoot Suit” exhibit, and even a Corn Flakes cereal box featuring former Dodgers pitcher Fernando Valenzuela.
“In this first attempt, we want to present the whole history of Los Angeles as seen through the Mexican, and Mexican American experience,” said Miguel Angel Corzo, president and CEO of LA Plaza. “And as we go along, I think we’re going to compress this whole history into just one area to probably tell stories that are related to specific subjects that we haven’t even begun to address, such as family values or the great influence of the ‘placero’ (street vendor) program, or perhaps music or food. We don’t come at it from a museum perspective but from the cultural center perspective.”
Part of that perspective is the Yo Soy / I Am Center, where people can put their story on tape for possible exhibit inclusion. Also, throughout the exhibit area, there are interactive screens, and a recording booth, where visitors can share their opinions.
In January, during the landscaping of LA Plaza’s 30,000-square-foot public garden, human remains and historic bottles, porcelain dishes, and other items dating back to the 19th Century were found. They were determined to be remains of Catholic burials from the original cemetery of the neighboring La Placita Church, which was relocated after the church’s closure in 1844. The remains have been covered and fenced off until they can be removed for proper burial.
“One of the things that we failed to understand is that all of Los Angeles was part of a large territory that had settlers for many thousands of years earlier,” Corzo said. “It’s not unusual that in a settlement you might have a cemetery, and it’s not unusual that the cemetery might be close to the church, and it’s not unusual that the cemetery tells a lot about the life of the past.”
Although the center’s name is in Spanish, all exhibit text and placards are in English. Corzo stresses that LA Plaza has something to offer to everyone.
“At its origins, of the forty-four settlers that came, two were Spaniards and the others were native Mexicans or Africans mixed with Spanish, or just native Mexicans,” Corzo said. “From the very beginning, Los Angeles was already a diverse city. [“L.A. Starts Now!”] is a history of Los Angeles as seen through the Mexican and Mexican American experience, and the influence of this culture on the region. And that’s an important story to tell, because many of the things that happened to these immigrants, and the people that became children of these immigrants and became U.S. citizens, is a story that happened to all immigrants.”
Corzo is hopeful visitors will get a better understanding of themselves and Los Angeles.
“It would be very nice if people walked away with a better sense of their own identity and with a better sense of the history of Los Angeles, which many people don’t know,” Corzo said. “And that they take pride in being a part of history, whether they’re Mexican or not, of a city that has gone through such a tremendously interesting evolution, and be a little more educated about the way people lived and aspired.”
Admission to Saturday’s opening will be free, but tickets must be purchased in advance online or via telephone. LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes is located at 501 N. Main Street. For more information call (213)542-6200, or visit www.lapca.org.
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