Written by Edgar Garcia
After rushing out of the Sunday evening service and hurrying past the crowds to avoid lines at the Luz del Dia restaurant, we would finish eating and run over to the Plaza to the memorial plaque that served as home base. My brother and I along with other children would play games, running in circles around the center bandstand. The space behind the statues, plaques, and trees made perfect hiding places—hiding behind the perimeter of the Plaza was considered cheating. All this running and jumping was a welcome reward for sitting still during mass at the Plaza Church across the street. When my parents weren’t watching, we’d ignore the No Pase sign on the bandstand entrance and step onto the stage, hitting the floor with child-size boots to hear the sound ricochet. In the modesty of these surroundings and the poverty we wore and felt, none of us were aware that as we tapped the flooring of the bandstand’s very center, we were standing above the literal heart and birthplace of a city, the historic Plaza in downtown Los Angeles.
As children of Mexican immigrants in the early 1980’s, where the very legality of our presence was a bit murky and mostly unspoken of in our family, the Plaza was one of the few public spaces in Los Angeles where we didn’t feel that peculiar anxiety that marked a good part of our childhood. Our self-imposed geography was dictated by our sense of safety and familiarity and mostly limited to our neighborhood just over the LA River and the Plaza itself. The LA of skyscrapers was intimidating but in the Plaza and the surrounding district, in its layout and scale, a distinct familiarity of surrounding resonated for us, back to the plazas and squares of my parents’ ancestral towns in Jalisco and Zacatecas—even back to the mother of all plazas, the Zocalo in Mexico City.
The City of Los Angeles’ formal name for the district is El Pueblo de Los Angeles; but for most Angelinos of Mexican and Latino descent this space - the church, the plaza, Olvera Street with its shops and vendors - is and always has been la Placita. It’s hard to really express the love and warmth poured into adding the diminutive ending of “ita” to the word Plaza, but like so much in Mexican Spanish, it’s been wrapped with a diminutive to make both the word and the actual place accessible. Los Angeles as a city came into being by the very act of laying out the Plaza, born as El Pueblo de la Reina de Los Angeles in 1781. Settling in a region called Yaa by the native Tongva people, eleven families from northern Mexico of mixed Native American, Spanish, and African descent immigrated and populated what slowly became a small frontier town on the periphery of the Spanish empire, serving the surrounding ranchos. (I’m still struck that for all the weight attached to the name, Los Angeles is still just a small town name, the simple name of a village you’ll run into in any provincial part of Latin America).
Despite wars and treaties that caused multiple flags to fly over the Plaza, the pueblo continued to slowly grow and prosper. While Los Angeles continued on its march to become the metropolis it is today, it grew in all directions except the Plaza. By a mixture of neglect and luck, the Plaza area survived miraculously intact into the early 20th century. In a somewhat dilapidated state, it nonetheless remained the heart of the always present Latino population while sharing space with the Chinese, French, and Italian community. By the 1920s, the Plaza area missed complete annihilation by grand Beaux-Arts city planning and red-tagging by city officials through activist efforts fueled by romantic and idealized notions of early California history. Largely through the work of one woman, Christine Sterling, the Plaza in 1930 was saved and reinvented as an “Old Spanish” themed tourist attraction, complete with shops, restaurants, and vendors along adjacent Olvera Street.
Because this element of the Plaza has survived to this day, over the years it became fashionable for academics and writers to cynically deride the Plaza as a tourist trap touting an unrealistic portrayal of Los Angeles history. But for those of us who came to experience the Plaza in the role of immigrants and children of immigrants at a time when to be Hispanic or Latino in this country was just coming out of its infancy, the Plaza provided a space that both maintained our ties to our Latin American heritage while slowly binding us to our new environment in this country. Themed spaces like these are found throughout the country, saved by the wrecking ball in our recent history by sometimes naive notions of the past. Yet many historic sites like the Plaza have been re-co-opted by new generations of Americans to be living and breathing spaces endowed with new layers of experience and meaning.
Growing up in an old inner city neighborhood of Los Angeles, I gravitated towards historic preservation at a young age in the effort to anchor myself to the city and in doing so found that the city’s roots were in fact my own. This pursuit has led me all the way to serving as the City of LA’s Preservation Planner, safeguarding the city’s historical, cultural, and architectural landmarks, including the Plaza. Now I normally pass the Plaza on the way to a meeting or lunch - but even while walking hurriedly past its buildings, the bandstand, and the vendors, I’ll survey the space with a quick glance. For me it is hallowed ground, monumental in its modesty and charming in its absurdity - from the thick adobe walls of the Plaza church to the life-size toy burro for taking photographs. The memorial plaque we used for our children’s games in the Plaza lists the names of the original eleven families including their children. As it did for these families very long ago, the Plaza provided to so many thousands of Latino immigrants on those Sunday evenings the first stirrings of a feeling that we were home.