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New Cultural Center Celebrates L.A.'s Mexican Roots

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New Cultural Center Celebrates L.A.'s Mexican Roots

Art & Design

New Cultural Center Celebrates L.A.'s Mexican Roots

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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. Today on Cinco de Mayo, NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports on how La Plaza highlights the city's complex history.

Unidentified Man: Let me tell you a little something about L.A. I love it.

(Soundbite of music)

MANDALIT DEL BARCO: La Plaza pays tribute to the histories and identities of L.A.'s 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.

Mr. MIGUEL ANGEL CORZO (President, La Plaza): Los Angeles de Nuestra Senora la Reina de Porciuncula.

DEL BARCO: 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.

Mr. CORZO: There is a tremendous tradition in our culture of storytelling. We've all sat and listened to our grandfather and grandmother telling stories. The stories are mesmerizing.

DEL BARCO: Stories like the forced deportations to Mexico during the Great Depression. 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.

Mr. EMILIA CASTANEDA: We had to be there early to board a train, and it was very crowded. We were crying. Who wouldn't be crying? We were going to an unknown place. What'd I know about Mexico?

DEL BARCO: Another display features the sharp coats and hats worn by young�pachucos�in the L.A. barrios during World War II.

Mr. EDWARD JAMES OLMOS (Actor): It was the secret fantasy of every�vato,�living in or out of the�pachucada�to put on the zoot suit.

DEL BARCO: Riots between zoot suiters and white sailors led to a famous murder, a trial, and eventually a hit Broadway musical and film.

La Plaza also features the story of the late�L.A. Times�journalist Ruben Salazar, whose anti-war writings inspired Chicanos in East L.A.

Mr. RUBEN SALAZAR (Journalist, L.A. Times): We seem to lose more of our people in Vietnam in proportion to the rest of the population.

DEL BARCO: L.A. sheriff's deputies shot and killed Salazar during an infamous protest.

La Plaza spotlights other movements, by farm workers, Chicano youth and undocumented immigrants. Here's labor organizer Dolores Huerta.

Ms. DOLORES HUERTA: Ourlucha, our struggle, is not over. Right?

(Soundbite of cheering)

DEL BARCO: The heart of La Plaza is in the oral histories of Latinos. Visitors can contribute their own tales in a recording booth with less than perfect audio.

Unidentified Child: Our grandpa's dad fought in the Mexican revolution...

DEL BARCO: This young visitor tells own his great-grandfather fought with Pancho Villa in the Mexican revolution.

La Plaza's own story is controversial and has offended an even earlier culture here. It's located downtown next to an old Native American burial ground. And during construction...

Mr. BERNIE ACUNA (Chairman, Tongva tribe): They were taking bones out with buckets and bags.

DEL BARCO: Bernie Acuna is chairman of the Tongva tribe that's lived in the area for centuries. He says construction crews dug up the remains of more than 100 people.

Mr. ACUNA: And I think it's very disrespectful and a desecration of our ancestors. We were the original Los Angelenos. We were here before anyone was. We were the original people here.

DEL BARCO: The old burial ground remains fenced off, and the center's current exhibition does mention the Tongva Indians. The county supervisor who helped create La Plaza has repeatedly apologized to Native American descendants. The tension speaks to the ongoing story of multicultural Los Angeles.

Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)


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