“The most powerful stories are those that are told generation after generation.” So explains the entrance of La Plaza de Cultures y Artes, LA’s first Mexican American cultural center. With its recent grand opening, La Plaza’s mission reflects this theme of passing down powerful stories and cultivating appreciation for L.A.’s culture. On April 25, the Trusteeship had the opportunity to visit this $54 million center and enjoy a reception with its President and CEO, Miguel Angel Corzo.
La Plaza is located downtown in the Vickrey-Brunswig Building and Plaza House, straddling the state historic site where an 18th century Spanish settlement once stood and the exact spot of L.A.’s founding in 1791. Detailing these historic first steps of our city, Miguel Angel Corzo explained, “That’s when the 44 settlers arrived in Los Angeles from what we now call Mexico. There were two Spaniards and the other 42 were mestizos and mulattos, meaning a mixture of native Mexican with Spaniard or African with Spaniard.” This beginning represents a dynamic that has stayed with Los Angeles to this day. He continued, “From the very inception it was a diverse city with the 12 families that came… this was the beginning of a real mixture and diversity of LA.”
La Plaza’s “LA Starts Here!” exhibition brings the story of Los Angeles’s history to life. The exploratory exhibit uses interactive technology to engage visitors on the journey from Los Angeles in 1781 to the present day. The layout promotes individuals to browse at their own pace, almost as though they are meandering through an art gallery. Varied collections of narrative items bring together the past and future of Los Angeles. Numerous displays, including one featuring antique wardrobe from the 18th century and another chronicling the Chicana Movement of the 1970’s, give a sense of where we have been as a city. A photo display of pictures taken by current local middle school students on “What Does Latino Los Angeles look like to you?” gives a nod to the city’s next generation. The narrative quality of the exhibit is significant to La Plaza. Corzo explained, “One of the important things here is that we do not collect objects, we collect stories and stories are forever.”
A Trusteeship crowd favorite in the museum was the 2nd floor space, Calle Principal, a recreation of Main Street in the 1920‘s. The small shops that line the street each tell a story about Mexican American culture in that era. Guests are invited to try on period outfits in the clothing store, smell plants used in traditional Mexican herbal medicine in the pharmacy and listen to old records on a phonograph in the music store. Member Pheobe Beesley was impressed with the interactive area and called it a highlight of her visit. She raved, “They did so well at recreating the feeling of that time, I could close my eyes and visualize the scene as it must have been in the 1920s. The space was very transportive.”
With all there is to see and experience in La Plaza de Cultures y Artes, some Trusteeship members felt that just one visit was not enough. Many bought an annual membership, becoming a Founding Member of La Plaza. Betsy Berkhemer-Credaire, wearing her new Founding Member pin, said, “I really enjoyed all I saw today and am looking forward to coming back to experience more.”
We concluded the evening of with a delightful dinner at La Golondrina. In the heart of Olvera Street, this hideaway was a real treat and the perfect place to end the evening. The authentic Mexican food and background mariachi serenades added to the day’s experience and our appreciation of Mexican American culture. Olé!