Culture center work persists despite found remains

By Jacob Adelman
Los Angeles, California (AP) January 2011

Officials developing a Mexican-American cultural center downtown plan to meet with representatives of the Roman Catholic archdiocese and American Indian leaders this week over concerns that human remains unearthed during construction are being disturbed, a spokeswoman for the project said last week.

Planners of LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes do not intend to halt work at the center ahead of those meetings, Katie Dunham said.

“We’re just developing our property at this point,” she said.

The Archdiocese of Los Angeles owns the construction site that was once the location of a 19th-century church and cemetery, making it the official custodian of any remains found there.

The state Native American Heritage Commission, meanwhile, has asked for a halt to work because of fears that Indian bones were being mishandled at the site.

Situated within the former borders of an Indian village that later become Los Angeles’ earliest mission-era settlement, stakes are high for the historical claim to the area, said Sharon Sekhon, director of The Studio for Southern California History, a historical research center.

“The Plaza is where people feel like they can get their history legitimated,” Sekhon said. “I think the bone issue is very sacred, but another part is, ‘Who gets to be represented?”’

Dunham said remains belonging to several dozen people have been disinterred since October by workers completing the LA Plaza project’s garden. The garden is where the church’s cemetery was located in the early 19th century.

She said planners of the center, an affiliate of Washington’s Smithsonian Institution, have been assured by archaeological staff and coroner’s officials that they are handling the remains appropriately. The archdiocese was informed of the discoveries and gave the center permission to continue work, she said.

Archdiocese spokesman Tod Tamberg said church leaders were told early in the excavations that only a few bone fragments had been unearthed, but that they had not been informed of the extent of the remains found at the site.

“Our concern now is that the right thing is done, both legally and morally,” he said. “If there are substantial remains there, then the descendants of those buried there need to be brought into the discussion.”

Indian leaders, meanwhile, have asked that work be suspended until further investigation is completed into whether Native Americans had also been buried at the site.

Cindi Alvitre, who helped lead a vigil at the construction site Sunday, said records taken from California’s historic mission registers shows that about two-thirds of the roughly 670 people buried in the graveyard were Indian.

Alvitre, who said her own Tongva Indian forebears were interred at the site, accused the project’s leaders of buttressing the city’s Hispanic identity at the expense of its Native American heritage.

“I call this a political hijacking of our history,” Alvitre said. “They are trying to erase the history and impose another history onto the current Los Angeles.”

The LA Plaza center is scheduled to open April 16 with an exhibit on Mexican-Americans’ influence on Los Angeles culture and history since the city’s founding in 1781 and a show about the city’s Main Street in the 1920s, when it was the hub of Mexican-American life.

The center’s Smithsonian affiliation allows it access to the national institution’s collections and other resources.

Smithsonian Affiliations spokeswoman Elizabeth Bugbee said she was not aware that remains had been found at the site, but she stressed that the institution has no administrative role in its affiliate museums and centers.