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LA birthplace becomes battleground over history

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

Inside his trinket shop in the city’s El Pueblo historic district, Mike Mariscal is surrounded by painted masks, woven blankets and Day of the Dead figurines he’s long sold to tourists.

Mariscal fears his own day of reckoning is near as a series of disputes surround the adobe buildings, shops and Mexican-era churches in an increasingly trafficked corner of the city’s revitalizing downtown.

One dustup is over Indian graves unearthed during construction of a Mexican-American cultural center. Another involves a monument to Hispanic war heroes where the original Chinatown once stood.

And Mariscal and dozens of merchants along El Pueblo’s shopping street who have sold tacos and Mexican knick-knacks – along with more conventional tourist-zone schlock like knockoff designer bags and movie posters – for decades claim city rent hikes could sever their historical attachment to the site.

“I believe that the long-range plan is probably to run us all out of here,” said Mariscal, 55, who wore a threadbare pleated guayabera shirt. “It’ll kill me.”

That Los Angeles’ first non-Indian settlement has become a battleground over claims to the area’s past and dibs on its future says as much about its rich diversity as it does about how its ambitions have often clashed with its history.

“It’s like a tiny version of Jerusalem. It involves multiple races and their claims to our city’s history,” said University of Southern California history professor Philip J. Ethington. “Anything having to do with its historical significance is going to make people stand up.”

El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument is believed to have been on the fringes of a Gabrielino-Tongva Indian village before 1781, when an expedition of Spanish subjects of varying ethnic backgrounds first established the settlement that grew into Los Angeles.

Among the structures built there were the Avila Adobe house, constructed in 1818 when the state was still under Spanish rule, and the La Placita Church, which was dedicated in 1822, early in the region’s 25 years as part of Mexico.

After the United States seized California territories during the 1846-1848 Mexican-American War, the site encompassed part of the city’s original Chinatown.

The area entered its modern age in 1930, when Christine Sterling, the widow of a lawyer for the burgeoning motion picture industry, received City Council support to preserve and renovate the Avila Adobe.

She installed dozens of Hispanic merchants and artisans in shops along what became known as Olvera Street to give the area a Mexican village atmosphere.

Over the years, the street evolved from the manufactured Mexican core of a mostly white city to the actual Mexican core of a largely Hispanic one.

The La Placita Church draws some 10,000 parishioners each week to its Spanish-language services and is a popular spot for baptisms, confirmations and weddings among residents of nearby Hispanic neighborhoods.

But with downtown Los Angeles’ ongoing revitalization, including a possible high-speed rail hub nearby, the area has become a battleground for the descendants and advocates of the city’s ethnic communities with a stake in the site.

In January, work on the LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes, a Mexican-American cultural center two blocks from Olvera Street, was halted when crews unearthed bones that Indian groups believed belonged to their Gabrielino-Tongva forbears.

Some tribe members say they’ve received no assurances that the county, which owns the land, will appropriately reinter the bones and they want more archaeological testing on parts of the construction site beyond the immediate area where the remains were found.

“More investigation needs to happen,” said archaeologist and Gabrielino-Tongva member Desiree Martinez.

County spokesman Brian Blew had no immediate comment.

Meanwhile, a lawsuit alleges the city failed to obtain proper approvals when it allowed a war veterans association to build a monument to Hispanic Congressional Medal of Honor recipients on a grassy field that some say had previously been Tongva village land and was later part of the original Chinatown.

Several victims of the 1871 Chinese Massacre, during which 19 Chinese men and boys were slaughtered by a rioting mob, are believed to have died among the adobe apartment houses that once stood at the park site.

The memorial’s main organizer, World War II and Korean War veteran William Douglas Lansford, accused opponents who suggested building it in a veteran’s cemetery or in the heavily Latino community of East Los Angeles of attempting to “ghettoize” the war heroes.

But lawyer Robert Garcia, who filed the suit, said he wants to make sure cultures retain their claim to the area and visitors get an accurate view of history.

“Los Angeles is known for erasing its history and trampling on one culture to serve another,” he said. “The heightened interest in downtown Los Angeles underscores more than ever the need to revive the forgotten history of Los Angeles.”

Mariscal and other merchants, who have long staged Day of the Dead festivals and Las Posadas Christmas pageants, say their own culture is at stake in a fight with the city over rents that increased as much as fourfold in April to meet what an independent consultant determined would be fair for the market.

The city disputes that a 1999 City Council motion freezing shop rents covers all of the merchants, many of whom have refused to pay the increased amounts as they continue to negotiate with officials.

Officials later offered the merchants rents below the April appraisal, but most turned that deal down, El Pueblo general manager Robert Andrade said.

He said the merchants need to pay more than they have been to maintain the 44-acre (18-hectare) historical site.

“It really does require funding to manage a monument of this size and this age,” he said.

Mariscal, whose shop in a brick structure built in 1870 as a winery has been in his family since the street’s inception, won’t say how much he currently pays or the increase he faces, but claimed the hike would drain his profits.

“I’m not going to work 60 to 80 hours a week just to give what little I make to the city,” he said.