Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina’s nearly three-decade long dream of a founders’ museum that pays homage to the pobladores (settlers)—who founded the City of Los Angeles in 1781, long before California was a US State—has materialized into a dynamic brick and mortar center that uses modern-day storytelling technology.
A ribbon cutting ceremony for the LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes is scheduled for tomorrow, Friday, April 15, followed by a grand opening celebration on Saturday.
Many have long dreamed that “we would eventually have some kind of Latino or Mexican Museum…,” like those in other areas, Molina told EGP on Tuesday. She said that when she was elected to the state legislature in 1982, Mexican-American elected officials were already talking about the need for a project like this.
LA Plaza de Culturas y Artes is composed of two newly renovated historic buildings across from Olvera Street—the Vickrey-Brunswig Building and Plaza House—and a large garden courtyard that doubles as an entertainment venue.
The inaugural exhibition is called LA Starts Here!, and visitors shouldn’t expect a typical museum experience.
The interactive exhibit — with videos accessible on touch-screen televisions, short films and displays of historic artifacts — informs visitors and engages them in the city’s history, from before the era of Spanish rule to today. The center also features a recording booth that provides the opportunity for visitors to contribute their own stories.
Molina says visitors will find the exhibits informative and entertaining, and she especially wants children—Mexican American and all children—to learn about their Angeleno heritage and take pride in who they are and their potential.
LA Plaza’s focus on the history and culture of Mexican and Mexican Americans in Los Angeles has its detractors, however. Some of them have posted biting anti-Mexican, anti-Molina slurs on blogs and Internet message boards, going so far as to write that Mexicans have contributed nothing positive to Los Angeles or the U.S., and resorting to characterizing Mexicans as a “gutter tribe,” or “all criminals.”
Molina says anti-Latino rhetoric is volatile and painful and she’s already received hate messages regarding LA Plaza.
“I got one [hate mail] this morning. It’s something that when the past comes up, people get nasty.”
Molina said children hear what’s said about them, so they especially need “these positive affirmations of who they are and [to know] that they come from unbelievable ancestors, that their culture and their history is rich and significant in its contribution to not only this country but to the entire world.”
If the racist rhetoric is hurtful for adults to hear, can you imagine what it’s like for scorned children today, she asked.
“I think they need to come to Plaza and find out… they come from great stock and certainly great traditions that are very beautiful and we should take tremendous pride in them, and that’s what I want. I want them to grow up with the kind of pride that they should have, and sometimes you don’t get it at home and sometimes you don’t get it around you, so they’re going to get it at Plaza.
“Plaza is going to let them know how significant they are to the entire growth of this country and its future,” Molina said, adding that the center will provide insight to a lot of people, but she especially hopes it will help educate children and help eliminate stereotypes.
The LA Starts Here! exhibit includes work by students from Hollenbeck Middle School. One student’s message, “nothing is impossible,” really resounded with the supervisor: “We need to build on those positive images,” she said.
Olvera Street is already a popular field trip stop for students studying California history as part of the fourth grade curriculum, now those trips can include a more comprehensive and interactive learning experience at LA Plaza, which will include a hands on children’s activity center.
Molina credits Miguel Angel Corzo, president and CEO of LA Plaza, for taking her dream and making it tangible at the center. Corzo says there were many challenges to building the center in less than a year and working around the historic space, but one of the main challenges was finding a voice for the exhibitions.
There are currently three perspectives at play in the exhibits: “The voice of the people who were at the time settlers here or living here; then we found the voices of what other people thought about what they [the Mexican settlers] were doing here; and then we found the voice of historians talking about what it all meant,” he told EGP.
LA Starts Here! goes through Los Angeles’ history, from New Spain, to Mexico to the United States. It includes the social changes in the 20th century, the global society of Los Angeles and the influence of Mexicans and Latinos, he said.
“So we are looking at the center as a humanities based institution, as a place where many of the things that are cultural have an influence. It’s not only about art or about history, it’s about the whole culture including family values,” Corzo said.
He said LA Plaza tells the story of Los Angeles as seen through Mexican and Mexican-American eyes, but it is a place where all people can explore his or her own identity.
“We believe that the experiences are similar, no matter what ethnicity you are because we all go through the same trials of social injustice, discrimination and all of the things that happen at the same time; that we are all given an incredible opportunity to succeed and to create a better stage of life for ourselves and our children,” he said.
Esteban E. Torres, chair of LA Plaza’s Board of Trustees and former US Representative, says, contrary to comments posted online, Mexicans Americans have made many note worthy contributions to Los Angeles.
“Mexicans have contributed greatly to the area in terms of knowledge that prepared California and the region for architecture, culture, language, values, history, and a multitude of workers and laborers who built railroads, worked in fields, worked in the vineyards and built a great metropolis that now represents cultures from all over the world, making Los Angeles a great multicultural city,” Torres said.
Torres congratulated corporations and non-profits that donated to make LA Plaza a reality. He also thanked the Sanchez family, (which includes Jonathan and Dolores Sanchez, publishers of this newspaper), for their generous contributions.
Joe Sanchez III, Chief Executive Officer of Classic Distributing, a multi-million dollar beverage distribution company based in the City of Industry, was one of the founding donors of LA Plaza. He committed $500,000, which helped bring in other donations. Sanchez’s father, Joe Sanchez, was the Los Angeles Fire Department’s first Latino Fire Commissioner and is featured in one of the videos telling the stories of the people of Los Angeles.
Sanchez said a place like LA Plaza can help move us past negative stereotypes,
“My family goes back many generations—16 in fact—here in the U.S., and at least eight generations in what we now know as California and Los Angeles, but still today people will ask me or my children where did you come from? When did your parents get here from Mexico? They assume that most Mexicans, Mexican Americans are fairly recent arrivals. That bothers me. It’s as if we have nothing to do with this place or its history,” Sanchez said. “Here we are in Los Angeles, where more than half the population is Latino, and people don’t have a real understanding of what Mexicans have contributed to this city. That’s why I think the opening of LA Plaza is so important, to finally have a place where our rich history and culture will be shared,” he said.
Read this story IN SPANISH: Nuevo Museo de los Fundadores de L.A. Desafía los Estereotipos 
LA Plaza received 501(c)(3) non-profit status in 2002, and is an official project of Los Angeles County, which currently provides funding in support of maintenance and operations. Funding for the center began with Molina’s saved discretionary funds, but materialized in great part by both private and corporate donations, according to the organization.