What sojourn to Los Angeles would be complete without visiting one of the many museums celebrating the city’s multicultural history? In this first entry in Metrosetter Wire’s The Wire Review, I review the famed La Plaza de Cultura y Artes, one of the most well-known multicultural museums in the city, and perhaps one of the best Mexican-American museums in the country. In this review you’ll find a brief overview of the museum’s more memorable qualities (and some of my humble opinion about its contents) as I encountered it in the Fall of 2011.
La Plaza de Cultura y Artes is a very historically impressive museum, in addition to being simply a darned entertaining walk-through. The site projects a notably multi-generational, multicultural and multi-gendered interpretation of Chicano/a and Mexican-American art and culture by expositing several historical narratives from the viewpoints of both sides of the story: from those who benefited from the events of history and from those at whose expense history was made.
This museum is very didactic, but in a good way. It begins with an emphasis on Spain’s initial intentions to convert the Indios in to Spanish subjects. For instance, at the beginning of the tour, the “Mestizaje” concept and the unequal caste (casta) system in what was called “New Spain” is continued by a representation of the difficulty the Spanish-Catholics (who thought of themselves as “people of reason”) encountered in Catholic proselytization of the indigenous population.
One of the primary themes recurring in the museum is land. The issue of land grants and the unequal distribution of land is examined, beginning when the “Ranchos” replaced the missions, and following with the outrage experienced by the Indians and Mexicans when Dons confiscated land that was originally entitled to California cowboys, described as the “backbone of the economy.”
Most of the stories told in the museum are told from a social perspective. For instance, on the first floor, there is an entire section dedicated to “California hospitality” and leisure. It is fascinating to see “luxury” artifacts up close, such as jewelry boxes and the bodice, which are typically only seen in movies—which points to the Hollywood tendency to focus on upper-class Californian subjects.
The museum then transitions to social violence, with a look at “Joaquin Murieta,” a feared and violent bandit whose existence is now questioned.
For those interested, in Harris Newmark‘s memoirs, Sixty Years in Southern California: 1853-1913, he speaks of Joaquin Murieta as undoubtedly a real person, although he admits that everything he knows about him was from hearsay: “According to the stories current, Murieta […] was a decent-enough sort of fellow, who had been subjected to more or less injustice from certain American settlers, and who was finally bound to a tree and horsewhipped, after seeing his brother hung, on a trumped up charge. In revenge, Murieta had organized a company of bandits, and for two or three years had terrorized a good part of the entire state. Finally, in August, 1853, while the outlaw and several of his companions were off their guard near the Tejon Paso, they were encountered by captain Harry Love […] (who) killed Murieta and another desperado known as Three-fingered Jack” (58). Although it was never proven that Harry Love killed Murieta, he is nevertheless credited for it, even on his headstone located at the Mission City Memorial Park in Santa Clara, which reads: “Here lies Captain Harry Love, who with a troop of twenty others, on July 23, 1853 allegedly killed bandits Joaquin Murrieta and Three Fingered Jack near Arroyo de Cantua, Fresno County, California.” Newmark, who was a member of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, one of the organizers of the first Los Angeles Board of Trade and one of the organizers of the Los Angeles Public Library, was respected and well-known in Southern California. His subscription to Harry Love’s claims and his assumption that Murieta was in fact a real person indicates the public’s willingness to believe in stories of spectacle even when substantial proof was absent; although, there are some who wrote of seeing Murieta in person, including Dr. James Cogswell of San Francisco in 1910: “In 1851, while riding through Calaveras County for the first time I saw Joaquin Murieta and his band of fifty bandits” (42-43).
Next, Pio Pico, the last Governor of California under Mexican rule, is highlighted as a figure whose consequences were typical of the social elite during the transition. Both of these stories emphasize the notion that Mexico submitted by dominance from the United States. Also, it is highlighted that Californios liked to call themselves “Spanish” to the “Yankees” to appear more European—disclosing the hostile conditions non-Anglo people were living in after the United States takeover.
Another enjoyable section of the museum is dedicated to the moving image. Mexican immigrants enjoyed silent films; according to the exhibit, two of the most well-known Mexican-born stars of the silent era were Ramon Navarro and Dolores Del Rio. Mexicans were typecast as “the Latin Lover,” the seductress, or the thief–which, today, are still very strong archetypes, I might add. And with the advent of sound, interestingly, Mexico’s own film industry eclipsed Hollywood’s Spanish language exports—interesting because Mexican cinema very often goes un-highlighted in film history.
For anyone interested in this cinematic phenomenon, there are some insightful observations in Becoming Mexican Amerian by George Sanchez. In the book he says that “since their inception in the nickelodeons of eastern seaboard cities, American films consistently contained storylines intentionally made for the immigrant masses. Messages tended to be largely populist and democratic in tone. […]The children of Mexican immigrants were especially intrigued by the open sexuality depicted on screen. The experience of sitting alone in a darkened theatre and identifying with screen characters […] could feel quite liberating” (174). This identification led to a reevaluation of the traditional values and both the Zoot Suit subculture, which emerged out of identification with the motion pictures and the jazz culture of the 1930s (Sanchez 264), and the Chicano movement, which consisted of Mexican-Americans who came of age during the Great Depression, World War II and the Classical Hollywood era.
The Mexican-American political movements are then explicated with an emphasis on social change, from Cesar Chavez—who was the first Mexican-American to be seen on the national stage advocating social justice—to Jose Rodriguez—who in 1938 argued that education was the key for social mobility. An interesting argument is made that educational segregation is the worst form of discrimination (take from that what you will).
The second floor of the museum is equally as impressive as the first, immersing the spectator in the subjective disposition of the culture by providing a simulation of the spaces Mexican-Americans inhabited and the materials that were ready-t0-hand; the simulation consists of carefully decorated rooms.
The Literature for Everyone room presents La Prensa and La Opinion as two important publications; these Spanish-language publications reinforced the importance of Spanish connection among youth educated in English. The Broadcasting Into Homes room describes Pedro Gonzalez, who emerged as a radio personality during the early radio days; according to in-room text, Spanish-language radio was helpful to illiterate members of the community. The photography space shows how photographic portraits were a luxury. And finally, the Fashion and Identity room shows how important media and appearance was to developing equality in the 1920s.
Housed in its own room, which I found temporally at the end of my walk through the museum, is an original documentary film series called Voces Vivas being projected on wall, featuring interviews with Mexican American artists, activists, and politicians. The most memorable interview is with Mocstezuma Esparza, a film producer, who describes his early connection with moving images at the cinema as a boy. He explains that his goal as a filmmaker is to contribute and construct a self-made image of himself (and Mexican-Americans therewith) in the media. This notion of having the liberty of constructing one’s own image connects to the the first floor wherein photographs by local middle school students are exhibited, allowing the youth to control their identity, a recurring theme in the museum.
Here’s a promotional video of Voces Vicas:
I was thoroughly impressed with this site. Spending a few days at this museum would be extremely educational for anyone who doesn’t have the time or money to spend on a class at a university, especially because Mexican-American history is an often-ignored thread in U.S. history.
I went on a weekday, which I recommend; there were no crowds or lines to speak of, and I was able to take in the whole museum without distraction. The museum took me over five hours to walk through, so, similar to most museums, plan on spending most of your day there, if you want your money’s worth, that is.
If you’re looking for a multicultural, multi-generational and multi-gendered story of the Mexican-American experience, head to La Plaza de Cultura y Artes. I give it Metrosetter Wire’s official seal of approval!
Hours and Price of Admission
La Plaza De cultura y Artes is open noon to 7 p.m., Wednesday through Monday. It is closed on Tuesdays, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day. Admission is $9 for adults, $7 for seniors, college students and military, $5 for children 5 and up, and free for children under 5.
Here’s a cool video by YouTube user Gustavo Gutierrez, for a small taste of the museum:
And a slideshow, courtesy of Flickr user Wildbell:
Cogwell, James. “Joaquin Murieta.”Autobiography and Reminiscence of Dr. James L. Cogswell, San Francisco, 1901. (1901): 42-43.The Society of California Pioneers collection of autobiographies and reminiscences of early pioneers, Society of California Pioneers. Database. 28 Nov 2011.
Newmark, Harris. “Joaquin Murieta.”Sixty Years in Southern California: 1853-1913 58. USC Digital Archive, California Historical Society. Database. 28 Nov 2011.
Sanchez, George J. Becoming Mexican American, Ethnicity, Culture and Identity in Chicano Los Angeles, 1900-1945. 1st ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. Print.