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Olvera Street, c. 1940.
Citizens of the Past?
Olvera Street and the Construction of
Race and Memory in 1930s Los Angeles
Phoebe S. Kropp
On the afternoon of February 26, 1931, a squad of immigration agents and uni-formed police descended upon the Los Angeles Plaza, a square that represented the
city’s physical origins as well as the heart of its ethnic Mexican community. The offi-cers guarded the exits, lined up the panicked crowd, and demanded proof of citi-zenship. Those who could not produce satisfactory documents were held for ques-tioning and possible deportation. The agents detained thirty Mexican people and
fear spread rapidly throughout the surrounding neighborhood. The plaza was a par-ticularly brazen target in a broader plan of “repatriation”—an effort to remove large
numbers of Mexicans from the city.1 This depression-era scheme originated in the
widespread assumptions that Mexican immigrants were taking the lion’s share of
public relief. City leaders convinced the Anglo public that expunging foreign citizens
might ease their economic hardships. Over the course of the depression, the city sent
about 35,000 Mexican nationals back to Mexico. Local press measured the success of
the program by the number of rail departures, citing weekly counts of “aliens sent
home” and therefore excised from “charitable lists.”2 The Plaza raid offered a telling
example of the coercive racial politics of Los Angeles in the 1930s.3
Ironically, this entire operation took place within sight of Olvera Street, a
theme park–style “Mexican marketplace” that had been installed in an adjacent alley
Radical History Review
Issue 81 (fall 2001): 35–60
Copyright 2001 by MARHO: The Radical Historians’ Organization, Inc.
36 Radical History Review
less than a year before. With tiled sidewalks, canopied curio booths, displays of folk
crafts, tamale stands, wandering guitarists, and merchants in fanciful Mexican cos-tumes, this theme street quickly became a favorite of locals and tourists alike. Its
elite founders constructed Olvera Street to recapture and profit from an imagined
past, a colorful world of carefree peons, sultry senoritas, and ongoing fiestas. Anglo
southern Californians consumed this past with great zeal. Indeed, Olvera Street
dominated the mythic landscape of 1930s Los Angeles.
In a purposeful and oft-used description, Olvera Street was “A Mexican
Street of Yesterday in a City of Today.”4 The “street of yesterday” carried the explicit
label of Mexican; the “city of today” implicitly belonged in the custody of Anglos. For
Anglo residents in particular, this represented a meaningful distinction, in terms of
both ethnicity and the time line on which it was evaluated. The implication was that
the only place for Mexican culture in the modern city of Los Angeles was in the past.
Olvera Street referenced the Mexican community only in the historical sense, the
past tense. The small space Anglos created to exhibit their preferred view of the
Mexican past served to highlight how the burgeoning city of Los Angeles had con-stricted physical, political, and social places for Mexican people. Moreover, Anglos
had fabricated the quaint marketplace at the plaza, transforming an enduring social
and symbolic focus of Los Angeles Mexican life into a relic of the vanished past.
Olvera Street exemplified an ongoing reinvention of southern California’s
public memory in this period. As Anglo-Americans flooded the area in the early
twentieth century, they reenvisioned the region’s nineteenth-century Spanish and
Mexican history. Previously described as a dusty, primitive, and thankfully forgotten
time, California’s mission and rancho eras became in the new version an idealized
golden age. Olvera Street’s creator typified this emergent Anglo nostalgia in her dec-laration that life in California “before the Americans came was almost an ideal exis-tence. The men owned and rode magnificent horses. The women were flower-like in
silk and laces. There were picnics into the hills, dancing at night, moonlight sere-nades, romance and real happiness.” Local boosters employed these romantic fic-tions to sell the region to tourists and potential emigrants; Anglo residents used them
to decorate the cultural landscape, restoring crumbling missions and building red-tile–roofed homes.5 This Spanish fantasy past, however invented, became a widely
popular marker of regional identity for Anglos.
Historians of the American West have long noted, if not lamented, the per-sistent popularity of mythic western pasts. Scholars have shown, for example, how
inadequately grand narratives like Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis account
for the real lives lived by the diverse peoples of the West. Others have examined the
interworkings of popular western myths themselves, exposing the roots of misrep-resentation and the national functions of Wild West shows and the concept of the
Kr0pp | Citizens of the Past? 37
noble savage, among others. Yet the myth of the West as open space, exotic land-scape, and home of cowboy freedom remains embedded in popular culture.6
How such mythic images endure despite debunking is a question of central
concern to scholars of historical memory.7 John Bodnar and Renato Rosaldo, among
others, have suggested that the continued acceptance of such myths is a crucial sub-ject for investigating how memory works’—a more important question than whether
or even to what end public memories perpetuate falsehoods. According to Rosaldo,
although efforts to expose fabrication are valuable, they fail to consider how myths
convince. Popular myth and memory persuade not necessarily by truth, but by their
ability to be, as Rosaldo noted, at once “compelling, contradictory, and pernicious.”8
The capacity of Olvera Street to convince Anglos and to constrain Mexicans
depended upon a clear and created separation between the mythic past and the
present, the street of yesterday and the city of today. Olvera Street’s display con-signed Mexicans to the past, part of a vanished society, however colorful; at the same
time, its Anglo patrons celebrated the progress and declared the superiority of mod-ern Los Angeles. The two were supposed to be separate. Cleaving regional history
along racial lines allowed the celebration of an imagined Mexican past to support the
denial and denigration of Mexicans in the present.9 Olvera Street thus projected a
bifurcated history and city, a kind of intellectual colonialism. On the one hand, the
memory represented a method of affirming an Anglo ascendancy in southern Cali-fornia, a regionally specific but no less “American” construction of whiteness as a
normative identity. On the other, it manifested powerfully split definitions of brown-ness that marked Mexicans as romantic others in the past (i.e., on Olvera Street), but
dangerous outsiders in the present (i.e., in the depression).10 Yet instead of calling
attention to the divisions undermining the city, the beguiling vision of the past pre-sented on Olvera Street served to obscure them.
“All This That Once Was Ours”
Though the plaza served as a focus for Los Angeles’ Mexican community, by the
1920s the rapid pace of urban development had pushed it to the northern fringes of
a bustling downtown. The narrow lane that would become Olvera Street was an
unpaved alley of warehouses and loading docks. When the plaza area, a multiethnic
immigrant neighborhood, found mention in the Los Angeles Times, it was as a vice
or health problem, and it lay outside the everyday paths of Anglo residents. The
change in the alley’s physical appearance and public salience came quickly. The
Olvera Street attraction was the brainchild of a San Francisco society matron and
newcomer to Los Angeles named Christine Sterling. She reported dismay at finding
“filth and decay” at the historic plaza where she had hoped to see a “beautiful little
Spanish Village complete with balconies and señoritas with roses in their hair.” Ster-ling convinced a small but powerful cadre of elite Anglo leaders that city business
38 Radical History Review
would benefit if the plaza would display this picturesque past that Southern Cali-fornia had been advertising for decades.11
Sterling employed a long-standing booster formula in linking the romantic
Spanish past to urban growth, the tourist industry, and real estate. The Olvera Street
project attracted some prominent Los Angeles boosters, most notably Harry Chan-dler, publisher of the Los Angeles Times. With extensive real estate interests in the
plaza area, Chandler agreed that Sterling’s “beautification” plan could only help but-tress land values in a sector in competition for building projects both public and pri-vate.12 In 1928, Chandler recruited close associates and like-minded investors to
form Plaza de Los Angeles, Incorporated. A for-profit corporation capitalized at 1
million dollars and offering stock, Plaza, Inc., developed Olvera Street as part of a
larger real estate venture.13 While Sterling remained the public spokesperson, it was
Chandler’s considerable influence that convinced the city council to grant right of
way, raised the necessary funds to renovate the structures, and inspired confidence
in the project.
More important, perhaps, Chandler opened the columns of his newspaper to
Sterling’s vision. The Times’s consistent support and abundant features on Olvera
Street helped to spark its wide popularity. Times columnists performed much of the
interpretive work, explaining to readers what Olvera Street should mean to them.
While the street was built physically over the winter of 1929–30, the next few years
Constructing the myth of old Los Angeles, this postcard illustrates Olvera Street in
the 1940s. Beautifully adorned homes, colorful markets, roving minstrels, quaintly clad
senoritas, and contented Mexican Americans, the postcard describes, were “typical of
Old Los Angeles.”
Kr0pp | Citizens of the Past? 39
saw it built up in the public imagination as a central feature of the city’s past. Its
largely Anglo patrons and commentators quickly assigned it historical, racial, and
economic meanings that were normative, even enforceable. Through its interpreta-tion of time, structure of space, and interaction of characters, Olvera Street helped
to fix a memory of the Mexican past firmly in the public mind.
Opened on Easter Sunday, 1930, to an enthusiastic Anglo public, the color-ful attraction transformed the five-hundred-foot alley into “El Paseo de Los Ange-les,” where “beautiful coloring; soft guitar music; pungent odors from the open-air
cooking of tamales, tacos and enchiladas; cries of vendors of native wares and the
constant stream of visitors all blend into a fabric.”14 What visitors reported as most
exciting was this comprehensive theme. One description called it “probably the most
typical street in America.”15 This is a puzzling characterization—how could this
writer see a Mexican marketplace as the most typical representation of America?
Instead, what typical likely means here is the closest representation of a type, in this
case a Mexican type. If visitors wanted to see the best interpretation of a theme on
a street, Olvera Street was where they should go. The fascination lay in the total envi-ronment, the immersion. Here, Olvera Street contributed to the nascent cultural
form of the theme park, where the object of consumption was the experience itself.16
Both Sterling’s plan and early reviews of it constructed the experience of the street
as an ordered one, with a definite chronology, geography, and population that lent
the street meaning for its Anglo public.
The world Anglo visitors and commentators imagined on Olvera Street was
the Spanish/Mexican past of southern California brought to life. No static diorama,
the street was a living tableau where one could see “quaintly-clad señoritas” and hear
the street filled “with their native cries.” Its recent creation notwithstanding,
observers rendered the street a surviving piece of the past, “a living memory of the
romantic days of El Pueblo”; Times pundit Harry Carr called it “this bit of old Cali-fornia, sheltered from modernity like some lovely princess who has slept through the
ages.”17 Together these associations portrayed the sense of a whole street transported
from the past and isolated from the present.
The illusion, in fact, depended upon the selective use of time. From the deci-sion to use fragile street tiling to the attempt to restore the buildings to “original”
condition, Sterling’s plan adhered Olvera Street to as close a reproduction of the past
as possible. Meanings of the street in any relation to present-day uses were system-atically excluded. For example, Sterling listed the standing water and sewage in the
alley as one of the features her attraction would clean up. Yet she decided to mark
upon the new street the path of the flumes and gutters from the Mexican era. This
“Zanja Madre,” according to Sterling, was “the Mother ditch by which water was
brought into the pueblo from the Los Angeles River.” Sterling directed the laborers
to cement rows of pebbles zigzagging down the street not only to represent the
Zanja, but also to serve as a useful gutter. Water of the past seemed picturesque; in
40 Radical History Review
modern times, it spoiled the space. The “restored” street and buildings made little
if any reference to the space as a site of continuing history and use, other than the
heroic act of salvaging it from modernity. They lent the street a structure of time that
privileged the past and erased the appearance of a connection to the modern social
Nevertheless, the buildings reinscribed the very relationships in contempo-rary Los Angeles they seemed to obscure. To wit, the street was bifurcated into two
sections: the shops in the permanent buildings on the sides of the street and the
puestos, or booths, running down the middle of the street. Sterling described it this
way: “We have made little awning stands or ‘puestos’ for the street. Each one will be
given to a Mexican family and they will sell all things typical of Mexico. Lovely little
shops and studios are being taken by American people and these will add greater
interest to the whole.”19 While a few Mexican American merchants leased shops in
the permanent buildings, the majority of the lessees were Anglos, and their shops
had little to do with the fact that their address was on Olvera Street. These “Ameri-can” enterprises included bookstores, interior decorators, European and Asian
imports, antiques shops, art galleries, sculpture studios, a puppet theater, attorney’s
offices, stationery marts, palmistry parlors, and Italian restaurants.20
The puestos, however, were uniformly run by Mexicans and Mexican Ameri-cans. Built of wood and roofed either with canvas or palm thatch, the puestos,
according to many commentators, provided the principal Mexican atmosphere of the
street. “Much of the color of El Paseo de Los Angeles is due to the little outdoor
stands that flank it on either side. Here the Mexican people of the neighborhood . . .
sell their native wares.”21 While American enterprises remained ensconced in the
interiors, Mexican operations were carried on out in the open, in the middle of the
street. Despite the varied and non-Mexican nature of the shops, the consistency of
the Mexican puestos and their place on the street offered a convincing portrait of a
Mexican marketplace.
Like the chronology, the street’s geography both sustained the illusion and
hinted at racial meaning. For example, however long a puesto merchant (puestero)
might remain in business, the puestos always appeared temporary, both by their con-struction and by their placement on the roadway. The assumption that Mexicans
were temporary regional residents reflected the dominant Anglo outlook on Mexican
immigration and labor that viewed them as a conveniently disposable workforce.22
Though the puesteros were as much proprietors as were shop operators, Sterling’s
rhetoric of charity—that each puesto would be given to a Mexican family—pre-sumed them in need. Together, these overlapping spatial metaphors lent Olvera
Street a structure that reflected the regional racial-economic hierarchy. The struc-ture of the space might then reinforce the present-day power relations while its
enclosure in a fantasy past preempted any critique of them.
In its display of an idealized primitiveness, Olvera Street provided an open-Kr0pp | Citizens of the Past? 41
Street of Mexican Bazaars, c. 1940–41. The caption of the postcard reads, “Located near
the new Union Station, old Olvera Street is an interesting quarter of Mexican Bazaars, where
vendors display their quaint pottery, candle and basket novelties, typical of old Mexico.
Genuine Mexican Restaurants serve delicious enchiladas, tortillas, and other native dishes.”
The Mexican merchants by and large made Olvera Street intriguing to its
Anglo visitors; they animated the romantic vision of the past in a way mere buildings
could not. According to one review, “Mexican food and señoritas conjured up an
atmosphere of the days of the dons while strolling Mexican troubadours strummed
airs of a romantic California day.”23 In such commentaries, Mexicans held a definite
position on the street’s timeline—the past. To complete the picture, Sterling urged
vendors to do more than just sell Mexican souvenirs; she wanted them to demon-strate their crafts in action, assuming that the display of hand labor would link them
more clearly to an older, preindustrial way of life.24 Guidebooks and observers took
every opportunity to praise the apparent authenticity and antiquity of these crafts.
One typical description exclaimed that Jose Herrera made candles “just as candles
were made 2,000 years ago. Jose is a descendent of an old candlemaking family of
Mexico and makes his candles the way his ancestors used to.”25 Connecting Herrera
to his ancestors rendered him outside the march of progress, less a merchant in a
commercial economy and more like the candles themselves, latter-day representa-tions of the ancient past.26
42 Radical History Review
ing for Anglos to critique modernity. Commentators expressed much admiration
and wistful longing for the supposed simplicity of life in this past. Sterling nurtured
this perspective as well: “Olvera Street holds for me all of the charm and beauty
which I dreamed for it, because out of the hearts of the Mexican people is spun the
gold of Romance and Contentment.” She hoped that the street would allow Anglos
to reclaim some of the “romance and picturesqueness” from the Mexican past, to
rehabilitate the “cold mechanical age.” Others picked up this refrain, using the
quaint street to criticize the modern city: “To step aside from a rushing, commercial
age and wander about this lazy, sunny little street is to find in life a new joy as fra-grant as the flowers which bloomed in the old pueblo days.”27 The street’s appealing
vision of a past where even the flowers smelled sweeter lent Anglos an opening to
voice frustrations about modern life.
Yet any radical potential this nostalgia contained was defused by the con-structed isolation of the street and by the insistence that the past, in the end, was
irretrievable. Los Angeles Times columnist Lee Shippey noted that “in all those old
places, between songs and music, there is a note of sadness—a realization that much
of this quaintness is doomed and must soon pass.” As Jackson Lears has demon-strated, antimodern impulses like these desires for the romantic life, and even the
disapproval of modern ugliness, with rare exception failed to become a vehicle to cri-tique progress. Attempts to “rehabilitate” modern life with Spanish romance
reduced themselves to decoration. Nostalgia did not spark social change.28 The
memory contained a built-in assumption that the romance was doomed from the
start, emphasizing the pastness of the past. By celebrating the Spanish/Mexican past
as a fundamentally unrecoverable one, the fantasy past thus affirmed the Anglo-American present.
The ways in which Anglos described Olvera Street and participated in its
social activities demonstrated this contrariety—that is, they simultaneously desired
and denied its Mexicanness. Narratives of the street invoked the words our and we
regularly, and Christine Sterling’s publicity was no exception. She proclaimed it a
place to “preserve our history,” an opportunity to “keep alive our patriotism and sen-timent.” The way in which she and others used these words was self-referential and
exclusive, implying a definition of who we included: “We could have all the “fiestas”
as they have them in Spain and Mexico”; “We thrill to its rhythm and beauty”; “our
lost inheritance.” This phrasing clearly separated we and they along ethnic lines. An
article entitled “Bringing Back Our Yesterdays” applauded Olvera Street for its
revival of “the romance and glamour which surrounds the city’s beginnings . . . [for]
building and rehabilitating our culture.”29 That Sterling and her Anglo supporters
envisioned the street as a part of their own past made the memory something
owned, not shared.
1847” than for the fact that it was the oldest standing adobe of Spanish construc-Kr0pp | Citizens of the Past? 43
The popularity of dressing in Spanish costumes further displayed this desire
to possess the past. Southern California Anglos costumed themselves with the accou-trements of the Spanish fantasy past with frequency and apparent zest. Elite clubs
held “fiestas” and attended them in Spanish colonial finery, some with costume con-tests. The street hosted charity fund-raising events where “society girls of Los Ange-les [sold] flowers on the Street in señorita costume.” One announcement invited
attendees to “dust off the sombrero and mantilla and bring out the guitar. . . . Digni-fied citizens will don costumic splendor which dates to early days of the city when
Mexican rule held sway.”30 By specifically appropriating the costumes for themselves,
visitors might belong temporarily to the atmosphere of romance they had envisioned.
The term to go Spanish revealed the deliberateness of this activity. A city bus
schedule encouraged the city “native [to] exercise your weekly pass and go Spanish
for an evening or a Sunday afternoon” by visiting Olvera Street. Lee Shippey
reported in 1934 that “Don Charlie Adams, Don Harry Carr, Señora Sterling . . . and
others of us went Spanish in a big way” at a street fiesta. An advertisement for the
Western Costume Company marketed Spanish costumes with exactly this appeal. It
pictured a dancing woman, wearing the obligatory lace mantilla and a dark dress
with a plunging neckline and revealing skirt from under which appeared her high-kicking legs. She had roses in her hair and castanets on her fingers. The title read
“Costuming Ourselves into the Past.”31 Such images highlighted the aberration of
“going Spanish” for Anglos—the very act of putting on a costume implied that it
could (and would) be taken off. The more license the Spanish dresses and sombreros
suggested, the more Anglo, the more American, the person within.32
In various ways, Anglos could opt out of the immersion. One guidebook, for
example, assured visitors that at number 33, “Mary W. Brown serves American food
in the Southern manner—lunches, teas, and dinners—for those who like Mexican
atmosphere better than Mexican food.” But, if Anglo visitors could shed their cos-tumes, they saw Mexicans on Olvera Street as not really wearing them. Commentary
on Mexican dress emphasized its natural appropriateness. Lee Shippey, for one,
believed the vendors to be “just as they came from their homes.” He imagined that
Mexicans were involuntarily drawn to Olvera Street “by the music, the manners, the
tortillas, the frijoles, the cigarros and something of the atmosphere of their native
land.”33 Anglos could always revert to the normal, the American, while Mexicans
were rendered like Olvera Street—exotic, un-American, and stuck in the past.
Though this nostalgia obliquely approved the installation of the American
present, the street was also host to some less subtle approvals of the American con-quest of Mexican California. Most of these revolved around the Avila Adobe; this
Olvera Street building gained fame more for the fact that it was “once the quarters
of Kearney, Stockton, Fremont and other heroes of the American occupation of
44 Radical History Review
tion.34 Christine Sterling commemorated Mexican War battles and the Fourth of July
at the Avila Adobe, which on many occasions she draped lavishly with American
flags. Regarding one of her street celebrations of the anniversary of the 1847 Amer-ican invasion of Los Angeles, the Times epitomized the spectacle with the caption
“City Captured by Americans!”35 Soon after the street opened, local historical clubs
chose it as the site for a permanent monument honoring explicitly the American vet-erans of the Mexican-American War. As Eric Lott has written about blackface min-strelsy, such an act “flaunted as much as it hid the fact of expropriation.”36 Not only
did Anglos take possession of the Mexican past on Olvera Street, they celebrated the
very act of taking possession of Mexican California.
How could Anglos simultaneously celebrate their own victory and the cher-ished romantic past that it necessarily doomed? It seems a paradox. One thing the
fantasy past did not hide was the fact that American arrival was the reason for the fall
of the golden age. Harry Carr lamented the destruction; Olvera Street, he wrote, was
a happy display of “California before we gringos came and spoiled everything.” Cal-ifornia poet laureate John McGroarty also commented on this relationship in his
praise of Olvera Street; the “Mexican handicraft on view, the luring Latin shops, the
Spanish theatricals, the tamales and enchiladas in the cafes, the fiestas and bailes,
the four sides of the Square bright with serapes and gay vestidos, the tinkle of guitars
and the click of castanets—all this that once was ours but of which the Gringo years
have robbed us.”37 This seemingly remorseful longing Anglos exhibited on Olvera
Street suggests a version of what has come to be called “imperialist nostalgia,” where
the commitment to “progress” generates a sense of loss.38 Yet Olvera Street’s mem-ory displaced the loss—it made Anglos the victims of conquest and obscured the
people who had actually lost the war.
As much as the nostalgia, it was the process of possession that fascinated
Olvera Street visitors, as evidenced by the continual commemorations and reenact-ments of various phases of conquest. The passage between modern life and fantasy
past was enthralling, in a way replicating the conquest on an individual level. One
description of day’s end on Olvera Street suggests this: “And the prominent citizens
marched back to the real city, to the clamoring clangor of the life of today, the churl-ish chase for livelihoods, the rivalries of commerce while still tingled in our ears the
dulcet strains of La Golondrina. . . . The gallant wraiths that had filled the old adobe,
scurried back to their graves and we stepped from yesterday, to today.”39 This nar-rative made Anglos into citizens and Mexicans into wraiths. It was the egress that
determined the difference; while Anglos shed their costumes after an afternoon of
going Spanish and return to the real city, perhaps with a few souvenirs to remind
them of their dalliance in the past, Mexicans remain trapped in an exotic history and
landscape and can but fall back into their graves.
Kr0pp | Citizens of the Past? 45
“Our Spanish-Speaking Population”
Perhaps disconcerting for Anglo southern Californians, Mexicans did not appear only
as phantoms of a fantasy past. As was Olvera Street, Mexicans were immersed in the
“city of today,” and they would not be as easily dismissed as apparitions. While the
population of Los Angeles had doubled in the 1920s, reaching 1.2 million by the end
of the decade, the Mexican population tripled, growing to 97,000, according to con-servative estimates. When the depression descended upon the region, new residents
of many ethnicities overwhelmed public relief; agencies, which in early 1931 listed
3,500 applicants, three years later had to assist over 600,000.40 Produced by the same
era of ethnic and economic tensions, repatriation and Olvera Street appear at odds.
It remains a startling irony that the campaign to remove portions of the region’s Mex-ican community began within a few months of the street’s opening. How Olvera
Street negotiated this seemingly problematic moment further illustrates the links
between public memory, racialized politics, and the control of public space.
The plaza area itself reflected this climate, witnessing efforts to control polit-ical expression of various natures, in addition to the repatriation raid. A series of
what the Los Angeles Times termed “red riots” in 1930 caused consternation in the
press and the police. According to the Times, preventing the “Red sympathizers”
who “thronged Main Street” from reaching the plaza was a focus of “unusual” con-cern. While in February the police held back a crowd of 3,000 with tear gas, in
August they were foiled. The protestors reached the plaza by “a Trojan horse plan,”
where a “large cattle truck was driven through the police cordon, its high sides con-cealing the Communists.” In the early years of the decade, Los Angeles police tried
to halt most organized demonstrations and potentially controversial gatherings at the
plaza, which had been a traditional forum for such protests.41 Along with the repa-triation raid, these strategies targeted the plaza as a symbolic site at which to assert
Olvera Street director Christine Sterling’s response to these actions was com-plicated. On the one hand, though she remained worried that “our Spanish speaking
population numbers many thousands . . . yet lies dormant and unproductive,” she
rejected repatriation as a solution. She claimed that the street’s booths “given to the
poor people justify the entire activity and constitute its greatest attraction. Olvera
Street is making self-supporting five hundred Mexican people who would otherwise
be on relief or struggling with poverty.” Sterling often repeated this assertion that the
street reduced the public relief burden. She gave some puestos to Mexicans at no
charge and occasionally lent these “very colorful and very needy” people the money
to get started on the street.42 Moreover, she proposed that the city take this formula
one step further and set aside Chavez Ravine, a region in nearby Elysian Park, “for
the manufacture of Mexican pottery, glassware, weaving and the other arts and crafts
in which the Mexicans are so skilled.” She believed that by putting them to work
46 Radical History Review
in presumably “natural” or appropriate occupations, “Los Angeles could make
every Mexican on relief self-supporting and at the same time attract thousands of
On the other hand, Sterling favored the depoliticization of the plaza: “The
soap box orators should be removed from the Plaza and a band of Spanish Musicians
play there at frequent intervals. All the feast and saint days should be celebrated and
Mexican vendors be allowed to occupy the space.” Replacing soapbox speakers with
entertainers and souvenir shops would represent a significant transformation.
Though she never converted the plaza as completely as she did the Olvera Street
alley, Sterling’s creation effectively changed the nature of both spaces, making a cen-ter of protest into a commercialized attraction. As urban theorist Michael Sorkin has
argued, the theme park model offers “a substitute for the democratic public realm,
and it does so appealingly by stripping troubled urbanity of its sting, of the presence
of the poor, of crime, of dirt, of work.” In Olvera Street’s idyllic social world, the poor
were content, dirt was picturesque, work was quaint, and social protest was anom-alous. Though the street remained a public space in the city, the theme constricted
speech and behavior. Sorkin noted that “there are no demonstrations in Disn