Somos Mexicanos Americanos

“The Mexican Youth in the U.S. is, indeed, a very fortunate person. Why? Where else in one country do you have two cultures and civilizations of the highest type that have been developed come together to form into one?”
-Manuel Ceja, a student at Compton Junior College writing in the Mexican Voice 1938.

La Plaza de Cultura y Artes (LA Plaza) is the first of its kind. is the nation’s premiere center of Mexican American culture. Its mission is to “celebrate and cultivate an appreciation for the enduring influence of Mexican-American culture…” Located near Olvera Street and La Iglesia de Nuestra Senora Reina de Los Angeles in the Los Angeles Historic Plaza District (aka El Pueblo), LA Plaza is a heavy hitter in Historic L.A.. LA Plaza is a Los Angeles County project and Smithsonian affiliate, 501(c)3, nurtured by Gloria Molina. Its Board of Trustees boasts the likes of Honorable Nury Martinez, Eva Longoria, and Dr. Cynthia Telles, to name a few of the powerhouses nestled among the many others.

In being the one and only of its kind, its very nature is political. What better lense to have politics through than art, and what better lense to have art through than politics? The two are so intimately connected, and LA Plaza challenges you a cada paso.

L.A. starts here! The story of Mexican Americans in Los Angeles was the phrase that lead me through, LA Plaza’s website. I first tore through the website (which is a work of art on its own) because I was bummed I missed Mariachi Under the Stars back in May, and was looking to find another event. I wasn’t disappointed, in fact, I was overwhelmed. LA Plaza hosts so many movies, free concert series, events, free family workshops, and DJ performances that I decided it best to start with a visit to their brick and mortar center downtown at 501 N. Main Street Los Angeles, CA 90012.

Anthony Quinn, born Antonio Rudolfo Oaxaca Quinn of Chihuahua, has played such acclaimed roles as Quasimodo in the Hunchback of Notre-Dame, and Barabbas in Barabbas. But his roles demonstrate not just his range as an actor, but the range of portrayals he was chosen for. Anthony Quinn’s casting gamut ran from the aforementioned through Auda Abu Tayi in Lawrence of Arabia, Crazy Horse in They Died with Their Boots On, Kimo, A Hawiian in Waikiki, Chang Tai, a Chinese undercover agent in The Island of Lost Men, Alexis Zorba in Zorba the Greek, and Eufemio Zapata in Viva Zapata. The dizzying amount, and type of roles, is highlighted by the way LA Plaza showcases Quinn in the makeup and garb of each role. He hardly looks like himself in some of the photos, but thenagain, he hardly would look like some of the characters without his drastic prosthetics, makeup, and facial hair changes.

Shows both the incredible range of an actor, and the appalling short sided stereotyping that existed for “ethnic” individuals perceived to be not meant for leads in the eyes of the casting directors. While I’d like to think we’ve come farther, the sad truth is that many leads today are still doled out under the same principles, even if the principle guidelines have become a bit more grey…or tan I should say. The even sadder truth is that many are missing out on role models by this lack of lead roles; there really is something to be said for having a heroine or hero who talks or looks like you, to show you that you too can excel in such strides. This exhibition really challenges you to confront realities of progression, past and present.

While this article features the temporary exhibition The Many Faces of Anthony Quinn, it’s not meant to do an injustice to the other exhibitions on display. LA Plaza is so exciting, and there’s as much for you to look at and talk about as there is candy in a candy store, or Mariachis in a Mariachi band, or tourists on Hollywood Boulevard…look, you get my point. There’s more to see than one day will permit.

Somos Pachucos

Does your ethnic identity influence your political beliefs?
The challenge was scrolled across the wood floor at one of the exhibitions.

Precluding The Many Faces of Anthony Quinn is a historical crash course in Mexican American segregation, crash course history of extreme discrimination even in the face of invaluable contributions by Mexican Americans. And the only education I remember formally receiving on the topics in school was on the Bracero program. Even then, it was something glazed over by AP U.S. History. Understandably, political power is to leave something out of history. Where Mexican American representation has been found absent at appropriate length in many formal textbooks, LA Plaza provides a clear education.

Certainly Los Angeles is no infant to ethnic clashes and race repression. Many times, L.A. has been the instigator, and many times L.A. has been the victim. I think all Angelenos can’t help but have either a little Mexican blood in them, or on historical hands we need to keep cleaning. While LA Plaza certainly doesn’t steer from the horrific, it certainly steers towards the hopeful. And if there’s any triumphant spirit that idea is representative of, it’s the Mexican-American spirit.

Culturally, I think L.A. has become such a unique home to us all that we no longer feel the need to extricate one anothers’ cultures from our collective identity. In order to really understand that mosaic, however, we need to educate ourselves about what’s under each piece, and where each piece of us came from. Education has long been the best solvent, and art the most effective medium of transmission.

LA Plaza not only educates, but celebrates each painful and prideful step. La Plaza de Cultura y Artes is the first of its kind; though it may be the only one sitting at the table, it has provided the whole feast.

Somos Americanos

La Plaza de Cultura y Artes; 501 N. Main Street Los Angeles, CA 90012.