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Radical History Review 81 (2001) 35-60
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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 uniformed 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 officers guarded the exits, lined up the panicked crowd, and demanded proof of citizenship. Those who could not produce satisfactory documents were held for questioning and possible deportation. The agents detained thirty Mexican people and fear spread rapidly throughout the surrounding neighborhood. The plaza was a particularly 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 [End Page 35] less than a year before. With tiled sidewalks, canopied curio booths, displays of folk crafts, tamale stands, wandering guitarists, and merchants in fanciful Mexican costumes, 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 constricted 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 declaration that life in California "before the Americans came was almost an ideal existence. 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 serenades, romance and real happiness." Local boosters employed these romantic fictions 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...