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A History Lesson

Barrio For Sale

by RODOLFO ACUÑA

Aside from the injustices in Arizona, i.e., the scraping of a highly successful education program, the evident war against Mexicans, and the nullification of the U.S Constitution, I was seduced to the struggle by David A. Morales’ “Three Sonoran” blogs in the Tucson Citizen.

His crusade against the white business cabal that runs the City of Tucson resembled the epic battle of David and Goliath, making enemies of those in power. It was this fight that is the real reason that he was fired from the Citizen, forcing him to begin his own site. (www.threesonorans.com ).

Reading about the Southern Arizona Leadership Council (SALC) was Déjà vu.

A 19th Century U.S and Mexico historian I got hooked on the issue of urban renewal (AKA people removal). I got interested in the subject in the late 1970s when I began to microfilming articles on Mexican Americans in the Eastside Sun (Boyle Heights). I was attracted to the Sun because I wanted to piece together the relations between the progressive Mexican and Jewish communities.

Jewish Americans once the dominate group in the Heights did not become a minority there until the 1950s. Mexicans were greatly influenced by left leaning Jews and they joined organizations such as Henry Wallace’s American Independent Party (1948).

Members of both groups graduated from Roosevelt High School where they formed friendships. Two prominent Roosevelt alumni are Judge Harry Pregerson who serves the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit and former Ambassador to Mexico Dr. Julian Nava.

The Jewish community left many landmarks. Hollenbeck Park was a replica of German Tiergartens – built by German Jews. Many former synagogues such as la Casa Del Mexicano have become public spaces.

While microfilming the Sun’s articles, I had long conversations with its publisher, Joe Kovner, who although he had moved to the Fairfax area had strong ties to Boyle Heights. Kovner led an incessant war to preserve Boyle Heights. He did not want it to meet the same fate as Bunker Hill and Chavez Ravine where the Committee of 25, the Los Angeles Times and their gaggle of elected officials joined to “develop” these areas for their own profit.  Kovner called it a war on the poor.

The articles opened up a new world for me; they inspired me to microfilm articles in the Belvedere Citizen that serviced the unincorporated area of East Los Angeles. I then made research notes on articles on 5 x 8 cards. They were included as a timeline in the second half of a manuscript. I synthesized the Citizen and Sun articles year by year beginning in 1934 and ending in 1975.

UCLA published Community Under Siege: A Chronicle of Chicanos East of the Los Angeles River, 1945-1975, 560pp, in 1984. It was one of my least popular books; nevertheless heavily used by urban planners and graduate students studying the city.

After this point, my research turned to urban spaces. I found that Los Angeles shared a history of real estate foreclosures and the bulldozing of entire communities. So-called elites under the leadership of the Los Angeles Times and other media sold the notion that they were “developing” the city much the same as Wall Street banks and the corporate elite today claim that they are “job creators.”

I found similar patterns in Tucson, El Paso and Chicago. In L.A. they were led by the Committee of 25 that even today operate in a different form. Real Estate lawyers led by ex-mayor Richard Riordan have made fortunes in buying public real estate. Riordan along with developer Eli Broad control local politicos from the mayor to board members of the Los Angeles Unified Schools.

Riordan is the king of privatizers. As mayor he wanted to privatize the City’s main library. Today he is attempting to privatize the schools. In a heated exchange I asked him whether he wanted to make Olvera Street another MacDonald’s; he answered yes just so it went to the highest bidders.  Broad, a billionaire is his closest ally.

In Chicago the Daly Machine was the developers’ and bankers’ dream. In the windy city what was not being renewed was being gentrified. If it was not accomplished under the cover of the law, entire housing projects were burned out – all in the name of progress.

In the 1980s and 90s I wrote for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner and the Los Angeles Times. In the aftermath of Community Under Siege, I naturally wrote many articles about the notion of community and issues related to urban space, i.e., immigrants, the cultural pimping of Olvera Street and museums, racism and sexism on the campuses, the building of a prison in East Los Angeles, the building of a gas pipeline under Boyle Heights – events showing a profound disrespect for Latinos.

The profits in development of urban space and the schools are humungous: service contracts, building of public utilities lines, roads, construction – all of which are approved by governing boards and commissions.

In the 90s at Riordan’s behest Superintendent of Schools Ruben Zacarias was removed. Latino elected officials in their majority supported Zacarias. However, there were powerful Latinos who defected.

On April 2, 1990 in an op-ed column in the Los Angeles Times titled “History Is People,” I wrote:

 News that a small group of preservationists seeks to transform Olvera Street from a Mexican marketplace into a multi-ethnic museum should outrage Latinos. After all, the plaza area has been inhabited by Mexicans since 1781, when a dozen or so peasants, mostly from the Mexican states of Sinaloa and Sonora, founded the Pueblo of Los Angeles. Spending time on Olvera Street is thus a trip through tradition.

From 1900-1930, bulldozers virtually cleared the civic center of all else that was Mexican, mostly family homes. Then, Christine Sterling and members of the city’s social and economic elite moved, in the late ’20s, to save and preserve Olvera as a symbol of Los Angeles’ Mexican heritage. The street was little more than an alley. Like the Avila adobe, which had been condemned, its days were numbered.

At first, Olvera was part of California’s “Fantasy Heritage”-a tourist trap. But over the years, its people reintegrated it with the plaza and Our Lady Queen of the Angels, the city’s oldest church. Mexicans and other Latinos began returning to Los Angeles’ Bethlehem. Today, Olvera Street is where many of us go to celebrate our holidays or to enjoy the oldest remnant of the Mexican heritage in the center of the city.

Certainly, a tradition worth preserving, right?

Jeane Poole, curator of El Pueblo Historic Park, has embraced Olvera Street’s dilapidated buildings-mostly stucco and red brick-rather than its traditions and people. It’s no secret that she believes the Mexican presence on Olvera Street so overwhelming that the contributions of the Chinese, the Italians and other neighborhood ethnic groups to the city’s development have been eclipsed. To dilute the Mexican presence, she has advocated that restoration of Olvera Street spotlight the architecture of its buildings. Toward this end, she has enlisted the support of architectural historians.

For 12 years, Poole and her gaggle of Anglo historians have been plotting to impose their Mexican-less vision of Olvera Street. Their opportunity for success came when administration of El Pueblo Park passed from state to the city Recreation and Parks Commission. Eager to renovate, the commissioners put together a proposal. Since they and the Recreation and Parks Dept. lack the expertise to make historical recommendations, Peter Snell, an architectural historian, was paid to make some. Snell is a close friend of Poole and has acted as a consultant for El Pueblo Park.

The commission’s proposal calls for Olvera Street to be renovated and its history interpreted in conformity with the architecture of the “Prime Historic Period” of 1920-1932. Why 1920-1932? Why not 1880-1910? For one thing, the latter would involve tearing down what constitutes today’s Chinatown to make way for reconstruction of Sonora Town.

In any case, historians will tell you that “Prime Historic Periods” are convenient covers for diluting the influence of unwanted groups. In the case of Olvera Street: No Mexicans Wanted.

What the commissioners and the building-oriented historians are forgetting is that, like it or not, if it had not been for the Mexican marketplace, there would be no preservation debate, since there would be no buildings to preserve. Before Mexican merchants moved in, many of Poole’s “Prime Historic” buildings were slated for demolition-the preferred people-remover technique in the ’30s. But when the alley became a thriving marketplace, those dilapidated stucco and red-brick buildings that Poole now waxes poetic over were saved.

History is made by people, not by buildings. The Latino hegemony in the plaza area is a reminder that Mexicans, here long before the Gringo, are not aliens. Put a plaque on those buildings to indicate that they are proud examples of the Poole’s “Prime Historic Period.” As for Olvera Street, the plaza area and its people, they are too alive to be turned into a musty museum built by Poole and Associates.

Without getting into too much detail, when I decided to support the effort to preserve Tucson’s Mexican American history, I encountered the same history of pillage as in LA. Where had the people gone that once lived in the adobes? Where were the communities?

 

I had reviewed University of Arizona Professor Lydia R, Otero’s book proposal “La Calle: Spatial Conflicts and Urban Renewal in a Southwest City,” for the UA Press. It was a major contribution to the field of study.

 

It was, however, the Three Sonorans that took that history to the level of struggle. Morales’ passion reminded me of Joe Kovner as well as Ernesto Galarza’s applied scholarship.  Galarza often spoke of his role in preserving Alviso in San Jose, California. For Galarza, Alviso represented the struggle of the Mexican American urban poor to preserve community, which to him meant the preservation of a historical memory which gave residents the knowledge to check the monopolistic tendencies of the urban elites.  Galarza said that without a historical memory Mexicans were vulnerable to the robber barons, developers who manipulated the historical narrative.

 

Observing and knowing the historical processes, I applied these experiences to Tucson.  The parallels are obvious. They answered the question as to why SALC opposes Mexican American Studies.  They explain the extreme measures that it is taking to wipe out the Mexcan’s historical memory.

 

There is a lot of money involved; the stakes are high. It goes beyond real estate. It is racial in nature because it uses race to justify its actions. The cabal exploits the fact that Mexicans are the majority of the school population and that they are becoming the majority of Tucson residents to raise fears.

 

This tactic depends on eliminating Sean Arce, the MAS teachers and Morales. They remember the words of Lalo Guerrero’s “Barrio Viejo:”

Viejo barrio, old neighborhood,

There’s only leveled spaces

where once there were houses,

where once people lived.

There are only ruins

of the happy homes

of the joyous families,

of these folks that I loved…

As Galarza once said, a people constantly on the move do not form communities. That is why historical memory is so important to preserving space. Barrios should not be for sale and when they are developed it should be for the benefit of the community and not elites such as the Committee of 25 or the Southern Arizona Leadership Council.

RODOLFO ACUÑA, a professor emeritus at California State University Northridge, has published 20 books and over 200 public and scholarly articles. He is the founding chair of the first Chicano Studies Dept which today offers 166 sections per semester in Chicano Studies. His history book Occupied America has been banned in Arizona. In solidarity with Mexican Americans in Tucson, he has organized fundraisers and support groups to ground zero and written over two dozen articles exposing efforts there to nullify the U.S. Constitution.