Originally published in The Quarterly, Spring 2016 issue
In the heart of historic Los Angeles, across from Union Station, lies a charming burst of colors, culture and cuisine. Olvera Street is one of the oldest streets in LA, a shoppers delight and a snapshot into history.
This living museum is home to some of the oldest buildings in the city and home to literally the mother of all local ditches, Zanja Madre. The “mother ditch” was LA’s first water system that gave life to the growing pueblo (town) from 1781-1904. And it ran right through what is now “Olvera Street.”
But to truly appreciate the richness of the area, one must step back in time and understand its origins. My guide, Carl McCraven appreciates that “this place is open and preserved. And with a tour, people can appreciate it as I do.” This free tour through the historic site sets the stage.
Peace-loving Tongva (also referred to as Gabrielino) natives inhabited Yangna settlement for centuries, perhaps even “thousands of years,” according to some estimates. In 1781, the Tongva welcomed los pobladores, new settlers recruited by Felipe de Neve, the first Spanish governor of California. Then, the area was known as Alta California, the northernmost Spanish territory.
Los pobladores, the founders of Los Angeles, were made up of 11 families (44 men, women and children) from Native American, African and European descent. They traveled more than 1,000 miles on foot from Sinaloa and Sonora Mexico, incentivized by de Neve to make settlements of their own. They called their beautiful new home “El Pueblo de la Reina de Los Angeles” or the town of the Queen of Angels.
The current site of “El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument” commemorates the origins of Los Angeles, of which Olvera Street is a part. Migrants from around the world also begin calling the pueblo their home (Italians in 1823, the French in 1827 and the Chinese in 1850.)
The museums at the monument honor the cultures represented in these early years. Though they may be overlooked by the casual visitor, they are not to be missed. These include Avila Adobe, the oldest house in the city, built in 1818, The Pelanconi House, the oldest brick building, built by Italians in 1855 and the Sepulveda House, built in 1887.
Additional points of interest include the Italian Hall, David Siqueiros’ controversial mural, America Tropical, and the Chinese American Museum (just outside Olvera Street).
In 1877, the street known as Calle de las Vignas or Wine Street was officially changed to Olvera Street in honor of the first judge of Los Angeles County, Agustin Olvera. Unfortunately, by the early 1900s, Olvera street was becoming a slum.
But in 1926 a concerned philanthropist, Christine Sterling, recognized the historic value of the area and was determined to renovate and reinvigorate the pueblo.
Michelle Garcia-Ortiz, a representative of the El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument says, “Christine Sterling came up with the idea for Olvera Street after she had successfully completed a campaign to restore The Avila Adobe House. She wanted the surrounding area to be a welcoming place that payed tribute to Mexican American culture and traditions.” And with friends like Harry Chandler, publisher of the Los Angeles Times, Olvera Street was transformed.
Even the Chief of Police donated the labor of prison inmates. In a journal entry in 1929, Sterling wrote, “One of the prisoners is a good carpenter, another electrician. Each night I pray they will arrest a bricklayer and a plumber.”
Sterling, “the mother of Olvera Street” brought together various craftspeople, restauranteurs and business-minded folk to open shops. And on April 20, 1930, Easter Sunday, Olvera Street opened as a Mexican marketplace.
Many of the merchants today are direct descendants of the original shop owners. Mike Mariscal, fourth-generation owner of “Myrosa Enterprises” is one of them. His shop and others on Olvera Street are proud to showcase local artists among other more traditional goods.
Roving musicians, balladeers and painters add color to the street while inspiring visitors and being inspired by the diversity within. One such artist is the late Leo Politi who created the nearby mural “Blessing of Animals.” He also wrote and illustrated more than 20 children’s books, a Caldecott winner and two honors among them, including “Pedro: The Angel of Olvera Street.” Postcards of his illustrations are sold at Myrosa and neighboring venues.
Mariscal, also President of the Olvera Street Merchants Association Foundation, says, “I’m here not only to make a living, but to teach the public about the history, culture and traditions of Olvera Street.”
One of the privileges of the association is to host a variety of traditional events, all free. Some of the events include (as described by material from El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument and the Olvera Street Merchants Association Foundation):
Lantern Festival Chinese American Museum (March 5)
Activities include: workshops, crafts, artisans, entertainment and cultural exhibits.
Blessing of the Animals (Saturday, March 26, 12-5 PM) “This centuries-old tradition of blessing the animals, for all the benefits they provide mankind, is celebrated with a procession on Olvera Street led by the Archbishop of Los Angeles. All pets welcome.”
Olvera Street 86th Anniversary Celebration (Saturday, April 23) A smaller event with free refreshments and entertainment.
Cinco de Mayo (Saturday, April 30 and Sunday, May 1, 11 AM – 9 PM and May 5)
Fiesta de las Flores (June)
Dia de los Muertos (October/November)
Virgen de Guadalupe (December)
Las Posadas (December)
Los Tres Reyes or Epiphany of the Three Kings (January)
Fiesta de la Candelaria (February)
Mardi Gras Children’s Workshop (February)
For a full schedule of events in and around Olvera Street or for free docent tours, call (213) 628-1274. Pick up a scavenger hunt sheet for children at the visitors’ center. Adults can also learn from this colorful brochure encouraging the curious to, “look, find, listen, read and ask.” And in doing so, we are all the richer.