Monday, September 22, 2008

Historian tells Los Angeles' story through its plaza

The Los Angeles Plaza: Sacred and Contested Space (University of Texas Press) by William David Estrada

Book review by Daniel Olivas

Historian William David Estrada brings us a fascinating and well-researched historical examination of his city's cultural and political heart in The Los Angeles Plaza: Sacred and Contested Space (University of Texas Press, $24.95 paperback).

As with many other cities and towns in the Southwest that had once been under Spanish and then Mexican rule, Los Angeles had a plaza around which the city's social and economic life revolved. Estrada informs us that such a configuration was far from random and that it had profound theoretical and philosophical underpinnings:

"The founding of El Pueblo de La Reina de Los Angeles in 1781 as envisioned by Governor Felipe de Neve was part of a complex historical process that was reflected in the development of the grid-plan plaza throughout the Americas." This central plaza concept "had its origins in European and pre-Columbian town planning models."

Of course, political and social forces changed the function, purpose and importance of the Los Angeles Plaza over the years. Estrada discusses this evolution beginning with the city's indigenous, pre-colonial inhabitants and moving to today's multicultural megalopolis by relying on a broad array of sources such as diaries, newspaper accounts, letters and the memories of those who lived near the Plaza.

The result is a historically intricate portrait that brings to life the great diversity of Los Angeles.

Estrada is the curator of California and American History and chairman of the history department for the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. He is also a native Angeleno with deep roots in the city going back to the early part of the last century.

He divides his book into nine sections with such titles as "Cultural and Historical Origins," "From Ciudad to City," "Revolution and Public Space" and "Parades, Murals, and Bulldozers." By focusing each chapter on a particular theme of the Plaza's development, Estrada allows the reader to be immersed in specific facets of city life.

He also includes a generous number of photographs as well as maps and drawings which add greatly to the text. Some of the photographs are truly remarkable -- for example, the oldest known photograph of the Plaza, taken in 1862. Others depict the faces of Los Angeles, such as a 1913 photograph of Mexican and Italian railroad workers, and one taken in 1895 of Chinese immigrants celebrating their New Year in the old Chinatown near the Plaza.

Los Angeles has suffered violent racial strife almost since its founding, and the Plaza provides a microcosm of these social rifts. While Estrada carefully documents these brutal clashes -- including the 1871 Chinese Massacre and the Zoot Suit Riots of 1943 --he also recounts the great cultural vibrancy symbolized by the Plaza and those who have lived near it throughout the centuries.

Despite hundreds of footnotes, a 17-page bibliography, and a highly detailed index, Estrada does not offer a dry history. Rather, he has written an enthralling, intricate and much-needed ethno-history of Los Angeles and its cultural heart, the Plaza.

[This review first appeared in the El Paso Times.]

◙ Well, I hope to see all of you at Seventh Annual West Hollywood Book Fair this Sunday!

WHEN: Sunday, September 28, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
WHERE: West Hollywood Park, 647 N. San Vicente Blvd.
COST: Free!

Not only will you enjoy 400+ authors and artists, by you can meet literary legends, celebrity guests, poets, storytellers and Los Angeles authors. There will be book signings, panel discussions, a children’s area (with crafts, games and performances), readings, and over 125 exhibitors of independent book stores, small press, authors and literary groups.

AND…I will be moderating a panel of authors featured in the anthology I edited, Latinos in Lotusland: An Anthology of Contemporary Southern California Literature (Bilingual Press, 2008). The panel includes three of the thirty-four authors featured in the anthology: Lisa Alvarez, Reyna Grande and S. Ramos O’Briant. There will be a book signing afterwards at the IMIX Books booth.

The day before, on Saturday, September 27, Melinda Palacio will be moderating a Latinos in Lotusland panel at the Santa Barbara Book and Author Fair on the grounds of the Santa Barbara Public Library, 11:00 a.m. at the Book Lover's Tent. Her panelists will be Reyna Grande, Sandra Ramos O'Briant and Alex Espinoza.

Many more Latinos in Lotusland events are planned. For a complete (but ever-growing) list, go here and scroll down until you find the schedule.

◙ All done. So, until next Monday, enjoy the intervening posts from my compadres y comadres at La Bloga. And remember: ¡Lea un libro!


Anonymous said...

I have The Los Angeles Plaza: Sacred and Contested Space, seeing as I live in los angeles i found it fascinating. I think its great youre blogging about this and letting people know about it i think every person that moves here, lives here, or comes to visit should read this!

This is really great!

Daniel A. Olivas said...

Thank you, Bonnie (from one lawyer to another).