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Nestled between El Paseo Restaurant and a Mexican storefront, the Avila Adobe reflects the complex history between ethnic Mexicans and Anglo-American migrants during the 20th century. Constructed in 1818 by Francisco Avila, a wealthy Californio, Avila employed adobe material because it was ideal for the Southwest climate. However, in the early 19th century, Anglo-Americans migrating to California denounced the adobe as dirty and ineffective. As Anglo-Americans arrived West to achieve their 'Manifest Destiny,' the Californios' adobe's fate was compromised. From 1846 to 1848, the Mexican-American War ensued throughout the Southwest for control of the region. In 1848, Mexican and American officials signed The Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo. This treaty led to the demise of Avila and his adobe's prominence in a conquered Anglo California. Many Anglos viewed the Californios' adobes as backward, as adobe represented "the unusable past." Almost a century later, Los Angeles disregarded the Avila Adobe as a decaying structure in Plaza Olvera, selected to be the next tourist attraction for Anglo-Americans. However, in 1926, Christine Sterling and various preservationists established a movement to save the Avila Adobe. Although Sterling fought to preserve the Adobe, she had ulterior motives. Like many Anglo-American preservationists of her time, Sterling was a proponent of the "Spanish Fantasy Past," which pined for a "romantic Spanish Era in California" while erasing Californio and Indigenous history. While Sterling and local activists successfully lobbied for the preservation of the Adobe, their movement would inevitably perpetuate ethnic Mexican scripts while erasing the true history of the Avila Adobe.

In the wake of the Mexican Revolution, 1910 to 1917, Los Angeles experienced a surge of Mexican migration, including Mexican peasants and some Mexican revolutionaries.[1] Many migrants arrived in Los Angeles with hopes of finding seasonal labor opportunities. Although many employers welcomed ethnic Mexican labor, the possibility of permanent Mexican residence petrified Anglo Los Angelenos. Since the 19th century, Anglo Americans migrated to Southern California to establish an Anglo utopia across the region. From Los Angeles to Riverside, Anglo-Americans mobilized in force to redefine Southern California as an Anglo paradise. This synthetic society "replaced violent conquest with the myth of inevitable progression towards Anglo American civilization.[2] To combat the rising number of ethnic Mexican laborers arriving in Southern California, Anglo officials developed racial scripts against ethnic Mexican residents and citizens to limit their liberty and rights. For example, businessman C.M Gothe was an ethnic Mexican labor opponent who argued that it was "the Mexican Indian's [sic.] "hopes of gaining for his children the precious genes of the Nordics, [so] that the latter may become mestizo.'"[3] The criminalization of ethnic Mexicans labeled them as a threat to Anglo Los Angelenos. To Gothe and other nativists, Los Angeles had to control the ethnic Mexican migrants arriving in the city. Gothe was not alone in his thinking as various other Anglo residents utilized ethnic Mexican scripts to dehumanize migrants and residents. By labeling Mexicans as a "criminal, social, diseased, and [an] unassimilable workforce," Anglo Americans limited ethnic Mexicans' liberties and rights.[4] The influx of Mexican migration to Los Angeles compelled Anglo-American residents and officials to reimagine and preserve the "Spanish Fantasy Past" to control the ethnic Mexican population. The pressure to fortify this fantasy led Christine Sterling and others to preserve decaying structures, such as the Avila Adobe, and market them as an Anglo tourist destination. Preserving the Avila Adobe would personify " [a] Spanish past replete with images of charming señoritas and handsome Caballeros" while perpetuating ethnic Mexican scripts.[5] In this manufactured fantasy, Sterling and other Anglo preservationists envisioned the Avila Adobe and Plaza Olvera to be a location where ethnic Mexican laborers worked to fulfill the needs of Anglo-American tourists.

Sterling's efforts to redefine the Avila Adobe and the Plaza Olvera as a physical embodiment of "the Spanish Fantasy Past" were successful and she widely praised by the media. Not only did Sterling collaborate with Harry Chandler, the "publisher of the Los Angeles Times," to receive publicity for this newly established tourist destination but received accolades from independent filmmakers as well.[6] In 1937, filmmaker William Pizor created a short film on the history and attractions at the Plaza Olvera. His short film "Street of Memory" capitalized on "the Spanish Fantasy Past" and racial scripts to captivate his Anglo-American audience. Throughout the film, Pizor highlighted ethnic Mexican laborers as 'lazy' and 'poor Mexicans.'[7] Moreover, Pizor consciously whitewashed the history of the Avila Adobe. In this scene, the narrator declared that it was the "descendants of the early settlers [of Los Angeles]" who fought to preserve the Adobe.[8]Pizor falsely claimed that Sterling and other Anglo preservationists were the Californios' descendants to perpetuate “the Spanish Fantasy Past." This statement disregarded the ethnic Mexican merchants and laborers of Plaza Olvera as second-class citizens, denigrating their contributions to the Los Angeles economy. Pizor's film also reflected how filmmakers and preservationists applied racial epithets to dehumanize ethnic Mexicans while maintaining white supremacy in Los Angeles. Pizor’s film and other contributing media had a phenomenal impact on Plaza Olvera's success as an Anglo tourist destination. 

During the Second World War, The Los Angeles Times advertised the Plaza Olvera and Avila Adobe as the ideal local tourist destination. In a news article from July 15th, 1945, the Los Angeles Times marketed the Plaza Olvera as an enjoyable and patriotic 'vacation' that respected "government warnings to stay off the war burdened railroads" and other modes of transportation.[9] By marketing the Plaza Olvera and Avila Adobe as a Mexican tourist destination, the Los Angeles Times erased the complex Californio-Indigenous history of the 19th century. By arguing that visiting the Plaza Olvera was a synthetic reproduction of Mexico, Anglo residents were more inclined to explore this tourist attraction; thus, perpetuating "the Spanish Fantasy Past" as an American symbol of Anglo patriotism during the war. Finally, this advertisement reinstalled the notion of American imperialism, shrouded under the pretense of tourism. By perpetuating ethnic Mexican scripts through various examples of Mexican merchants, including Julio Rueda, the "fierce mustached potter," and describing the Plaza as a picturesque location with "exotic trees" and a "peaceful patio" with fluttering doves, the Los Angeles Times eloquently exploited the Plaza Olvera's history and ethnic Mexican culture. [10]

However, as more Mexican and Latin American individuals began to immigrate to Los Angeles in the late 20thcentury, the narrative of "the Spanish Fantasy Past" attached to the Plaza Olvera and the Avila Adobe changed. Many ethnic Mexicans and Latin Americans began to embrace the complex history of the Plaza, one which underscored the history of Californios and its Indigenous roots. For instance, in 1989, Lazaro Arvizo founded Xipe Totec, an Aztec Dance company based in Los Angeles.[11] These Latina/o dancers reproduced "ceremonious dances taught [to them] by their elders" in Plaza Olvera, near the Avila Adobe. The location around the Avila Adobe also became a center for protest for former braceros demanding economic redress.[12] These individuals, once described as "Birds of Passage," reclaimed their liberties and rights as laborers while also re-latinizing the city of Los Angeles.[13] Rather than submitting to the "Spanish Fantasy Past” narrative, the Latina/o population of Los Angeles redefined the history and culture of the Avila Adobe, and in turn, the Plaza Olvera while celebrating the rich and complex history of Latina/os and Indigenous peoples in Los Angeles. 

[1] Kelly Lytle Hernández, City of Inmates (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2017), 92-158.

[2] Genevieve Carpio, Collisions at the Crossroads: How Place and Mobility Make Race (Oakland: University of California Press, 2019), 41.

[3] Natalia Molina, How Race is Made in America: Immigration, Citizenship, and the Historical Power of Racial Scripts (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014).

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] William M. Pizor, "Street of Memory", directed by William M. Pizor. (1937; Los Angeles, 2002), film.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Tom Cameron, “Vacation in Mexico? It’s Right Here at Your Back Door: Mexico Can Be Seen Here on ‘A’ Gas Coupons,” Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles, CA). Jul. 15, 1945.

[10] Ibid.

[11] “The Arts: Ancient Aztec Dances Revived Near Olvera St.,” Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles, California), May 4, 1989.

[12] William D. Estrada, “Los Angeles’ Old Plaza and Olvera Street: Imagined and Contested Space.” Western Folklore. Vol. 58, No. 2 (1999): 263.

[13] Ibid, 263-264.