Unearthed Angelenos A Lesson For Their City

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This post is in support of Departures, KCET's oral history, interactive documentary and community engagement project about Los Angeles neighborhoods. The Chinatown installment was launched in 2010.

For many Angelenos, sacred rituals to ancestors demonstrate the ethnic diversity found in the City of Los Angeles.

This past weekend, once such ritual was the Ch'ing Ming ceremony held in Boyle Heights, a neighborhood that knows the importance of a Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead).

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"It's springtime, so one must go clean the grave sites of ancestors," says Suellen Cheng, Museum Director and Curator of El Pueblo Historical Monument, a site once home to the original Chinese enclave of Los Angeles.

Ch'ing, meaning bright cleaning, is a centuries-old tradition of cleaning tombs of lost loved ones. Once reserved for private ceremony with family says Cheng, adding there has been an increase of Chinese-Americans gathering as a group to honor the dead. Or in the case of hallowed ground like Arlington National Cemetery, the unknown dead.

"Only in the recent years they have been going to Evergreen, mainly to remember the pioneers buried on that site." Said Cheng.

The Southern California Chinese Historical Society and Chinese American activists are guardians of Chinese immigrants who helped form the city, and whose remains were discovered when Gold Line subway construction uncovered forgotten burial grounds in East L.A. in 2005.

The desecration of the burial site was a lesson in preserving history. Still, compared to ancient cities, Los Angeles is young and prone to repeat mistakes.

Just as Metro fell under the watch of the County of Los Angeles, so does LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes, the Mexican American cultural center that will open April 16.

When crews unearthed a Roman Catholic burial ground next to La Placita Church October 2010, it lead to over 100 remains unearthed, first thought to be mostly Native Americans.

The final phase to install a garden and fountain was delayed as remains were exhumed.

Last week during a hearing with state Native American Heritage Commission, historians and archaeologists were critical of the methods to complete the excavation, reports the Los Angeles Times. Speakers were critical of Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina, who has been feverishly working on opening La Plaza for close to two decades, who was accused of pressuring archaeologists to complete the work in time for the opening.

Yet, as Molina has apologized several times for the way the recovered bodies was handled, rage may cloud an important lesson from the dead.

On a site that will focus on Mexican and Mexican American contributions to culture, the uncovered graves that held Native Americans, Spanish, Irish, German, African, as well as Mexican, are a reminder of a city's identity; multiculturalism.

And with the city just over two centuries old, far too young to be compared to civilizations with ancient ceremonies like China's Ch'ing Ming, Japan's Ondo Festival, Mexico's Dios de la Muertos, La Plaza can lead in identifying the spirits of the city

It may also mean we stop referring to early Angelenos as pioneers, but honor them as ancestors.

About the Author

Ed Fuentes is an arts journalist, photographer, graphic designer, and digital muralist who covers a variety of topics and geographies in Southern California for KCET.
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