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Olvera Street: The Fabrication of L.A.'s Mexican Heritage

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Olvera Steet, 1978. Image: William Reagh, courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library

What's in a Street Name is a new series that explores the origins of Los Angeles streets.

From Wine to Olvera

The honorable Agustin Olvera
The honorable Agustin Olvera

Considered by some to be the heart of Mexican L.A., Olvera Street -- a tourist attraction, Mexican curios marketplace, and home to roving troubadours -- is an alleyway in the "birthplace of Los Angeles." Established in 1858, it's one of the oldest streets in the city, and one of the shortest at just under .10 miles.

In the early days of the Pueblo, it was known as Wine Street, a reference to the Italian vintners that were the denizens of the day. In 1877 the street was given its current name in honor of Agustin Olvera, a judge who fought for Alta California in the Mexican American War, and played a crucial role in negotiating peace with the Americans, eventually lending his signature to the Treaty of Cahuenga. Olvera, already a judge in his native Mexico, arrived in Los Angeles in 1834 and would continue on a civic path in his adopted country -- he was elected as L.A. County's first Judge and later as Supervisor.

His adobe home was located at the north end of the Plaza, and his neighbors were some of the most prominent names of the day: Sanchez, Lugo, and Pico families. After California was awarded statehood, gubernatorial power shifted to a new wave of Anglos that effectively moved the locus of civic life south of the Plaza. By the 1920s, Olvera Street was neglected, filthy, and home to a few machine shops.

Olvera Street before its 1930s re-invention | Courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library
Olvera Street before its 1930s re-invention | Courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library
Artistic portrait of Christine Sterling ca. 1963 | Courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library
Artistic portrait of Christine Sterling ca. 1963 | Courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library

The Mother of Olvera Street

Born in Oakland in 1881, Christine Sterling (originally Chastine Rix) migrated south with her husband and two children, residing on Bonnie Brae as early as 1920. In 1926, during a stroll through the rundown alley, Sterling cringed at what had become of the dilapidated Avila Adobe. In an effort to appeal to Anglo hearts and minds, she orchestrated a one-woman campaign to save the old adobe, reminding citizens that the structure had once housed such American luminaries as Commodore Robert F. Stockton, victorious General John C. Fremont, and early explorer Kit Carson.

There was little mention of the adobe's original owner Francisco Avila, twice mayor of Mexican Los Angeles. Her omission was surely a calculated marketing strategy, for the Mother of Olvera Street was indeed familiar with the Californio days of the Pueblo, albeit, from a slightly skewed perspective:

Life in Los Angeles before the Americans came was an almost ideal existence. People lived to love, to be kind, tolerant, and contented. Money of which there was plenty was just for necessities. The men owned and rode magnificent horses. The women were flower-like in silk and laces. There were picnics into the hills dancing at night, moonlight serenades, romance and real happiness.

Sterling's sales pitch for a Mexican marketplace, replete with vendors and musicians in ethnic garb, persuaded L.A. Times owner Harry Chandler to contribute $5,000 dollars, and in the process several prominent Angelenos joined his philanthropic party.

According to the L.A. Times, during a fundraising BBQ held on the porch of the Avila Adobe, the tequila was flowing in spite of prohibition, and then Chief of Police Charlie "Two Guns" Davis was so moved by Sterling's call to action that he volunteered prison labor for Olvera's reconstruction.

In 1929 the street was closed to traffic and construction began. On that day, Sterling recorded these thoughts in her diary: "With my two children, 25 prisoners, 50% protest from the property owners and a lawsuit thrown in for good measure, we put the first picks and shovels into the old street. The prisoners were good workers, one escaped, but we managed to keep the others."

Sterling's vision for a "Mexican Marketplace of Yesterday in the City of Today" opened to the public on Easter Sunday in 1930. Her art and design education from Mills College served to inform her Olvera Street project, as well as her next ethnic re-envisioning, China City. Authenticity has always been tinged with historical fantasy in Los Angeles, and for better or for worse, Sterling's efforts indeed saved the Avila Adobe, and in the process created one of L.A.'s most visited tourist attractions.

Towards the end of her life, Sterling would suffer the same fate of the shop owners of old Olvera and the displaced denizens of the first Chinatown, after she was evicted from her Chavez Ravine home to make way for Dodger Stadium. Sterling moved in to the Avila Adobe, which would be her final home before she passed on in 1963 at the age of 82.

In its early days Olvera Street catered to a largely Anglo population; however, the meaning of Olvera Street has changed over the years, and the delusional fabrication has now been largely accepted as the symbolic epicenter of Mexican culture.

Performers at Olvera Street ca. 1936 | Courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library
Performers at Olvera Street ca. 1936 | Courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library
Girls on a Donkey posing for a picture in 1944 | Courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library
Girls on a Donkey posing for a picture in 1944 | Courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library
Photographer with traditional Mexican Cutout | Photo: Herman Schultheis, courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library
Photographer with traditional Mexican Cutout | Photo: Herman Schultheis, courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library
San Fernando Valley H.S. field trip in 1959 | Courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library
San Fernando Valley H.S. field trip in 1959 | Courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library
Olvera, 2000 | Photo: Marisa Roth, courtesy Los Angeles Public Library
Olvera, 2000 | Photo: Marisa Roth, courtesy Los Angeles Public Library

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