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The Birth of a Street Performance History Lesson Combo for a New Generation

Martinez del Rio performance poster at Teatro Princesa | Courtesy of Rubén Martinez
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I have been writing the story of the centro of Los Angeles, or better said, it has been writing me since I was baptized at Our Lady Queen of the Angels, the original pueblo church sited not far from the indigenous Tongva village of Yang-Na when the Spanish arrived in 1781. My personal history is braided with the city’s, and not just because of the holy water sprinkled on my head in the fall of 1962. My paternal grandparents, musicians who played both high and low (opera, international pop, Mexican folk) once worked across the street from the church on Olvera Street, the ethnic theme park established by civic booster Christine Sterling in the early 1930s. My grandparents’ presence in the popular performing art scene downtown (they were regulars in the Mexican vaudeville shows — variedades — of the grand downtown theaters on Main and Broadway) ultimately landed them a regular slot in a revue at the Paris Inn, a well-heeled restaurant popular in the war years a few blocks away from the plaza on what was then Market Street, a building later razed to make way for the LAPD’s “glass house” headquarters which, in typical L.A.-cannibalizes-its-past tradition, was itself recently razed.

My grandparents, Juan Martínez and Margarita del Río (their duo musical act was called “Martínez del Río”) were Mexican immigrants seeking an American life for themselves in the midst of the Great Depression. They earned decent money with their act, were thrifty and made shrewd real estate investments. This provided my father with a launching pad into the Army, community college and the unionized, well-paying trade of lithography. It allowed my family a middle-class existence in spite of persistent anti-Mexican sentiment. It was an American story and a Mexican one, and it started in the heart of the Mexican pueblo, which had been a Spanish pueblo, which had been a Tongva village.  

A young ​Rubén Martinez with his parents | Courtesy of Rubén Martinez
A young ​Rubén Martinez with his parents | Courtesy of Rubén Martinez

A yearbook photo of Courtesy of Rubén Martinez | Courtesy of Courtesy of Rubén Martinez
A yearbook photo of Courtesy of Rubén Martinez | Courtesy of Courtesy of Rubén Martinez

Two generations after my grandparents, in the mid-1980s, I arrived at La Placita (the “little plaza,” as the historic pueblo district is affectionately known in Spanish), a young reporter seeking to write about the Sanctuary movement at Our Lady Queen of the Angels led by the activist priests Luis Olivares and Michael Kennedy. My mother was an immigrant from El Salvador, where a civil war raged, fueled in great part by the U.S. government’s Cold War strategy of propping up murderous regimes in the Global South to stave off leftist popular uprisings. The result was hundreds of thousands of refugees from Central America arriving in Los Angeles. This hit very close to home because of the vast extended family we had in El Salvador.

The 1980s was a turbulent decade. Immigration raids targeted political refugees from Central America and economic refugees from Mexico. At La Placita, resistance groups held meetings and rallies and there were clashes with the LAPD. There was drama, melodrama and heroism. It wasn’t hard for me to publish these stories in local media — they wrote themselves.  

Over time I became aware that the Sanctuary movement was only the latest chapter in a long history of repression and resistance in the geographical and symbolic heart of Los Angeles. Here, the Spanish had superimposed their colonial grid upon the indigenous city. Here, the Americans had arrived and conquered the Spanish. But “conquest” is a totalizing term and history is absolute only in the imaginaries of its always-partial narratives, not as its lived by its constitutive communities. The “conquerors” are always eliding the stories of resistance to their power for obvious reasons. If there is a consistent theme to the story at the very center of Los Angeles, it is resistance itself, and it is a story that must be told to remedy the erasures of the past and finally provide Los Angeles the past the powerful have denied it.

We, the eclectic crew of writers, scholars, musicians, actors, performance artists and all-around bohemians that produce the VARIEDADES series (we’ve staged several iterations, another of which also was featured here at KCET, “The Ballad of Ricardo Flores Magón”) present history to you in the spirit of the variedades shows of early 20th century Mexican Los Angeles in which my grandparents performed. It was a time of great of upheaval then, too. The Mexican Revolution (1910-17) sent a million refugees across the border and into the cities and towns of the American Southwest, ironically a kind of demographic “re-conquest” of the territory that Mexico had lost in the Mexican-American War. The ideological moment was not favorable to their reception. Eugenics contaminated thought across the political spectrum, including many prominent figures of the Progressive era. Anti-Mexican attitudes were part of the thick jingoistic residue of the war two generations prior. Racial covenants in real estate preserved the “white spot” the racially pure Anglo city imagined and promoted itself as to lure Midwesterners and Easterners. Ironically, one of the few spaces Mexicans could call their own in the teens and twenties was precisely in the historic pueblo corridor, which Anglo business elites had abandoned during the boom of the 1880s, establishing their center several blocks south of the plaza area.

Martinez del Rio performing | Courtesy of Rubén Martinez
Martinez del Rio performing | Courtesy of Rubén Martinez

“VARIEDADES on Olvera Street” tells of moments from over 200 years of history by performing real-life scenes that took place in the plaza area. Some of these are relatively well known, but many are not. The “red” radical politics of the early 20th century with anarchists and socialists on the verge of taking over municipal politics and inspiring the imagination of thousands with visions of life beyond robber baron-capitalism. The dramatic art-and-politics debate that played itself out through a clash of two flamboyant personalities — Mexican master muralist and communist David Alfaro Siqueiros, intent on creating a revolutionary mural in the plaza, and the grande dame of Olvera Street, Christine Sterling, who wanted nothing more than a decorative “tropical” fruit salad of a painting to make her street quiver with color. The Chinese Massacre of 1871, a multiethnic riot targeting a local Chinese community that had woven itself deep into the social and economic fabric of downtown; it is known as the worst mass lynching in U.S. history, and it signaled a radical change in social relations, leaving a traumatic scar on the community.

Our characters include figures with well-known names that wind up on street signs and schools but whose biographies lack detail and depth. Pío Pico, the last governor of the Mexican era, an “Afro-mestizo” man with direct lineage to the original settlers of the Spanish era is played by veteran performer and writer Roger Guenveur Smith, who is African American and has spent many years in what was (before gentrification) the heavily Mexican neighborhood of Echo Park . Biddy Mason, played by the distinguished Armelia McQueen, has a park named after her downtown, but unless you’ve read Dolores Hayden’s seminal work on spatial politics in L.A., "The Power of Place," you probably know little of her astonishing story – arriving in California a slave, freeing herself in a landmark court case, a renowned midwife, religious leader and philanthropist.

Most of our original music was composed by Quetzal Flores, a key figure in the post-Zapatista East L.A. music scene, with a house band representing a younger generation, featuring the all-woman trio La Victoria, anchored by musical director Vaneza Calderón, blending tradition and latter-day sensibilities.

We present you this story at a time of renewed turmoil. It was filmed shortly before the election of Donald Trump, the nation’s political discourse thick with virulent nativism the plaza has experienced over and over in a historical loop across the centuries. But each time this exclusionary power has appeared, the targeted communities have responded by organizing, by seeking allies (such as Mexican and Anglo reds at the turn of the 20th century, and Central Americans and progressive Anglos and Jews in the 1980s), by turning to the court of public opinion through alternative media (anarchist broadsides in the teens, alternative publications like the L.A. Weekly in the 1980s). Space has been made and remade, communities displaced and re-constituted.

In the centro of Los Angeles today, construction cranes jut into the sky, the homeless are pushed ever further out, ICE raids are ramping up.

In the centro, DREAMers and #MeToo women and anti-gentrification activists gather.

In the centro, the wheel of history never stops turning.

Top Image: Martinez del Rio performance poster at Teatro Princesa | Courtesy of Rubén Martinez

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