Intruders in the dust

Dig Here

History should offer no solace. Don't go digging around in it to find remedies for current complaints. Raise over the past a monument, and beneath it will lie a mess of unquiet contradictions.

Just ask the bureaucrats behind the Plaza de Cultura y Artes project, a Mexican-American cultural center and museum that will open on April 16 across from the old plaza and Olvera Street. In January, work was halted on what would have been the center's garden after landscape crews unearthed bones that some Native Americans believe are those of the city's original Gabrieleño-Tongva inhabitants.

[The disputed site is to the left of the bell tower and behind the wall in the photograph above, taken around 1900.]

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The discovery of the remains and their treatment afterwards continues to anger those who assert a cultural and historical connection to these dead, which has grown to include descendants of colonial-era families that might have been buried in the campo santo next to the plaza church. "It's like a tiny version of Jerusalem," University of Southern California history professor Philip J. Ethington told the Associated Press. "It involves multiple races and their claims to our city's history."

Last week, the National Park Service stepped in to force some of these claims to be negotiated. The NPS has promised more than $104,000 in federal grants as part of the $24-million cost of the Plaza de Cultura y Artes. The federal money won't be released, said NPS historic preservation grants chief Hampton Tucker, "until this issue was resolved in consultation with all concerned parties." Miguel Corzo, president of the Plaza de Cultura y Artes, complained that the work for which the grant was awarded had already been completed.

On the other side of plaza, conflict over whose dead to remember is pitting murdered Chinese laborers against Latino heroes. Attorney Robert Garcia recently sued the city, contesting its approval of a monument to Hispanic Congressional Medal of Honor recipients on land that was part of both a Tongva village and the city's original Chinatown. Some victims of the 1871 Chinese massacre, during which at least 19 Chinese men and boys were killed, are believed to have died among the adobe houses that stood on the site then.

Garcia, who believes the Medal of Honor monument is misplaced, also believes that all the affected cultures should retain their claims to the site so that visitors will get an accurate view of history.

Such are the uses of our dead. They make no claims in the present; we do. Their mixture of rationalizations and motives is hidden from us, particularly when we say, without irony, that any current prejudice could possibly represent "an accurate view of history."

Politics determines who is remembered publically and where and how, not the number or the pathos of those who have died. Enlisting the dead to serve our purposes is "zombie history."

D. J. Waldie, author, historian, and as the New York Times said in 2007, "a gorgeous distiller of architectural and social history," writes about Los Angeles every Monday and Friday at 2 p.m. on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.

The "public domain" image on this page is from the Library of Congress.