Mariachi Plaza isn’t just a place. It’s a part of LA’s history. A piece of the city’s culture. Musicians have been gathering there since the 1930s, making music, looking for work, hanging out with friends, killing time. The plaza is also a gathering place for the community in Boyle Heights, vendors setting up booths to sell their wares, crowds gathering for a celebration.
Mariachi music is the result of hundreds of years of cultural give and take between the indigenous people of Mexico and the colonists from Spain. It started to take the shape we recognize today in the nineteenth century in the state of Jalisco. Mariachi ensembles come in many different sizes. There are the full orchestras with a string section, a couple of trumpets, a variety of guitars and a harp, but the musicians often play in smaller groups, too. It depends on the occasion and how much money’s being offered.
A view of First Street, bordering the plaza.
On the plaza there’s a large bandstand that was donated by the people of Jalisco, as well as a small amphitheatre which was built in the process of constructing the MTA Gold Line station. There are also a few modest buildings that have stood on the plaza for years, their walls decorated with colorful murals. Aside from the changes that came with the construction of the Gold Line stop, the plaza has looked pretty much the same for decades.
But the future of Mariachi Plaza is being hotly debated now, and it’s hard to say who will win in the struggle to shape its future. At the beginning of 2015 there was a huge uproar when the MTA unveiled its plan to develop the site. In the agency’s view, they were doing the community a big favor by bringing in an eight story project that included medical offices, a gym, restaurants and shops. Unfortunately, the MTA forgot to ask the community how they felt about it. Local residents were furious. The people of Boyle Heights were understandably angry about the fact that City and County officials had not brought them into the planning process. The MTA backed down, saying that they were going to start from scratch, and promising to involve residents this time. Some in the community are concerned, though, that all the agency intends to do is hold a few public meetings to steer people towards a plan they’ve already decided on. If that’s what happens, it wouldn’t be surprising. That’s standard operating procedure in LA.
The people of Boyle Heights are used to being ignored. Historically, few people at City Hall have shown much interest in this largely Latino community. It’s only in recent years, with the arrival of the Gold Line and the onset of gentrification that developers have started paying attention to the area. No one would argue that the community needs investment, and some locals feel that Boyle Heights would benefit from “gentefication”, in other words, a push for revitalization that maintained the neighborhood’s Latino character. But the past several years have shown that the City really doesn’t care much about preserving the character of existing communities. Residents of Hollywood, the Crenshaw District, Koreatown, Sherman Oaks and other neighborhoods have been hammered by the unholy alliance between City Hall and real estate speculators.
I went down to Mariachi Plaza a few weeks ago to take some pictures. It was a cloudy day, and not much was happening. This didn’t bother me because I always get a little nervous about shooting photos when people are walking by. I’m not crazy about having my own picture taken, and I don’t want to intrude on other people’s privacy. But then I realized, Hey, you’re at Mariachi Plaza. You’ve gotta get at least one shot of the musicians. And there’s another layer of anxiety here, because I knew some of the guys hanging out on the plaza were probably undocumented. It’s understandable that some immigrants get a little nervous when a stranger with a camera walks up and starts snapping photos. I finally did ask a group six guys if I could take a picture. Three of them walked away, but the other three were cool with it.
Musicians hanging out on the plaza.
On the west side of the plaza you can see the Mariachi Hotel, also called the Boyle Hotel, originally the Cummings Hotel.
The Mariachi Hotel.
It has stood at the corner of Boyle and First since the end of the nineteenth century. Today it’s home to a number of the musicians who populate the plaza. You can see by the sign at the top of the hotel that some residents are concerned about outsiders taking over their community. It says, “Alto a la Gentrificación. Un Boyle Heights, Por Boyle Heights, Para Boyle Heights.” (“Stop Gentrification. One Boyle Heights, by Boyle Heights, for Boyle Heights.”)
Libros Schmibros is right on the plaza. It’s a lending library dedicated to making books available to everybody. The statement on their web site says that, “Libros Schmibros champions the pleasures of literature and its power to change lives,” which sounds pretty cool to me. Here’s the link if you want to learn more.
Just around the corner I found an artist working on a mural.
Artist working on a mural just off the plaza.
Another view of the mural.
Sorry, but the alley was really narrow, and I couldn’t get far enough away to take a picture of the whole thing. I guess if you want to see how beautiful it really is, you’ll just have to go down there yourself.
I went back another day and things were much more lively. A band was on stage in the amphitheatre, people were dancing on the plaza, and the place was crowded with booths offering all sorts of stuff.
People having a good time on the plaza.
The plaza crowded with booths.
I don’t think many of the residents of Boyle Heights would argue against the need for development. What they want is to have a voice in the planning. So many of the projects proposed in this city are the result of deals made between politicians and developers behind closed doors. That’s got to stop. The only way to plan for a community is to invite the community’s participation. This can be a long, slow, difficult process, but in the end it’s more efficient than the City’s current approach. If the MTA had talked to the people of Boyle Heights first, they could have avoided the huge embarrassment of having their project shut down. If the MTA had spent some time listening to residents, by now they might be well on the way to building something that they community could really support.
If you want to dig deeper into the history of Mariachi Plaza, check out the web site.
And this essay with photos is worth taking a look at.
The History of the Cummings Block
Banner by artist Dalia Ruiz.