December 11, 2004, I attended “Tour L.A.: Past Forward,” organized by the Southern California Library for Social Studies and Research, a 40-year old private library located in South Los Angeles that documents social justice movements in this city. Twenty of us tour participants met at 8:45 a.m. by the kiosk in the Plaza south of Olvera Street where people were decorating for the festival for the Virgin of Guadalupe to be held that evening at Our Lady Queen of the Angels Church next door: yellow, rose, and blue paper cut-outs were hung between the trees; vendors were setting up food and craft tables; stage hands were building a stage for music.
First we went to the brown brick Hellman/Quon building to hear historian William Estrada talk about the hidden free speech history of the Plaza. Estrada told us that from 1781 when Los Angeles was founded to 1881 the Plaza was the town’s center: Our Lady Queen of the Angeles Church, located here, was the first and leading church; adobes and then brick residences for the town’s elites stood here; the city’s main shops circled the Plaza. The Spanish officials and pobaldores (colonists) built a zanja madre, mother ditch, from the Los Angeles River down to the pueblo to water their fields. After the Anglo elite shifted the city’s center a few blocks southeast after 1880, the Plaza became the center of the immigrant working people: Mexicans and Italian immigrants lived right west and north in neighborhood called Sonoratown; Chinese immigrants lived directly east in Old Chinatown.
Estrada said that the Plaza and its nearby streets were the center of rallies, meetings, and speechmaking: Sun yat-sen, future leader of China, spoke to 700 Chinese at a nearby restaurant to gain support for the future Chinese Revolution; the Flores-Magon brothers, leaders of the anarchist Partido Liberal Mexicano, held many rallies at the Plaza for a Mexican revolution; the I.W.W., radical trade unionists who led L.A. trade union movement, had their office at 420 Los Angeles Street; anarchist Emma Goldman, Job Harriman who ran for Socialist mayor of Los Angeles, and famed Socialist author Upton Sinclair, all spoke here.
A few minutes later as we walked again through the Plaza I could hear the ghostly voices from 1912 of radical Mexican and Italian immigrants discussing the latest strikes in L.A. A few minutes later at Our Lady Queen of the Angels Church (La Placita) by the mural on the northside we listened to Father Steve Niskanen. During the 1980s Father Oliveres led La Placita into declaring itself the first Catholic Church to be a sanctuary for refugees from the civil wars in Central America; defying the I.N.S.; and making this a church for the poor and homeless.
The Claretian order, which runs the church, transferred Father Oliveres to Bolivia in 1990, ending La Placita’s radicalism, but the Claretians changed their minds by 2002. Two new priests, Father Steve Niskanen and Arnold Abelardo, who arrived in 2002, revived this radical heritage. The two priests redeclared the church as a sanctuary for immigrants; denounced the government’s raids on immigrants; started within the church Centro San Juan Diego del Immigrante (San Juan Diego Immigrant Center) to give legal and medical aid to immigrants; and again are feeding and helping the homeless. Father Niskanen, who is a tall, gangly Anglo, said he came from a conservative background but is changing while being pastor at La Placita.
Leaving Father Niskanen, we boarded the bus to get off at Spring Street, walk a block to Biddy Mason Park just south of the Bradbury Building at 304 South Broadway. If you walk through the Bradbury Building to the gallery at the back on the 1st floor and then go right, you see a pocket park with leafy green camphor and jacaranda trees, benches, and then a wall dedicated to Biddy Mason. Mason, who was a black slave in 1851, walked to Los Angeles with her master’s wagon train.
There, she sued in 1856 for her freedom in court, and was helped by blacks in the tiny black community. She won! Inscriptions on the wall tall the story of this pioneering African-American Angelo: she was a talented midwife, helping to birth hundreds of children. She bought land and had a house right on this spot. At her house she and other blacks held meetings for Los Angeles’s first black church, the African-American Methodist Episcopal Church, which was built a few blocks down, on land she owned and donated to the church.
From Biddy Mason’s Park we walked a few blocks down Spring Street, the old Wall Street of Los Angeles with its stock exchange and leading banks before they moved to Bunker Hill; we arrived at Gallery 727 at 727 South Spring Street to see the photography show “South Central Farmers: Photographs by Don Normark and Don Rogers” (www.gallery727losangeles.com.” At 41st Street and Alameda Avenue in South Los Angeles South Central Farmers for 12 years have created small garden plots in a community gardens. The city of Los Angeles originally condemned this land by eminent domain for the “good the community” to build a huge incinerator opposed by concerned Citizens of South Central Los Angeles, then let 360 farmers create garden plots. After promising that the land would be used for the good of the community, City Hall in a “sweetheart deal” decided gave the land back to its previous owner Ralph Horowitz to build a warehouse, so in December 31, 2003, the South Central Farmers have received their first eviction notice.
They have been fighting for a year including getting a court injunction to keep their farms (www.saveourgarden.com). We see photos of a few of the 350 families who are fighting City Hall and a millionaire real-estate dealer. The photos were stunning, showing these adults and children’s pride in their corn, chayote, cactucs they’ve grown as well as how they pass on food traditions--including building wonderful scacrecrows-- to the next generation. Looking at these photos, I thought of original small farming village of El Pueblo where farmers also laboriously built a long irrigation ditch, the madre zanja, to water their crops and then took pride in their vegetables they grew. Yes, the South Central Farmers who are carrying on this same food and farming two-hundred year old traditions deserve our support. You can fill out their petition at www. pettiononline.com/lagarden/petition html.