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[Blog] Musings on Olvera St.: Whitewashed or Authentic? | Pensamientos Sobre la Calle Olvera: ¿Whitewashed o Autentico?

This post was originally written in Spanish for the “Los Angeles Culinary Culture” blog at USC, part of professor Sarah Portnoy’s upper-level Spanish course on Latino food in L.A. Scroll down for English, or turn to page 2 for the Spanish.

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Este blog fue originalmente escrito en español por el “Los Angeles Culinary Culture”  blog de USC. El sitio es parte de una clase de español sobre comida latina en L.A., enseñada por profesora Sarah Portnoy. Haz clic en la págnia 2 para la versión en español.

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Olvera St.: Authentic Mexican enclave? Whitewashed tourist attraction? Olvera St. is not one or the other. It is both, and in that mix represents a fascinating model of what it means to be at the center of such a pluralistic, multi-cultural city as Los Angeles, in the exact spot where its history, present and future intersect.

This is apparent on any visit to Olvera St., but was especially obvious on September 16 – Mexican Independence Day.  Booths scattered around the plaza were meant to appeal to L.A.’s Latino, largely immigrant population. The Curacao travel agency sponsored a contest to win free airfare, another travel agency advertised flights to Culiacán, Sinaloa, and a third played music by Colombian musician Fonseca. The Verizon booth informed passerby about plans for long-distance calls.  Guys with clipboards encouraged visitors to register to vote. Coca-Cola reps invited onlookers, in Spanish, to step up to a small stage and sing a song of their choice. And Los Defensores – “abogados expertos en accidentes de auto y trabajo” – were on hand to offer advice.

In the background, a mariachi group sang the Mexican standard, “Volver.” A few hundred, at least, had gathered around the stage to the side of Olvera St.’s plaza to see the musicians. Everyone sang along: “Y volver, volver, volver..!” To return, return, return!

It seemed an appropriate song for Olvera St., a place that tries to represent L.A.’s origins as a sleepy Mexican pueblo. But how much of that past is true, and how much was constructed just as a form of entertainment for the gringos? (Me and my family included. I’ve been visiting and loving Olvera St. since toddler-hood.) There is a mix.  Here’s what’s certain: It may not have been the intention, but the current incarnation of Olvera St. welcomes Latinos with open arms.

Just look at the merchandise. Some is tourist junk, sure, like Bob Marley blankets, tequila shot glasses, and t-shirts that read “‘I Want You, Gringo, to Join the Mexican Revolution” (in an Uncle Sam style).  But so much more is intended for a Latino audience — the t-shirts with Spanglish jokes (“Los Doyers” in a Dodgers logo, for example), the folklorico dance clothes and shoes, and the CDs and DVDs (such as Latin American covers of music by Joan Manuel Serrat).

Food is an indication, too, of course. Cielito Lindo is one of Olvera St.’s oldest stands, open since 1934. Its taquitos are not the American kind — deep fried. Instead, they are simply corn tortillas wrapped around beef and smothered with avocado sauce. It’s possible that taquitos were invented here. Christine Sterling, owner and developer of Olvera St., wanted Cielito Lindo to serve something other than tacos. So Aurora Guerrero, of Zacatecas, Mexico, created taquitos. Like tacos, but thinner and longer. So, is the taquito truly Mexican? Or is it something constructed to please gringos? Like Olvera St. itself, the answer isn’t one or the other, but both. The mix represents the history of Los Angeles, and gives an indication of its future.

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