Message From The Center: Picturing Mexican America

Welcome to L.A. Omnibus, a forum for writers, thinkers, artists, and activists to share ideas, pose questions and explore solutions. Deriving inspiration from the Latin meaning of omnibus, “for all,” these programs explore how our city is shifting, settling, and re-making itself. L.A. is not only about where we live, but how we live, how we fit together in a dynamic California landscape that is often at odds with its human inhabitants.

This morning before writing this, I went on one of my usual weekend walks. Each weekend, I try to pick a place I haven’t been to, someplace to really look at, the kind of looking you can only do because you’re on foot, and not in a car on the way to somewhere else. Today, I did a big loop in Encino, roughly between Petit and Encino Aves on the east and west, and the L.A. river and Ventura Blvd on the north and south. Sitting in the middle of this large, flat Valley rectangle is Los Encinos State Historic Park, originally Tongva land before being colonized by the Spanish expedition of Gaspar de Portolá. Over the next couple hundred years, this tract of land, plus the surrounding miles upon miles of land in every direction, underwent a complicated tangle of questionable private and municipal land acquisitions. This part of the Valley was home to an enormous cattle industry, then sheep, then agriculture, then housing subdivisions. This small State Historic Park, with its restored adobe structures, fenced in duck pond (which was the site of the original natural springs so crucial to the area), and centuries-old oak trees (los encinos) is one of those odd markers of “old California,” which used to be Mexico, or Alta (Upper) California. Sitting hidden in the middle of a residential neighborhood, the fading historical marker inside the park doesn’t quite tell the whole story. One of the frustrating yet fascinating things about California is that there is always more than one story. This is a big, complicated place, and like the fault lines that periodically shift the landscape, we periodically need to shift our way of seeing and understanding.

Recently, on one of my L.A. walks, I did a deep dive into something I encountered, and in the internet rabbit-hole of one link leading to another, I found the project Picturing Mexican America. I was surprised that I didn’t know about the project, and that it was founded by UCLA professor, Marissa López. UCLA is not unlike California — it’s a big, complicated place – frustrating that you can’t keep track of everything that’s happening, but so gratifying when you stumble on a fascinating story. I love learning about L.A., there is so much I don’t know, or thought I knew but didn’t. I love having my assumptions overturned. The amazing thing about this project is how it so generously disrupts assumptions, how it expands our lens: revealing who we are, where we come from, and how we might get to the next place.  I’m so excited to dig deep with Marissa and Ani Boyadijian, Research & Special Collections Manager at the Los Angeles Public Library (who is a partner on the project), as we uncover archives, maps, photos, and stories – shaking loose some assumptions about the Los Angeles we think we know, and how we got here.

­—Meryl Friedman, Director of Education & Special Initiatives