How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

At LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes, the questions are on the floor

Last weekend I paid a visit to LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes, the new museum chronicling Mexican American history and life in Los Angeles that opened Saturday.

The museum's downtown location is itself noteworthy: It sits across from Olvera Street near the city's birthplace - so close, in fact, that construction turned up the bones of more than a hundred early residents from a cemetery believed to have been exhumed in the mid-1800s.

The museum pays worthy tribute to early Angeleños, and the Californios and Mexicanos whose history has at times felt close to lost as waves of newcomers arrived and reinvented Southern California. Its interactive displays also highlight the more recent and familiar history of Mexican Americans in the West, from the Chicano civil rights movement to the farm workers' labor struggle in the Central Valley.

But while walking around, I was taken by the questions on the floor. Discreetly printed on the floorboards here and there are questions intended to coincide with the exhibits, but which can apply broadly to immigrants, their descendants, and just about anybody who cares to answer them. There was this direct one:

Do you identify yourself by your nationality?

And this one, which could apply to refugees from anywhere:
You've worked hard and built a new life, but now it's safe to return home. Will you go?

And this one, which relates to the early Californians whose land went from being part of Mexico to part of the Unites States:
You have the same land and the same neighbors, but now you're part of another country. Will you change your citizenship?

There was also this question posed not on the floor, but on a vintage suitcase, part of an exhibit on early northward migration from Mexico:
What would you bring if you had to move to a new place?

Visitors were encouraged to write their answers on paper luggage tags and deposit them in the suitcase. The tag at the top of the pile read "my family" with a heart drawn next to it.

The questions lingered long after I left the museum. How would you answer them?

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