LA civic leaders break ground on Olvera Street mural visitor center

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Adolfo Guzman-Lopez

Los Angeles civic leaders break ground on an interpretive center for a David Alfaro Siqueiros mural on Olvera Street in downtown L.A., Sep. 8, 2010.

Ground breaking took place today for an addition to downtown L.A.’s oldest thoroughfare. A $9 million interpretive center on Olvera Street will tell the story of a famous painter and a mural the city of Los Angeles whitewashed soon after he created it nearly 80 years ago.

The outdoor mural is called America Tropical. In 1932, Mexican painter David Alfaro Siqueiros used an innovative, aerosol method, the Getty’s Tim Whalen said, to critique United States international influence.

"Set within a stylized Mayan landscape, the mural depicts a crucified Indian with an American eagle, talons extended above his head, and two revolutionary soldiers closing in on the right, one of the soldiers was aiming at the eagle," Whalen said.

Many people liked it, he said, But city fathers couldn’t stomach the socio-political commentary. They ordered crews to paint it over.

For decades, the presence of a dormant Siqueiros mural under layers of paint in Olvera Street was the stuff of legend to Chicano artists. About 35 years ago a fellow muralist took Wayne Healy to see for himself. "We went up behind the church on Spring Street, which has a little higher elevation, and looked over, and sure enough through the cloud of white paint on that wall was an image coming out," he said.

The removed paint, pollution, the sun, and a few earthquakes have aged America Tropical into a pale shadow of what its creator saw during the formal unveiling 78 years ago.

Six L.A. civic leaders dug shovels into dirt at the foot of the future interpretive center and committed to build a shrine to an artist’s creativity, L.A. political and art history, and the mural as a beacon of inspiration.

For Mexican Americans, filmmaker Jesus Salvador Treviño said, America Tropical is a link to Latin American roots. "I think the mural is a lasting testament to the fact that for many, many years, our community was under siege and we’re finally finding our own voice," he said.

The City of Los Angeles and the Getty Trust will split the price tag. They expect to cut the ribbon for the mural visitor center in two years.

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