The Plaza de la Raza is an important landmark in East Los Angeles that provides education, arts, and other services for members of the community. Visiting this site provides some insight into the cultural history of Chicano people in Southern California. Going to this site, the themes I learned about were community, education, and fundraising, each of which can provide a glimpse into the very soul of Chicano history in this part of the country.
The first theme is community. Going to the Plaza de la Raza, one can see the strong sense of community that binds the center together. It is more than just a cultural center. It is also a place where members of the community have come together to establish something lasting that benefits the community as a whole. This is implicit in the very history of the place and allows one to get a good understand both of the challenges faced by Chicano people and the way they dealt with those challenges. The cultural center was founded by a conglomeration of different entities. People from the labor movement, which was major during the 1960s in the Los Angeles area, people from the business world, and even people from the education world were influential in getting the center off the ground. This may be the result of the community not feeling as if their students and other people were offered good and fair and opportunity. In Los Angeles during this time, there was a real sense that Chicano people were getting the short end of the stick. Community became very important. Visiting the center, one can see signs of this everywhere. The center became very much the sort of place where Chicano people banded together to ensure that they were getting what they needed. It did not matter if the government itself was going to fail to provide what these people needed. The center provides evidence that when there is a problem that needs to be fixed, the Chicano community in Los Angeles during the late 1960s and early 1970s was able to pool its resources to fix the problem. There was not waiting around to get the government to help. The community at large was able to take action and largely fix its own issues and put together a cultural center that would stand for years on end.
The next theme that stood out to me when visiting this center was education. It is clear that the cultural center is about more than just putting on display a few artifacts from the past. Instead, the entire design of the place was meant to demonstrate the reality that it is an active place of learning. Critically, the center has a schedule of classes that are taken each semester. The focus is heavily on the arts, as this has been the focus of the center for more than four decades. The center’s performing and visual arts education program are both some of the best in the Los Angeles area. More than that, they focus very much on Chicano history, shining a light on some of the stories that are sometimes neglected in theater. Los Angeles is a place for performers, but at the center, I learned that people of Chicano ethnicity have been denied their place in this world. One of the reasons why the center is forced to exist is to fill in a hole. The arts are an important way by which people keep their culture. The education program, then, becomes a way by which students who might otherwise been shut out of the traditional theater world can learn the skills they need to be actors, directors, or other people who are a part of the entertainment world. It is one of the elements of oppression that one can learn about while at the center. Often, as with the historically black universities across the country, some of the most rewarding educational centers arise simply because there was a lack of opportunity presented to minority students. The center’s art education programs are a good picture of that, and when one visits the center, one can see these programs in action in all their glory.
The third theme is fundraising. At the center, one can tell that it is still very much dependent on the goodwill of companies and individuals to keep things moving. Because it is not a monument, but rather, an active center providing services to the community, much of the focus is on fundraising. This makes it a different kind of place, and it also impacts the messaging there. Rather than just being an educational place, it is the sort of place where one will go and hear a pitch, as well. In some ways, the cultural center is trying to sell itself and the need for itself to every person who comes through the door. When one is there, one feels at least some pressure to donate or get involved. This focus on fundraising is a sign of what is needed to keep these kinds of centers afloat, showing that without the constant support of members of the community, these important resources might not be there any longer.
Ultimately my visit to the Plaza de la Raza was telling. It provided a look into the cultural history of the 1960s and 1970s, as well as the role of community in the Chicano world today. It approached history as a living thing rather than something dead and gone, showing that continued preservation is critical.