First Person: My Life on Olvera Street

Christina Mariscal ’04, at the Avila Adobe on Olvera Street (Photo by Jon Rou)

Christina Mariscal, who majored in history and Spanish as a student at Loyola Marymount University, grew up on Olvera Street, the heart and birthplace of Los Angeles. She recalls playing in almost every shop and historic building. Her family goes back five generations on Olvera Street. Mariscal describes what this historic area means to her, her family and the City of Angels.

In the shadows of City Hall, Union Station and Bunker Hill sits a place that is unlike any other — a place with a tumultuous political and cultural history: El Pueblo de Los Angeles State Historic Park, home to Olvera Street, birthplace of the city of Los Angeles

During the 19th century, the site was the settlement of some of California’s first ranchers and Mexico’s wealthiest families. As the city grew, much of the area’s rich history diminished. But in the late 1920s, a resurgence in Spanish and Mexican folklore occurred. Christine Sterling, a wealthy socialite devoted to history, lobbied politicians to restore the area not only to mark the city’s birth, but also generate business revenue. In the wake of the 1929 stock market crash, it was a lofty goal. Nevertheless, Olvera Street opened to the public in April 1930.

Residents of Mexican decent were invited to rent a stall or shop. Alejandro Velasco was one of the first to respond. He saw an opportunity to bring goods from Mexico to Olvera Street for resale. At the time, few wanted to make that trek back and forth. Alejandro, who was fearless, did just that. I am proud to say that Alejandro Velasco was my great, great grandfather, and I am a fifth-generation Olvera Street merchant.

As a child, I spent more time on Olvera Street than anywhere else. Needless to say, I played “store” a lot! For a long time, I didn’t know that there was such a thing as summer camp, and I thought all kids helped their parents after school. That was my life, just as it had been for my father, my grandfather and my great grandmother.

For 10 years, I was lead angel in our annual Las Posadas Christmas processions, I decorated altars for Dia De Los Muertos, and I was the unofficial mascot of Olvera. I was running our store at 12. But my parents, Michael and Rosa Mariscal, also emphasized the importance of education. I had the opportunity to attend private schools and go to college, unlike generations before me.

Twenty years ago, the merchants of Olvera Street found themselves fighting to save their stores and L.A.’s birthplace from being bulldozed and taken over by developers. The merchants mobilized, worked with officials and collected over 10,000 signatures from supporters to save Olvera Street. They kept Olvera Street from being demolished, but that battle goes on today.

In January 2010, the merchants received notices announcing rent increases of 200 percent to 900 percent effective April 1, 2010. According to a city rent study, our rents are below market rate. We agree. When we saved Olvera Street two decades ago, the citizens of Los Angeles passed a measure to allow the merchants to enter into rent negotiations and sign leases with the city. Twenty years later, the process is still not complete. Most of the merchants are still fighting for fair leases. We believe rents should be tied to the Consumer Price Index, which would raise payments by about 25 percent. Now we await the ruling of a judge who will decide between the city’s proposal and ours.

I want to see my parents and fellow merchants maintain their livelihoods and carry on their traditions. But the heritage and life of Olvera Street are important not just to the merchants and their families. Today, Olvera Street belongs to all of us. If we allow its destruction, we destroy the womb from which our city was born. Olvera Street is more than a place. It’s home to those who visit and seek to understand this great city. It’s home to this city that has grown large from it. And it’s my home that I carry with me everywhere I go.