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Latinos in California: A Cultural Heritage in Search of a Museum

January 17, 1988|ALLAN PARACHINI | Times Staff Writer

It is a day in August and invasion is in the air. Hastily organized bands of Spanish soldiers struggle north toward Monterey, desperately trying to keep that oceanside outpost from being overrun by the Russian army.

Reaching Los Angeles by way of the San Gabriel Valley, a small expedition led by an army lieutenant camps near the Los Angeles River, only to experience three earthquakes--temblors that seem to rumble continuously through the afternoon and night.

But with the sunrise, the mood changes and the expedition encounters a band of local residents who, a chaplain notes in his journal, reside near the Los Angeles River in "a delightful place among the trees."

Not a Scene From a Movie

Despite an apparent juxtaposition of story elements that could be familiar to anyone who watches movies or television, this snippet is not taken from a script.

Rather, it is a small sample of the experiences of a Spanish expeditionary force venturing north from Baja California in August, 1769, a sample that is a part of a rich though largely publicly unrecognized history that may finally be on the verge of gaining a museum in which its full story can be carefully laid out. It is the history of California's largest minority group, Latinos.

But if a California state museum of Latino history is established--Assemblyman Charles Calderon (D-Alhambra) was preparing last week to introduce a bill to appropriate $8 million to find a site and build the museum--it will not be without a great deal of politicking disrupting the process. Much of it springs from conflicting ambitions and personal priorities within the Latino community; a power struggle among local museums may also play a role.

And it all is being played out against a backdrop of urgency. Although initial state support would not provide funds to start acquiring a collection for the Latino museum--state museums have recently made it clear private funding is necessary for collection acquisitions--museum professionals agree many potentially valuable materials in larger private collections are in danger of being broken up at auction or donated to out-of-state museums. This trend has developed, museum insiders say, because California lacks a proper museum to house them.

Ann Reynolds, chancellor of the California State University system and an observer of the movement of privately held art and artifacts, said that one major Latino art collection assembled by the late Vice President Nelson Rockefeller already has been split between museums in San Antonio and San Francisco because no suitable home for it could be found in Southern California. At least one other major privately held Latino art collection in Los Angeles is believed to be in danger of being donated to an out-of-state institution, according to local museum experts.

"I have a sense of urgency about the notion of a Latino culture museum," Reynolds added. "The private collections are diminishing in number and many are being sold and further disseminated. It seems to me that this wonderful multicultural city ought to have the most major Hispanic collections."

Museum Focus Not Clear

The proposed Latino history museum's precise focus remains somewhat unclear. It would obviously emphasize history, but Calderon and other supporters say the significance accorded 20th-Century events compared to earlier history remains to be determined as would the question of whether the museum would include art.

As proposed, the 53,500 square-foot museum would have at least five galleries, as well as storage, library and auditorium space. Gov. George Deukmejian has not indicated whether he would sign a bill appropriating the money for the museum, but most observers believe a veto would be difficult in an election year because the state already has put up money for other ethnic museums. Most observers think the Calderon bill will pass the legislature, though it may be extensively amended to take into account questions of siting and funding.

Finding a collection to go into the museum would be a challenge but museum experts agreed that, at least in the beginning, borrowed holdings from other museums would be necessary to flesh out exhibits. Some artifacts are likely to be available in small collections or individual pieces; some materials may be available at UCLA or in other University of California facilities.

The museum proposal faces potential controversy on two fronts. One involves the institution's location--a state study last year done under terms of an earlier bill sponsored by Calderon picked four possible finalists. The other controversy will be over who runs it once it is built.

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