At the heavy wooden cross marking the entrance to Olvera Street, the scene repeats itself every few minutes with only minor variations.
Visitors first try to sound out what is carved on the dark crossbar: El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora la Reina de Los Angeles. The City of Our Lady, the Queen of the Angels.
Then they shyly pick up the ornately decorated sombreros that lean so casually against the cross; they gingerly set the hats on their heads and loopy grins appear that say I-can't-believe-I'm-doing-this in any of at least a dozen languages. A shutter clicks, and another trip to the birthplace of Los Angeles is immortalized.
In a city that re-creates itself every 15 minutes, the 61-year-old marketplace that is Olvera Street evokes the kind of nostalgia that other cities reserve for the likes of the Parthenon or Big Ben.
Olvera Street and the rest of the historic El Pueblo de Los Angeles park, the spot where 11 families founded Los Angeles in 1781, still draw about 2 million visitors a year.
But merchants say the recession, bad publicity, declining local tourism and a lack of promotional funds have made themselves felt in recent years at the street's 81 shops. The number of visitors can't match turnouts from the old days when Olvera Street had little competition in the tourism and night life business. Many come now with recession on their minds and less money in their pockets--although some merchants say things are getting better.
Those who care to spend a day savoring the measured Latin rhythms of the city-owned street can find more than the donkey cart, the glass blower and the strolling musicians. More than the gaily decorated \o7 puestos \f7 (booths) down the center of the one-time alley, the bustling restaurants, the smells of sugary churros frying. More than the sight of plaster Ninja Turtles rubbing elbows with Virgin of Guadalupe religious statues.
Despite the mingling of multicolored serapes with Laker T-shirts, history runs deep here with some buildings dating back nearly 200 years. The street itself was little more than a crime-infested alley in 1929 when civic activist Christine Sterling began construction of a romanticized Mexican marketplace with the backing of some big-name businessmen and the physical labor of a group of convicts.
The older merchants speak reverently of "Mrs. Sterling" and many display pictures in their shops of the distinguished-looking woman, who died in the street's historic Avila Adobe in the early 1960s.
At the heart, Olvera Street is a vital community of merchants and their children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, almost all of them Latino, that is like the smallest of small towns with all the good and bad that implies.
"This can be a Peyton Place," laughed 87-year-old Clara A. Ruiz, who still comes every day with her daughter Blanche G. Beltran to their densely packed shop of curios, miniatures and Mexican crafts, including pinatas Ruiz makes herself. ("Clarita," as Ruiz is fondly called by everyone, makes the traditional clay-pot-based pinatas for the Las Posadas celebration each December--but don't ask her for a demonstration. "This is how I make my living," she will tell the curious in her best imitation of flabbergasted incredulity.)
Notes regular visitor and sometime poet-artist-philosopher Natividad Cisneros: "There is a pulse to the pavement here. There is a life flow."
It starts at the old Plaza, where tour buses belch forth their cargo and school buses dismiss their charges for a few hours of relative freedom. The street is a popular destination for school field trips. Past the fruit stand, the popcorn wagon and the corporate presence of a Bank of America branch, Richard Hernandez Chase mans the old donkey cart that has been in his family for 25 years.
Chase calls the old stuffed donkey "Jorge" and insists that the long-dead animal "is world famous. Everyone identifies Olvera Street with the \o7 burrito, \f7 this little burro." For $6, Chase will snap a photo atop the colorful flowered cart or the stuffed donkey. An extra $1 gets you a photo key chain, ready in two minutes.
"The \o7 carreta \f7 (cart) is real popular. People come back year after year and bring their kids," he said.
Touching the donkey's fur is such a favorite pastime that the real thing has long since worn away, replaced by the kind of gray polyester fake fur of which car seat covers are made. The original skin peeks out in places, awaiting the refurbishing that Chase must do every few months. "It's amazing how fast it rubs off," he said.
Like many of the concessionaires on Olvera Street who live on month-to-month leases granted by the city, Chase said business turned very bad last year following a few years of declining traffic on the street, which is free to the public.