Muffled sounds from Olvera Street rise up through Leticia Quezada's window, the rustlings of tourists and schoolchildren weaving around fruit stands in the warm afternoon.
Quezada, the president of the Mexican Cultural Institute in Los Angeles, believes her office has the perfect location--the site where Los Angeles was founded 215 years ago by Mexican pobladores, or settlers. Olvera Street, Quezada said, is the heart of Mexican American life in Los Angeles. Set in this environment, the institute works to promote that cultural vibrancy, helping people of Mexican ancestry better understand and appreciate their cultural heritage.
"In a city that was founded by 11 Mexican families . . . Mexican culture ought to be mainstream," said Quezada, who was president of the Los Angeles school board from July 1992 to June 1994. "It ought to be well-known, appreciated and practiced."
Advocates of the nonprofit institute, established in 1990, said it has filled a void in Los Angeles, providing a forum for Mexican American cultural activities and presenting a historical context for Mexico-related issues.
From sponsoring a women's history month to helping Mexican immigrants get additional training through the Cal State system to obtain their bilingual teacher credentials, the institute uses art and education to spread new images throughout Los Angeles.
In the wake of the recent videotaped beating of two illegal Mexican immigrants by Riverside County sheriff's deputies and a deadly Temecula crash of a truck packed with immigrants, Quezada said that too often the public sees only one image.
"In these times of tense relations, of the incidents we saw [in the last weeks], we think it's especially critical that Mexico, Mexicans, Mexican culture be associated with something way beyond people crossing the border looking for work," Quezada said.
The institute is the largest of 20 similar cultural centers around the country, financed by donations and supported by the Mexican government and local Mexican Americans.
"The Mexican community in Los Angeles arrived here yesterday or was here a hundred years ago," said Quezada, who came to the United States from Mexico at 13, emphasizing the institute's role as a link between the interlaced populations of Mexico and Los Angeles.
This woven history acts as an impetus for much of the organization's programming. Earlier this month, 35 Southern California schoolchildren embarked on a "cultural field trip" during their spring break, traveling to their or their parents' home states in Mexico as guests of the governors. Previously, two groups of 65 Mexican children visited Los Angeles.
The institute also helped facilitate a cultural program that trained a group of Los Angeles Police Department community relations officers in Spanish, and sent 19 officers to Guadalajara for 10 days last December.
The officers, who work in South-Central neighborhoods often plagued by conflict between blacks and Latinos, returned with an enriched understanding of the cultural forces at work, said Deputy Chief Mark Kroeker, head of the South Bureau.
"It has been so valuable, particularly now in this climate where there is a lot of misunderstanding," said Kroeker, who came up with the concept and took it to the Mexican Consulate.
Programming with the LAPD and other institutions is one of the institute's most potent functions, said Fernando Guerra, director of Loyola Marymount's Center for the Study of Los Angeles.
Rather than complaining about the treatment of Latinos by police officers, Guerra said the institute holds a series of discussions involving the LAPD and the Mexican community.
"That to me is the heart of what community policing is all about," Guerra said. "[The institute] is a support system for Mexican immigrants, but also one for existing city structures by helping them accomplish their goals."
Changing attitudes through cultural exposure, not political pressure, is the institute's formula.
Quezada said the recent incident between immigrants and Riverside deputies exemplifies the educational potential of the institute, which offers free language classes.
"If those officers had spoken Spanish, they could have used language instead of using batons," she said.
The institute did not issue a response to the beatings but helped coordinate a joint news conference between Los Angeles City Council members and the Mexican Consulate.
In fact, the strongest political statement Quezada said the institute makes to Mexican Americans is to get out and vote.
But promoting education and culture should not be dismissed as unpolitical, Guerra said.
"That in itself is a political role, a very political role. I think even the institute and [Quezada] herself underestimate the power they have," Guerra said.
Although the institute's work has not transformed stereotypes in the mainstream media and culture, Guerra said, it has reminded the Mexican and Mexican American populations of their culture's rich spectrum.
And expanding the presence of the city's Mexican heritage has helped build bridges between Los Angeles' many communities, Councilman Richard Alatorre said.
"To me, the arts have been the most nonthreatening form to bring about social change, accepted by the corporate community, and have a very significant role . . . in bringing a better understanding of the people in L.A. who happen to be of Mexican ancestry," he said.
Back on Olvera Street, Quezada mused over the mixed group of Europeans, mestizos and mulattoes who were the original Mexican founders of Los Angeles--something that makes her location even more appropriate, she said.
"Even though it has Mexican roots," Quezada said, "the Mexican families that founded this city were as ethnically diverse as the city today."