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An apology comes too late

Mishandling of buried remains mars Molina's dream museum

April 01, 2011|HECTOR TOBAR

Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina dreamed for years of putting a cultural center and museum on the historic old plaza near Olvera Street downtown. If only she and the rest of the project's planners had taken as long to research the site.

Last year, as the work got under way, a crew disturbed the eternal sleep of those buried in L.A.'s first Roman Catholic cemetery.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, April 02, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 64 words Type of Material: Correction
La Plaza de Cultura y Artes: In the April 1 Section A, Hector Tobar's column about the unearthing of remains at the site of La Plaza de Cultura y Artes, and Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina's role in promoting the project, misspelled the name of the Sanberg Group, the firm contracted by Los Angeles County to excavate the site, as the Sandberg Group.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, April 05, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 2 inches; 107 words Type of Material: Correction
La Plaza de Cultura y Artes: In the April 1 Section A, Hector Tobar's column about the unearthing of remains at the site of La Plaza de Cultura y Artes, and Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina's role in promoting the project, quoted Molina as saying, "Had they done better work, we wouldn't be in this situation." Her comment referred to Sapphos Environmental Inc., which prepared an environmental impact report for the site, not the Sanberg Group Inc. The Sanberg Group was not contracted to excavate the site, as the column said, but was retained by La Plaza de Cultura y Artes Foundation to monitor the excavation.

In all, some 118 remains were dug up and carted away before community protests brought the digging to a halt in January. Many of those whose bones were unearthed were Native Americans who worked with and lived alongside L.A.'s first European settlers.

This week, I heard Molina apologize.

"It truly pains me that this ... has unfolded in this manner and in this way. And I'm truly sorry for it," she told those gathered at an L.A. meeting of the state Native American Heritage Commission.

For nearly two hours, she sat in the front row of the hearing room while several speakers called her a liar, and one associated her La Plaza de Cultura y Artes with "cultural genocide."

To her credit, Molina sat and listened and took her medicine without a word of protest.

When it was over, the powerful Latina politico shook the hands of the commission members, whose ranks include representatives of the Luiseno, Chumash and other tribes. And she kept on apologizing.

"It's a huge mistake," Molina told me outside the auditorium. "What else can you do when you make a big mistake but apologize? Some will accept it, others won't.... But it wasn't done by intent or by design."

Still, from what I heard at Monday's hearing in downtown Los Angeles, she could have avoided all the pain and suffering by treating one of the city's historic sites with the care it deserved.

Problems began last October, when excavations to create an outdoor garden walkway and fountain first uncovered remains at the basketball-court sized patch of land next to La Placita church.

At Monday's hearing, archaeologist Paul Langenwalter of Biola University delivered an especially stinging condemnation of the way the excavations were carried out.

Langenwalter said he had been called to the scene Nov. 1, to assist archaeologists from the Sandberg Group, the firm contracted by Los Angeles County to excavate the site. What he saw there deeply disturbed him, he told the commission.

"The burials were being removed piecemeal," he said. He watched as the excavation moved diagonally across graves, separating limbs and skulls from torsos. A member of the Sandberg team removed a body with beads around the neck without first photographing the find as it was discovered -- a cardinal sin in archeological practice.

He raised troubling questions that clearly merit further investigation -- especially when he talked about how hard the archeologist on site was being pushed to get the job done.

"There was constant calling by the supervisor's office, as well as the La Plaza" officials, Langenwalter said. "The archeologist was under tremendous pressure."

Molina and La Plaza officials told commissioners that they had been informed before they began construction that the cemetery had been closed and the remains moved in 1844.

But Langenwalter said even a cursory examination of city maps shows a cemetery at the site as late as 1873 -- clear evidence that not all the graves had been moved in 1844, when the cemetery was closed to new burials.

Another archeologist, Monica Strauss, said remains are often found at closed cemeteries and should be expected.

Across the country, exhumations of cemeteries leave people behind," said Strauss, who excavated the site of the nearby Fort Moore cemetery. "It's common knowledge in the archeological community." She said she was "flabbergasted" anyone would assume otherwise.

Records show that, over the course of several decades in the mid-19th century, about 673 bodies were buried at the cemetery. The dead were a multicultural cross-section of L.A. at the time, with Native Americans buried alongside Spanish-born soldiers and German and Irish merchants and seamen.

It's a patch of ground that holds our collective history and should have been treated with the utmost respect. It does not seem to me that it was.

Gary Stickel, an archeologist for the Gabrieleno Indians, went so far as to call the cemetery dig "the worst assault on cultural resources in the history of this city."

Molina knows now that the problems were preventable. She told me it was the Sandberg Group that fell short.

"We took their word," she said. "Had they done better work, we wouldn't be in this situation."

A representative of the Sandberg Group said the firm would not comment.

As for the disturbed remains, they are being stored for now in bags, buckets and boxes at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History. The plan is to rebury them at some point, in an as yet undetermined place.

Molina must be hoping Los Angeles will bury its memories of the mess that was made, that a lingering taint won't detract from her goal of building a museum at the site of the city's beginnings, dedicated to the history of its Mexican American inhabitants.

Molina told the commissioners she's been working on her "true labor of love" for 17 years. "I've never given up because La Plaza's mission to tell the rich story of the beginnings of the city of Los Angeles is too important to all of us."

I'll happily visit La Plaza after it opens to the public April 16, and I'll take my kids there too, so that they might learn something about the history of their native city.

But when I do, I'll also tell them about another history -- of unfortunate and unnecessary destruction. And I hope they'll learn from that to demand in the future that their city take greater care of its fast-disappearing past.

--

hector.tobar@latimes.com

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