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Human remains found during construction of La Plaza must be respected

The remains of some of the city's early inhabitants should be laid to rest again in a timely fashion.

April 09, 2011
  • Native American activists hold a vigil near the construction site in January.
Native American activists hold a vigil near the construction site in January. (Brian van der Brug, Los Angeles…)

A gala dinner Saturday night will launch La Plaza de Cultura y Artes, a new center devoted to the history of the Mexicans and Mexican Americans who founded the city and helped define its culture.

"We collect stories, not objects," says La Plaza CEO Miguel Angel Corzo.

But something equally historic was collected during construction of the center's courtyard and garden. The skeletal remains of 118 of the city's early inhabitants were pulled out of the ground in an area just south of La Placita Church downtown. It was the site of a historic Catholic cemetery, where Native Americans, Mexicans, Europeans and others were buried until their remains were supposedly relocated in the mid-1800s.

Corzo and Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina, the driving force behind the cultural center, say the finds were unexpected. They contend that all proper authorities were contacted and the fragile bones were removed meticulously.

But they didn't immediately stop the excavation work. That decision got the project finished on time, but it prompted so much controversy and anger that it was as if the spirits of the dead themselves unleashed enough bad juju to keep Molina and La Plaza officials scrambling to do damage control for months if not years.

Native Americans, descendants of the buried, some archaeologists and the Los Angeles Roman Catholic Archdiocese have decried the removal of remains without extensive consultations with interested parties. Even the National Park Service has withheld some funding for the project until this is resolved.

The conflict among the living over what to do with the unearthed dead has played out on construction sites across the city in recent years. But this is not the Gold Line. La Plaza honors the settlers of Los Angeles. It should not disrespect the settlers found beneath its courtyard. For the time being, the area where remains were found will be fenced off and signage erected.

The big challenge: What to do with the 300 bags and several buckets of remains stored at the county's Natural History Museum? They must be examined, reinterred — ideally at La Plaza — and memorialized.

We urge Molina and La Plaza officials to treat this process with the dignity that critics say the bones were denied during excavation. They can start by hiring a professional mediator to facilitate the negotiations over the disposition of the remains and access to them. County officials, La Plaza administrators, Native American tribal leaders and other descendants should all be participants in the talks. Reaching a consensus will be difficult. But everyone can agree on this: The remains should be laid to rest again in a timely fashion.

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