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Editorial

Cemetery screening: What to do about the Olvera Street remains

A cemetery discovered during excavation for a cultural center near Olvera Street holds the remains of the first residents of the newly formed town.

January 13, 2011

What happened to the old cemetery near Olvera Street where some of the earliest foreign settlers in this area were buried? Records of the Los Angeles Archdiocese say the remains of those buried there were reburied elsewhere in the 1800s — but give no clue as to where. Now, excavation of the site for the construction of a cultural center reveals that if the cemetery was indeed moved, the job was less than thorough.

This is an extraordinary archaeological find. Though the cemetery is far from intact, the patch of land nonetheless represents a unique piece of local history. Unlike the Revolutionary War graveyards of the Northeast, there is little way to identify the remains, but experts say the first residents of the newly formed town were buried there, including Spanish and Mexican settlers as well as Native Americans.

The cemetery must be treated with the respect it deserves. Work is underway to create an outdoor space for the cultural center honoring the city's Mexican heritage, but although archaeologists have been called in to perform the required careful excavation and research, there has been no official plan to pause the project and perhaps reconsider it.

That's not to say the county should scrap its plans. Rather, there is an opportunity to enhance the new center so that it's more than another nice public project, and to honor Los Angeles' cultural heritage by paying tribute to an exceptional part of it. For example, the county might revise the plans to create a grassy park area with a section of the cemetery marked and set off for the public's appreciation. It also should allow representatives of the possible descendants and from the Native American Heritage Commission to observe the excavation and research, and to have a say in the disposition of the remains. Those are basic practices for the excavation of ancient burial grounds.

Through some mysterious circumstance, we have been given a second chance to pay tribute to this remarkable remnant of our past; we won't get a third. Doing the right thing will probably mean putting off the April 9 dedication of the cultural center. But when history looks back on the treatment of this find by the Los Angeles of 2011, we would not like it to say that this was a place that was in such a hurry to build, it gave short shrift to its 1844 incarnation.

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