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Cultural center developer looks to allay critics after discovery of skeletal remains

Native American groups, archaeologists and the L.A. Archdiocese have voiced concerns over the removal of what may be the remains of the city's first cemetery from the site of a planned Mexican American cultural center.

January 14, 2011|By Carla Hall, Los Angeles Times
  • People who say they are descendants of settlers buried south of La Placita Church called for a stop to construction of the cultural center.
People who say they are descendants of settlers buried south of La Placita… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)

Officials at the planned Mexican American cultural center La Plaza de Cultura y Artes,  which is being built near Olvera Street, scrambled to do damage control this week after news about excavated skeletal remains generated more and more criticism.

The fragile bones of dozens of bodies had been found in the historic downtown spot,  buried beneath the site of a planned outdoor space and garden.  

Native American groups,  archaeologists and the L.A. Archdiocese have voiced concerns over the removal of what may be the remains of the city's first cemetery. Spanish, Native American and Mexican people were among the early settlers buried in the Catholic cemetery, located south of La Placita Church. In 1844, when the cemetery officially closed, the bodies were supposed to have been moved and reinterred elsewhere, according to records of the archdiocese.

On Sunday, some who claimed to be descendants of those buried settlers called for at least a temporary stop to construction. "Our excavation has not ceased," said La Plaza spokeswoman Katie Dunham. 

But La Plaza officials started meeting with members of the Native American community on Thursday and will continue to do so on Friday, Dunham said. "We're just figuring out what the next step would be and trying to understand the concerns." La Plaza officials say they have followed all legal and archaeological protocols. They said they had consulted with the archdiocese and were told to return the bones to the church for reburial.

On Monday a church official had sent a stern letter saying that the chief executive of the development hadn't made clear the extent of the find.

"That you have possibly discovered substantial remains, including full burials … raises for us a number of new ethical and legal questions concerning the current activity at your construction site,"  wrote Brian McMahon, director of the church's cemeteries office to La Plaza Chief Executive Miguel Angel Corzo, in a letter obtained by The Times. "We are not interested in helping to manage your public relations issue in order that the project may continue; we want to see the right steps taken and taken quickly to deal correctly and responsibly with this matter." 

The archdiocese does not own the land and has no involvement in the project. "We're trying to set up a meeting with them," Dunham said of archdiocese officials.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina, the driving force behind the cultural center project, has declined to comment on the controversy. Her spokeswoman referred phone calls to Corzo.

carla.hall@latimes.com

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