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An encounter with L.A.'s once-lost mural, 'America Tropical'

December 17, 2012|By Sara Lessley
  • The L.A. mural by Mexican painter David Alfaro Siqueiros is viewable once again.
The L.A. mural by Mexican painter David Alfaro Siqueiros is viewable once… (Sara Lessley )

As a girl in Southern California, I was fascinated by the discovery of the “lost cities” of the Americas -- of explorers hacking their way through dense jungle, only to happen upon long-obscured temples and artifacts that were then preserved for future generations.

Turns out the historic heart of L.A. has its own artifact, freshly conserved but still, well, a little hidden.

"América Tropical," the controversial mural created by Mexican painter David Alfaro Siqueiros in 1932, is truly viewable again for the first time in decades, thanks to the efforts of the city, art historians and the Getty Conservation Institute.

On a recent holiday weekend, the shoppers and diners crowding Olvera Street weren’t exactly lining up to see it, though. Partly that’s because, like the ancient temples, you almost stumble upon the subtly marked “ATIC” entrance at Sepulveda House; there are few signs of the artist’s name outside. You can’t beat the price, though: Admission is free.

The new América Tropical Interpretive Center -- ATIC -- offers excellent background on Siqueiros, his techniques and on the artwork “as a political statement on the time in which it was created” -- a few years into the Depression and during President Hoover’s Mexican repatriation program.

You learn that América Tropical, with a central image of an indigenous figure bound to a cross under an American eagle, clearly rankled; it was partly whitewashed months after it was unveiled and fully covered a few years later.

After taking in the interpretive center, it’s up a flight of stairs to the smallish rooftop viewing platform. There you see the 80-foot mural itself -- on the exterior wall of the Italian Hall.

Be warned, though: It’s a somewhat disappointing 100-plus feet away, across another rooftop covered with vents.

The conserved artwork is still surprisingly colorful, and powerful. But oh, how nice it would be to stand closer.

The center is open 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday.

Curious after leaving the platform, we checked what might have been visible (objectionable?) in the 1930s from street level. Today, despite the trees, a sizable corner of the work can be seen from Olvera Street, and much more from the North Main Street side.

We thought about L.A. in the early days, read up on the reconstruction of Olvera Street by promoter Christine Sterling, fingered the souvenirs in the shops. Then we took a more beaten path and had lunch at a less-hidden bit of L.A. history:  Philippe the Original on Alameda Street.

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