Is L.A. really in L.A.?
That is the fundamental question of the newest iteration of Pacific Standard Time, the Getty-led initiative exploding across 70 Southern California cultural institutions through next January: Is Los Angeles, nominally a Yanqui town, in fact a part of Latin America?
The answer, of course, is sí, and now more than ever, and thank goodness for that. Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA was in planning years before last fall’s election, but the politics of the moment cannot be ignored.
“We needed to embrace the history of Los Angeles as a Latin American city and our home-grown Latin American art,” Getty President James Cuno told KPCC’s John Horn on “The Frame” during Thursday’s LA/LA opening party at Grand Park. “We realized that there would be be a political dimension to this Pacific Standard Time” all along. “We didn’t anticipate that it would be so pointed, and so poignant, as it is now,” in Trump-time.
And it’s not just the city of Los Angeles, the culture of which is ever more south-of-the-border. It’s all of the Southland, from Santa Barbara to Palm Springs to San Diego and back here. But it was always thus. In a history of the city I have been reading, “Los Angeles 1781-1981,” a local census is cited: “These residents of 1790 are classified as 1 European, 72 Spaniards, 7 Indians, 22 mulattos, and 30 mestizos.”
Don’t know what the difference between a “European” and a “Spaniard” was supposed to be, but the ethnic categories were clearly fungible and problematically pigeon-holing, as they are today.
I went out to the Getty Thursday for the press opening of the show, where Mayor Eric Garcetti — whose paternal grandparents were Mexicans of Italian descent who moved to Boyle Heights during the turmoil of the Mexican Revolution — gave opening remarks and where artist Liliana Porter, now in her mid-70s, born in Argentina, schooled in Mexico City and a resident of New York since she was 22, addressed the question of who gets to be Latino: “My grandparents were from Russia and Romania,” she noted. “We don’t have to have categories making us only what we are.”
The first time I got to feel Latino was in taking a semester of graduate school in Guadalajara in the early 1980s. I often recall the long train ride north in the fall through the Sonoran desert with a group of cranky American classmates, one of whom said that the first words of Spanish he learned in Mexico were “No hay,” as in “No hay electricidad, hoy” because the power failed daily. The air-conditioning in the Pullman cars had also failed, and we filled up a sink with ice and cans of Tecate, sitting in the open air between cars to catch a breeze.
My buddies said they couldn’t wait to get back to the States. But when we got to Calexico, and it turned out there was a four-hour wait for a bus to L.A., and I asked them where they wanted to hang for the duration, there was a unanimous vote for a cantina in Mexicali, and we trooped back across the border.
There is free admission Sunday, Sept. 17, to LA/LA shows at over 50 Southern California cultural institutions; check out pacificstandardtime.org for the full list of where you should go. But one bit I particularly enjoyed Thursday during a guided tour by Getty architectural curator Maristella Casciato of her show “The Metropolis in Latin America 1830-1930” was a photo of the “Spanish” houses built by a developer in the 1920s just below the Hollywood sign. These “idealized views of the past” were seen by Mexicans visiting L.A. and sparked a boom of red tile-roof homes in Mexico.
“It was a return in reverse,” she said. “Sevilla to Latin America to California and back, south of the border.” Story of our lives.
Larry Wilson is a member of the Southern California News Group editorial board. email@example.com