Twenty years ago when I started documenting Latino’s use of public space, the triangle site of today’s Mariachi Plaza was a donut shop. Mariachis would hang out at the donut shop waiting for work. People would park their cars and negotiate with Mariachis to play for their events, while fruit carts would sell to the other musicians waiting nearby.
LA’s Latino residents have a long history of transforming underutilized triangular pieces of land based on social, economic, and cultural needs. Public life is integral for Latinos born and raised in the United States as it is to those from Latin America. However American cities are not designed like cities in Latin America. In many Latino communities streets are used as “plazas” and other open areas to create places for interactions. Many Latinos live in dense communities where open space is very important and parks are not easily accessible.
Mariachi Plaza site was bonded by three streets: First Street, Pleasant Street and Boyle Avenue, which was laid out as a diagonal to follow the ridge line of Boyle Heights. The small donut shop structure was located in the middle of the site surrounded by parking. The Mariachis would hang out at the donut shop or across the street.
First and Boyle however was the site for the Red Line Subway that never was built but the land was cleaned nevertheless to make way for it. Pleasant Avenue was closed to form the plaza. The stone kiosk was donated by the state of Jalisco, Mexico. Metro later built the Eastside Goldline Light Rail and made this a stop with a large plaza on top.
Over time, the community has been adapting it to their own needs. A farmers market has arrived selling ready made food, some produce, arts and crafts and even kitchenware. During weekdays, kids will go out be using the stage area in the middle of the plaza to practice break dance, and another group that comes out has even practiced Copoeira, a traditional brazilian dance, in the same location.
Uses for the Mariachi Plaza can be improved, and we need only to reflect on our own communities’ habits to find ideas that work. I gave an interactive workshop for East Los Angeles Community Corporation staff and asked them what would they do improve Boyle Heights? A woman put a jungle gym in Mariachi Plaza because the space is not kid friendly!