Street of Memory: Olvera Street in the 1930s
Posted on May 4, 2012
“The courtesy of the past is maintained: soft voices, soft footsteps, soft music. The busy world is forgotten. Around the corner they still live as they did yesterday. . . . And who can say which is the envious one? The aged plaza that lifts its tired eyes to the modern, admired City Hall of Los Angeles, or the sunburned building that looks down on the peace and restfulness of the Street of Memory?”
So said the narrator of Street of Memory (1937), a tourist-oriented documentary film that attempted to situate Los Angeles’s Olvera Street as a piece of Old Mexico surrounded by a modern American city. The fixation on surviving relics that seemed to defy the march of time was (and is) a tried-and-true way of tapping strong tourist desires to experience foreignness without venturing far from home. The same urge explains the popularity of ethnic spectacle in the midways of world’s fairs.
In its depiction of Olvera Street, Street of Memory portrays a village within the city, replete with enchilada stand, cactus souvenirs, hand-painted pottery, floral bouquets, marionette show, and mariachi band. The film constructs foreignness not only by making languorous Olvera Street a foil for dynamic L.A., but also through gross stereotyping of Mexicans to accentuate their purported difference. Similar assumptions arose when tourists encountered local populations in the French Quarter in New Orleans or Chinatown in San Francisco or New York. Indeed, tourists’ seeming need for exotic “others” to “live as they did yesterday,” or at least to appear so, is a resounding theme in tourism history.