Construction halted on site of L.A.’s first cemetery

La Placita churchConstruction of a section of La Plaza de Cultura y Artes, a new Mexican-American cultural center, has been halted after dozens of skeletal remains were discovered on the site of Los Angeles’ first cemetery. The find was unexpected because according to the Los Angeles Archdiocese the cemetery, just south of La Placita Our Lady Queen of Angels Church (founded 1822) in downtown LA, was closed in 1844 and all the bodies were disinterred and moved to a new burial ground at that time. Turns out they missed a spot or 24.

When the skeletons were first found starting in October, cultural center officials planned to continue construction. They said they were following all legal and archaeological protocols and that the Archdiocese had told them just to return the remains to them for proper reburial. Descendants of the Spanish, Native American and Mexican settlers weren’t pleased that construction was continuing without pause and without consulting them.

Archeologists excavate human remains found adjacent to La Placita Our Lady Queen of Angels ChurchControversy over the continuing construction grew increasingly hard to ignore. President and CEO of La Plaza Miguel Angel Corzo claimed that the coroner’s office told him the remains in the area would date only to the 1840s, around the time of the cemetery’s closing, not to early settlements, so there weren’t any Native American remains.

Native American groups, however, pointed to old mission records indicating that 2/3rds of the 670 people buried in the cemetery had been American Indians. One archaeologist had been going over the documentary evidence with Center officials for a week and a half while they continued to claim in public that as far as they knew, there were no Native American burials uncovered.

The Archdiocese was also less than pleased when they realized the extent of the remains found.

“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.”

Duly chastened, Corzo released a statement today announcing construction on the cemetery site would be suspended effective immediately. They won’t go forward without a more deliberate assessment and without input from settler descendants.

“We’re glad that they see there is sufficient reason to stop the project and make an assessment and let us appoint a most likely descendant to work with them in treating and disposing of the remains with dignity and respect,” said Dave Singleton of the Native American Heritage Commission.

The center was scheduled to open on April 9 of this year. We don’t know if that’s still on, but the rest of the site has not uncovered any human remains, only a small section of the center’s 30,000 square foot garden; so the actual buildings will keep getting built.