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Skeletal remains found near Olvera Street prompt calls for construction halt

January 12, 2011 |  8:24 am

Officials of a planned Mexican American heritage cultural center are scrambling to do damage control after receiving criticism about their excavation of skeletal remains from a 19th century cemetery.

The fragile bones of dozens of bodies were recently found buried beneath a planned outdoor space and garden at the future site of La Plaza de Cultura y Artes.

Native American groups, archaeologists and the Los Angeles Archdiocese have voiced concerns over the removal of what may be the remains of the city’s first cemetery.

Early settlers of Spanish, Native American and Mexican descent were buried in the Catholic cemetery south of La Placita Church before it was officially closed in 1844. According to Catholic Church records, the bodies were moved and reinterred elsewhere.

On Sunday, some who claimed to be descendants of those buried at the site gathered there for a vigil and called for at least a temporary stop to the construction.

“Our excavation has not ceased,” La Plaza spokeswoman Katie Dunham said Tuesday. “We’re setting up several meetings Friday with people who have expressed concerns.”

La Plaza chief executive Miguel Angel Corzo said last week that they have followed all legal and archaeological protocols in documenting then removing the bones.

Corzo said he consulted the archdiocese in the fall and was told to excavate the bones and return them to the church for reburial.

But on Monday, a church official sent a stern letter to Corzo, saying the chief executive had indicated only a few bone fragments were being dug up. A copy of the letter was obtained by The Times.

“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.

“We are not interested in helping to manage your public relations issue in order that the project may continue,” McMahon said in the letter. "We want to see the right steps taken and taken quickly to deal correctly and responsibly with this matter.”

The archdiocese does not own the land and has no involvement in the project. Dunham said project officials planned to speak Wednesday with archdiocese representatives.

Corzo has already spoken with Dave Singleton from the Native American Heritage Commission, who urged the meetings with other groups, according to Dunham.

For years, Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina has been the driving force behind the cultural center project, which is using county money. Molina, who is scheduled to be honored at an April 9 inaugural gala at La Plaza, declined to comment Tuesday on the controversy surrounding the project. Her spokesperson referred phone calls to Corzo.

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-- Carla Hall

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