David Alfaro Siqueiros’s “América Tropical” (all photographs, and GIF, by the author for Hyperallergic)

LOS ANGELES — “You’re taking photos of the screen.” I turn around on the América Tropical Interpretive Center‘s viewing platform, perched above a waking Olvera Street in Downtown Los Angeles. Olivia DeLariva, an employee of the Center, had snuck up behind me. Below us, store owners arrange their displays for the day. Colorful blankets, marionettes, miniature guitars, and luchador masks cover every inch of the tiny kiosks. A group of gray-hair bus tourists enjoy a sugary breakfast from Mr. Churro’s shop. “The mural’s behind it,” Olivia says.

When the Los Angeles City Council commissioned a mural in 1932 as part of an effort to restore the historic Olvera Street Plaza, they knew what they wanted. The Plaza was to be reconstructed as an authentic Spanish marketplace, harkening back to a time before the Mexican-American War when it was the center of a new settlement dubbed “El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora Reina de los Ángeles,” and they asked Mexican social realist David Alfaro Siqueiros to paint a traditional scene.

This Plaza commission was a big deal, not only because it would be Los Angeles’ first official tourist destination, but also because, though now in disrepair, it still served as the town square for many Mexican immigrants. The Great Depression hit full flatline and a soapbox could be found on every corner. Communists, Socialists, Marxists — their values rang through the crumbling brick-lined Olvera street. A fresh coat of tranquil traditional imagery would surely fix that.

Specifically, the City Council requested a colorful scene depicting a Spanish girl eating grapes while sitting on orange crates with the words “Tropical America” overhead. Siqueiros painted a crucified indigenous man and an Eagle with prominent talons sitting atop his cross. The symbolism was impossible to miss. That is, until city officials whitewashed the wall.

Siqueiro’s “América Tropical” saw the light of day for only eighteen months before the cover up job in 1934. It remained thus obscured until last year, when the city of Los Angeles and the Getty Conservation Institute decided to foot the $10 million bill for its restoration.

Olivia DeLariva reaches behind a pillar and hits a switch. “We use this at night and in bad weather.” A motorized screen slowly lifts to reveal the restored mural. But the screen itself is printed with an image of exactly what’s behind it. It hides nothing. Only protects.

Tropical 7
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Tropical 10

Tropical 1
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The América Tropical Interpretive Center (125 Paseo de La Plaza, Los Angeles) is open to the public Tuesday through Sunday, 10am–3pm.

Michael Gabel is a photographer and writer based in Los Angeles. When not covering or contributing to the visual art scene, you'll find him high on a mountain somewhere. Follow his work and adventures...