La Plaza: Where Diverse Cultures Met

The neighborhood known to generations of Angelenos as La Plaza, or la placita, is the birthplace of Los Angeles. Forty-four settlers of Native American, African, and European heritage journeyed from present-day Northwest Mexico to found Los Angeles there in 1781. Over time, many different people have come together at La Plaza. The Native American Tongva tribe and Spanish and Mexican inhabitants originally lived in the neighborhood. By the 1920s a multiracial population of Italian, French, Chinese, Japanese, and Mexican American residents came to live in La Plaza.

La Plaza/El Pueblo, Downtown Los Angeles, around 1930

La Plaza/El Pueblo, Downtown Los Angeles, around 1930

Courtesy of Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

Coming Together in La Plaza

Ezequiel Moreno, a native of Zacatecas, Mexico, started a bakery in his home in 1918, and in the 1920s moved to La Plaza in the heart of downtown Los Angeles. He named the bakery La Esperanza, meaning hope. Soon it was frequented by customers across many segments of the Los Angeles community.

La Esperanza, La Plaza/El Pueblo, downtown Los Angeles, around 1950s

La Esperanza, La Plaza/El Pueblo, downtown Los Angeles, around 1950s

Courtesy of the Moreno family

Outdoor neon marquee sign from La Esperanza, around 1950

Outdoor neon marquee sign from La Esperanza, around 1950

The red, white, and green colors of La Esperanza’s sign reflect the Mexican heritage of Ezequiel Moreno, owner of the bakery. The anchor symbolizes hope and establishing roots in his new country.

Loan from History Collections, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County

Mexican immigrants, downtown employees, and Hollywood movie stars came for bread, coffee, traditional Mexican dishes, and “American-style” lunches. A nearby Japanese-owned grocery store specialized in Mexican products. The families that owned the businesses developed close personal and professional ties.

Ezequiel Moreno in front of La Esperanza, around 1940s

Ezequiel Moreno in front of La Esperanza, around 1940s

Courtesy of Seaver Center for Western History Research, Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History

Employees inside La Esperanza, around 1950s

Employees inside La Esperanza, around 1950s

Courtesy of Elvira Moreno

This dinnerware was used by customers at La Esperanza, a bakery and restaurant that flourished in downtown Los Angeles from the 1920s to the 1970s. Catering to the diverse communities that lived and worked in and around downtown, La Esperanza served both Mexican and American foods.

Bowl from La Esperanza, around 1950

Gift of Elvira Moreno and Angelica Lozano

View object record

Sugar container from La Esperanza, around 1950

Gift of Elvira Moreno and Angelica Lozano

View object record

Japanese Americans in Los Angeles

The Shishimas owned a small grocery store near La Esperanza and made their home on the second floor above the popular bakery. The two families worked together, supported one another, and celebrated each other’s successes.

Takeshi and Bill Shishima as children inside Mercado Plaza, the family store, around 1928

Takeshi and Bill Shishima as children inside Mercado Plaza, the family store, around 1928

Courtesy of Seaver Center for Western History Research, Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History

Following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, people of Japanese ancestry living on the West Coast were feared to be enemies. Under Executive Order 9066 the U.S. War Relocation Authority removed the Shishima family and many other Japanese Americans to incarceration camps. Families lost their jobs, homes, businesses, and most of their possessions.

Shishima family in Manzanar incarceration camp, around 1942

Shishima family in Manzanar incarceration camp, around 1942

Courtesy of Seaver Center for Western History Research, Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History

Incarceration camp ID tag, around 1942

Incarceration camp ID tag, around 1942

Weeks after Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which led to the mass incarceration of 120,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans in camps. They were required to wear identification tags in the camps, or to attach them to personal items during transit.

Gift of Bill Fuchigami

Reproduction of Civilian Exclusion Order Instruction Poster, 1942

Reproduction of Civilian Exclusion Order Instruction Poster, 1942

These instructions directed all persons of Japanese descent to report for evacuation to remote incarceration camps in the American interior.

Courtesy of Japanese American National Museum, gift of Ben Furuta

Film Industry

Attracted by the film industry, a steady stream of actors and actresses, from around the country and around the world, came to Los Angeles to make it big in Hollywood. Many actors changed their names and identities to succeed in this new industry.