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Mexican Cultural Institute Los Angeles Fights to Stay in El Pueblo

Since 1991, the Mexican Cultural Institute has provided programming to promote and support Mexican and Mexican American culture and art at the historic Biscailuz building. Now, they are battling the city to return to their original space. 

Sign next to the entrance of the Mexican Cultural Institute of Los Angeles with a mural in the background.
The sign outside of the institute’s former office building located at Placita Olvera. October 2023. (Photo: Ben Camacho | Knock LA)

Since the Mexican Cultural Institute’s (MCI) founding in 1991, the institute’s work has been dedicated to promoting contemporary and traditional Mexican culture and fostering cultural exchange between Mexico and the United States. For decades, the MCI has provided programming for artistic, historical, educational, and cultural activities that showcase Mexico’s rich and diverse heritage. Mexico is home to well-known indigenous groups, including the Nahua, Maya, Zapotec, Mixtec, and many others. Now, this work is in danger.

The History of the Mexican Cultural Institute

The Mexican Cultural Institute (MCI) Los Angeles was founded and inaugurated in El Pueblo at the Biscailuz building in 1991. This location is significant as it is near Olvera Street, the birthplace of Los Angeles, and is rich in Mexican and Mexican American history. Los Angeles is the home of the Chicano Moratorium, and one of the homelands of the movement for self-determination. Before the MCI’s arrival, the building was home to the Mexican Consulate before it moved to Sixth Street across from MacArthur Park.The institute collaborates with other cultural institutions, universities, and organizations to create a cultural exchange network between Mexico and Los Angeles. As a result, it allows for a broader reach and impact of Mexican, Mexican American, and Chicano/a culture in Los Angeles and beyond.

People of different ages standing on both sides of Day of the Death altar
Day of the Dead event. The Eight Regions of Oaxaca are represented in the altar made by Mes de la Herencia Oaxaqueña. At the Mexican Cultural Institute 2015. (Photo: Mexican Cultural Institute Facebook)

In the summer of 2019, José Antonio Aguirre, a distinguished binational artist and the executive director of the Mexican Cultural Institute, found out that the locks of the organization’s space had been changed. The city department that oversees the location had effectively evicted MCI without any legal process or eviction notice.

Panel of three individuals sitting behind a table covered by a black table cloth.
José Antonio Aguirre, the Mexican Cultural Institute’s Executive Director, spoke at CEART- Tecate, Baja California, in collaboration with Terra della’Arte in March 2016. The MCI gave all participants the book ‘Fahrenheit 451’ by Ray Bradbury in Spanish. (Photo: Mexican Cultural Institute Facebook.)

“We never received emails, no phone calls, no snail mail regarding this issue from the [El Pueblo] administration,” said José Antonio. After calling the administration office to find out why they were being evicted, a member of Chris Espinosa’s office, the former general manager of El Pueblo, told José Antonio, “We were ordered to change the locks.”

MCI was founded and inaugurated in El Pueblo at the Biscailuz building in 1991. It is located on Olvera Street, the birthplace of Los Angeles and part of the El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument. The area was established by Mexican settlers in 1781 and is rich in Mexican and Mexican American history.

The institute’s work has been dedicated to promoting Mexican culture and fostering cultural exchange between Mexico and the United States through artistic, historical, and educational programming and cultural activities. 

Similarly to MCI, El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument is home to various cultural institutions like the Italian American Museum and the Chinese American Museum. It is supervised by a Board of Commissioners appointed by the mayor of the city of Los Angeles. 

Given El Pueblo’s history, the MCI believes its space in the Biscailuz building is the perfect location to operate. 

The Battle in El Pueblo

The commission attempted to evict the MCI in 2015 and 2016. 

The then–general manager of the commission, Chris Espinosa, stated during a meeting that one of the reasons for the eviction was that the MCI was “not using the larger space effectively.” He thus wanted to “right-size their footprint to make it effective as there is high demand for office space.” 

To Aguirre, this claim was bogus because the MCI has provided and continues to provide programming for the community. The MCI attempted to meet with Espinosa for months without any success. Aguirre tried to contact former CD 14 councilmember José Huizar, but he was tied up with an FBI investigation and never called back, Aguirre said. 

Knock LA’s request for comment from Kevin de León’s office about the MCI and their space at the Biscailuz building went unanswered.

Colorful poster announcing an event commemorating the Tlatelolco massacre
The Mexican Cultural Institute hosted an event in 2018 at Avenue 50 Studio about the Tlatelolco massacre. On October 2, 1968, Mexican Armed Forces opened fire on a group of unarmed civilians in the Plaza de la Tres Culturas who were protesting the upcoming ’68 Summer Olympics in the Tlatelolco section of Mexico City. (Graphic: Mexican Cultural Institute Facebook.)

The Struggle Continues

Members of the MCI continue to attend the commission meetings to address their situation with the hope of being reinstated into their space. “I’ve been attending the meetings since the pandemic started when they were done on Zoom,” said Rosario Calatayud-Serna, a consultant for the MCI. “I’ve made public comments many times and met with some commissioners regarding our situation, and nothing gets done.”

The MCI has followed through with each suggestion they received from the commission’s previous and current administrations. But building access has yet to be restored. When Knock LA asked Chavez at a public commission hearing in May why the MCI was evicted from their space without notice, he said, “It is something that the previous administration did before I got here, and we have to honor it.”

Despite the lockout, MCI has hosted over a dozen programs across Los Angeles and, most recently, at the Mexican Consulate.  

MCI is dedicated to regaining access to their space. In 2022, the MCI met with current commission general manager Arturo Chávez with the hopes of coming to an agreement. “We’ve submitted our proposal along with our plans for future programming,” said Jorge A. Serna, president of the Organizational Board of the MCI. “We have yet to receive a response from Arturo Chavez.”

Individuals in a meeting sitting around a rectangular table set-up.
Jorge A. Serna, president of the Organizational Board of the MCI, spoke at a public Board of Commissioners Meeting on June 22, 2023, at the Biscailuz building. (Photo: Abraham Márquez | Knock LA)