“It’s going to be a very beautiful place for the mariachis to meet.” said Cindy Reifler, lead violinist of the all-female Mariachi Reyna de Los Angeles.
Plaza Rises in Cradle of Mariachi Music
That, he has accomplished–and more.
Salas’ legacy will be Mariachi Plaza, an eye-catching, 40-foot-tall domed structure built on a Boyle Heights corner that for decades has been a renowned gathering spot for mariachis.
The striking stone plaza–which will be dedicated Sunday on the Catholic feast of St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music–is certain to become an instant city landmark.
The project, first discussed by city officials 15 years ago, brought together funding and cooperation from the city, the MTA and the Mexican state of Jalisco. But the key was Salas.
The grizzled, 60-year-old artist is one of the most gifted sculptors in Mexico and has worked on restoring centuries-old cathedrals and countless other projects. He was commissioned to build Mariachi Plaza by the state of Jalisco.
He said his goal at the intersection of 1st and Boyle streets was to transform a barren concrete corner into “the heart of the community,” much like the plazas in Mexico.
The artisan directed a crew in Mexico that unearthed 40 tons of cantera, a quarry stone that the pre-Columbian Toltecs used to erect some of their imposing pyramids.
Then, following his design, Salas sculpted the stone for the distinctive plaza.
“We really wanted to give the mariachis a dignified place in the very cradle of mariachi music [in Los Angeles],” said Al Nodal, director of the city’s Cultural Affairs Department.
Adorning the top of the blue-tiled dome is a sculpture chiseled by Salas of St. Cecilia.
Salas, along with four fellow workers from Guadalajara and a 10-person local team, have labored since July to finish their work in time for the Sunday opening.
The unassuming Salas is often confused for just another hired hand by those who are unaware that he is a famed sculptor.
Underneath Salas’ rough exterior lies a soulful musician. He and his Guadalajara co-workers make up a jarocho trio and perform for friends. Salas works the quarry stone with his chisel and hammer with the same ease that he plucks rhythms out of his jarana, a small Mexican guitar that is popular in the southern state of Veracruz.
Jalisco Gov. Alberto Cardenas Jimenez kept the promise of one of his predecessors in the early 1990s to donate the stone to the plaza as a gift to Los Angeles, said City Councilman Richard Alatorre, who added that construction of the structure is one of his dreams come true.
In January, the cantera was unearthed from Jalisco’s Santa Lucia Mountains. It took Salas three months to shape the Tuscan-style columns, as well as the dome and the stage.
Once the stones were cut, they were trucked from Jalisco to Los Angeles, said Alatorre spokeswoman Luisa Campano.
A joint venture by the MTA and the Cultural Affairs Department funded local construction.
The MTA’s Eastside subway extension had been projected to include a station at 1st and Boyle, where riders could have departed to view Mariachi Plaza and its strolling musicians, MTA spokesman Ricardo Felix said.
Once it became doubtful that the subway would be extended to Boyle Heights, “we got tired of waiting so we decided to go ahead,” Alatorre said.
The MTA put $420,000 into the project, using funds from its improved pedestrian environment program, Felix said. The City Council voted to match 20% of the transit agency’s funding with about $80,000.
Altogether, including the donated materials, “it’s a million-dollar project,” Alatorre said.
Most residents and business owners in the neighborhood have high hopes for the plaza, especially the more than 1,000 mariachis who live on the Eastside. The area is their well-known hangout, where clients go to hire them to play for weddings, birthday parties or quinceaneras (special celebrations for girls turning 15).
Most of the mariachis are enthusiastic about this Sunday’s grand opening, which will include ceremonies and entertainment from noon to 5 p.m. On Tuesday a priest will celebrate a midday open-air Mass at the plaza, to be followed by mariachi entertainment.
It is hoped that the plaza will help upgrade the neighborhood, which as been plagued with graffiti, vandalism and periodic nighttime crime.
“It really lends an aura of respectability to the area. It’s not going to look like a run-down place anymore” said Cindy Reifler, lead violinist of the all-female Mariachi Reyna de Los Angeles. “It’s going to be a very beautiful place for the mariachis to meet.”