Bounded Tourism: Plaza Mexico in California

By Clara Irazábal and Macarena Gómez-Barris

This article is excerpted with permission from Clara Irazábal and Macarena Gómez-Barris. “Bounded Tourism: Immigrant Politics, Consumption, and Traditions at Plaza Mexico.” Journal of Tourism and Cultural Change, 5 (3), 2007: 186-213.

Conceived and owned by Korean investors, the shopping mall Plaza Mexico in Southern California embodies a unique case of invention and commodification of traditions for locally-bound immigrants and U.S. citizens of Mexican descent. The Plaza is an architectural recreation of Mexican regional and national icons that make its patrons feel “as if you were in Mexico.” As such, it produces a space of diasporic, bounded tourism, whereby venture capitalists opportunistically reinvent tradition within a structural context of constrained immigrant mobility. While most of the contemporary theory of tourism, travel and place emphasize the erosion of national boundaries and the fluidity of territories, the case of Plaza Mexico brings us to appreciate this phenomenon and its opposite as well—the strengthening of national borders and their impact on the (in)mobility of millions of individuals.

Plaza Mexico reproduces the plaza experience of Latin America in the heart of southeast Los Angeles—in Lynwood, California. The mall’s architecture, store offerings and event programming have created a successful formula to attract a large number of Mexican and Mexican-American clientele, and increasingly a broader Latina/o clientele. Plaza Mexico capitalizes upon consumer identification with homeland within a structural context where its mostly immigrant clientele has little capacity to make return trips to Mexico. Indeed, in the aftermath of a U.S. immigrant backlash with increasingly stringent state immigration policies and anti-immigrant political climate, Plaza Mexico produces a physical and cultural space that imitates “the best” of Mexico without requiring the increasingly impossible journey of return. Both because of socio-economic limitations, and due to the increased U.S.-Mexico border fortification, surveillance, deportation sweeps and political climate that define immigrants as “aliens,” the prospect of mobility across the border has decidedly declined. The structural shifts in immigrant policies facilitate capitalist enterprises that market nostalgia and local tourism within transnational contexts. Plaza Mexico is thus a new form of venture capitalism that targets specific ethnic market niches, mostly composed of diasporic subjects trapped in place.

Plaza Mexico, USA 
The plaza’s façades and architectural motifs, such as plazas, kiosks, fountains and monuments, are characteristic of several Mexican cities; among them, the Angel of Independence of Mexico City and a kiosk of the Zocalo of San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, which show up as replicas in Plaza Mexico. The physical arrangement of the mall emulating open streets and plazas has enhanced its atmosphere as a “traditional” Mexican town. Plaza Mexico is easily reached from the majority-Latino cities in east and south Los Angeles. It thus functions as a social gathering space in an area where there are not many other options of “public” open space available to its residents. The mall allows for the possibility of self-perception as individuals who appreciate Mexican “traditions” and as agents that reproduce them. In a neighborhood that otherwise has been economically deprived for years and that shows signs of decay in its built environment, Plaza Mexico is a source of community pride and enjoyment, and provides a gathering space with multiple potentials.

Under single ownership and rupturing with the existing urban grid in Lynwood, Plaza Mexico is organized as a detached, inward-oriented island surrounded by parking space. The typology of the plaza thus constitutes a corporate co-optation of the traditional ethnic strip model, which has been recreated within a private shopping center. Plaza Mexico functions as a “miniature park” of sorts in which an assortment of Mexican façade architecture, open space landscaping, patriotic symbols and religious icons create a setting in which an idea of Mexican national authenticity has been repackaged for mall patrons.

Most emblematic of the attempt at architectural authenticity, is the scaled-down reproduction of Mexico City’s Angel of Independence, one of the primordial symbols of the Mexican nation, which currently marks the major entrance to Plaza Mexico. Plaza Mexico’s Angel has become an important site of congregation for recent political rallies, replicating its traditional role in Mexico City. The Angel of Independence is but one of the replicas, imitations, incorporations and reworkings of Mexican national architecture and symbolism at the mall. In general, there is a selective editing of traditions and values that are deemed worthy of portraying at the Plaza, based on historical (pre-Hispanic, colonial and folkloric), Catholic, familial, patriotic, heterosexual and patriarchal values. These symbols reify the myths of both a shared Mexican national identity and a homogeneous Mexican community in the Southern California region.

The Tourism of Staying Put 
Unlike Olvera Street, a Mexican-themed tourist destination in the birthplace of Los Angeles for mostly Anglos, but also Asian, African-American and Latino patrons, Plaza Mexico is a notably “brown” and Mexican retail and cultural space. In the heart of a global city, the plaza activates a distinct phenomenon of diasporic, bounded tourism, where the plaza is an available surrogate for a Mexican homeland. Many plaza visitors do not have the legal or economic resources to travel to Mexico, even if desired. In effect, most plaza visitors are of low or middle-low income and their families are larger than the average for the state of California or the U.S., and those without legal U.S. permanent residency or citizenship rights face exceedingly harsh border conditions. For these reasons, traveling to Mexico constitutes an onerous proposition for large segments of the Los Angeles immigrant population. Plaza Mexico cleverly targets this expanding, yet previously unrecognized, niche for tourism and consumption: forcefully bounded-in-place individuals with a desire for ethnic consumption and leisure, great nostalgia for an idealized homeland they cannot easily return to and some time and money to spare.

For diasporic and immigrant populations that have their permanence in the host nation under threat, time- and place-based nostalgias can be more eagerly engaged, a context that in part explains the popularity and draw of Plaza Mexico for Mexican immigrants. The threat of deportation hangs very heavily in the minds of undocumented immigrants in the United States and greatly conditions many aspects of their lives, including opportunities for housing, education, labor, driving privileges and citizen rights. Also, as is true for all immigrants, for Mexican immigrants there are usually long periods of adjustment, nostalgia and need to reterritorialize a sense of Mexicanness, perhaps over a period of multiple generations, so that it becomes a defining characteristic of identification on the U.S. side of the border. Plaza Mexico responds to these increased external pressures by providing a place of solace, gathering and the reterritorialization of individual and collective identities of its mostly Mexican immigrant clientele.

The construction of tourist enclaves is a common urban strategy used for neighborhood revitalization and the promotion of economic development. Plaza Mexico expands those opportunities for opening a new tourist and commercial market niche because it constitutes a tourist enclave that primarily serves an emplaced diasporic population. Furthermore, it is a tourist enclave for a low-income ethnic class in a global city. Thus, not only does it capture an ethnic segment of the market previously under-targeted, but also a socio economic one. Catering to people in lower income brackets in the region of Los Angeles, Plaza Mexico does away with commonly held assumptions about tourism not being an activity of the poor. Disproving this axiom, Plaza Mexico is successfully appropriating a strategy that has served corporate giants such as Walmart, and thus may constitute a new frontier for the development of the corporate tourist industry.

Material mobility may be severely diminished for the undocumented immigrants trapped in place in the United States, but social and imaginative mobility are not. These other dimensions of mobility allow for Plaza Mexico to be a profitable commercial enterprise and a place where many visitors can imaginatively re-inhabit the homeland. In effect, the regional community has developed an emotional connectedness with the Plaza as a spatial expression of Mexicanness.

Fixing Tourists In-Place and Dis-Placing Tourist Sites 
In the case of Plaza Mexico, the tourist is permanently away from the homeland, longs to visit it but is prevented from doing so and sees connection to the Mexican nation as a quintessential feature of her own identity (and what gets actualized at Plaza Mexico). Thus, it is tourism catered to a trapped diaspora, which bring to its hosted land the longed for, “authentic” traditions and commodities of the homeland for their consumption away from home. This kind of tourism upsets the conventional roles assigned to tourists and places, whereby tourists are the ones to travel to “fixed” locales. In this case, tourists are fixed in their host locale, and the place they long to visit is virtually brought to them through simulations of architecture and media, and the reproduction of commodities—the fixation of tourists in place and the displacement of tourist sites. It is a special type of “diasporic tourism”; neither is it constituted by tourists coming from afar to visit a diaspora in a foreign region or country (such as New York tourists visiting “Little Italy” or any such ethnic enclaves populated by diasporas in the city), nor by tourists from diasporas visiting their homelands (such as Chinese Americans visiting China). In this new twist of “diasporic tourism,” neither the diasporic subjects of Mexican Lynwood inhabit a place that has become a tourist site (i.e., they are not recognized as worthy of visiting an ethnic enclave), nor do they have the choice—because of legal or economic constrains—of visiting the homeland. Trapped in this uncommon condition, where they are neither tourists abroad nor the objects that foreign tourists come to enjoy at home, they have been reinvented by the tourist industry as a total package insitus: as both the performers and the objects of tourist gazes at their diasporic home—a reflexive tourism. The plaza visitor becomes both a subject and an object of the exhibition of Mexicanness. Her role as an object becomes paramount at special events, through the performance of Mexican artistic traditions.

In Plaza Mexico, Mexican national identity is recreated by a private corporation run by Korean entrepreneurs because it is good for sales. The side effect of this move, however, is the creation of a place that can enhance cultural capital and community-building opportunities. Fortunately in the case of Plaza Mexico, these capabilities have been embraced both by the owners and managers of the mall and by the community. This case thus provides a perfectible partnership model to emulate for entrepreneurs, city officials and community leaders interested in advancing economic and community development objectives in tandem through cross-sectoral collaboration among the public, private and non-profit arenas. Apart from the monetary benefits, the plaza has become a cultural, artistic and even political hub for the Mexican community in the region. The Mexican states of Puebla and Durango have established their hometown associations there, and Mexican representatives that visit Southern California visit the plaza for official events.

Not only is the phenomenon of ascribing meaning to Plaza Mexico’s symbols and events the prerogative of the mall’s owners, designers and managers. Meanings at the plaza, as in any other social space, are socially constructed. Examples abound, from the appropriation of the place for the reenactment of traditions (e.g., folk dances and religious festivities) to the more politically subversive ones, such as the workshops for immigrant rights education or the gathering of pro-immigrant rallies. The de/ recontextualization of meaningful symbols of the Mexican past in Plaza Mexico produces an illusionary field on which both to construct a collective identity around a shared notion of Mexicanness and to imagine and mobilize towards a different common future. The latter opens up venues for agency and political engagement based on ethnic solidarity.

Olvera Street provides a critical historical precursor in the City of Angels for how nostalgia, tourism and Latina/o subjectivity are bound up with questions of nostalgia, homeland and belonging. At the same time, Plaza Mexico represents a critical departure from places like Olvera Street, especially in terms of the specialization of its planning, the heightened reification of foreign national symbols and the intense cultivation of a specifically local market clientele whose sense of contemporary homeland, culture and nation are all on “post-modern” offer at the Plaza. Structural shifts in immigrant policies, a generalized culture of fear and immigrant backlash and an increasingly militarized border produce conditions of staying put, a phenomenon under-explored in comparison to the conventional transnational circuits of movement across borders widely recognized in the literature.

Plaza Mexico has a hold over hearts, minds and memories, not only because of its elicitation of feeling of being “there” rather than “here,” but for its ethnic commercial offerings. More importantly, Plaza Mexico tries to reimagine the nation for immigrants who are structurally but not imaginatively constrained and look for ethnoscapes of escape. Plaza Mexico, as a mall and multi-layered architectural project, and even projected as a cultural center of ever greater possibilities, offers a privatized “public” space that both controls and releases the promises of future forms of social being and belonging in the urban landscape.

Clara Irazábal, PhD., is an assistant professor in the School of Public Policy, Planning and Development at the University of Southern California and Macarena Gómez-Barris, PhD., is an assistant professor in Sociology and American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California.

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