L.A.’s Plaza Mexico is Not Just a Mall, But a City Within a City

Posted inDesign Destinations

Like the rest of Los Angeles county, my hometown of Inglewood, California is 49 percent Hispanic or Latino. Living in New York, I’ve missed the distinctly Mexican vibe of my old neighborhood, not to mention that it’s been more than four years since I’ve had the opportunity to travel in Mexico.

Thus, during a recent trip to L.A., the place I most wanted to visit was Plaza Mexico in Lynwood, a city about 40 minutes east of LAX. I learned about it in the June 4, 2023 “California Issue” of the New York Times Magazine, where a four-page story glowingly described it as “a phantasmagoric translation of a Mexican village.” The story included such phrases as “a taste of the old country,” “monumental, beautiful and heroic,” and “an invitation to celebrate.“

I was ready to celebrate. And right off the 105 Freeway, there it was: a shopping mall. At first glance, a California outdoor mall surrounded by parking lots. Walking around, my heart sank. Bits and pieces of Mexico scattered here and there do not make an authentic cultural experience, I thought.

At the entrance, a reproduction of the Angel of Independence monument in Mexico City.
A reproduction of the Aztec Calendar emerges from cement.
Stucco walls, archways, terracotta tile roofs, and tropical plantings not unlike those in many Southern California shopping centers.
Behind the facade of a cathedral, like the one in Guadalajara, two floors of retail shops and stalls.
And like many retail centers, it’s still in recovery from the pandemic.

But I looked more closely. I went outdoors, watched and listened. Couples were savoring quiet moments together. People were relaxing, enjoying the surroundings, and taking selfies and portraits.

Then I spoke with Vanessa Eckstein, the Argentinian-born principal and creative director of Blok Design in Toronto, which was headquartered in the Condesa neighborhood of Mexico City for nine years and continues to serve many clients in Mexico. “Coming together in parks and public spaces is part of our culture, of our sense of what’s important in life,” Vanessa reminded me. “It’s ingrained in our souls. It’s how we connect to each other. We share and celebrate with our families and with the larger community, especially during rituals and holidays.”

My visit was on an ordinary weekday, but pictures on the Plaza Mexico website make it clear that, since 2002, this place has been an important center for community gatherings and holiday celebrations for thousands of people who immigrated to California in search of a better life.

And everywhere, there is the promise of good food. So, in the upstairs food court, I started talking with other visitors.

“We come here all the time,” said Leslie, the young mom at the table next to mine. “It reminds us of the Zapotec culture of our parents, and we like the scenery and the architecture,” said her husband, Junior, rocking their baby in the stroller. “We live in Watts,” they said, three miles north (which despite various urban planning initiatives, remains one of the poorest, toughest neighborhoods in L.A.).

I stopped to chat with three teenage guys, Jordan, Misa, and Frank, also from Watts. “We love to come here, go to the gym, have some food, hang out, look around. It’s beautiful,” said Frank, offering me a hand sign that he said means friendship.

I worked up the nerve to talk to the men who’d been sitting on a bench the whole time I was there. “We come here every day,” said one of them, Ramón. “All of us live about three blocks away.”

I’d noticed that quite a few houses in the blocks surrounding Plaza Mexico were small and run-down with bars on the windows, but there are no bars on any windows in Plaza Mexico. The entire site was designed by architect David Hidalgo, a third-generation Mexican-American and graduate of the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc). Plaza Mexico is the product of a challenge he undertook “to design a shopping center in Lynwood in the style of a Mexican town” on the 25-acre site of a former Montgomery Ward department store. According to the Times Magazine story, Hidalgo grew up as a typical Southern California teenager, and found the essence of his culture by playing tourist, taking trips to Mexico, walking through archaeological sites, and meeting with long-lost relatives. “I brought all these elements into the melting pot of my brain,“ he said.

The result is the winner of several architectural awards, a place of solace, pride, and celebration, and perhaps, the key to a community’s revival.

Plaza Mexico is located at 3100 E. Imperial Highway, Lynwood, CA 90262. Open daily from 10 to 8.

All photos by the author.