Longtime arts advocate and L.A. native Leticia Rhi Buckley was recently named the new CEO of Downtown L.A.’s LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes. She is moving into her new post as LA Plaza, a Latina/Latino museum and cultural center, celebrates its 10-year anniversary.
An East L.A. native and a downtown resident, Buckley was most recently The Music Center’s senior civic strategist, a role in which she cultivated and implemented civic and community partnerships.
We recently chatted with the mom of two about growing up in L.A., raising her own kids here and why the arts play such a critical role in building community.
Please tell us a little about your new position as CEO of LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes. What are you most excited about?
As you can imagine, there’s plenty to be excited about! I look forward to inviting my network of colleagues, collaborators, and partners to support LA Plaza and its mission. I’m particularly excited about the newest addition, LA Plaza Cocina, a museum focused on Mexican cuisine which is also a teaching kitchen exploring Mexican and Mexican American cooking. I can’t wait to see what the team cooks up (pun intended) as we look towards the next decade!
You have been involved with the arts throughout your career. What role do you feel the arts play in the L.A. community?
The arts are a catalyst for social and civic change, especially now as we start to look past the pandemic. Arts organizations and cultural institutions are social infrastructure that cultivates a sense of community pride and social belonging, especially for those that are in communities and neighborhoods that are systemically under-resourced. And artists and cultural workers are critical to the workforce. The arts and culture industry is a driving force in the L.A. County economy and will be critical in the renewal of communities across our region.
What role do you feel the arts play in education and our children’s experience growing up in Los Angeles?
Everyone is creative. We just express it differently. I see it in my own kids. From an early age, my daughter has been a natural artist, she has an eye for color and a lovely singing voice. On the other hand, my son disliked coloring from the moment he could hold a crayon, but he spent hours pretending his hands were spaceships, flying across universes and landing on make-believe lands he conjured up in his mind. I’ve seen them put their respective creative tools to use when tackling an English assignment or working through a build challenge in robotics. That’s why children must have regular, consistent access to arts education in and out of school. Not only does it help them during their K-12 education, but it prepares them for college, careers and beyond.
How do you see the role of LA Plaza in relation to Los Angeles families?
LA Plaza is a place where families can connect to history that isn’t necessarily taught in school. These are the stories of Los Angeles’ past, present and future. And it’s a casual, friendly, and unfussy setting – from live, themed Family Days filled with hands-on artmaking, music, and dance, to digital programming like En Familia Con LA Plaza. Plus, in-school programs like LA Plaza’s Edible Teaching Garden & Culinary Arts Program for K-12 students.
You grew up in L.A. with immigrant parents. Please share a little about your growing up experiences in and around Los Angeles. Fondest memories?
I was born and raised where East Los Angeles, City of Commerce and Montebello meet. I am the oldest of three girls, and as kids I was the one wrangling my sisters, finding ways to entertain us while our parents worked. Most of my childhood wardrobe, toys and even the flute I played in high school was acquired at the Sears on Soto in Boyle Heights because my dad had an employee discount. I danced ballet folklorico in dresses handmade by my grandmother and rode in the East L.A. Mexican Independence Day Parade as part of the Sally Saavedra Dance Group. Family activities included visits to the La Puente Hills mall to buy an Orange Julius or taking a drive along the 10 freeway to see the beach. Music was always playing in our house; Vicente Fernandez and Juan Gabriel were the soundtrack to our Saturday morning chores and KROQ-FM was the station of choice for my sisters and me. It was a regular occurrence that the coffee table in our living room would be moved aside so my parents could dance to their favorite cumbia or us kids could perform the latest skit we created.
Did you have a mentor growing up? And what role did that person play in your life and your career?
My parents have always been my mentors. They are products of humble roots, immigrating to the U.S. in their teens. My mom picked cotton in the fields near Wasco and my dad grew up in Estrada Courts in Boyle Heights. They met at a dance club in downtown Los Angeles and have been each other’s dance partners for 54 years and counting. They encouraged me to explore while providing a safe spot to land. They were forgiving of a stubborn teenager with an independent streak. They offered unconditional love and support. I learned about humility, sacrifice, and gratitude from them. They taught me to be the first one on the dance floor and the last to sit down. It’s a privilege that I get to laugh with them regularly and witness the pride and joy they have for their grandchildren. It’s a cliché but I am me because of them.
Best life advice you received growing up?
I was in college during the 1992 uprising, weary and disappointed with an inequitable education system I felt had no place for me or other students of color. It was around this time my dad said to me, “You can’t change the system unless you are part of the system.” I didn’t realize at the time how impactful that would be in my choices moving forward. But throughout my career I’ve heard those words on repeat in my head and they always ring true.
You’re a mom. Please tells us a little about your kids. What cultural values and traditions from your own childhood do you want to pass on to them?
I have two children who are amazing, kind, generous and fiercely funny humans.
My daughter is 17, a junior in high school. My son is 12 and in 7th grade. They’re growing up in a bicultural household. I’m first-generation Mexican American, my husband is African American and white, and it’s great to be able to celebrate so many different threads of culture with real pride. Traditions in our families are centered around gathering to celebrate – birthdays, holidays, any given weekend – and they’re regularly filled with too much food and lots of laughing. To this day, my kids will choose a family visit over nearly anything else. If that’s the only thing I pass on, I did something right.
How has parenthood changed you?
Becoming a parent gave me clarity, perspective and empathy. I don’t believe in the myth of a supermom. It’s an impossible standard that has been placed on women. If I’ve learned anything as a parent, it’s that something must give and that’s ok. I can’t be everything to everyone all the time. Sometimes I’ll fail as a mom or wife. I may not always be the best daughter, sister, or aunt. My work responsibilities will not always be met. But I have learned to give myself grace, to ask for help and to recognize that I have to offer the same to the people around me.
When not working, where will we find you?
These days, it’s a good bet you’ll find me at the baseball field watching my son play. It’s a family affair that includes grandparents, aunts, and cousins, too. I love Idyllwild and road tripping up the mountain with my daughter for a weekend getaway. It has been a respite from the city, especially over the last few years. But most often, you’ll find me at home, hanging with my husband, kids and the two cats, enjoying some take out and a family movie night.
What are some of your favorite spots and activities in and around LA?
I am an urban dweller, living in Downtown Los Angeles, so I spend a lot of time in my neighborhood. When my kids were younger, we spent many weekends at Grand Park, the Natural History Museum, Kidspace Museum, Santa Monica Pier, and the California Science Center. Now that they are grown and I have a bit more time for myself, I enjoy grabbing dinner with girlfriends, checking out new restaurants. As things reopen, I’ve enjoyed the return of events like Downtown Dia de Los Muertos at Grand Park and Enchanted: Forest of Light at Descanso Gardens. But my most favorite thing to do in L.A. is go to a Dodgers game. My whole family is eagerly awaiting the return of baseball!