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Sculptures of Mexican icons are missing from an L.A. park. What's going on?

Of the 33 statues, busts and plaques donated with the collaboration of the Mexican government to El Parque de Mexico in Lincoln Heights, only a few remain.
People gather on opening day of the Parque de Mexico in Los Angeles in 1978.
Opening day of Parque de Mexico in Los Angeles in 1978.Frank Villalobos / Barrio Planners Inc.

They've seemingly gone missing overnight.

Bronze busts, statues and plaques of leading Mexican historical figures collected over decades at Los Angeles' El Parque de Mexico in Lincoln Heights are mostly gone.

"It hurt me as a Mexican American to know that something like that could be allowed to happen, something of that grandeur to be allowed to just be destroyed," Frank Villalobos, one of the original architects of the park and founder and president of Barrio Planners Inc., told NBC News.

Los Angeles Times writer and columnist Gustavo Arellano first brought attention to the issue, citing that of the 33 sculptures, the first to go missing was of Pancho Villa, the Mexican revolutionary leader. Fortunately, LAPD recovered and reinstalled the bust from a resident's backyard who had boasted about taking it.

Through the years, others have disappeared as well, including the likes of Lázaro Cárdenas, who served as Mexico's president between 1934 and 1940; and Ramón López Velarde, a renowned postmodernist poet and author, among others, according to the Los Angeles Times.

A total of 20 bust statues with plaques are missing. Just five full-size statues remain, as Villalobos notes that they are too large to be removed. They honor Benito Juárez, who was the first Indigenous president of Mexico, Emperor Cuauhtémoc, an Aztec ruler of Tenochtitlán, Agustín Lara, an actor and one of Mexico's foremost composers and performer of boleros, and revolutionary leaders Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa.

"It’s a direct hit to the Mexican population of Boyle Heights and Lincoln Heights," Villalobos added. "The only thing that they couldn’t take are the heavy things like horses, full standing figures — but given enough time and they’ll take those down, too."

Arthur Snyder during opening day ceremonies at Parque de Mexico in Los Angeles in 1978.
L.A. City Council member Arthur Snyder during opening day ceremonies at Parque de Mexico in Los Angeles in 1978.Frank Villalobos / Barrio Planners Inc.

In collaboration with the Mexican government and then-L.A. City Councilman Arthur Snyder (who died in 2012), the commemorative installations were donated starting in the late 1970s to promote the cultural heritage of the Mexican American community in the city and to demonstrate goodwill between the U.S. and Mexico.

A bust of Venustiano Carranza is among the missing sculptures at Parque de Mexico in Los Angeles.
A bust of Venustiano Carranza is among the missing sculptures at Parque de Mexico in Los Angeles.Frank Villalobos / Barrio Planners Inc.

But only a few pieces remain today at the park, which is an extension of Lincoln Park in Lincoln Heights, one of the city's oldest neighborhoods and predominantly Latino.

"There’s been a lot of faults and the neglect of such a beautiful art collection in the city of Los Angeles. It’s a shame," said Villalobos, referring to the dysfunction and the park's declining condition in recent years.

He now worries that other sites may be targeted, such as Boyle Heights' Mariachi Plaza, another iconic landmark he helped plan.

The South view of Parque de Mexico in 1976.
The south view of Parque de Mexico in Los Angeles in 1976.Frank Villalobos / Barrio Planners Inc.

Jennifer Barraza, chief of staff at the office of embattled L.A. City Councilman Kevin de León, said they are taking steps to restore El Parque de Mexico and Lincoln Park.

Both were inherited by de León's district (CD-14) after last year's county redistricting took place.

But the state's attorney general, Rob Bonta, is investigating the redistricting process following an L.A. City Council scandal last year involving racist comments mostly made by then-council president Nury Martinez in a conversation with other Latino leaders including de León, who has refused calls for his resignation.

Despite the scandal, de León's office has secured millions of dollars in funding to improve infrastructure of the entire region, including working on roads, sidewalks, the park's lake, trees and lighting issues, and closing the connectivity gap between El Parque de Mexico and Lincoln Park.

"Everyone goes and spends time ... at Lincoln Park, but Parque Mexico is kind of left alone especially as it’s gone into worse shape. People don’t really hang out there, and then there’s been a homelessness issue in the area for years," Barraza said. "Over the next five years, I think that area is going to look a lot different."

Barraza explained that the office is working with the city's department of recreation and parks to analyze the extent of damages and to learn the cost of missing art to decide whether they should install new art, pay out-of-pocket discretionary money to recover missing pieces and hold discussions with community members about protecting the remaining sculptures.

Barraza said the office is hoping to receive the analysis report by summer or early fall to advance restoration plans.