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How Los Angeles Artisans Connect to Their Mexican Roots

Tanya Aguiñiga installation
Tanya Aguiñiga, "Crossing the Line," Craft and Folk Art Museum, Los Angeles, CA, 2011.

The highly skilled labor of artisans migrating from Mexico and Latin America are the backbone of high-end design and retail in Los Angeles, producing exquisite furniture, textiles, and design goods. But they represent a creative force that seems invisible to the city. Artbound uncovers their stories and their role in making Los Angeles and Southern California the creative capital of the world in a new documentary "Artesanos," debuting May 17 at 9 p.m. on KCET. Check for rebroadcasts here.

César Castro’s workshop is nothing more than a small shed behind his home, on a steep hillside overlooking the eastside neighborhood of El Sereno. Dusty blocks of wood share space with chisels, electric sanders, a drill press, and other tools, while jaranas -- eight-stringed instruments from Mexico -- hang from the ceiling in various states of disrepair. One wall has a colorful mural of musicians performing, but the other three are no more than plastic sheeting to keep the sun and wind out. The structure’s modest form belies the important function this space plays in the preservation of Son Jarocho -- the regional folk music from the Mexican state of Veracruz -- in Los Angeles. 

Born and raised in Veracruz, Castro studied typical Western music in school, but his connection to Son Jarocho was totally extracurricular. He began volunteering in local music workshops when he was 13, and it was through them that one of his teachers took him to a countryside fandango -- the lively, communal performances central to Son Jarocho. “That's when I fell in love with this. Socially it was what I was missing from my life in the city,” he said.

Castro moved to the U.S. in 2005 as a musician, but soon the skills he had learned as an instrument maker became sought after. “People were bringing their instruments from Veracruz, and the first thing I had to do here was to fix them,” he said. “That was an easy in for me to start getting my tools." Now, in addition to playing with his group Cambalache, Castro makes and repairs jaranas and four-stringed requintos using traditional methods. The body of the jarana is carved from one solid block of wood, unlike most guitars which are made from thin, shaped strips of wood. Castro uses African woods -- mahogany, ebony, and padauk -- types of woods readily available in L.A. “It’s kind of a joke that I make African-Jarocho instruments in Los Angeles,” he said, though the connection to Africa is more appropriate than one might think. The jarana has a number of influences, from Spain, Arab Northern Africa, and West Africa through the slave trade. Like so many cultural expressions from Mexico, Son Jarocho is less a static artform than an evolving, living tradition.

César Castro of band Cambalache
César Castro at his workshop in El Sereno. | Photo: Matt Stromberg.

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Although Castro’s instruments are not cheap, they are not the sole way he supports himself. “I'm not doing it because of the money,” he said. “It’s not a business, people have to understand we're talking about culture,” he said. This raises an interesting question of the role that economics plays in what crafts get brought across the border and for what reasons. For many immigrants, simply establishing themselves financially is of primary importance. "One of the challenges is that you come here to a different environment and one of the first instincts is to survive and that takes you way off of your traditional practices,” Dr. Gaspar Rivera-Salgado of the UCLA Labor Center said. “But after you have solved that problem, you see a lot of people going back and retaking their traditional crafts practices."

Castro experienced this first hand, by introducing Son Jarocho to Mexican-Americans who may not have a connection to Veracruz. "In my case there's the Chicano community interested in a bridge between themselves and the Jarocho community. Through that consciousness, we were able to work together. People wanted to learn how to play and participate in the fandango, it’s a living culture."

Artist and designer Tanya Aguiñiga similarly began incorporating traditional Mexican techniques into her work to connect with her roots. She was born in San Diego, but raised in Tijuana, and began exploring traditional Oaxacan weaving and dyeing while at graduate school in Rhode Island. “It was a way of exploring the lack of Mexican identity that I grew up with on the border,” she said at a recent visit to her Atwater Village studio. Despite her experience with Oaxacan weaving, Aguiñiga did not know of a thriving community of these kinds of artisans in L.A. “If you're already doing highly skilled craft in Mexico, then you have your own business. You might not have as much of a reason to leave,” she opined. 

Tanya Aguiñiga installation
Tanya Aguiñiga, "CRAFTA: Craft in the post-NAFTA Era," PEEL Gallery, Houston, TX, 2012.

Then there is the sticky question of authenticity. "Would people be willing to pay as much money for a rug made here in L.A., than one in Oaxaca? Is it as authentic, the art that is made by Mexican immigrants here?" Rivera-Salgado asked rhetorically. This kind of essentialist vision of craft however, overlooks the fact that many seemingly authentic crafts in Mexico were tailored to the tourist market. He mentioned Navajo-style blankets made in Oaxaca in response to the U.S. craze for Navajo design. As living traditions, these crafts change as they are carried across borders, as they changed in Mexico as various cultures have influenced them. 

“In Mexico, there's a long tradition of craft, but a lot of the stuff I’ve seen here, it comes from that but it mutates,” artist and curator Rubén Ortiz-Torres said. “In East L.A, they have these Aztec dancers, concheros. They make their own outfits, their headdresses here, but because they make them here, they're a bit more spectacular than in Mexico. In Mexico City, it’s a little more austere. Here it gets more Hollywood.”

“There's also the Oaxacan community,” he said, referring to the estimated 300,000 people of Oaxacan descent who live in Los Angeles County. “They do their local dances. Somehow they need to create their dresses.” The man they go to for these dresses is Benito Passos Fernandez, who came to the U.S. from the town of Yalalag in Oaxaca when he was 19. He learned to sew by hand from his uncle, and worked making clothes for a number of years for a company in Koreatown, until he started his own business seven years ago. His bread and butter is wedding and quinceañera dresses, but he also makes clothing for traditional Oaxacan dances in L.A.: Danza de Las Negritas, Danza de San Jose, and de La Malinche, among others. Each garment takes two weeks, involving hours of hand-stitched sequins and beads. “When you send clothes from Oaxaca, it doesn’t fit here, or here, it’s a problem,” he said, while at his Pico-Union shop. This points to the possible reason why certain crafts have taken root in L.A. instead of being exported: they require face-to-face interaction. If you need specific alterations made to an outfit or a cracked tuning peg replaced, it’s far easier to go to East L.A. than to Mexico.

Benito Passos Fernandez with Oaxacan dresses
Benito Passos Fernandez poses with his dress designs. | Photo: Matt Stromberg

Another important facet of Oaxacan dances are carved and painted masks, traditionally made out of wood. Ted Lazaro came to L.A. from Zoogocho when he was nine, and gravitated to art since he didn’t speak much English. He is now a Spanish/English interpreter. About 20 years ago, he brought some of these masks back from Oaxaca and tried to replicate them, originally carving with wood from Oaxaca. He had trouble finding the pliable wood typically used for the masks, so he tried to fabricate them out of cardboard reinforced with strips of newspaper dipped in wheat paste. “I don't know anyone else who does this,” he said. “They import them from Mexico, but wooden masks have small eyes, small holes for nose, and are heavy. A lot of the performers started preferring my masks. There are guys that have had my masks for 20 years.” Lazaro’s work is a prime example of the “mutation” that Ruben-Torrez mentioned, as a craft with roots in Mexico that adapts to new conditions in Los Angeles.

For Castro, Passos and Lazaro, their craftwork is less about cashing in, and more about continuing a cultural tradition for the local community. “Of course the money I get is OK to pay some bills, but I can't live off of this,” Castro said. “If I have to live off this, then I have to create my market, and it’s going to affect the music and social scene that I’m supporting. In order to survive here with your craft, you have to create a community, more than a business. If you go towards a business side, you'll have instruments made in China,” adding only half-jokingly, “or Mexico.”

Ted Lazaro with Oaxacan masks
Ted Lazaro makes masks that are traditionally worn when performing Oaxacan dances. | Photo: Matt Stromberg
A jarana and a requinto at César Castro's workshop
A jarana and a requinto at César Castro's workshop. | Photo: Matt Stromberg.
César Castro's workshop
César Castro's work station in El Sereno. | Photo: Matt Stromberg.

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