Surrounded by bars, restaurants and tattoo shops in Fullerton's bustling downtown dwells Florencio Blanquel's brick-covered storefront, Blanquel Popular Art. Cross the threshold into his world and the urban commotion outside disappears -- the scent of fresh pine fills the air and a soft Mexican ballad plays in the background. Inside the shop, one can find a unique selection of Mexican artifacts, walls covered with Mexican folk art, shelves filled with an assortment of talavera pottery, and one-of-a-kind handcrafted Mexican colonial furniture displayed throughout. It's almost a gallery dedicated to preserving Mexican culture and the art of handcrafted objects.
In the back of the store, Blanquel can be found at his work table surrounded by chisels, scrapers and what looks to be the start of a new project on a plane plank of wood. His signature greeting echoes through the store: "Welcome," he says, "This is your home." He embraces anyone who enters the store inquiring about custom furniture or simply walking through.
Blanquel's store is an extension of himself, of his family and of its humble beginnings in Mexico. "I am dedicated to this furniture from Mexico," explains 71-year-old Blanquel, who started making and selling furniture without presumption of anything. "We're a family-owned business that have been manufacturing furniture since 1968."
Blanquel, originally from Guerrero, Mexico grew up with 12 brothers and sisters, the majority of his siblings studied in Cuernavaca including himself. When it came time for Blanquel to further his education, he attended La Universidad de Morelos school for teachers. "I decided on becoming a teacher because it was a honorable career that didn't demand a lot of schooling," he says. "Teaching was convenient in the sense that I could start working right away and help my parents." His parents owned a small convenience store in Guerrero but finances were tight caring for 12 children. Blanquel wanted to alleviate his parents of monetary stresses, and his career in education helped. "Teaching allowed me to travel all over Mexico, I've taught in various locations -- everywhere from major cities to rural jungles."
Blanquel started his career as a rural instructor, sent to a cut-off village to teach Spanish to indigenous children. His first teaching job would be in a remote village in Los Luceros segunda sección in the state of Chiapas, so remote that the only way to get to the village was on foot. "The secretary of public education chose my place of work," he remembers, "it was there that I taught Chol children," indigenous Mayan Indians of Northern Chiapas. Blanquel taught the Chol children to speak Spanish with engaging musical exercises. "I played harmonica and guitar and would sing songs with the children in Spanish. I wanted to create a fun yet educational atmosphere, allowing the children to interact with one another while still learning the content."
In Chiapas, Blanquel would have an initial exposure to woodwork. "The municipal of Salto de Agua sent two carpenters down to our village in Chiapas to demonstrate and instruct me on how to construct tables and beds for the children," Blanquel recalls. "We recycled trees that had fallen from a thunderstorm to build the furniture." Blanquel would reside in Chiapas teaching and living amongst the Chol community from 1963 to 1965.
After Chiapas, he was sent to Veracruz to teach. "I eventually wanted to get closer to the center of the republic -- closer to the District Federal because it was close to Cuernavaca, Morelos where my parents lived." During summer breaks, Blanquel would stay in Guadalajara with his sister working as a salesman on the weekends, advertising furniture and appliances for companies such as Telemovil and Jalisco Electronicas. Earning 50 pesos per sale, Blanquel came to realize that he made more money as a salesperson than as a teacher. "I told my brother all about my experience being a salesman and about the commission that can be earned and convinced him to move our entire family to Guadalajara," he says. "It was an opportunity for all of us to be together and for our parents to live in a bigger and nicer city." Blanquel would ultimately retire from teaching in the late 1960s to become a full time furniture salesman alongside his brothers.
Blanquel and his brothers would eventually save up enough of their earnings as salesmen and together open their very own store, manufacturing furniture in Guadalajara. "We began making colonial-style furniture, however, at that time everyone was interested in Mexican mid-century modern furniture, so we designed a modern upholstered sofa called El Triangulo Geraldino -- people fell in love with the model, it was offered in gold, orange and blue." It wasn't until Blanquel's brother Nestor suggested that Blanquel try his hand at carpenting that he began constructing furniture himself. "I always drew up the designs and would hand them over to the carpenters that we hired, my brother Nestor was the one who really pushed me to start constructing my own designs." Self-taught, Blanquel bought all necessary tools and took over as head carpenter. The Blanquel family store would become one of three stores in Mexico, with Blanquel overseeing the woodwork, designs, and sales. "Tourists used to ask taxi drivers at the airport in Mexico where they could purchase Mexican furniture and they would bring them to our store in Hidalgo."
Blanquel came to the U.S. in August of 1989 with the idea of establishing a store similar to what they had in Mexico with his children and wife. "I had a conversation with my wife," he says, "our business was doing well and running efficiently on its own. My plan was to live in the U.S. for two to three years so the kids could go to school and learn proper English, so that one day when they took over the company they had the option of owning stores in Mexico and the United States." Blanquel and his wife met in Mexico, his wife's father was from Mexico and her mother was from the United States. Wanting to give their children all the advantages of being dual citizens, his wife agreed to move to the U.S. "Three months later we received our kids' documents to live here and my green card came in later on in the year to be able to live and work in the U.S," he says.
Blanquel's story of perseverance goes beyond his craft of preserving the art of artisanal-made furniture. When Blanquel and his family came to the U.S. it was very much starting from scratch and his family had to face the deprivations of resettlement. They didn't have jobs waiting for them and they didn't have a house to go home to when they arrived. "My story is about perseverance and it's full of joyous memories but aside from that it's also about immigrants," he says. "Here, no one knows who you are or where you came from or what your background consists of. Here you'll find lawyers, contractors, engineers, but because they don't have papers they work and do as much as they can to survive and make a life for themselves in this country."
Blanquel took up various jobs in order to provide for his family and create a life here in the United States and in spite of all the ups and downs, he never let go of his vision of starting a custom-made, Mexican colonial furniture store. Blanquel combines creativity and sustainability while paying homage to Mexico's traditional colonial-style furniture, using Mexican oak amongst other regional wood sources to construct his original designs. It's furniture that's dear to his heart. Through detailed handwork and construction Blanquel's love for his craft is evident in his pieces. Walk into Blanquel Popular Art any given day and more than likely, Blanquel will be carving away on a wooden piece that will be transformed into one of his custom designs.
Today, the store that Blanquel and his brother opened 47 years ago in Mexico has since found a home in Fullerton. "My business is not a museum, but it has a lot of art and I notice that here in this country, and in this city, people love art." Blanquel says he believes in the connections among all people regardless of where they're from, and his store is open to all and anyone seeking to learn more about his art of handmade furniture from Mexico. "We are all useful people in this country because we all have something to contribute and everyone collaborates in its growth and success," he says. "It's a country of immigration."
Blanquel Popular Art is located at 109 S. Harbor Blvd. in Fullerton, CA 92832