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Tio's Tacos: Riverside's Folk Art Wonderland

Weekly Vote Winner: Artbound's editorial team has reviewed and rated the most compelling weekly articles. After putting two articles up for a vote, the audience chose this article to be made into a short-format documentary.
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In the heart of downtown Riverside, Martin Sanchez has built a shrine out of trash. At his restaurant, Tio's Tacos, Sanchez takes recycling to great creative heights--both literal and figurative. From refuse, he created pyramids, whimsical fountains, and a series of giant wire figures, filled with shells, shoes, toys and other cast offs. Plus he makes a mean seafood cocktail. The city hasn't always appreciated his singular, ever-evolving vision, but Sanchez and his shrine are earning respect.

Inside Tio's, over a dozen jugs of aguas frescas glimmer like liquid jewels on ice. Fake watermelon wedges and pineapples hang above them from the ceiling, as if they've escaped from one of Sanchez's vibrant murals of fruit. Turn the corner, and a new mural goes under the sea; abalone and oyster shells jut from the wall. Then step outside into a folk art wonderland. Part Watts Towers, part Gaudi fantasia, every turn throughout Sanchez's vast property reveals some eccentric, eclectic assemblage.

Figures at Tio's Tacos.

Sanchez, 45, has a boyish enthusiasm and a contagious grin. Completely untrained as an artist, he tackles paint and plaster, wire and stone and found items with equal abandon, equal native and visionary skill. "My Father God gave this to me," he says, eyes gleaming.

Sanchez credits childhood poverty as the main inspiration for his art. He never had toys as a child; he would tie two small batteries together to make a gas station for the twigs he drove around the sand. Today, toy cars are embedded in a mosaic street that wends through his property; his daughters' old Barbies adorn giant women made of topiary wire. He points out a tiny bicycle lodged in the concrete--"I found this in an alley," he says. It was passed down from Stephanie, now 21, to Kimberly, now 17; when his youngest daughter, Maiten, now 7, outgrew it, he incorporated it into his art. "Everything has a story," he says. "I look at this happy because my three little girls used it."

Bicycle embedded in concrete at Tio's Tacos.

When he first came to America from the Michoacan village of Sahuayo in 1984, Sanchez couldn't believe what people would throw away--beds, clothes, electronics. "I don't throw away nothing for 18 years," he says. He often doesn't know why he's collecting certain items, but then an idea will reveal itself and he'll be off and running, filling a 20 foot-tall wire figure with two years-worth of cans.

"I've always had a lot of dreams," he notes. As a new immigrant, Sanchez sold oranges on freeway ramps; later, he hawked peanuts and ice cream at the park before he bought a hot dog cart in 1989 and began to sell tacos outside of Tio's. He rented the place in 1990; in 1995, he bought the restaurant and the clapboard house next door, which became his family home. In 2000, he purchased the adjacent parking lot and house, currently used for storage and a gift shop. Now the Tio's complex fills almost the entire city block, his creations filling nearly every foot of it, including the roofs and the tops of palm trees.

All of Sanchez's art materials are either found or recycled. The bottles and oyster shells come directly from the restaurant. The granite tile is made of countertop remnants; Sanchez collected scraps once a week for a year, building a mountain of gleaming stone that he breaks up for his mosaics. Customers will sometimes bring their cast-off items, and he finds ways to work them into his vision.

His family helps with the bigger projects, and even though the girls occasionally come home from school to find their toys encased in concrete, they are happy to be part of their dad's enterprise, and look forward to keeping Tio's going for generations. Kimberly has her eye on the house currently being used for storage--she wants to turn it into a coffee house/internet cafe, she explains as her dad beams proudly.

Tio's pays homage to both Sanchez's hometown and his current Riverside home; a mural depicts his Michoacan village in great detail, and large concrete figures--one with a huge Aztec headdress--nod to Sahuayo's annual parade of saints. In the front patio, a walkway honors social justice heroes, including many from Mexico. In the back gardens, Sanchez has carved out space for 147 tiles on a path that will celebrate Riverside residents who help the community. "Hollywood has their famous sidewalk," he says, "this will be ours." Mosaics of Riverside landmarks like the Fox Theatre adorn the gardens, and the Riverside raincross symbol appears throughout the complex, including at the top of the "Pueblo de Justicia"--Sanchez's concrete-and-beer-bottle take on a "modern pyramid" inspired after a trip to Cancun. The name refers to the legal battles he faced from Building and Safety, who took him to court, saying his property was full of junk; he represented himself and won. "Father God said 'Don't touch this guy right here. He is doing my work.'" A large spiral is carved into the floor of the pyramid, circulating water. "It's the karma sign," he says. "What goes around comes around."

Tio's chapel composed of bottles and other recycled materials.

The crown jewel of Tio's may be the chapel Sanchez built out of multi-colored bottles and other recycled materials as a gift to his wife, Concepcion. Consecrated by the Catholic Church, the chapel has water springing from its walls and a ceiling painted like a miniature Sistine. Light filters through the bottles, creating a stained glass effect; people have used the small chapel for weddings, quinceaneras, graduations, and private contemplation.

While Sanchez finds his work divinely inspired, his art is often earthy, even bawdy. One topiary woman has giant breasts, and two life-sized anatomically-correct figures made of recycled materials have been turned into fountains, water coursing out from between their legs (the man's from a faucet with hot and cold knobs; the woman's from a Barbie fastened to her pelvis; the woman also lactates into a basin.) The whole garden features an energizing mix of the sacred and the profane, the reverent and the hilarious.

The typical response to Sanchez's work is awe--every day, you'll find gape-mouthed customers roaming the grounds, marveling at the comic figures high up in the trees or the intricate beauty of the tile work or the wildness of the imagination that could spawn such a place. Sanchez himself is sometimes bowled over by the scope of his own work. "When I take a shower or sit down to drink a beer, I can't believe everything I did," he says with a smile.

Intricate tile work at Tio's Tacos.

Given the surroundings, it can be easy to forget about Tio's food, but Sanchez's creativity extends into the kitchen. "I feel like a little kid playing or a chemist mixing" when he's creating new dishes, he says, counting his whole, deep fried tilapia and complexly spiced enchiladas as his most unique offerings. He recently started bottling his own line of Chilito Primo hot sauces--including fruit-based ones such as strawberry and guayaba--but admits he is still tinkering with the formula. His mixtos aguas frescas is a revelation--so thick with chopped fruit, it's hard to drink it through a straw.

Sanchez is seemingly indefatigable. "When I'm tired, I go to sleep," he says. "When I'm not tired, I use my good ideas." When he's older and doesn't have the energy to do the physical work his art requires, he wants to write a self-help book for young people who have dreams but don't know how to make them real. Part of the secret, he says, is to do what makes you happy, and to be grateful, even for setbacks. "When I have problems, I tell them thank you because I got new experience," he says.

He points to his works in progress--tiles laid out on tables, wire sculptures half-full of oyster shells, a tree awaiting the tree house his youngest daughter requested. "Everything is not finished," he says and laughs. "When I die is when I finish."

Tio's Tacos is located at 3948 Mission Inn Avenue Riverside, CA 92501. (951) 788-0230

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Top Image: Figure with large headdress at Tio's Tacos.

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