Reclaiming Xicanismo through art

Alejandra Roggero

DEPUTY EDITOR-IN-CHIEF

Janelle Gonzales, owner of LunaSol Mexican Vintage in Uptown Whittier, was “looking for [her] culture” when she started her business endeavor almost 20 years ago. With vibrant walls adorned with paintings of Frida Kahlo and La Virgen, handmade ornaments hanging from the ceiling, and racks full of vintage huipiles in every color of the rainbow, LunaSol is an art piece in and of itself. Since its opening in 2004, Gonzales’ hidden gem has been a physical representation of Xicanismo in Whittier — and, for some in the community, it carries a little piece of home. It is located at 6711 Bright Avenue, the “block of choice” for Gonzales. Young passersby have dubbed LunaSol “the Coco store,” and Gonzales could not be more happy about it.

Like Uptown Whittier, LunaSol has gone through its own evolutions. The roots of the store run deep, transcending generations and fronteras. The first store Gonzales’ family ever owned was a humble cart on Olvera Street. Eventually, Gonzales’ mother, Julie Gonzales — whose career as a papel picado artist, teacher, and Cultural Arts Commissioner for the city of Whittier failed to satisfy her ambition — opened a store of her own. Within a year, she realized that dream and officially opened Hecho de Alma in 2000.

“That’s my bloodline . . .” Gonzales said, “so that’s [my mom’s] bloodline, too.” Though Hecho de Alma only lasted for three years, Gonzales’ mother had not yet given up on her dream of owning her own business. Eventually, Gonzales and her mother set out once more to find another space to accomplish their goal. “We looked all over,” Gonzales said. At the time, she was teaching dance for Pasadena Unified School District and had just had her first child, a son named Myles (now age 20). 

Finally, in 2003, a small place in Whittier caught their attention. “Whittier just fit . . . my face is turning fleshy just thinking about it! It was perfect,” Gonzales said. “It was exactly what we were looking for.” The following year, Gonzales decided to open up her own shop just a few doors down from the store she shared with her mother called LunaSol Books. “It was awesome!” Gonzales said. Working so close to her mother was great for Gonzales, and their proximity to each other benefitted their businesses in more ways than one. “But, I still felt the need to push Chicano art,” Gonzales said, “and this store was not a Chicano gallery.” 

When Gonzales’ mother was ready to retire, the duo had to make a decision: keep both stores or just have one. “I couldn’t manage both,” said Gonzales, “. . . I decided, I’m just gonna merge them!” LunaSol Mexican Vintage was born at that moment in 2004. Gonzales continues to pursue her passion, partly because of her supportive family and the guidance Gonzales’ mother gave her as a business owner and artist herself for so many years. Hecho de Alma and the vision and artistry that Gonzales’ mother brought to her shop is still very present at LunaSol. “It’s the folk-art side of the store,” said Gonzales. “. . . it’s actually the heart of the store.”

Against the backdrop of huipiles made in Oaxaca and Chiapas, handmade jewelry, and Mexican blankets, original art pieces fill the room. They feature the work of well-known painters and illustrators like Lalo Alcaraz, George Yepes, Maria Kane, and local artists like Rudy Andrade, Hugo Hidalgo, and Merilyn Hernandez. Alcaraz, Yepes, and Kane were among the first Xicano artists Gonzales ever featured in her shop, and now her collection is abundant. Not only has Gonzales been able to feature numerous artists from the community, but she has also gotten to witness the personal and artistic growth of each artist through the years.

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Gonzales is proud to say that her store has a strong “Chicano art influence,” and she welcomes the entire community of Whittier and beyond to enjoy it. “I don’t have family that reside in Mexico. I’m fifth-generation and have a long line of generations in my family that were born here in L.A.,” Gonzales said. “It wasn’t until later that I started studying the regions of Mexico, and my mind was blown.” When asked why Xicano art means so much for LunaSol, Gonzales told me that she identifies with being “Chicana,” and that it wasn’t until college that her identity as a “Chicana” came into fruition. “Luckily for my son [Myles], he read books by Latino artists and illustrators before I did,” she said. “When I went to college, I was given the opportunity — the awareness — that there are authors that write for us, and that’s so important.” 

Centuries of colonial rule have alienated Latinx from themselves, ourselves — disconnected us from who we are through the words we speak, the gods we worship, the fruit we pick (but don’t eat), the homes we build, the music we make, and the arbitrary borders that cross us. Having inherited a fragile sense of self-understanding and a history contaminated by Eurocentric ideals, it is the responsibility of our own community to reclaim and share our own stories, our own values, and our own traditions. “We should be proud of our ancestors,” Gonzales said. “Our stories are so important, and we need to tell them.” As a small business owner, Gonzales has continued to evolve, but her focus remains unwavering all these years later. “You still see the Chicano art. You still see the timeless pieces that are classics for our culture and our community,” Gonzales said.

Running a vintage Xicano goods store is in Gonzales’ blood; as a single mother of three, she hopes to pass her passion on to her children. “I am looking forward to seeing my kids [take over the store],” Gonzales said, smiling. Her daughters, Anika (age 11) and Adelina (age 9) help Gonzales pick pieces to display in her front window, and even help her with organizing things throughout the store. Her children “see the dedication” Gonzales said, “and they [themselves] are dedicated. I have a good support system.” When Gonzales is not at LunaSol working, or at home with her family, she is dancing, and Gonzales considers this art form to be yet another way she expresses her Xicano culture. “I studied dance when I was a young girl up until my teenage years, and I did not want to dance folklórico,” Gonzales said. “I was trained in ballet and modern [dance], but my mom told me, ‘You have to take a folklórico class!’ and I am so grateful that I did,” she said. “I just thought, ‘Wow, this is my culture? How come I don’t know more of it,’ Every time I’d have a performance  and I’d take off my traje, I’d feel so disconnected. I didn’t want to take it off.”

In October and November of last year, Gonzales was the choreographer, costume designer (along with her mother,) and Artist Director for El Circo Anahuac, an Azteca opera that follows the tragic love story of Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl, twin volcanoes located outside of Mexico City. The opera took place at LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes in L.A. and was a huge success. El Circo Anahuac made the front page of the Los Angeles Times’ “Calendar” section, and this made Gonzales feel like her world had been turned upside down — but in the best of ways. Gonzales even danced in the opera! Performing in El Circo Anahuac and bringing it to life through her choreography and artistic vision was just another way Gonzales was able to “reclaim [yet] another part of [her] #Cultural #Art dreams,” and she shared these feelings with her Instagram followers during the last weekend of the production. 

“I have these goals that I want to implement,” she said, “and I am not a corporation — I’m a person. It is my soul that’s coming out [in my work], and I don’t mind sharing that.” Gonzales’ appreciation of Xicano art and Xicano culture continues to inform not only her positions as a mother and store owner, but as an artist and dancer as well. Whether through the items and paintings she chooses to feature in her store, through the stories she tells, or through her love for dance, Gonzales wants to make connections — for herself and her family, and for the betterment of the Xicano community. Gonzales understands how important it is to talk about the history of our community, and “why we need to continue to push forward and strive.” According to Gonzales, “Chicano art is all a part of that.” 

If you are interested in Xicano art, or dance, would enjoy an anecdote or two about Gonzales’ travels across Mexico (like the time she taught dance to Zapatistas in Chiapas), or just love beautiful things, then make sure to visit LunaSol Mexican Vintage. The shop is open from 11:30 a.m. – 2:30 p.m. on Wednesday through Saturday, and from noon to 4 p.m.on Sundays. On Mondays and Tuesdays, the shop is reserved for appointments. If you’d like to make an appointment, you can call the shop at (562) 201-9415. Also, make sure to follow LunaSol on Facebook and Instagram for updates on new items and sales. @LunaSolMexicanVintage!