In Los Angeles Mexican stores, huaraches are a common sight. Stroll down Olvera Street in downtown Los Angeles or visit Boyle Heights, and you’ll see prized sandals in all their shades, styles, and sizes hanging on strings or filling shelves at shoe stands. In these neighborhoods, especially before the coronavirus pandemic changed the city’s retail landscape, you’d find generations of huarache makers.
María Silva is one of them. For the past 23 years, she has sold huaraches and other handmade Mexican footwear at his Mas Sports store within the Boyle Heights Los Angeles Market.
Silva’s grandparents perfected the craft in their hometown, Sahuayo, Mexico, where his mother also learned to make huaraches. When Silva and his brothers were older, they too got into the business.
Silva, now 49, spent his childhood in Sahuayo painting and polishing huaraches at his family’s shoe store. “When there was a lot of work, I sanded the sole with a machine so it didn’t have deformities,” he said, pulling a brightly colored shoe from the shelf on the wall of his store during a visit late last year. Growing up, she cleaned, packed, and stuffed the sandals with newspapers to prevent damage.
When she started selling huaraches in Los Angeles years ago, they became a source of cultural pride for her. “It brings me a lot of happiness because now it’s not just Hispanics who buy them,” he said.
His clientele has grown to include black and white people, Filipinos, and tourists from around the world. “I feel happy because every day the tradition continues.”
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, huaraches have also saved lives. “A small businesswoman like me relies on day-to-day sales,” Silva said recently. “We don’t have the finances to survive a situation like this. The truth is that sales fell significantly. … But right now, thank God, what is really helping is the huarache ”.
Forced to close her store for five months this year, during which she received no federal financial aid, Silva has resorted to selling the sandals in the El Mercado parking lot, where vendors had been given the green light to reopen their businesses at the end. of August. At the time, that meant no more tennis shoes, sportswear, and other items Silva sold as well.
As tough as these pandemic times have been for vendors, the Mexican businesswoman said she has enjoyed working in the outdoor space. “I like it more. It looks cozy, it feels comfortable and it looks great”, she said. “It reminds you of your people.”
The Mexican huarache dates back to pre-Columbian times and has been traced to the rural communities of Yucatán, Michoacán, Guanajuato, and Jalisco. Each region of Mexico specializes in different styles of huaraches. Variations are influenced by the terrain and climate of an area.
The flexible, narrow strips of leather that are intertwined and often stained with bright, vivid paints are a recognizable huarache design. There are huaraches with heels and prints; others have a longer strap near the ankle to wrap the calf; and many feature a woven diamond shape on the front. There is the classic ‘El Pachuco’, considered among the most complicated huaraches designs. Others are ideal for peasants. Some are softer or more durable. They can be fastened, tied or slipped.
Previously associated primarily with Mexican farmworkers, the huarache gained prominence in the United States in the 60´s when hippies and surfers adopted the shoe as part of their laid-back, carefree style. (Even the Beach Boys sang wearing them on their 60´s hit “Surfin ‘USA”) Sandals have become more popular over the years, and can now be found in weekend markets, retail stores and countless sites online.
Brands and retailers like Quiksilver and Urban Outfitters have capitalized on the popularity of huaraches, selling pairs for around $ 63 and $ 100, respectively, sometimes more. Nike capitalized on fashion footwear in 1991 and launched the Air Huarache sneaker . Small independent stores in Los Angeles have also tapped into the market.
Years ago, when Francisco Álvarez and Óscar Yapor returned to Denver from a trip to Michoacán, Mexico, their lifelong best friends didn’t give much thought to the classic huaraches they brought with them.
However, on the streets, friends and local strangers admired the handmade brown leather sandals that they bought from a woman in a crafts market. “Where did you get them from?” They heard people pointing to the huaraches on their feet.
Suddenly the sandals looked a little different to the natives of Chihuahua, Mexico.
So Álvarez and Yapor, both 27, decided to try to meet the city’s demand. They bought their first batch of huaraches, about 100, at the huarachera in Sahuayo, a city nicknamed ‘Ciudad de los Huaraches’, and sold them in artisan markets around Denver.
They were an immediate success.
“In three or four months, we realized that this was probably more successful than we expected,” Yapor said. “This was just a side job we did on weekends to pay off college debt.”
It turned out to be much bigger than that. Álvarez, an architect, and Yapor, an industrial engineer, left their fields of study to become entrepreneurs, and moved to Los Angeles.
As their business grew, they opened a spacious and colorful store in Echo Park for their Spirit brand. After a trial as a retail store, they decided their brand would do better online, so they closed the store last December.
They continued to sell their sandals on their website starting at $ 85 a pair. In January, the duo opened a warehouse in downtown Los Angeles for their daily storage and operating needs.
Each huarache that Espíritu sells is handmade in Sahuayo. Through a partnership with the Mexican government, the business offers women escaping extreme circumstances the opportunity to recover with jobs helping make sandals.
“Our artisans teach them to do this so that we can give them immediate work as soon as they get out of jail, rehab or homelessness,” Yapor said. Immigrants and survivors of domestic violence also walk through its doors.
Unlike retailers that do not have an e-commerce platform, Espiritu has grown in sales during the pandemic. “People started looking for a little more comfort” and tracking huaraches while they were quarantined at home, Yapor said. “We started targeting the right customers and were able to expand our sales online. Much of the energy that we used to go to the markets, we were able to dedicate it online and create more inventory ”.
But this businessmen were not spared from the difficulties caused by the pandemic. For two months, they closed their manufacturing facilities in Sahuayo, where there was an outbreak of coronavirus infections. Still, they managed to keep paying wages and salaries, Yapor said. They were forced to work with the inventory they had and to find a way to create trade orders online so they could continue to sell huaraches.
Now, Spirit is thriving. Around June, Álvarez and Yapor launched a pastel-colored blog and huaraches to attract younger customers. A winter line of men’s and women’s sheepskin-lined huaraches is available on their site for $ 139 and $ 149 a pair, and their recent collaborations with mega-brands Topo Chico and Tapatío are a clear indicator of the boom in the Huarache business in Álvarez and Yapor.
Making huaraches is a laborious and time-consuming task. Ask artist Pilar Agüero-Esparza, who grew up watching her father make it in East Los Angeles.
Agüero-Esparza spent many summers and after-school hours watching her parents make huaraches from scratch in their small Boyle Heights store. When she and her siblings grew up, they were assigned the task of sanding and polishing the shoes and painting their edges.
As their huaraches became more popular, they began selling them in markets, Agüero-Esparza said. “On Saturdays they would take us to the El Monte market, we would set up the stall and they would pick us up at 4 in the afternoon,” he said. “And my sisters and my brother would be there selling the huaraches.”
His father, who came to the United States as a teenager, was a third-generation huarachero, but it was his shoe repair shop that inspired him to return to the trade. “Over the years, that was a slow business, so he thought, ‘What can I do?’ And that’s when he decided, ‘Hey, I can make huaraches.’
On a personal level, making huaraches was a pride for his father; it was her way of connecting with her culture and easing her homesickness, she said. “He was able to see where people could connect with Mexico, with this immigrant experience.”
Since the death of his father years ago, Agüero-Esparza has kept the trade and tradition alive; has had huaraches manufacturing workshops all over the world. “It’s something that is close to my heart,” he said, “to be able to make shoes.”
The traveling companion
“They tire you,” said Cesáreo Moreno, director of visual arts and chief curator of the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago, of his “indestructible” huaraches. “They are exhausting.”
Weighing in at 1.5 pounds per shoe, Moreno’s beloved sandals are made from old tire rubber, thick leather, and nails. He bought them about two decades ago in a market in the city of Oaxaca. They’re older than her kids, she said, and when she’s wearing them, they feel “like a summer travel buddy visiting after the thaw.”
Cesáreo Moreno bought these “indestructible” huaraches at least 18 years ago in the city of Oaxaca. They are older than his sons, he says, and each shoe weighs about 1.5 pounds.
It is a shoe “essentially Mexican … a humble icon of miscegenation that is loved and overlooked at the same time,” he said.
He suspects that the growing popularity of the huarache is rooted in a longing for the past.
“So many things that become popular within Mexican-American culture is nostalgia,” he said. “It’s the ability to wear something that aligns with your identity in a way that makes you proud of it and makes you think about your ancestors and their legacy.”
Every time he puts on his huaraches and meets someone from Mexico, it is usually the first thing they comment on, he said. “People have fallen in love with this old style shoe.”
Source: Los Ángeles Times
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