From the UCLA Labor Center and KPFK we bring you re:work. I’m Saba Waheed
SR: And I’m Stefanie Ritoper. Some of Los Angeles’s neighborhoods date back over a hundred years. They hold rich stories of the people that come through its streets. When we were producing an episode on the garment district in Los Angeles called Los Callejones, Vanessa Moreno, who works with us on the show, revealed the very special relationship she had with the garment district while growing up in Tijuana. She set off to interview her mother and grandmother about their memories of the neighborhood and found a cross border story that spans four generations.
[MUSIC: “Tijuana Makes Me Happy” – Nortec Collective]
VO: When I got accepted into UCLA, I screamed with joy. Los Angeles is where I wanted to be. I grew up in Tijuana, but had been coming to L.A. since I was a little kid. My family’s business was a bridal shop and our main source of supplies was Downtown LA’s garment district. On weekends, my great-grandma (who I call “bis,” for bisabuela), my grandma, my mom and I would all pile into the car and make the trip from Tijuana, Mexico to Los Angeles.
[Cont] … I remember the shops, filled to the brim with all sorts of event paraphernalia, color coordinated to go with the theme of your wedding or first communion. I was in awe of all the colorful fabrics and accessories. One of the most important trips to the garment district for me involved traveling there for party favors for my first communion. Everything needed to be just right. I picked out the prettiest blue figurines of a little girl praying. I remember feeling so excited to bring them back, a mixture of joy and nervousness for my big day. But I took the trip far fewer times than the elder women of my family did. For three generations, the women in my family made the same journey up to the garment district.
MOM: Well, we would come to shop in LA once or twice per month to stock up on supplies. There were always a lot of beautiful things. We bought fabrics, headpieces, embroidered jewelry, finished dresses too. First we would go to the area around 7th and Los Angeles Street. When we were done, we would go to los callejones and we bought extra things either for ourselves or for the store. Costume jewelry, dresses for weddings or whatever, and we would buy it there and sell it in Mexico. Those were good times.
VO: That was my mom. She basically grew up in our bridal shop in Tijuana.
MOM: Our business was just around the corner from our house. It was a bridal shop. We sold wedding dresses, but also quinceañera dresses, first communion dresses, formal dresses, and cocktail dresses…
VANESSA: Can you tell me a bit more about when you younger? What would you do in the store? Would you embroider? Did you work the register?
MOM: Well, I embroidered, made bouquets, sewed a bit and made sales. One time, your grandma got really sick, she was out of work for two months and I had to take over along with your great grandma. I was in charge of opening and closing the store. I had to make sales, get measurements for our customers, do try-ons, pin the dresses, and have them ready for the customers to wear. It was a very tiring time for me because I would work from 9 to 9.
VO: When my mom tells me these stories, I try to imagine how hard it must have been for them to run a local, family business. It really was a family effort. Whether it was my bis, my grandmother, or my mom, everyone chipped in and made the shop function. It’s not easy. The days were often long and they had to fill in for each other if someone got sick. But I also hear the deep love the family had for the shop.
[MUSIC: “She Works Hard For The Money” – Donna Summer]
VO: Every couple of weeks, my mother and grandmother would cross the border to get to Los Angeles. It was a different time then. Being able to come over from Tijuana for an afternoon of shopping in the garment district was no problem. Not like today, with border security much tighter. Now, whenever I go home during the school breaks, it takes an hour or more to cross the border.
[Cont] … My mom has a lot of fond memories of shopping in the garment district and specifically, los callejones. That’s the name locals, particularly the Latino community, give to the alleyways in the garment district. If you’ve never heard of it, los callejones are downtown alleys filled with wholesale and retail vendors. It’s vibrant, bustling, always filled with people–business owners, teenagers, families–all looking for a bargain. Even when I was in my mother’s womb, I loved that place. My mom says that I wanted to come out in the midst of all that bustle.
VO: Can you tell me the story of when you almost gave birth to me in the callejones?
MOM: Well, I was pregnant with you and in one of our trips to stock up, around April. The drive was long and intense. We finally got to the Garment District but in those days there was a lot of crime. So I remember that your grandma and I wouldn’t get out of the car because sometimes pickpockets would yank your purse and rob you. So instead I would drop off your grandma and while she shopped I would drive around. One time, I was going around and around the block and I started to get sick. Afterwards, the gynecologist told me that the heat from the car’s engine was inducing labor and starting my contractions. So I parked close by and got out and walked around. And of course I went to the callejones! I mean, I needed to pass the time somehow right? I felt sick but I thought I should walk it off because I just could not stand it anymore. So I went to the callejones to shop.
V: So you were about to give birth and you went shopping?
MOM: Yes, well you wanted to go shopping with me already.
V: Like always.
MOM: Yeah, that was my last trip up before you were born. You were born in July and in I went back in September.
VO: Having a family business meant a lot to my family. As a family of three generations of single women, it was a source of economic stability, and hope for a better future.
V: And having the store helped out the family a lot, right?
MOM: The store didn’t give us everything, but the earnings definitely helped us out with what we have today. From material things to education for the whole family.
V: Yeah. That is how you were able to get your degree right?
MOM: Yes, I was able to get my degree in Accounting and that is how you were all able to get to where you are- because of the hard work we put in.
VO: And for me, it was a place where I had some of my earliest memories. On weekends and vacations, I would spend a lot of time in the shop, sometimes doing my homework, sometimes playing, sometimes learning about the business.
MOM: Well, you would make your bouquets. Your great grandma showed you how to make bouquets and headpieces and we would soon put them on display to sell.
V: And they actually sold or were you just playing?
MOM: Well, that I don’t know. They put a price tag on them and everything.
VO: I later went on to design my first communion dress. At 8 years old, I was lucky enough to have one of my doodles turned into the real thing. My dress was cream colored, made out of the most beautiful tulip print fabric. I felt like the luckiest girl in the world to have my “fairy grandmothers” make my dreams come true.
VO: My little brother also grew up in the store.
V: Do you remember when my brother got lost?
MOM: Yeah, he left the store! Your grandma was so worried. Your brother had just started walking. The showcases were so much taller than him, so when he ran out, your grandma did not realize that he had left. He turned the street corner and was headed towards the stationary store where they sold toys and colorful things. We were lucky the neighbors knew us and one of the ladies that worked in a boutique around the corner knew your brother was your grandma’s grandson. She picked him up and brought him back.
[MUSIC: “Go Je Je” – Antibalas]
VO: Before my mom would make trips to the garment district, her mother (my grandmother) used to go as well. I interviewed my grandma at her house in Tijuana, a house that my great grandmother bought with her earnings from the store. It’s a four bedroom house in a part of Tijuana called El Paraiso, paradise. It has an imposing white iron fence that’s about 10 feet high. To the left, there’s a huge bougainvillea vine, and to the right there is a towering chinese pine tree. Inside, my bis chose classic decor, with three chandeliers on the first floor and a wooden banister that leads up the stairs. It’s a house that they say will one day be mine and my brother’s. It’s the only house I consider to be my home.
V: At 83 years old, my grandma vividly remembers the streets and the shops of the Los Angeles garment district where they used to shop.
GRANDMA: First of all, the fabrics… the fabrics there on 7th and Los Angeles, I think that those fabric stores are still there. We use to go to buy brooches, zippers, buttons, we went to the “Handy Button” company to buy supplies for the button making machine. And then, on Main Street was the sewing machine store, we would go there to buy needles for the machines, bobbins, and new machines if the old ones broke… yes, rhinestones… there were so many things we would go to buy in Los Angeles.
[Cont] … All the stores were close by, and you could just go around the block and end up in the jewelry store, “Hyman Hendler” was here and cross the street there was “Sydney Stern,” the same thing with all the different suppliers, they were all on the same block.
VO: One of her favorite stores was called Star Textiles, which still exists in the same location, but with a different name.
GRANDMA: They were really good people, really really nice and I remember that my mom went to Star and told them, listen, I’m going to talk to my daughter to see if she sold something [over in the store in Tijuana] and if she did, I’ll send her to deposit money in the bank and I’ll buy what I need from you here. And they would let her use the store’s phone. My mom would call me and ask, Hija, have you sold something? Yes, Mamá, I sold a wedding dress for $200. Ok, she would say, well, run and deposit the money quickly so we can spend it here.
VO: So how did the bridal shop get started? That story goes back even one more generation, to my great-grandmother, my “bis,” in the year 1947.
GRANDMA: Well, the store where your “Bis” was working in Los Angeles closed down and they gave her all the clothing they had left in stock. Those clothes were very sparkly, very elegant, kind of cabaret style. So my mom said, well, I’m going to sell these clothes and she bought some mannequins and dressed them up. Then a lot of working girls started to arrive on Avenida Revolucion and when they saw the fancy dresses, they right away started buying them..
VM:Wait — so, the store started out selling to prostitutes first?
GRANDMA: Yes, our first clients were prostitutes because it was clothing for, for that–but those dresses were given to her, she didn’t buy them…
V: So first the business was for prostitutes and then my “bis” got tired of that and that’s why she chose bridal clothes, the opposite of that?
GRANDMA: Yes, well, just imagine – the women were out there sitting in front of the shop and were gossiping about, ay, this one doctor this, and this other engineer that, talking about their adventures with this guy and that guy. And she thought no, this isn’t going to work, my daughter is hearing all these stories! And from one day to the next she hired seamstresses and said, ok, we’re going to make something new, and they got to work cutting and sewing wedding dresses, one making one part of the dress, another making another, and then the call girl dresses disappeared, and when the ladies came by again they saw the store didn’t carry what they wanted anymore, and they didn’t come back.
VM: Sex work was obviously a taboo subject at that time.,. And that wasn’t the only new thing that I learned about my family while doing research for this episode. My grandma shared another family secret, one that not even my mom knew, during our interview. My grandma doesn’t usually like talking about her brother, Omar, who died serving in the US military during the Korean-American war. But as it turns out, when he died, the US government gave my Bis a stipend as is customary for families who lose children to military service.
GRANDMA: We opened the store with the money that we got from Omar’s death. At the time we didn’t have much money. My mom asked me, ‘what should we do with the money from your brother’s death?’ Should we buy a house? Instead, she decided to invest the money in the business. She bought machines, displays, merchandise–everything necessary to open up the store–and we were able to live off of that.
VO: This fact struck me – I always knew that my uncle had passed away, but I didn’t know how crucial this fact was to the fate of the store. And without the store, our lives would have been very different.
[MUSIC: “For Pepecito” – Mocky]
VO: Before they opened their own shop, my great grandmother worked out of her apartment as a seamstress, sewing shirts on a piece rate.
GRANDMA: My mom had a machine at home and she would sew in the house. We lived with Adelina’s aunts on Third St. She would make shirts for a man who had a store close by. He requested she make shirts that he would sell in the store. Her other job was to make fancy clothing, nighttime wear, for another store.
VO: It was so interesting to me that one tragic act that caused so much grief in my family also gave us the chance to start over and provide us with what we have today.
VM: Do you think having the store helped the family?
GRANDMA: Definitely, definitely.
VM: How did it help us?
GRANDMA: To live well, eat well. We owe everything to the store. Everything.
VO: The store was so important to our family – it’s what gave my family a chance to better themselves, put food on the table, and gave us money for our education.
[MUSIC: “Bonita Guadalajara” – Jorge Negrete]
VO: My great grandmother, my Bis, merits a whole show to herself. Her life was so interesting. First off, she was a seamstress and her designs soon became famous in Mexico.
GRANDMA: Sometimes she would see elegant dresses in wedding magazines and copy them. One time she made a dress that cost more than $1000 for a quinceañeara that was very, very beautiful. And when they did not want brides magazine dresses, she designed them. People came from Rosarito and Ensenada to come get their dresses designed and made there. We had a large clientele. Even people from Mexicali came because my mom had such great service and she could made them whatever they wanted. They would tell her they had an idea about a dress and ask if she could make it and since she was a great artist and great with a pencil, she would make the design exactly how they asked for it.
VO: But before all this, growing up, she had a hard time making it. She had worked as a teacher in Jalisco, Mexico, and traveled to the US where she aspired to be a designer, but she started as a seamstress. Her husband wasn’t very responsible and they were struggling to get by. So my bis picked up her kids and moved them to Los Angeles from San Francisco. My grandmother, her daughter, was 12 at the time. My bis found jobs working as a seamstress. But they still found it hard to find a place to live.
GRANDMA: My uncle Lencho, my Aunt Chabela, and my aunt Chayo stayed with us in Los Angeles, with Omar and me, living in a tent because everywhere we looked they did not want kids. We stayed in the backyard of house in exchange for taking care of the owner’s son. We lived for some time. I still remember that time in the tent up until I was 15 years old.
VO: On top of that, the wages and working conditions were horrible. So they decided to do something about it.
VM: Tell me about my great grandmother’s wild days in Los Angeles.
GRANDMA: Well, in the strikes, she was one of the people that would hold the banners and flags on the streets. My aunt Chabela, aunt Chayo and her were on the frontlines of the strike.
VM: And what were they protesting?
GRANDMA: Well they would protest for their salary, for higher wages.
VM: They didn’t pay them well? …
VM: As seamstresses?
GRANDMA: Yes, all three of them were seamstresses.
My tia Chayo, my tia Chabela and mom were agitators.
VM: They would agitate their coworkers??
GRANDMA: Yes, they were agitators and they usually got what they wanted.
VO: My great grandmother was an agitator in the 1940s. Labor rights runs in our family’s blood. And then, there was Hollywood.
[MUSIC: “I Used To Be Color Blind” – Ginger Rogers]
GRANDMA: You know, your great grandmother, she made really good quality clothes for a famous dancer…What was her name?
VM: Ginger Rogers
GRANDMA: Yeah that’s right, Ginger Rogers. Exactly, she made some very beautiful dresses for her and some really nice blouses for Lupe Velez, another Hollywood actress.
GRANDMA: My mom was very beautiful. Lupe Velez, saw her and told her that she was very pretty and she ought to be in films. My mom was so excited, but my grandfather did not let her and after she let the idea go.
VO: We’re talking about the late 1920s, early 1930s here. My great grandmother and her siblings were fighting for fair wages. They were empowering other workers. She was designing clothes for Hollywood stars and being offered roles. But like I said, it was the thirties, which means, that women were still battling for their own rights within the home. All this independence wasn’t going over well in her own marriage. Here’s mom again:
MOM: She was very independent. Like extremely independent. In those days, a woman that worked was not respected by men. Unfortunately, my grandpa was very macho. They had many problems. My grandpa never accepted her independence and self-sufficiency. And wasn’t the most faithful to say the least.
VO: My Bis was a tough woman, and she was willing to break social norms if pushed.
V: I remember that my grandma told me a story of the first and last time he hit her?
MOM: Well, I didn’t want to talk about that, but yeah that was what happened.
V: What did she say exactly? “This is the first and last time you lay a hand on me”?
MOM: Yes, exactly. That was the first and last time.
VO: My great grandmother left her husband. And then, a fortuitous thing happened. The factory where she was working shut down in Los Angeles. This opened up the opportunity my Bis needed to leave LA, go back to Mexico and start her own business.
VO: When I hear these stories, of her adventures, of her creativity, of her self righteousness in the workplace and the home, I feel a deep sense of awe and respect.
[Cont] … Many things would have been different for our family if not for my great grandmother. She had an adventurous spirit. My Bis came to LA from Mexico, learned English and fashion design, was almost on the verge of accepting acting roles in Hollywood, and designed dresses for movie stars. She also became a union organizer and lived her life as a feminist ahead of her time, divorcing an abusive husband. She was truly a remarkable woman. I feel honored to be a part of this line of strong, independent women.
VO: Here’s my mom again:
V: Tell me a bit about my great grandma. How was she?
MOM: Your bis was very creative, intelligent, and jovial. She was always creating and inventing, always imagining making different designs, she was always drawing, designing dresses. Including for your dolls. She made a dress for your Barbie.
V: Yeah, I remember it was a wedding dress.
MOM: Wedding dresses were her passion. Why? I don’t know, but she loved it.
VO: When I think about my Bis, I think about a sepia-toned picture that my grandmother has in her room. My Bis has that sleek, short hairstyle that was all the rage in the twenties. She is looking off into the distance, doe-eyed, beautiful and strong.
MOM: Oh well, she was lovely. Very modern, always. Very original and innovative, always. She always like knowing and being in what was in style.
V: Yeah, and that’s why she named her business La Moda Femenina (translates to Women’s Fashion)
[MUSIC: “Vogue” – Madonna]
VO: My Bis opened the shop 60 years ago. When I grew up, the shop was also my playground. In the 1990s, the US and Mexico signed a free trade agreement, which increased poverty in the country, and in turn increased crime. The shops and business went down while the neighborhood became more dangerous for the family. After three generations, my mother and grandmother had to make the painful decision to close the shop. Soon after that, my bisabuela passed away.
[Cont] … But I still remember my bis’s last years. She always liked to be active. She played solitaire in her bedroom to keep her mind alert.
My bis was a teacher, fluently bilingual, and a seamstress. She gave our family a fighting chance in a world where money and privilege seem to be the only way for people to get a break. She financed our educations. She taught me english. She did all the things you weren’t supposed to do at that time – travel alone, work, study. She was the matriarch and anchor in our family. My bis was the woman I can only hope to be.
[MUSIC: “Sunday Jam” – Can]
Thanks to Vanessa Moreno, her mother and grandmother for sharing their memories of the garment district.
You’re listening to ReWork, a program of the UCLA Labor Center and KPFK. This show was produced by Vanessa Moreno, Citlalli Chavez, Nathan Moore, Stefanie Ritoper, Saba Waheed and Araceli Argueta. Voiceover dubbing by Blanca Soto and Ingrid Olin. Music supervision by Francisco Garcia Nava.
Visit our website at reworkradio.org or visit us on Facebook at forward slash reworkradio. You can also tweet your reactions to this show to @rework underscore radio or send us an email at rework@IRLE.ucla.edu
‘Til next time, rethink rework.
From the UCLA Labor Center and KPFK we bring you re:work. I’m Saba Waheed