I Left My Heart in San Fernando
Photos by Michael PowersLast month, San Fernando hosted its seventh annual Menudo Festival, a four-day event of cheap carny rides, warm churros and kettle corn, street merchants peddling everything from fake Mayan artwork to silver jewelry to handout sheets of homes for sale in the neighborhood (even in this largely working-class, Latino city of 23,000, the median price for a house has risen above $500,000), and, of course, samples of the hearty soup. At the same time, the adjacent San Fernando Mall (the tiny two-block heart of the citys downtown area) sat calmly and quietly, almost oblivious to the buzzing activity just next door. Its like this every weekend: a steady stream of customers and passersby strolling up and down San Fernando Road between Brand and San Fernando Mission boulevards, where the only crowds youll see are kids surrounding the sliced-fruit and corn-on-the-cob carts, and the only loud noise youll hear is the norteño polka beats thumping out of a low-rider truck. And the parking just as in any part of Southern California thats not the Westside, Hollywood or downtown L.A. is plentiful and free.This Mission City home of the San Fernando Mission, built by Franciscans in 1797, not long after the founding of Los Angeles is one of those diamonds in the rough (that being the very gray and industrial East San Fernando Valley) youll probably discover only by accident while driving through North Hollywood, Van Nuys, Pacoima or Mission Hills. Think of it as a microscopic, cleaner and commuter-friendly version of downtown L.A. (the area even prints its own Spanish-language rag, the San-Fer), comprising mostly swap-meet-style shopping, furniture and shoe stores displaying their sale items on the sidewalk, quick-stop eateries, a bar or two, and a lone Chinese restaurant. San Fernando Road If youre looking for authentic cowboy gear, walk into Jims Western Wear, and youll practically see the tumbleweeds roll across your path: typical vaquero fashions, such as Opry-style suits from leather to fringed suede to gunmetal gray, and shirts adorned with embroidered roses, decks of cards, Southwestern designs, and serape colors of red, yellow and blue. Theres an entire wall of felt and straw Stetsons (Los Tigres del Norte have their own line) that go for more than $200, and cowboy boots, conveniently located next to the reptile conditioners and leather and saddle soap, that sell for up to $500. And what would this look be without a Lone Starsize belt buckle emblazoned with Cowboy Till Death or Texan Pride? When in Rome, also listen as the Romans do: Mi Musica has Latin and South American musical selections from Mexican regional to Andean flute, in addition to rock, metal and, depending on whats in the CD player, bad new wave blaring from the speakers. This place is as funky as anything youd find on Melrose, what with all the Che paraphernalia, punk rock Ts, patches, bumper stickers and, get this, clocks. (Who better to tell time to than Bob Marley smoking herb?)The only recognizable stores are the Payless and Ritmo Latino, in addition to the Dollar Tree and the one-level JC Penney, with the saddest cosmetics-perfume counter youll ever see, which bookend the mall. Its convenient shopping for the locals, but if youre a visitor checking out the area for the first time, youll no doubt notice the abundance of bridal boutiques. Eleven of them. With names like Fantasy and Romance. Thats a lot of tulle for such a small stretch of land.Not walking down the aisle yet? Fifteen years past your quinceañera? Only got another Why, in my day . . . speech for your Sweet Sixteen? Doesnt matter. The magnetic force of the mannequins in the display windows will pull you in not unlike a bar or strip club along Bourbon Street. And behold! The tiaras, scepters, kneeling pillows for the birthday girl, ring pillows for the bride and groom, cake figurines, cake-cutting knives, toasting glasses, champagne fountains, photo albums, porcelain dolls, crystal rosaries and lazos this is what all those years of Barbie dress-up mustve been about. And everything is embroidered. With all the planning, preparation and accessories involved, a wedding and quinceañera in Latin culture look almost one and the same: first church, then big partay. Plus, the all-important court of torture victims bridesmaids and ushers, or damas and chambelanes where the debutante is concerned. Men have it easy with the tuxes and zoot suits (some stores even rent out military uniforms), but women obviously have much more variety. While the wedding gowns are your typical cheap satin numbers, with beading on top and tulle on the bottom, the more elaborate quinceañera gowns (colors vary) are a cross between Miss USA 1984 and Gown With the Wind: quarter-length frilly sleeves, hoop skirts big enough to hide your entire court under, and corsets youd have to wrap your hands around a bedpost to fit into. Theres a plastic Scarlett OHara in every corner, looking back at you. Of course, no girl can come of age without a hairdo of fried, crispy, over-glittered sausage curls dangling from her head. And wouldnt you know theres a nearby hair salon for that, not to mention a photography/videography studio advertising itself with the requisite cheesy pictures birthday girl surrounded by fake clouds for background, married couple under a gazebo (he holding his chin, she carrying a parasol) all over its window? Its one-stop shopping here. And if you think youve seen enough satin, Marias Boys and Girls Wear has wall-to-wall baptism gowns. There will be a wet, screaming baby boy this Sunday, somewhere out there, dressed as a midget pope. Bridal wave: Shopping at Maria's Boys and Girls Wear. After the first few, or nine, of these boutiques, youll walk out feeling like youre surrounded by your own imaginary puffs of cloud. But we couldnt help but be impressed by Lilis Bridal, the mother-of-the-bride of them all, with its waist-high plastic Roman columns, more praying baby-angel figurines than youd find at the Vatican gift shop, and enough silk-flower bouquets to make all of San Fer look like spring in Rotterdam. Measuring tape and planning books are strewn about the tables, along with a display of table and chairs decorated with fancy linen and ribbons, and a Do Not Touch sign sits in the corner. The minute a customer walks in, the salesgirls start sizing up her neck and waistline. All this, and a giant heart-shaped balloon arch, too. Everyone should have a balloon arch to stand under and wave in beauty-pageant motion. Everyone.Bitterness can work up quite an appetite, so you head over to Don Carlitos Raspados and Tortas and find happiness in the form of a toasted three-cheese sandwich or slushee. In these still-warm November days, therell no doubt be long lines waiting to get to the cool concoctions: fruit juices in all flavors; the rice-milk drink horchata and Mexicos answer to the Bloody Mary, the Vampiro; aguas frescas available in tamarind and the hibiscus-flavored jamaica; and raspados (snow cones) that you can top with condensed milk. But beware of the one called Diablito. It involves lots of spices. Right next door, Los Reyes Bakery, a typical panadería, sells cookies, empanadas, and slabs of crispy bread sprinkled with sugar that go for a mere 50 cents. And next door to that is El Bondolero Carnicería, a tiny, narrow meat market boasting different cuts of beef, chorizo, and packets of spices and seasonings from dried hibiscus to chile pods. Concrete benches are everywhere. But if youre looking for a slightly more scenic place to sit and chip away at your snow cone, the cobblestone El Paseo walkway (hot-dog and cell-phone stands on one end, rollaway carts selling metal CDs and more punk rock Ts on the other) is perfectly tucked into the middle of the mall and serves as a sort of nook of historical information. Just above the mosaic-tiled fountain hang street banners, courtesy of the San Fernando Valley Historical Society, with photographs of San Fernando Union High School in 1901, and the San Fernando baseball team in 1908, as well as images of the citys early years dating back to the 1800s. Pretty significant, considering that San Fernando, founded in 1874, is also known as the First City of the Valley.
1. Jims Western Wear 1123 San Fernando Road (818) 361-8945
2. Lilis Bridal 1015 San Fernando Road (818) 898-3468
3. Mi Musica 1029 San Fernando Road (818) 361-4299 4. Marias Boys and Girls Wear 1122 San Fernando Road (818) 361-3332 5. Don Carlitos 1143 San Fernando Road (818) 838-1578 6. Los Reyes Bakery 1147 San Fernando Road (818) 361-0937 7. El Bondolero Carnicería 1149 San Fernando Road (818) 365-4365
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