Stepping into Los Angeles’ original center of commerce, its self-proclaimed and preserved birthplace, a quest to find jumping beans seemed too commonplace, too insignificant.
Olvera Street, otherwise known as El Pueblo Historic Monument, an established department of the city with 27 different sites, is a happening tourist attraction, rife with overwhelming colors, fragrances and authentic tidbits of Mexico.
Look left as strolling mariachi musicians stop to serenade random couples enjoying time-honored dishes, right as Asian nuns purchase hand-painted statues of saints and up and down the historic street, as the equivalent of a tiny corner of Tijuana unfolds, only with cheaper wares and probably cleaner restrooms.
Crossing “Aloe Vera” Street, as my brothers call it, at approximately 2:30 p.m. last week Saturday, I walked into an animated scene; a plaza alive with salsa music where a few brave couples turned their backs to the growing crowd to showcase sexy traditional steps.
One man idly moved to the spicy sounds emitted from the stereo with his cozy sweater-wrapped Chihuahua.
The smell of toasting churros silently revolving behind glass panels inside an old-fashioned red buggy, which stood near a large stuffed burro, greeted passersby slowly making their way into the hub of it all.
Calla lilies made of corn husks, brightly woven blankets and scarves, sombreros of all sizes, Dia de Los Muertos memorabilia galore, handcrafted pottery representative of Hispanic artists such as Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, multi-hued guitars personalized for a minimal fee of $8.95, genuine leather belts, purses and barrettes reminiscent of the 1970s, inexpensive candy with bug centers and a plaza with a wishing well were only a few of the main attractions.
As I tried to absorb the organized chaos created by the running sea of handbags, wrestling masks and T-shirts that read “powered by frijoles,” the rest of my family ventured into the shop to my right.
Snapping pictures of the wide assortment of mini guitars and baskets of sombreros, I ducked in behind them to look at Los Angeles souvenirs — postcards, magnets and snow globes — before discovering more traditional wares.
Large painted crosses, bells, salt and pepper shakers, miscellaneous holy items with images of the Virgin Mary emblazoned across them, along with incense and altar odds and ends sat on cluttered shelves, made enticing by “you break, you buy” signs.
I was cautious as I picked through shot glasses decorated with lively skeletons, finding the nameless shop to be a good source of plaques dedicated to the dead, or even the living, as I took note of mock skeleton versions of the Beatles, AC/DC, Elvis and KISS, all rocking out of their bones inside decorative display cases.
Drifting on, stopping to take pictures of Lupe’s Candy Shop, where lollipops containing tequila type worms and insects were quickly purchased, a small sign that read “Memo’s Place” caught my attention, as did the 75 cent earring signs. Delighted to explore the cheap jewelry, my sister and I wandered into another big “lookie-lou” of sorts.
Wooden tear drops painted in green, orange, black and white soon hung from my ears, though many stones, funky-shaped pieces of silver and plastic and colorful feathers at prices that ranged from 75 cents to $1.95 were hard to resist.
I also skimmed over statues of St. Jude, one of the most bought items Rosario Garcia, a saleswoman at the quaint shop, said.
“We have different kinds of merchandise from different parts of Mexico and people can find many things here,” she said, recommending that I visit the Avila Adobe, the oldest house in Los Angeles turned living memorial to ancient times just beyond the door.
The rich smell of genuine leather drew me into the next shop, a warehouse of leather goods or cowboy heaven.
Armando Murrillo, proprietor of the family-owned business known as Murrillo Leather, enveloped customers in warm conversation, offering a little girl candy as he worked on adding a “hippie bag” bedecked with red flowers to a rack of its friends hanging above the tall counter that served as the entrance to the shop.
He said leather bracelets, whether reading everything from “rock ‘n’ roll” and “love” to various namesakes or designed in intricate patterns, were the backbone of the business.
“Everything on [Olvera Street] used to be handcrafted and now it’s a lot more commercial but what I do here is still authentic,” Murrillo said.
“We haven’t stopped manufacturing these bracelets in 35 years,” he added.
Olverita’s Village contained the most appealing assortment of Dia de Los Muertos merchandise, centering on large skeleton statues, my favorite of which was a Scarlet O’ Hara type who sat gracefully on a dresser stool, a cigarette fixed in her bony fingers, her features expressive despite a lack of skin and organs.
Christmas had seemingly arrived early as pine trees ornamented with hand painted bells, figurines, and a mosaic of classic bulbs, fulfilled their destinies throughout the store.
Further down the way, Bazaar de Mexico housed authentic clothing, blankets, maracas, bark paintings, tortilla warmers, symbolic charms, rosaries and Guatemalan sashes, among other things.
A white-haired lady purchased a mortar and pestle, and my youngest brother, sick from one too many taquitos, trailed behind as I picked up vase after vase and statue after statue, recognizing a woman known as Maria.
Leaving Bazaar De Mexico with a Maria statue wearing a woven blue shawl, I walked away with a small part of the historic city street.
I became wrapped up in the atmosphere, but there was simply not enough time in the day to explore each notable aspect of the street, or even to browse the curio shops a plenty; especially with two youngsters in tow upset to find that jumping beans were only seasonal treats.
At 4:40 p.m., it was nearing dark, as we watched a man play one of the small guitars I had wandered by earlier.
He smiled, allowing me to capture a few more memories in a rare tourist experience.
Piling back into the car a few moments later, I knew I had more than my statue of Maria to remember my first trip to the celebrated pueblo by, promising my brothers another jaunt to continue our search for the elusive jumping beans and myself a chance to explore the museums — perhaps insignificant, but proof that even Los Angelenos can be strangers in their own town.
As it turns out, “Aloe Vera” is good for more than just scrapes and burns.
Kady Bell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.