Squeezed between a dance academy and a crepe restaurant in Downtown Fullerton is Blanquel Popular Art, a furniture and art shop bursting with Mexican culture; it’s filled with paintings of Frida Kahlo, sugar skulls and a wood carving of the tree of life, transporting shoppers to Mexico in the middle of Orange County.
The shop is run by Florencio Blanquel. He was born and raised in Mexico, and in 1968 he opened a similar furniture warehouse in Guadalajara with his brothers.
“For my family, for my brothers, we all worked so hard over there,” Florencio said, speaking Spanish.
He began showing off his furniture with makeshift exhibitions he held in his home in Mexico. As his wife Gloria showed people around, his intricate woodwork started to garner a solid reputation.
These at-home exhibitions transformed the family-run furniture shop into a popular business in Mexico. Florencio’s furniture was featured in exhibits, rodeos and even in music videos by Vicente Fernández, a famous singer in Mexico.
With a successful business, it would have been easy for Blanquel to raise his family in Mexico. His wife Gloria and children, Rodrigo, Victor and Rebeca, could’ve had a comfortable life, but comfortable was not enough for Florencio.
When he told his wife that he wanted to move their family to the United States, she wasn’t sold on the idea.
Raised in Oakland, California, Gloria knew the problems her children could face. Drugs, gangs and riots were part of Gloria’s childhood and she feared that it would be a part of her kids’ as well.
Florencio convinced her this is what was best for the family, and in 1989 they moved their family to the United States.
“I came here with no fear. I had no idea where I was going, which state. I had never driven on a freeway, but here I was driving in my truck,” Florencio said.
Family friends in Burbank offered the family a place to stay at for a while, but Florencio wanted to find a place and life of his own.
Florencio was turned down many times by landlords before they were able to find a place in Rosemead, California.
He found a home, but finding a job was just as difficult. Florencio worked at a furniture shop in El Monte, California but decided against staying there.
“They didn’t want to pay me how much I needed to make rent because I didn’t speak English,” Florencio said.
He started to sell cookware when he realized it was a more lucrative business, and he was right.
The profits he made from Royal Prestige Cookware allowed Florencio to buy his home in Rosemead.
Still, his quiet affinity for furniture lingered. While selling cookware, he was collecting furniture from stores going out of business.
“My house was full of (furniture),” Blanquel said.
On his way to Anaheim for business, he drove by an empty store in Downtown Fullerton.
After 10 years in America, Blanquel started toying with the idea of selling furniture again. He asked his family what they thought about opening a furniture business in California, but they already knew that’s where his heart was at.
“That’s his passion. That’s what he likes, that’s what he wanted. That’s always what he wanted,” Gloria Blanquel said.
Eleven years after moving to California, Blanquel Popular Art was opened on Harbor Boulevard.
At 75, Florencio energy and enthusiasm seems endless. He welcomes customers who walk into his store with “¡Hola!” and a warm smile.
The furniture is made from recycled wood from people who’ve called and offered it to him. He said he enjoys reusing wood because he likes recreating something from the Earth.
“I tell the wood ‘I’m going to bring something good from you,’” he said.
He uses table saws to shape larger parts and hand chisels to carve out details. He spends most of his day woodworking, often skipping lunch to continue his work.
Florencio said it’s important to represent Mexico authentically. His work and business is intended to tell a story of a culture filled with tradition and history.
Florencio’s eldest son, Rodrigo, has noticed the influence the business has had on the community.
“People are actually happy that we’re sharing a lot of the stories or the folklore that the Mexican culture has,” Rodrigo said.
Florencio left Mexico nearly 29 years ago. One furniture business, three grandchildren and a lot of wood furniture later, he still hasn’t forgotten the reason behind his decision.
“I did not come here looking for work. I didn’t come here to make money. I came to give my kids opportunity of a different type of life,” Blanquel said.
Yaresly Sanchez-Aguilera and Tatiana Diaz translated Spanish interviews for this story.