Texas Folklife's Yard Show
The stories in Yard Show build vivid pictures of home that is more than just real estate and property values. Yard Show offers a lens for people to view their own communities, especially those overlooked neighborhoods where forgotten public histories and private memories may contribute to a greater sense of place.
Research on the history of landscape design usually focuses on formal, elite gardens to document their size, location and inventory, and the philosophical intent of the architect, owner or designer. In contrast, the study of vernacular landscapes is devoted to analyzing how an individual’s connection to a larger ethnic or cultural group is expressed through recognized patterns, practices and vocabulary. For example, Yard Show examines how the found objects at the home of Cleveland “Flower Man” Turner are transformed into actors in his life’s narrative as they surround him with memories of his mother’s garden. Art historian Robert Farris Thompson has remarked on the kinship of Mr. Turner’s work to the “yard shows” found in African American communities throughout the southern United States. This profound connection to cultural heritage is also evident at “Casa de Azúcar,” the El Paso home of Rufino Loya, where his highly embellished property and house are inspired by his memories of the ornately carved wood and stone and the beautifully crafted iron work of Mexican churches. (See Linda Ho Peche’s interview with Mr. Loya from 2005 below)
These places have many meanings in the lives of the makers—they might be memorials, reliquaries and sacred spaces, or sculptural fantasies, landmarks or sites for the display of collections, visions of paradise, or even acts of reclamation for a depleted landscape. They may be seen as acts of civic generosity, creating spaces inviting to casual interactions with neighbors and strangers. As vernacular landscapes are rapidly replaced by new developments, people in every community might ask themselves, “What are those qualities that make my hometown special, and are worth celebrating and protecting?”
El Paso’s Pride
La Casa de Azucar: The House of Sugarby Lindo Ho Peché
Every morning, by a certain street corner beside the freeway in El Paso’s Northeast side, people bless themselves on their way to work. The hand-crafted cement altar of the Lady of Guadalupe at 4301 Leavell Street certainly calls the attention of many passers-by, but one quickly sees that there are more extraordinary things ahead. Rufino Loya has dedicated years of his life into decking his entire yard and home exterior in delicately crafted and painted concrete figures and tin-worked designs. Not one area is left untouched, or unpainted.
Beginning in 1973, Mr. Loya spent months molding concrete into the ornate flowers and designs that grace the blue, white, and adobe-colored west wall of his front yard. He spent hundreds of hours creating the altar to the Sagrado Corazón de Jesus that welcomes people at his front gate. Within his gates, he lovingly molded a pillar with intricate designs and placed an angel statue on the top. His most recent work is a monument dedicated to the victims of 9/11. Flowers cut out of tin and metal decorate the lining of his roof and lace through his iron gates. The well-known altar to the Virgen de Guadalupe is on the outside of his eastern wall, facing the freeway. Every December 12th, on the religious holiday dedicated to the Lady, people bring flowers and candles to the site, mariachis serenade the Virgin, and sometimes, matachínes make a pilgrimage from the nearby church. Folks outside of the neighborhood have taken note of Mr. Loya’s work as well. The home has been visited by a Texas Senator, the president of a human rights organization from Washington D.C., museum directors, art gallery owners, engineers, architects, and local college students. The Casa de Azucar, The House of Sugar, as Mr. Loya calls it, has been featured in The El Paso Times newspaper, and the local television channels. It took Mr. Loya 23 years to finish this work to his satisfaction, and he is proud that so many people have taken interest. Today, he continues the laborious task of maintaining his life’s work, “even now, I do little things,” he says.
In a recent visit with Mr. Loya, he explained that his influence came from the cantera stonework prevalent throughout Mexico. During his vacations to the interior of Mexico, he was inspired by the decorative Spanish colonial-style architecture of many churches and colonial-era buildings. Cantera stonework is generally chiseled and hand-carved, but as Mr. Loya aptly put it, you have to work with what you have around you. “How did you learn how to work with concrete in this way? Did you work in construction?” I asked. “No,” he responds, “I was a radio technician in Juarez.” He begins his story like many immigrants do—beginning with the circumstances that led him to a life in the United States. Mr. Loya came to the United States in the early 1960s as a black-and-white television repairman, and he was subsequently offered a position in California. After he realized that the cost of living was much higher in California, he decided to return to Texas in 1963 and set roots in El Paso. Like many folks from his generation, he remembered crossing the border freely with a daily passport to shop with his family. “I decided to return to El Paso because I understand the people of El Paso, much like I understand the people of Juarez,” he said. “Fortunately, El Paso received me with open arms. I started from zero, but here I felt that I went slowly but I was going somewhere.” Mr. Loya worked in two textiles companies in El Paso, including Levi’s, for 26 years. It afforded him the opportunity to purchase his home in 1973 and begin the design and maintenance of his life’s work.
Many people come by often to ask Mr. Loya questions about his self-taught craft. He explains how to mix the cement, and how to make the molds during their short visits. What would he teach an apprentice, one might ask? He would first teach them how to mix the materials and cement. Then, he would show them how to create the molds for the flower designs, and fill them with the cement material, waiting some time before taking the molds off, little by little. When the flower, stem, and petals have dried, then one would learn how to glue them together on a cement block or fence line, well enough to last 30 years. Lastly, one would apply the paint. In the end, an apprentice would learn how to maintain the work.
Mr. Loya explained to me that Mexico is filled with colonial buildings, but that all the master cantera carvers were from Zacatecas. In the same manner, Mr. Loya has a dream that it be known that this skill and craft was born in El Paso, Texas. He says, “I love El Paso because it has treated me well, it has gone very well for me here, and I have no complaints. Sometimes it is hard, you suffer, and work, but one sees that you have enough to live.” Sadly, he notes that not many people have the time, commitment, and dedication needed to pursue this type of craft. “A lot of people come, and they like it so it makes me happy,” he said. “They are impressed because of all the work.” Work, would be an appropriate description. Mr. Loya spent 700 hours the west wall alone, not to mention 300 hours each for the Virgen de Guadalupe and Sagrado Corazon de Jesus altars. He understands that his skill is a unique art, valued not necessarily for the fine materials, but for the amount of labor, skill, and detailing involved in the craft. As Mr. Loya explains, “it’s not the value of the material--it’s only cement block--it’s not fine material like they use in Mexico. In Zacatecas, they make whole fountains with angels on top. They are beautiful things that I don’t know how to make. That is another skill and profession, with perfect symmetry and fine work. Mine is a different art.” Indeed, you would not want to miss this unique artwork on your next visit to El Paso, Texas. Plus, you may be able to take a lesson or two on the craft of Mr. Loya’s fine work.