For the past month, Francisco Flores has been in search of pupusas, round flatbreads stuffed with your choice of meat, cheese, or veggies. He hoped to recruit a vendor who sells El Salvador’s national dish for his first Por Vida festival.
The September 24 festival at the Neighborhood Print Co. was in honor of his cousin Justin Flores, who was robbed and killed in Memphis in November. He’s hoping to tie together all the things he and his cousin loved: hip hop, art, dolls, and being Latino.
Flores, 33, is a Salvadorian graphic designer and graffiti artist who fuses Chicanx subcultural art forms with Memphis pride and curates a community of young Latinx artists.
“This will be a celebration of life and a celebration of Hispanic heritage and culture,” he said of the festival. More than 100 people attended the event for an evening of art, food, music and remembrance.
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Find community in Memphis
In 2007, Flores and his family moved from the Los Angeles suburbs to the Memphis area in search of a lower cost of living. He settled well in Memphis, but knew that finding an artist community like the one he had back home would take more work.
Raised in the San Fernando Valley, an area that is 42% Hispanic, Flores’ work became a product of Chicanx’s graffiti art scene. However, stylistic elements that he considered universal, he quickly learned to be regional. From what he knew, styles like the Old English letters, adopted by Latinx youth subcultures in Southern California, were much harder to come by in Memphis.
“My work is really inspired by Hispanic and Latino culture and caters to Latino culture,” he said. “I do a lot of big line art, a lot of big lettering, typography. And I like doing the things that I grew up with, that were in this household and that I’ve seen illustrated. I’ll use them with my own little style.”
Flores soon realized that there was no shortage of Latinx art in the city: the manifestations of rasquachismo—cultural expressions of chicanx made with existing materials—just looked different than he remembered from his childhood.
“I’ve definitely seen a few murals here in town that were more like fine art. There were a few places in Winchester that had something like restaurants or the mercadito with a mural on the side. And that was more traditional art,” he said.
He references other Latinx graffiti artists such as Sombie, whom he met while working on his mural, Nuevo Cero Uno, commissioned by Paint Memphis near the Carolina Watershed.
“I wanted to inject a bit of Spanish into the mix in a way. You always see the 901, but nobody really does it in Spanish,” he said. “Because the Spanish heritage, man, we have to keep this alive. It’s starting to pop, so I think it’s important to just do more of this stuff here. we need more There are a lot of good Spanish speaking artists around here who need the spotlight.”
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Cooperation with artists from Memphis
While carving his niche in a new city, Flores found new opportunities to collaborate with local artists, leading him to formalize his work.
“I met some locals who were in both the graffiti scene and the hip-hop scene, and I started networking with photographers and artists around here,” he said. “I started to take the graphic design world a little more seriously.”
Seeking an education and career in the arts, Flores relocated to Nashville and graduated from the Arts Institute of Tennessee in 2015 with a degree in Graphic Design.
While Flores works in construction, he hopes to devote himself full time to art in the near future.
Association with Memphis artists has allowed him to combine a quintessential California aesthetic with the pride of his new home. After the birth of his child and his return to Memphis, Flores began a creative partnership with photographer Hugo Lopez. As the two grew in their artistic skills, they decided to turn their talent into a joint project and found Mala Leche.
“Mala leche” means spoiled milk or, figuratively speaking, “bad seed”. With a widely negative connotation, they chose the name for his design brand to express a desire to stand out and influence others. For the couple, “mala leche” was about walking a path that contradicted the expectations of their parents and society.
“I definitely didn’t want to be a doctor, not a dentist like my mother wanted,” Flores said. “I knew I had to be an artist. I knew it no matter what my mother said, even if it caused disappointment.”
As the child of an immigrant, he is not spared the privilege of being able to design things himself. He notes that first-generation Americans often feel immense pressure to meet a standard set by their families.
“I grew up here. It’s easy for me to get where I am. It wasn’t easy for my mother,” he said. “My mother was born and raised in a mud hut in the middle of the jungle in El Salvador. Living in a two story house and in Bartlett is crazy to her.”
As the brand grew, Flores began producing work under the nickname “Mala Leche”.
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Por Vida and beyond
With a background in skateboarding, Flores also founded a skate lifestyle brand, Blossom Creative Co., which was featured at Por Vida Fest.
Flores sees a similar willingness to break with form in younger colourists. He also wanted to achieve this with the festival. The event hosted eight Latinx vendors including Lemonaide, Shira Mae Studios, Noventa Minutos, a ’90s style mala vibraz photo booth and three barbers who performed haircuts on site.
“It struck me that the talent is there. A lot of these barbers shred amazing stuff and don’t get the spotlight they need. You’re just creating a platform [for young artists] is a big deal,” Flores said.
Cinthia Serna, founder of Lemonaide and friend of the Flores family, was a vendor at the Por Vida Fest. Since she started selling custom resin supplies in 2020, Flores has helped her transition from an online store to booths and festivals.
When she attended a sort of bazaar event where Flores usually has a stall selling Mala Leche brand stickers, shirts and other items, Serna was inspired to expand her business.
“So he just talked to me a little bit about my art and wanted to do a possible collaboration in the future, and I was really excited about that,” she said. “And he really gave me that encouragement. He said, ‘You know, it looks tough, but it really isn’t.’”
Serna said that Flores introducing her to David Yancy III, the local artist behind Art Bazaar, made her scared of scaling her business “so much easier from there just because he really allowed me to kind of explore it.”
Serna said she’s glad the event is a bilingual affair for people of all ages and backgrounds in Memphis.
“My mother has never gone to my events. I think it’s more because she’s just a little scared of being around a lot of people, especially because of the language barrier. So this event was the first she actually attended. and I felt so happy because I could tell she was so comfortable,” she said. “That’s the hope I honestly have for Memphis, only through art or other proactive or productive methods that we can, to get people to come out and do things. Then I really hope to just have a place where everyone from everywhere can come together, especially the Hispanic community.”
The event also included live musical performances by Memphis-based artists and DJs. The meal, after much deliberation to find a vendor, was a family affair with his mother’s dolls and the Frutas Preparadas, Agua Frescas and Tamales from family friends.
The Latinx community Flores grew up in is very different from Memphis, but that’s what motivates him to bridge and mix his experiences.
Flores said since having his son, he sees his work as a way to solidify Latinx culture in Memphis for future generations.
“Coming from LA alone is so different, so combining those two is my thing. It’s important that I keep that sense of both cultures alive,” he said. “Not just for me – for my child.”
Flores plans to continue hosting other community building events such as Por Vida Fest and skate sessions with Bloom Blossom Co.
“You just have to make the best of what you have and I think we’re on the right track. Honestly, I think the art is getting there and Hispanic culture is getting bigger, so it’s inevitable. I think it’s going to happen and I’m very, very happy to be a part of it,” he said. “This art movement, whatever it is, it’s happening with Memphis and Hispanics, it’s moving. It’s happening something. So I feel like my kid will probably grow up as an artist, hopefully in that community.”
Astrid Kayembe covers South Memphis, Whitehaven and Westwood. She can be reached at [email protected], (901) 304-7929 or on Twitter at @astridkayembe_.