Kulture owners David Garcia and Cuahutemoc Vargas are staying true to their roots with a new store that celebrates migrant catchphrases, feelings and experiences their friends and family often share with each other but not with the mainstream culture.
The two men, both children of migrant workers, don’t have those same inhibitions. At Kulture, the store they opened at 1006 24th St. in July, they sell T-shirts, tank tops, hoodies and ball caps emblazoned with Aztec-inspired images and Spanish-language quotes. They also carry Latin American imports such as clay pottery, figurines and, soon, huaraches. They share personal memories sparked by many of the items they sell.
Their space was previously home to Theresa’s Antiques. Garcia and Vargas bought that business’ inventory. They have sold most of what they acquired, but instead of packing the store with new acquisitions, they freed up space for wider aisles, imported products and put in their own line of casual wear called Keepin It Paisa. They also still sell some secondhand housewares.
“It’s still not 100 percent where we want it to be,” Garcia said, “but I would say we’re at about 60 percent of where we want it to be. Slowly, it’s getting better and better every day.”
The 30-something business partners met as students at California State University, Sacramento, through a program called CAMP, the College Assistance Migrant Program. It is a federally funded scholarship program for children of migrant workers. Garcia was from Galt, Vargas from Esparto.
They hit it off, and through humor, they said, they also connected with other CAMP students over life experiences that were common to all of them, even though they had grown up hundreds of miles apart. One day, one of Vargas’ friends, Sem Lona, told him: “I think you’re pretty funny. I’ve got the ability to do graphic designing. Why don’t we do something together?”
Vargas roped in Garcia, and they launched the Keepin It Paisa label. The brand name essentially means “Keeping It Real,” staying true to yourself despite changes in personal fortune. They started out selling the clothing online at www.keepinitpaisa.com and added it at their midtown store when it opened.
“We started to come up with phrases that we use between friends and stuff we think is pretty funny to us,” said Vargas, who worked for Sherwin Williams paints before launching Kulture. “Other people think it’s funny, but sometimes, they’re scared to put it on a T-shirt because ‘What are people going to think?’ They’re scared basically to expose themselves, so we said, ‘Let’s come up with our phrases and put them on hats and T-shirts and see what happens.’ ”
Friends, family and strangers began buying the Keepin It Paisa apparel, the two men said, because they could put on a piece of clothing and share a sentiment endemic to the migrant experience. One such expression, Garcia and Vargas said, is “Querias Norte.” Those two short words convey a world of meaning, they explained: A deep longing for the American Dream, pain and laughter over the struggle for it, acknowledgment of the resolve it requires to achieve it.
“It’s a phrase our parents used, and it means like, ‘You wanted to come over here. Now you’ve got to work. It’s not easy to make it here,’ ” Vargas said.
Garcia added: “They also use it when they’re barbecuing on a Sunday afternoon. Everybody’s having some drinks, enjoying their time. Then you’re like, ‘Man, I’ve got to go to work tomorrow. It’s Monday. I don’t feel like going.’ Then I’ll tell you, ‘Querias norte.’ ”
The migrant experience also means embracing life in rural places that many young Americans dream of leaving, Vargas and Garcia said, so they produced tank tops with the words, “Just a Small Town Girl.” They stocked the tops at a booth they manned at last summer’s Yolo County Fair and sold out their inventory over five days.
The Keepin It Paisa clothing line also communicates messages without words. Many migrants will recognize their tribal-looking take on the eagle from the Mexican flag as reminiscent of logos that former Mexican President Vicente Fox used when he created a program to make it easier for his Mexican countrymen, or paisanos, in the United States to return home for holiday visits.
Vargas and Garcia also embrace the outrageous, and they hit a hole in one with their khaki-colored ‘CallateWey Golf’ ball caps. Comedian George Lopez, they told me, bought one and tweeted out a picture of it.
If you don’t look closely at the spelling, you might mistake it for Callaway Golf. Then again, you might look closely and think it’s a misspelling of the well-known brand. It’s neither. In Spanish, Garcia said, the phrase means, “Shut up, fool.”
Sometimes, Vargas said, people get offended, but the intent is to make people laugh. The caps have proved to be quite popular at a charity golf event the two men have organized the past two years.
We hope this store will succeed, but what’s the worst that could happen? We have to go back to work. Well, we’re not afraid of working.
Cuahutemoc Vargas, co-owner of Kulture
The business partners’ love of sports is also reflected in their apparel, where they pay tribute to favorite teams. For their clothing and headwear, they translate Kings into its Spanish equivalent, Reyes. Their San Francisco Giants apparel and headwear comes in colors that fans will recognize, but the words ‘San Pancho’ might stump some people.
“Anybody named Francisco, for short, we call him Pancho,” said Garcia, who worked for several years at California Family Fitness. “People who live in San Francisco, not just the Latinos, they know this nickname. It’s a phrase I’ve heard from my Dad. Instead of saying, ‘We’re going to San Francisco,’ it’s ‘We’re going to San Pancho.’ ”
The Los Angeles Dodgers headwear and apparel comes in the team’s familiar blue and gray hues, but the team name is nowhere to be found. Instead, the words ‘Chavez Ravine’ appear on each item.
“I’m the Dodgers fan,” Garcia said. “The Chavez Ravine is where Dodgers Stadium in L.A. was built. ... Anytime you go on Instagram and hashtag it, it’s tied to the Dodgers.”
The area, located in Sulphur Canyon, was named for former Los Angeles City Councilman Julian Chavez, a rancher whose land holdings once included that stretch of land.
With the apparel, Latin American imports and secondhand items, Garcia and Vargas said, they hope to provide a diverse line of products that will attract customers. So far, they said, they’re making enough revenue to cover expenses, but they aren’t taking salaries.
“We hope this store will succeed,” Vargas said, “but what’s the worst that could happen? We have to go back to work. Well, we’re not afraid of working. ... I started working with my parents in the fields when I was probably 15 or 16. That was a strategy for our parents to kinda teach us about what they were going through, that it wasn’t easy to do and that we should study and go to school.”