Francisco Flores and Mala Leche Focus on Latinx Artists

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For a month, Francisco Flores had been on the hunt for pupusas, circular flatbreads stuffed with your choice of meat, cheese or vegetables. He was hoping to find a vendor selling El Salvador’s national dish for his first Por Vida Fest.

The September 24 festival at Neighborhood Print Co. was in honor of her cousin Justin Flores, who was robbed and killed in Memphis in November. He hopes to encapsulate all the things he and his cousin loved: hip hop, art, pupusas and being Latino.

Fransisco Flores, also known as Mala Leche, painted this

Flores, 33, is a Salvadoran graphic designer and graffiti artist who mixes the art forms of the Chicanx subculture with the pride of Memphis and organizes a community of young Latinx artists.

“It will be a celebration of life and a celebration of Hispanic heritage and culture,” he said of the festival. Over 100 people attended the event for an evening of art, food, music and remembrance.

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Find a community in Memphis

Seeking a lower cost of living, Flores and his family moved from suburban Los Angeles to the Memphis area in 2007. He settled in very well in Memphis, but he knew that finding a community artistry like the one he had at home would take more work.

Raised in the San Fernando Valley, a 42% Hispanic region, Flores’ work became the product of the Chicanx graffiti art scene. Style elements he thought were universal, however, he quickly learned were regional. As far as he knew, styles like the Olde English letters adopted by Southern California’s Latinx youth subcultures were much harder to come by in Memphis.

“My work is really inspired by Hispanic and Latin culture, aiming at Latin culture,” he said. “I do a lot of big line work, a lot of big print, typography. And I love creating the stuff that I grew up with that was around this house that I saw pictured. I’ll use it with my own little style.”

Memphis-based California artist Franisco Flores honors his heritage through his art that blends his Chicanx art styles with Memphis pride

Soon, Flores realized that there was no shortage of Latinx art in the city: manifestations of rasquachismo—Chicanx cultural expressions made using materials at hand—were simply different from what he remembers growing up.

“I’ve definitely seen a few murals here in town that looked more like fine art. There were a few places in Winchester that had like restaurants or the mercadito with a mural on the side. And it was more traditional artistic,” he said.

He mentions other Latinx graffiti artists such as Sombie, whom he met while working on his “Nuevo Cero Uno” Paint Memphis mural near Carolina Watershed.

“I kind of wanted to have some Spanish in the mix. You always see 901 around, but nobody really does it in Spanish,” he said. “Because the Spanish heritage, man, we have to keep it alive here. It’s starting to show up, so I think it’s important to do more of that stuff here. We need more. There’s a lot good Spanish-speaking artists around here who need to be in the spotlight.”

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Collaborate with artists from Memphis

While shaping his niche in a new city, Flores found new opportunities to collaborate with local artists, which prompted him to formalize his work.

“I met a few locals who were into the graffiti scene as well as the hip hop scene, and I started connecting with photographers and artists here,” he said. “I started to take the world of graphic design a little more seriously.”

In pursuit of an education and career in art, Flores moved to Nashville and earned a degree in graphic design from the Arts Institute of Tennessee in 2015.

While Flores works in construction, he hopes to pursue art full time in the near future.

Connecting with Memphis artists allowed her to blend the inherently Californian aesthetic with the pride of her new home. Upon the birth of her child and back in Memphis, Flores began a creative partnership with photographer Hugo Lopez. As the two grew in their artistic abilities, they decided to turn their talent into a collaborative project, launching Mala Leche.

Musicians Wayra and Leemvrs performed original compositions on September 24 at Por Vida Fest in Memphis.

“Mala leche” translates to spoiled milk or, more figuratively, “bad seed”. With a largely negative connotation, they chose the name of his design brand to signify a desire to stand out and influence others. For the couple, “mala leche” was about navigating their way against the expectations of their parents and society.

“I was definitely not going to be a doctor, or a dentist like my mom wanted to be,” 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, the privilege of being able to create does not escape him. He notes that first-generation Americans often feel immense pressure to reach a standard set by their families.

“I was raised 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 clay shack in the middle of the jungle in El Salvador. For her to live in a two story house and in Bartlett is crazy for her.”

As the brand grew, Flores began producing works under the name “Mala Leche”.

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Por Vida and beyond

With a background in skateboarding, Flores also started a skate lifestyle brand, Blossom Creative Co., which launched at Por Vida Fest.

With young artists of color, Flores sees a similar drive to break the mould. He also hoped to achieve this with the festival. The event hosted eight Latinx vendors, including Lemonaide, Shira Mae Studios, Noventa Minutos, a ’90s Mala Vibraz style photo booth, and three barbers giving haircuts onsite.

“I’ve noticed the talent is there. A lot of these barbers are, they’re cutting amazing stuff, and they’re not being spotlighted like they should be. You just have to create a platform [for young artists] is a big thing,” Flores said.

Cinthia Serna, founder of Lemonaide and family friend of Flores, was a vendor at Por Vida Fest. Since she started selling custom resin props in 2020, Flores has helped her transition from an online business to stalls and festivals.

While attending an Art Bazaar event where Flores usually has a booth selling Mala Leche branded stickers, shirts, and other items, Serna was inspired to expand her business.

“That’s when he was telling me a bit about my art and wanting to do a possible collaboration in the future, and I was really excited about it,” she said. “And he really gave me that encouragement. He said, ‘You know, it sounds hard, but it really isn’t. “”

Serna said Flores introducing her to David Yancy III, the local artist behind Art Bazaar, made any anxiety she had about scaling her business “much easier from there, just because that he really allowed me to explore it”.

Serna said she was happy the event was a bilingual affair for people of all ages and backgrounds in Memphis.

“My mum has never been to any of my events. I think it’s more because she’s just a little scared of being around a lot of people, especially with the language barrier. This event was so the first one she attended, and I felt so happy because I could tell she was so comfortable,” she said. “That’s the hope I have for Memphis, honestly, it’s just through art or any other proactive or productive method that we can, to get people out and doing things. is when I really hope to have a place where anyone from anywhere can come together, especially the Hispanic community.

Herminia Calero, the mother of Francisco Flores, prepares fresh pupusas with beans, cheese and jalapeños at the Por Vida Fest on September 24 in Memphis.

The event also featured live musical performances from local Memphis artists and DJs. The food, after much deliberation to find a vendor, was a family affair with her mother’s pupusas and frutas preparadas, agua frescas and tamales from family friends.

The Latinx community in which Flores grew up is radically different from that of Memphis, but that is precisely what motivates him to connect and mix his experiences.

Flores said that since having his son, he saw his work as a way to cement Latinx culture in Memphis for future generations.

“Coming from LA alone is so different, so combining those two things is my thing. Just having that feel of both cultures is important to me to stay alive,” he said. “Not just for me – for my child.”

Flores plans to continue hosting more community-building events, like Por Vida Fest and skate sessions with Bloom Blossom Co.

“You just have to do the best you can with what you have, and I believe we’re on the right track. Honestly, I believe the arts are getting there and Hispanic culture is growing, 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, this, whatever, that’s going on with Memphis and Hispanics, it’s moving. Something’s going on. So I just feel like my kid will probably grow up as an artist, hopefully. him in this community.”

Astrid Kayembe covers South Memphis, Whitehaven and Westwood. She can be reached at [email protected], (901) 304-7929 or on Twitter @astridkayembe_.

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