How Three Creatives Are Preserving Their Culture This Hispanic Heritage Month
Legacy. Culture. Connection.
Levi’s® Celebrates Hispanic Heritage History Month 2023
by Jacynth Rodriguez
The expression, “give them their flowers” is often used as a reminder to cherish the loved ones who have paved the way for generations to come. To celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month, we’re highlighting the power of legacy, culture, and connection through the eyes of three talented Hispanic Americans and the intergenerational bonds that helped pave the way for the creatives they are today.
They each pay their homage on custom pairs of co-designed Levi’s® 501® jeans, which is celebrating its 150th anniversary.
The Los Angeles-based artist Gabriela Ruiz was born and raised in the San Fernando Valley to Mexican immigrant parents. She was seven years old when her mother met the man who would become her stepfather, Israel Quijano Morales. “He fulfilled that father role. He's really been attentive, and I've just learned so much from him,” says Gabriela. Israel — a construction company owner originally from Mexico City, Mexico — has had a major impact on the artist’s work, which spans sculpture, video, painting, and apparel design. “She knows what she wants and she goes after it. Nothing's going to stop her from doing whatever she wants to do, especially when it becomes an idea that she has in her mind,” says Israel.
Going into art as a [first-generation creative] has been really challenging. But it has also brought a different perspective to my practice. I've been able to utilize my culture and background to influence my work.
Gabriela has learned a lot from her stepfather, and vice versa. While Israel provided her with the tools to successfully build her own art installations, Gabriela continues to inspire him with her boundary-pushing artistry. The two often work together on projects, further enforcing their bond as a family business. “I think that going into art as a first-generation has been really challenging, but I think that it also has brought a different perspective in my practice,” says Gabriela.
For Israel, seeing his stepdaughter fulfill her dreams instills a sense of pride in him and his Latino culture. He was only nine years old when he immigrated to Escondido, California to be with his father; leaving behind his mother and three sisters in Mexico City. He met Gabriela’s mother after moving to Los Angeles in 2000 where he worked as a cook until his passion for electricity led him to become an electrician. “I don’t come from a family of artists. I come from a labor background,” says Gabriela. “Going into art as a [first-generation creative] has been really challenging. But it has also brought a different perspective to my practice. I've been able to utilize my culture and my background to influence my work.”
Their homage to the 501®s, features a colorful glimpse of their Mexican heritage and an ode to blue-collar workers. Gabriela was drawn to a split garment concept, one half being construction-inspired to represent Israel’s influence and the other half, a skirt intended to represent her own artistic flair. This isn’t the first time she’s incorporated elements of Israel’s workwear into her fashions. “I've actually worn his harness,” she says. It also doesn’t hurt that 501®s have been a staple for Israel and his company Handy Crew Solutions for decades. “The design fits to your body. It doesn’t drag,” says Israel. “I think it is the blue-collar jean,” echoes Gabriela.
Before Juan Veloz became a published photographer working with some of the biggest names in Hollywood, he was Monica Soriano’s grandson. Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, the Dominican-American creative credits Monica’s influence on his upbringing as a young, Afro-Latino. “She taught us a lot of things growing up. Speaking with authority, being respectful to everyone, never forgetting your roots — every conversation you start with should be with love,” says Veloz.
Something that I take a lot of pride in is the third culture. So how my grandma was raised, how I was raised, and how I can mesh those two
Born in 1945 in the Dominican Republic, Monica was the eldest daughter in her family. She attended school until the age of twelve and joined the workforce soon after to assist her family financially. She recalls one of her very first jobs selling candy in a basket atop her head. “Her mom took her out of school at a young age because they were in a crisis, and she kind of had to do what she had to do,” explains Veloz. It wasn’t until 1981 that she made her way to the United States to raise her own growing family.
The sacrifices Monica made for her family are not lost on Juan, who now knows what it feels like to leave loved ones behind in search of one’s own dreams. Since moving to Los Angeles from Brooklyn, he holds steadfast to his grandmother’s wisdom and his Dominican-American community for support and inspiration. “Something that I take a lot of pride in is the third culture,” says Veloz. “So how my grandma was raised, how I was raised, and how I can mesh those two.”
It all culminates in Veloz’s desire to use photography as a way to preserve the rich culture passed down to him. With his 501® designs, he quite literally gave his grandmother her flowers by using various stylized patches, some actual drawings made from his own family portraiture, and familiar motifs imbued with sentimental meaning: hands outstretched with bouquets, a bird soaring from the nest, a candy basket, a camera, and a trio of butterflies. Through his design, Juan also hopes to honor his mother, Monica Victoria Mercedes, who passed away this year, naming his custom design “La Victoria”. “My grandma always says we're living our ancestors' dreams,” says Veloz. He hopes that when she sees the finished design she will also see the beautiful legacy of their family.
Alejé Santiago is many things: A creative, a stylist, an influencer, a student at the University of Pittsburgh. And according to his sister Gladizel, he’s the little brother she has watched grow into the imaginative young man that he is today. “Alejé is just someone that you want in your corner. I'm the “older sister” but I always go to him for advice, and he gives the best advice even if sometimes I don't want to really hear it,” says Gladizel.
I think our identity plays into anything we do. I felt like I couldn't put a lot into the world until I really knew myself and understood myself.
They share an unshakeable bond due to their upbringing as children of Puerto Rican and Cambodian parents in Lancaster, Pennsylvania — a city that boasts a thriving Hispanic community. Sitting at the intersection of two unique cultures has inspired Alejé to dig deeper into who he is and what that represents. “I think our identity plays into anything we do. I felt like I couldn't put a lot into the world until I really knew myself and understood myself,” says Alejé.
One way he’s been able to embrace his identity is through fashion. “I always loved playing with clothes as a kid and playing dress-up games, especially. As I got older and understood style, I fell in love with styling clothing,” says Alejé. So it was no surprise to Gladizel when her brother was tapped to create a one-of-a-kind 501® design with Levi’s®. What did surprise her was him choosing her as his collaborator. “I'm glad to be here, honestly,” says Gladizel. “And now that I get to experience this with [Alejé], I feel like this is going to bring us 10 times closer, even though we already are pretty close.” Alejé has looked up to Gladizel throughout his life and cherishes their relationship for many reasons, one being her unconditional love and support.
To honor their siblingship and their heritage, the pair adorned their 501® design with patches that represent both their culture and their individual personalities. Alejé envisioned both legs decked out in Puerto Rican symbols as well as other patches and line drawing stitching that represent his and Gladizel’s own personal histories. At twenty years old, Alejé is just getting started on his creative path. “I'm very proud of what I can offer the world. I feel like I'm at a point where I know who I am and what I'm capable of from things I've done already in my past.”
As a continuation of our Hispanic Heritage Month celebration with Gabriela, Juan, and Alejé, we set up shop with an Airstream in the heart of LA for a moment of connection centered around music, food, and community.
Meet the Writer
Jacynth Serrano Rodriguez is an LA-based writer and creative focused on exploring the nexus of art, culture, and media.