Just north of Third Street, on the east side of Avenida Revolución, florista Esperanza Cervantes and her husband José Arias sit in metal folding chairs. Their backs are to the street. Across the street, American rap music thumps from the second-story Club Animale. The two take no notice of it. Nor do they respond to the exploding M-80s somewhere nearby that make others around them jump. After 30 years of selling paper flowers in this spot, they're used to the sights and sounds of this tourist strip.
Arias and Cervantes are two of the last few paper flower makers in Tijuana. "There were about 90 of us in the beginning," says Cervantes, a happy-faced woman in her 60s, with short black hair, a twinkle in her eyes, and a quick, generous laugh. "Now there are only 10 of us left." The beginning she speaks of was in 1972. "There was a florista union," Cervantes recalls, "with about eight members. And from that union a cooperative was formed with about 90 members. But some of the people who got into the cooperative didn't know how to make them, so they were trained."
Cervantes and Arias say the cooperative was formed to give the floristas, who had been operating independently, a collective voice when dealing with the municipal government. "As a union, we can approach the city, and they'll let us work. As a union, we can go to the city and someone will listen to our requests. As one, you can't really go and say, 'I'm Esperanza Cervantes, can I work here?' So we formed the cooperative and got the concession to work on Revolución from First Street to the Jai-Alai. And when the permit renewals come up, we handle all of that as a union."
As a younger member of the newly formed cooperative in the early '70s, Cervantes said the older floristas, though they were supposed to train younger members, were hesitant to give away all the secrets of their craft. "I had to learn by myself," she recalls, "because they gave us such limited help. They didn't want to give me the whole technique all at once. It was good in the end because we learned to invent our own style of flowers. When I first started, this was the only kind of flower we used to make." From a bundle next to her, she pulls out what looks like a hot pink hibiscus blossom about eight inches in diameter. "We call these flores Mexicanas. Then my husband invented this other style, which looks more like real petals." She points to a roselike flower, also about eight inches in diameter. "And then we started doing these rositas [little roses] and los alcatraces [Easter lilies]."
At first glance the flowers — all three types in red, yellow, orange, electric blue, royal blue, and hot pink — appear to be made of thin plastic material. They aren't. "It's crepe paper," Cervantes explains. "We paint it with a special kind of lacquer, which we spread on the paper with paintbrushes. First, we cut the paper into strips. Then we lacquer it, then we paint it, then we dry it, and then make the flowers."
Asked how they get the tips of the rose petals to fold over so realistically, Arias answers, "With a knife." Holding an imaginary piece of lacquered crepe paper in his left hand, he scrapes it with the edge of an imaginary knife in his right.
Cervantes explains the scalloped edges on the hibiscus-like flowers by rubbing the thumb and forefinger on each hand together. The speed with which her fingers move is a testament to years spent perfecting the craft.
At the suggestion that these motions must tire the hands, the two lean back in their chairs, roll their eyes, and laugh heartily as if to say, "Tell me about it."
Normally, the semiretired Cervantes and Arias only come down to Avenida Revolución from their house near Tijuana International Airport on Saturday and Sunday. Today is a warm Wednesday in early October. "The weather was so nice," Arias explains, "we decided to come down."
There aren't many tourists on the street on Wednesday, but the couple don't seem anxious about their lack of business. Their pleasant, calm demeanor looks as if it wouldn't change if they never had another customer again. They say the heyday of paper flower selling ended 17 years ago. "It was from 1972 to 1985," Cervantes says.
From their 30-year post at Third and Revolución, they say they've witnessed a steady decline in tourism from 1985 until September 11, 2001, when it dropped to near zero and started creeping back. Asked how they explain the long, slow decline, Cervantes answers, "Maybe because of the violence in Tijuana..."
"...the violent image of Tijuana," Arias interjects.
On an average weekend, Cervantes and Arias say they sell about 80 flowers, which go for a buck apiece for the large varieties, three for a dollar for the rositas. Asked how long they'll continue doing this, the couple roars with laughter once again. "Until we die," Arias answers while his wife keeps laughing.
And when they and the few remaining floristas, all of whom are over 60, are gone, they expect that paper flower making, a craft they claim is unique to Tijuana, will die with them. "Our children grew up doing it," Arias says, "so they know the craft. They help us make them, but they don't want to come down here and sell them."