The Santora has always been a source of inspiration for my creative process. She’s a beauty. I even titled one of my guitar compostions La Santora. One of my earliest recollections of going to the Santora dates back to ’97 or ’98, when the Neutral Grounds coffee shop was still there. That now is Lola Gaspar. It was a friend and neighbor, José Guadalupe Núñez, who told me about the place and invited me there. They had outdoor open mics on Thursday nights. I returned at one point on a weekly basis, and performed a classical guitar piece every week.
When I started going to the Santora, there was no Memphis. Instead there was a beauty salon, one that bookstore owner Rubén Martínez used to own. That’s what he told me. Across from Memphis there was no Gypsy Den, nor a Grand Central Art Center. What was in place was an abandoned building with grafitti visible from its broken windows. There was no Chiarini fountain, or lofts on Sycamore. Instead, everyone had the enjoyment of free parking on evenings in the large lot that it was.
Upon spending so much time in the downtown area and the Santora, I got invited to perform here and there. I brought flamenco dancing to the Santora and the Gypsy Den, and I wanted to do more all for the Santora’s sake. I conceived of a “Santora Camerata,” which would’ve been a chamber music ensemble.
Eventually I was invited to be a Santora gallerist because of the many ideas and projects that I had in mind. I helped run (pouring $$$ into) Suites K and B for awhile with Moisés Camacho, et altri. I did much brainstorming at the gallery with Camacho and was invited to some artists’ meetings, from before they formed AVAASA (Artist’s Village Arts Association of Santa Ana). Some of these AVAASA members formed out of a split with a pre-existing “Santora Arts Guild.”
Some of the suggestions I made to Camacho I remember as clear as water. I clearly remember suggesting that the artists needed a liason with the city, a commissioner type, and an arts commission. These ideas later appeared on a manifesto written and made public by Alicia Rojas, an artist sharing Studio del Sótano at the Santora at the time, which was used as a rallying cry to unite artists and to engage city government.
There were some definite high points while there. World-reknowned composer Arturo Márquez visited the gallery a few times. His brother, Jorge Márquez, was an attorney in Santa Ana who had his practice up Main street near Librería Martínez. Jorge lived across the Santora and was drawn to the area because of his appreciation for the arts. He met Joseph Hawa, a longtime upstairs gallerist at the Santora, and formed a friendship with him and then Camacho. Hawa used to tell me about a guy who’s brother was a world-famous composer. I finally got a chance to meet the Márquez’s at the gallery. Arturo came with his daughter Lily.
Another high point was a music recital that I did with local Persian classical musician Arash Kamalian. Arash, who is a tarist and setarist, is a local gem, a real hidden treasure. And he lives downtown at the Townsquare condos on the other side of Birch Park. We did a fusion of flamenco and Persian music that night.
That night, Laguna-based artist Hugo Rivera sketched us:
Here’s a sample of our music during a rehearsal:
The beginning of the end
One of the challenges I noticed at the Santora was how it was to be conveyed, or presented beyond its galleries. What was the Santora supposed to be? What is a fine arts complex or not?
The Santora, to me and to other artists, was viewed as a fine arts complex. Santa Ana College has a gallery there dealing with the subject of fine art. Unfortunately, there were artists in the Santora that failed to tow a line between what is fine, and what is not.
One event involved a punk rock fest complete with tables setup all over the Santora. It involed the absolute loudest and noisiest music I ever heard there, and worse, it involved a scandal involving the groping of a minor, who happened to be drinking alcohol.
That was the beginning of the end for me.
There were no controls in place. There was absolutely no leadership, nor any careful thought placed. An artist, who I will not name, pondered whether he should call the event off at 10 pm, or not. He should’ve called it off but instead allowed it to proceed. I awoke the next morning to hear of the scandals that took place the night prior.
At times the Santora, and specifically Suite B, was an anything goes type of place. You’d have a fine art exhibit crashed by a trio of neon-suited “musicians” with toy drums and instruments, and that was supposed to be ok, because anything goes, and one has to be zen-like and flow like water. BS. It was an insult to anyone with good taste. It was chaos. Luckily, those types are long-gone and out of Santa Ana.
I’ve always been one to argue for making order out of chaos. It may seem impossible to put “free-thinking” artists in order, but it’s not. Other cities have artistic order in the forms of commissions, councils, departments etc.
Eventually I left the Santora due to double standards and mismanagement, or that “anything goes” approach to “management.” And that’s another problem; the failure of some artists to see their galleries as businesses, but that’s an entirely different issue.
There were many good times at the Santora, more often that not. But I can’t say that I desire to be part of what it has become. An occasional dinner at Memphis, which is still my favorite downtown spot, is more than enough.