Photos and narrative by Alex Scott
Luis sits down in his plaid shirt and corduroy hat to begin his favorite part of the chair making process. He paints flowers on stained chairs in the light of the courtyard that bridges the store front to the workshop. His brush strokes are quick and decisive; the exact way his father’s were when he opened the shop nearly 60 years ago.
Once on the main thoroughfare, the shop has weathered the economic changes in Mexico that have caused many of the other traditional furniture shops — which were a founding industry of Tenancingo — to fade away. Luis says there are more than 20 furniture shops now in Tenancingo, but they make colonial and rustic styles of furniture as well as cheap modern furniture. The burgeoning flower industry has also taken over the economy and the topography of the town and the surrounding areas. But at the same time of the shop’s trying economic times, Luis has endured trials far more burdensome in the name of tradition.
In the 1950’s Luis’ father began making chairs at 402 Hidalgo Street when lumber was cheap and plentiful and handmade furniture was in high demand.
“Some people come to me with the furniture that my father made and they want me to fix it,” said Luis. “They (the pieces of furniture) are 50 years old, and they still withstand.”
Luis’ father, Gregorio, had a reputation around the town and was celebrated for the quality of the chairs and for the amount of employment he would offer to residents. He continued to expand his enterprises as the chairs were selling well, and eventually had 20 employees, a warehouse, and owned the entire block on Hidalgo. Many attribute the success of the elder Gallegos to the perfected design of his chairs and the intricate weaving that is now widely imitated, but not replicated within Tenancingo.
“Mr. Gallegos has also given prestige to Tenancingo; all over the country and abroad,” said Aurora Lopez, a hotelier and friend of Luis. “In Cancun, you will find some pieces of furniture in some restaurants, like a table or some chairs.”
Luis learned the skills by watching his father and began working at the shop from an early age. Around age 15, Luis began working for pleasure. He first started to learn the painting of the flowers, which is replicated so precisely that it might be a trademark. By watching his father and the workers, Luis learned how to shape the wood and how to join the pieces. Each dimension from his father’s design was to be exact, and despite some contemporary criticism from some patrons, Luis refuses to change anything, according to Aurora. She remembers Luis’ father winning many awards for his chairs and tables, with one featured in an award winning painting from a local painter. The painting is a still life of flowers and cloth draped over a chair, which can be readily identified as one by Gregorio from the flower design. Aurora says one of his tables is in Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera’s house and museum, Casa Azul — although Luis’ wife, Eustoquia, has never heard that story.
The store was achieving recognition with Gregorio firmly at the helm, but Luis’ life was pocked with tragedy. His father lost a battle to cancer when Luis was only 12. His mother continued to run the shop with their workers, as Luis and his five siblings helped around as they could. As Luis entered adulthood, his novia, who he intended to marry, was killed in a car accident. Luis continued to work at the store, but he rented his own apartment away from his family and was known to drink and leave for extended periods of time. He met his wife-to-be, Eustoquia, some time after, and began to settle back down. As Luis began to take a bigger role in the store, Luis’ youngest brother was also killed in a car accident at the age of 18.
“When my brother Poncho died, well, he was so young, he was only 18. When old people die, it’s ok, but when a young person die, it hurts, we missed him a lot,” said Luis.
Luis and his brother Gregorio “Goyo” came to the decision to co-run the shop together in the same tradition with the same workers as their father. But the arrangement was atypical; each owned half of the shop, half of the wood, and used one half of the 20 workers.
“When my brother and I started our partnership, he took everything, suddenly there wasn’t money to give my mom or to give us. Workers didn’t want to work anymore,” Luis said.
Goyo remembered their partnership a bit differently. From his shop on the other side of Tenancingo, he remembers that Luis told him he wanted to work independently.
“He had his clients and I had mine, but sometimes he attended mine and I attended his,” said Goyo. “He wanted me to leave, he ran me off.”
Luis’ mother continued to head the financial and administration side of the store, as she did when the senior Gallegos was still alive. But the arrangement didn’t last long and the siblings were faced with a choice when their mother passed away and their chair empire was reduced to rubble. The five remaining siblings each received an equal portion of the store in the will. Luis’ three sisters all sold or rented their physical portion of the store immediately and tried to persuade Luis’ to do the same, effectively ending the family business.
“I didn’t want to sell this place, their idea was to sell everything and divide the money, but the money that I would get wasn’t enough,” said Luis.
Luis and Goyo’s business was failing. The two were not working well together and Luis said his wood and materials would go missing. Goyo was selling off chairs for cheap and not filling the correct orders as they were received, and Luis confronted him about it. The solution was to dissolve their partnership. Goyo decided to leave the family shop and to start a new one on the outskirts of Tenancingo.
“Then my brother took all my workers, he took the guy who lathes my chairs for example, he took all of them, I was alone with my son, so I had to do everything by myself,” said Luis.
Eustoquia remembers those as lean times. Luis was able to hire three workers and a new weaver to continue the business, but it would never be the same. Luis’ brother was known as Goyo Milliones because of his lavish expenditures of flashy cars and parties, but Luis struggled to provide for his family. The siblings had taken the money, and Luis was left with a failing shop, and a product that was becoming unfashionable.
“The demand is decreasing, young people don’t like this anymore, they prefer rustic things,” Luis said. “This is what I know how to do, If I try to get another job, I won’t succeed, I have to stay here until the day I go.”
While the elder Gallegos was praised by many in the town, Luis and his siblings were not among them. Luis only describes his father as a hardworking man with a short temper, but Luis’ wife describes him as a harsh man who locked his sons in a wardrobe when he would get angry.
“When they were kids, how grumpy their father was, he made a closet with little holes, if they made him get upset, he would always lock them up. She fed them with a straw through the small holes, because sometimes they were locked up the entire day if they didn’t do what they were asked,” said Eustoquia.
She said his upbringing has made Luis a grumpy man, serious the majority of the time. She says Luis doesn’t talk about his father, and doesn’t visit his grave either. But she says he is a good husband and a good father.
“He doesn’t want our children to feel the same way he does about his father,” said Eustoquia.
Luis decided to continue his family’s tradition; one that is also deeply engrained in the roots of Tenancingo. Starting with the shaping of the wood, to the joining of the pieces, the weaved palm fronds, and finally to the flowers, the chairs made at Muebleria El Salto are a symbol of artisanship in the town.
“Luis has been the representative of Tenancingo in different parts of the country. Tenancingo has won prizes in different contests of furniture, and he has won prizes, recognitions, he has been in important exhibitions, he takes his work or he designs something special for the contests. He is a great craftsman and we are proud,” said Aurora.
Luis says the shop will continue in the same way that it always and perhaps when he is done it will be passed on to his children.
“This is all about legacy, first my father was working here, and then he passed away as well as my mom, my brother. And we carried on with his place. It is about 50 years that we started, and we have been always working. At least, I have,” said Luis.
Luis’ son Fernando says he will be ready to take over the helm when his father retires from work, but Eustoquia is not so certain. Although she thinks her son Fernando will work in the shop in the future, she believes her daughter, will be the one that is fit for the job of overseeing the family business. Luis, Fernando and Eustoquia all still believe that even through the changing economics of the town, Muebleria El Salto will always have a place in Tenancingo.
“I’m still working here, until the end. Everything was worth it,” said Luis. “To live was worth it. With all the good and bad things, it was worth it.”