A diverse set of artists and musicians have been featured at Viva El Valle. This photo is from the 2019 Viva El Valle held at the former PeopleReady staffing company on State Street in El Centro. | COURTESY OF VIVA EL VALLE ORGANIZERS
EL CENTRO — As far as Christmas holiday traditions go, the annual Viva El Valle music and art show is quite unlike anything else the Valley has to offer.
Part annual reunion, punk rock show and art exhibition, the gathering has continued to attract and satisfy bigger crowds and headliners without losing its small-town feel.
Its origins are owed to a tight-knit group of Imperial and Mexicali creatives whose shared fondness for art, music and skateboarding evolved into a festive diversion for many relocated Valley natives who returned annually for Christmas to visit their respective families.
Local artist Daniel Zavala has been one of the event’s organizers since its debut in 2004 and has watched as Viva El Valle has “taken on a life of its own.”
“Right off the bat everyone was pretty stoked about the outcome,” said Zavala, who along with his brother, Jacob Zavala, operates Strangers & Co. clothing and marketing company in El Centro. “We knew we pretty much had to keep it going.”
Now in its 16th year, the annual event has increasingly drawn on talent from outside the Valley, as well, a benefit of the extensive contacts that the Zavalas and fellow event organizers have established in the Coachella Valley, San Diego, Los Angeles, Mexicali and beyond.
And unlike before, it now has a five-person planning committee that selects the invited artists, musicians, and vendors.
“We take it a little more serious now because it seems to get bigger every year,” Daniel Zavala said. “Now it’s really starting to come around.”
“The Valley Grind”
The first time around, Viva El Valle was hosted in El Centro at Twilight, the now-closed Main Street smoke shop, music venue and former record store whose Instagram account had described it as a “Center for Kids Who Can’t Read Good and Wanna Learn to Do Other Stuff Good Too.”
Those credited with making the show a reality include Twilight’s then-owner Frankie Lara Jr., the Zavala brothers, Strangers & Co. associate Felipe Stranger, artist Daniel Gibson, and, to a lesser extent, Mexicali Rose co-founder Marco Vera.
Many of the initial organizers had grown up skateboarding together and attending one another’s band performances. Organizing the inaugural Viva El Valle in 2004 didn’t prove all that difficult.
“It was just like putting together a rock show,” said Gibson, who grew up in Plaster City and El Centro and now resides in Los Angeles. “It was kind of an extension of that.”
Gibson initially moved to LA in 2004 to attend the ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena. Before eventually dropping out, he had seen many talented Latinos producing inspiring art that Gibson said he imagined would’ve been perfect for an art exhibit in Imperial County.
At that time in the Valley, there were no venues that Gibson said he knew of where an up-and-coming artist could showcase their work and sell it. The idea of being able to do so was just as foreign a concept for many young local Latinos then as was the thought of making a living as an artist, he said.
More than anything else, Viva El Valle was supposed to provide a space for local artists to display their works and inspire them to pursue a career based on their creative passion, whether it was in the arts, music, or something else.
“That was the main goal back then,” Gibson said. “Down there there’s so many talented musicians and artists that don’t ever feel like they can take it to the next level.”
Gibson’s art was among the many artists whose works graced the walls of Twilight in 2004 for the debut Viva El Valle. These days his paintings can command a hefty price and have been exhibited in galleries across the globe.
Yet, his motivation has always been to produce art that his blue-collar relatives can relate to, understand, and appreciate.
“That is what I want, (my art) to be for everybody,” Gibson said.
The 2004 Viva El Valle would be a pivotal moment for former Mexicali resident Marco Vera, who would use the inaugural event and its successive shows as inspiration to help co-found the artists collective Mexicali Rose in 2007.
Vera would come to know Gibson after meeting him in 2004 at a bar in Los Angeles after Vera noticed Gibson wearing an El Centro band’s patch that Vera recognized. After the two got talking, Gibson mentioned Viva El Valle and suggested that Vera display some of his 35mm film pictures at the show.
At the time Vera was mostly into filming short documentary films that he would screen at various spaces in Mexicali. He credits Gibson and the “Bujwah guys” (the Zavala brothers’ clothing brand) as largely being the driving force behind the first Viva El Valle, while he assisted with some logistics and filmed the 2004 event to create a short video whose closing credits identify him as “El Markillos.”
“Viva El Valle had a direct influence that made it seem accessible for kids who never had an art show,” said Vera, who lives in Los Angeles. “That definitely had an influence on us taking on that (Mexicali Rose) project later.”
After opening its doors in 2007 in the rough and tumble Colonia Pueblo Nuevo neighborhood, Mexicali Rose would play a similar role in helping Mexicali-based artists and filmmakers develop their skills and reinforce their identities just as Viva El Valle did for local talent.
Like Gibson, and the Zavalas, which includes sibling Matthew Zavala, creator of Don Wapo Hot Sauce, Vera has made a name for himself as a creative force and now makes a living as an animator and film producer, while still dabbling in art, music, and writing.
Now in their 40s, Viva El Valle’s organizers appear to have attained relative success because of that shared creative force, which Vera characterized as the “Valley grind.”
When they’re not busy organizing an annual Viva El Valle event, Daniel and Jacob Zavala, the “Bujwah guys,” operate El Centro-based Letterman & Bros., an embroidery shop that specializes in letterman jackets and which is branching out with a Yuma-based office.
They previously had operated El Dorado Printing and Embroidery in El Centro until the historic Main Street building it occupied (the former Brook’s Jewelry) burned down in February 2019.
Their iconic Strangers & Co. and Bujwah clothing brand reflects their unique sense of humor and perspective, which has served as a wellspring of artistic creativity through the years.
“It’s never been one of those things that really paid all the bills, but we pretty much kept it going,” Daniel Zavala said about their passion for art.
“The Same Recipe”
Because the COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of the event in 2020, this year marks the 16th annual Viva El Valle art and music show.
More than 20 vendors from the Valley and beyond will take part in the Strangers & Co. Art Flea Market. Food vendors include Pinki’s Hot Dogs, Leroy’s Backyard BBQ, Infantino’s Pizza, Willow Tree Bakery 760, and Taqueria Corona.
Patrons will have the opportunity to purchase limited editions of 2021 Viva El Valle T-shirts made in collaboration with Fernando Mendez Corona, who also helped co-found Mexicali Rose and who had his art exhibited at the debut 2004 event.
A limited number of signed and numbered posters with the same T-shirt design will be sold as well.
Similarly, Don Wapo Hot Sauce will be selling a limited number of hot sauce bottles in commemoration of the 2021 event.
“We’re totally giving props to the people who started it,” said Felipe Stranger, longtime Strangers & Co. associate.
The list of invited artists tops out at about nearly 30. Some familiar names include El Centro native Ernesto Yerena, Fernando Mendez Corona, Star27 and Pablo Castañeda, all from Mexicali, Mike Rios and ANTA of Coachella Valley, and local artist Eddie Shiffer, to name just some.
Musical guests include The Blank Tapes, from Joshua Tree, whose lead man Matt Adams will have some of his art on display, as well as Zacke Davis, of Los Angeles. Local talents Ronni NoGood, and Sweetie Darling, both of El Centro, will grace the stage, as will Tabula Rasa, of Mexicali, and a number of guest DJs.
Palm Springs resident Sean Wheeler, of punk rock band Throw Rag fame and a desert legend in his own right, will serve as master of ceremonies.
There’s also a surprise guest that no one’s going to want to miss, said Felipe Stranger, whose surname is a tribute to the Strangers’ brand in the same way that members of the punk band Ramones adopted the same last stage names.
“It’s pretty much been the same recipe,” he said about the event’s indie rock and do-it-yourself themes. “We try to put together what we’d like and what we think people will like, too.”
The event’s $5 cover charge, a first for the event, will also help organizers cover the costs of permits and security.
“No one gets rich off these things and we’re not trying to,” Felipe said.
Another first this year is the impressive and diverse list of business sponsors that are providing their support. Those sponsors include Lurkville Skateboards from San Diego, Kingston Union Mfg. shoe company, Don Wapo Hot Sauce, Letterman & Bros., OG’eez Burgers Valle Imperial, Chula Vista-based Thr3e Punk Ales Brewing Co., and the ubiquitous Mexican convenient store chain Oxxo.
Santa Claus will also be on hand to have his picture taken with showgoers.
Viva El Valle will be from 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. Thursday, Dec. 23 at The Vibe, 721 Main St., El Centro