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Rigoberto “Rigo” Murillo has a busy Saturday ahead of him. He is sitting behind his Singer industrial sewing machine hemming a pair of jeans, his eyes focused on the needle as it weaves through the thick fabric. He looks up just long enough to welcome a customer walking into his shop, Adalynn’s Fiesta Latina. “Let me know how I can help you,” he says in Spanish.
The storefront is a vibrant capsule, filled with colorful objects that make you feel like you’re roaming around a mercado in Mexico. Inside, shelves are stacked high with Mexican folk art, clothing, and housewares: everything from molcajetes (a traditional stone mortar and pestle) to piñatas, hand-embroidered dresses in vivid colors, terra cotta mugs and plates, huaraches (sandals), and tons of other leather goods.
Murillo can usually be found behind the counter, either sewing or working with leather. Whether it’s a personalized keychain, a cowboy belt, a cell phone case, or a bag, it seems he can create just about anything out of leather and customize it.
Ironically, Murillo didn’t learn his craft until many years after he migrated to Oakland, despite being from León, Guanajuato, a region responsible for 70% of the leather shoes produced in Mexico. Like many immigrants who come to the U.S., Murillo left his home in search of opportunity. “The idea of moving here comes from wanting to better yourself,” he said. “To forge a better future.”
He arrived in Oakland in 1991, at the same time as the Oakland Hills Fire (“I’ll never forget what I saw,” he said of the destruction wrought by that blaze), and began getting jobs in construction. He was in the same line of work in 2010 when he met his wife, Guadalupe, who is originally from Mexico City. But Murillo suffered an accident at work in 2017, and the injury left him unable to return to construction.
Needing income, the couple turned to selling spices and other Mexican goodies like candy from a sidewalk stand. At first, said Murillo, they tried setting up shop outside of schools, but “we would always get kicked out” due to not having a permit. “Other times, we set up shop outside of La Clinica de La Raza for a few hours to sell as much as we could.”
One day, a passerby advised the couple to try setting up along International Boulevard. “The man told us to put a cart on the sidewalk and that no one would bother us,” he said. So the Murillo’s did just that, on 33rd Avenue and International Boulevard.
The couple’s friendly service garnered them a following, and repeat customers. But they also drew attention from city code enforcement staff, who would remind them they needed a permit to sell on the sidewalk. In 2018, partly because of the permit issues, the couple switched from selling food to leather huaraches, and by the end of that year they’d saved enough money to open up a storefront. As luck would have it, there was an empty one on the same block where they’d been vending, and the Murillo’s signed a lease for the space in November of that year.
When the shop first opened, the couple bought wholesale leather goods from a merchant, also from Guanajuato, to resell at their shop. But Murillo soon became interested in trying his own luck at Guanajuato’s famous trade, and making leather products himself. The merchant told Murillo about Tandy Leather, a local distributor of leather and supplies located in Fremont, and it was then that Murillo, encouraged by his wife, took a leap of faith—he invested in the supplies and machinery needed to to start his own leather goods business. “My wife gave me the push that I needed to invest in this new business venture,” he said.
The equipment he purchased includes a diamond chisel, used to punch small stitching holes. He bought an edge beveller, a tool with a sharpened notch used for trimming and finishing leather edges, and a leather stamp-imprinting machine he uses for custom work on leather keychains and belts. He also has two industrial sewing machines.
Murillo’s wife Guadalupe estimates the pair have spent around $5,000 on equipment for the shop. “You buy equipment not really knowing if it will be worth it or not,” said Murillo. “I’m still paying for one of the sewing machines.”
When the pandemic began last year, the Murillo’s had to close shop and again find other creative ways to make a living. That’s when their investment in the sewing machines paid off.
“We began making masks out of bandanas,” he said. “The profits from that first month of making nothing but masks paid for the first month of rent after we had to close down.” The couple’s landlord was understanding of the dire situation caused by the pandemic, and allowed the Murrillo’s to hang onto the commercial space even though they couldn’t afford to pay rent past the first month of lockdown.
Only now, more than a year later, is the couple again treading water financially. It’s helped that Murillo recently learned another trade: seamster. And while he solely focuses on hemming, the side hustle has helped the Murillo’s begin a slow-paced economic recovery. “If I see someone walking down the street and notice that their pants need to have the hem taken up, I usually approach them and tell them that I can fix their clothes for them,” said Murillo. “We’ve gotten a lot of clients through word of mouth.”
Murillo attended to several customers when The Oaklandside visited his shop on a Saturday in April. One woman came in to buy a picture frame. Another bought a pair of huaraches. One came to pick up a pair of jeans, and two others walked in looking to have custom work done on a shirt.
“You have to provide good customer service,” said Murillo. “God always provides and gives you as much work as you can handle.”