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Mexican Art Form on a Roll

on November 13, 2009

Twenty years after Tonia Hafter turned a faded, $800 church bus into “El Volado,” its wheels are still rolling around Richmond for her company, The Mexican Bus.

Hafter first revived the bus as a wild, technicolor reanimation of Mexico City’s public transit culture for a San Francisco art show. Now it’s the flagship bus for Hafter’s Richmond-based business, which specializes in taking Bay Area salsa lovers to Latin dance clubs in San Francisco.

El Volado–which means something close to “free bird” in Spanish–is mostly an homage to everything Hafter loved about Mexico City. Because she worked for six years in its film industry, movie posters from what Hafter calls the Golden Age of Mexican cinema line the ceiling. A kitschy array of religious and pop culture icons populates the front of the bus to keep the  drivers company. A mural of a peaceful shoreline adorns the space above the rear exit – a spot where Mexican bus drivers typically placed images of where they wanted to retire.

“Living in Mexico City was just liberating. The nonconformity of these buses really showed that,” Hafter said. “I designed this bus so that I could teach people more about Latin culture.”

The bus’s design was inspired by public bus drivers of the RUTA 100 (Route 100) union, whom Hafter interviewed while in Mexico City. Working up to 15 hours a day, the most liberating thing most of them could do was decorate the buses to suit their personal taste. They often showcased religious icons, luchadores (Mexican wrestlers), beautiful women, or all of the above. Their art form dates back to the 1930’s when public transit routes were created in Mexico City. Laborers who took the buses to work also often collaged contributions onto the seats and surrounding walls.

For the last twenty years, bigger companies with more modern buses have gradually put many of the Mexico’s bright, baroque buses out of service. Hafter wanted to find a way to preserve the artistic tradition.

A $5,000 grant in 1990 from an avant-garde art show called Festival 2000 helped her do that. The initial project plan was to have the bus looking like it had crashed into a wall, but after that much money had been invested into it, Hafter decided not to disfigure  the bus, so it could continue its life after the art exhibit.

Hafter found the most interesting way to keep her art alive was chartering the bus out to groups of people who love dancing as much as she does. Trips  to Mission District salsa clubs highlighted the cultural significance of the bus itself.

Though making the business profitable has always been difficult, fans of the bus have refused to let her abandon it, Hafter said.

In addition to Hafter’s weekly trips to San Francisco’s Mission District dance clubs, community organizations use the charter buses because of the different tone the bus sets for their trips.  One Richmond environmental group uses the bus to take people on tours of the most toxin-prone areas of the East Bay.” Lola,” another eclectic bus designed by Hafter and Chicano playwright Richard Talavera in 2001, also makes its rounds for the company.

For Hafter, though, El Volado carries the most vivid memories.

One night while taking a team of Irish female soccer players to the Mission District,  Hafter ran into folksinger Joan Baez. Hafter and the players convinced Baez and her friends to ride and dance along with them for the rest of the night.

Symbols of female power and worth at the front of the bus–a deliberate departure from the traditionally masculine Mexico City buses–have a lot of personal meaning for her as well, Hafter said. Hafter’s own baby shoes are tied above the Virgin of Guadalupe hanging in the front of the bus.

Hafter, who is Jewish, acknowledges that it may seem odd for her to appreciate Catholic iconography as much as she does. But seeing what bridges cultures together–such as the pervasive guilt complex she said many Catholics and Jews share–interests her much more.

“I like the Virgin there because she always emphasizes the love and care of a woman–she’s blessing and taking care of the people inside,” Hafter said. “And that’s what I like creating most: A space where people can feel loved and appreciated.”

1 Comment

  1. […] from Richmond and across the bay to Mission District dance clubs. Richmond Confidential reports on El Volado, a bus decorated a la mexicana – a dangling virgen, luchadores and colors, lots of them – that […]

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