Toys, Dulces, Shops, and Nostalgia: an Interview with Brenda Escobar

When you’re in LA and someone mentions the Valley, the places that come to mind are locations like Burbank, Calabasas, and Simi Valley. You picture glamour and fast cars, large homes and expensive brands. You don’t think of the cute towns like Reseda and Van Nuys, where artists like Brenda Escobar capture the warmth and comfort of mom-and-pop businesses.

Being a good colleague and friend, Brenda accepted our invitation to have an open conversation about her hometown, Reseda. Brenda’s photography captures the nostalgia of growing up as a Latina woman in both Reseda and Los Angeles. While posting glittering images of toys, dulces, quinceañera cakes, and small businesses, Brenda triggers my own memories of exploring my neighborhood in the ’90s. Sometimes these beautiful images are taken a step further and collected into zines and collage. With green or pink hues the images are sweet and nostalgic, I can remember the scents of the panaderías and piñatas, I can remember the bright colored clothing and loud music rattling the windows. And it truly is a wonder that Brenda can continue to represent these moments today. These sweet memories make me think of my mother’s words to me, “estas viendo todo de color de rosa” or “you’re seeing everything as rose colored.” And even if it’s a tease, I like taking it in a positive vibe.

Tell us about Reseda and what makes it special to you.

So I grew up in the Valley. I had been living in Reseda for most of my life, I was in Burbank for a little bit of that time, but most of my life has been in Reseda and the Valley area. I feel like taking photos of the areas around me kinda became a priority when I started to notice things were changing around the Valley. And not just gentrification but just things like time passing and realizing that being in that area for so long and seeing all these changes kinda made me feel nostalgic, cause I’ve always been nostalgic, so I wanted to take photos to document and keep those memories alive in a way. That “on your own” zine is kind of me just taking as much as I can from Reseda and that particular area where I’ve been growing up my whole life.

Reseda is one of those places that people only know from The Karate Kid and they filmed some scenes from Boogie Nights in a donut shop, Miss Donuts, in that area that’s really good. So people kinda know about it but you either know it from the movies or you know it because people talk a lot of shit about the Valley in general. I dunno, people say that it’s really dangerous, and it can be dangerous but you know, there’s just a lot of hate for the Valley and I’m one of those people who’s like, “I love the Valley!” If I could live there forever I would have, but now I’m in LA so I feel like a hypocrite.

But I really love the Valley, so most of my photos from that area are just me trying to show it in a way that’s like, this is my home and I want other people to feel like they relate in a way or even just see it from an outsider’s perspective that it’s interesting to look at.

What’s something about Reseda that people who aren’t familiar with the neighborhood ought to know?

There’s a lot of hidden gems that people talk about, like “Oh, there’s this diner or there’s a donut shop or there’s a really good thrift store,” and in Reseda there’s a street called Sherman Way, and that is where they filmed a lot of scenes from Boogie Nights and then it’s also really known for thrift stores and old restaurants and bakeries that have been there a really long time. So I would say that a lot of local, mom-and-pop places are really big in that area and some of the photos that I took were in those places.

What are some of your favorite places in the neighborhood?

There’s a Guatemalan bakery in the area that I really like, and I really miss going there because I haven’t been able to go in years now. It’s really small and it’s really cute and they have really cute decorations inside like they have this bootleg painting-type art thing, I don’t even know what it would be called, but of Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse wearing traditional Guatemalan clothes. I was freaking out when I saw it, I thought, “I have to take a photo of this.” That’s one of my favorite spots because I’m also Guatemalan.

So what’s the makeup of Reseda? Is it predominatly Guatemalan?

No… I’ve looked at the stats from the last census that came out and it’s mostly Latino but I don’t know what everyone’s background is necessarily. But in that area I photographed in Reseda there’s a Guatemalan bakery, there’s a Salvadorian place, and I’m also Salvadorian. Those places are two of the places I would think of, and there’s a lot of Mexican people there too. So mostly Latinos.

What got you interested in photography?

I’ve been interested in photography for a really long time. I remember getting one of those, I don’t even know what it would be called, but one of those digital cameras, the kind where you would hold it up like a video camera and you could turn the screen open. There were mini versions of that. I had one of those in the early 2000s and I remember just taking photos of everything. Like every single thing that I could take photos of because I just thought it was cool that I could take photos of everything. And it was different from a film camera because I didn’t feel the pressure of my parents being like, “Don’t waste that shot!” I had unlimited shots that I could use, so I took advantage of that. And then I just kept doing that, I kept buying cameras and I kept taking photos and then I realized I really like doing this and capturing memories of places that I really like. So that’s how I got into that, and then the rest of my art practice, like making collages and doing digital collages and physical collages of those things became the next step in my art practice and that’s what I’ve been mostly focusing on now. So that’s what my work consists of now, I take pieces of photos I’ve taken and I make work out of that. I make collages or I make just a whole new image based on those things.

What do you hope to express to your viewers through your art?

I think I want people to get a sense of the feeling that I get when I’m in a place I call home, like this nostalgia feeling. And I feel like my collages are more me trying to capture the feeling more than a photo would. So putting elements together that give it a whole new feeling and meaning, that’s what I’m attempting to make, and I think I want people to really feel like what those places feel like.

Are there any specific influences on your art?

I can’t think of names, but I know when I started to do the zines I met a lot of other Valley kids that were making art, so a lot of people from the Valley inspired me. I was inspired by other artists, like artists that you’d see in a museum, but not so much that it made me feel like I could do it. I felt that more when I met other people in the Valley that were doing the same things or similar things. And a lot of that work was heavily focused on culture and place, so I really connected with those people.

(John) Something I’m really impressed by in your photographs is your use of color. I feel like it lends your photos a dreamlike quality. How do you achieve that effect?

I was using a lot of different effects when taking all my photos, so I have like—I can’t even remember some of them—some of them are film, some of them are through different photo apps like an iPhone, and then others were me enhancing the color, the saturation of things, or altering images so that they could look more like what they felt like in person for me. And again, that’s just me attempting to make things feel like the way they really felt, and showing that in an image.

(Janeth) Your photographs of toys, dulces, and local shops emanate a sense of nostalgia and warmth. What are your thoughts or feelings when you’re photographing those places?

I’m like on a high when I’m taking photos of those things. I’m really annoying. It’s better if I’m alone when I’m doing that because I get really excited when I see anything like that. If I’m with other people, I’ll just slip my phone out and take photos really quick. I don’t want to be that person who’s like, “Wait, please wait.” I just want to capture all of it. And that’s what I do. And a lot of those photos are actually from the Toy District. I didn’t talk about my other zine, but that is one of my favorites because I just kinda went crazy in the Toy District downtown and I took photos of everything there, and then I made collages of it too. So that was me really taking advantage of where I was and I went a little intense with it. I’m glad that it’s capturing what I’m feeling because that’s what I’m trying to do. I want people to feel that, because these are things that people just walk by and ignore or don’t really think about ever. And it really excites me, I’m really obsessed with bootleg things and seeing that stuff is really gold to me.

(John) Yeah, I think it’s fair to say that your photographs capture the beauty in the mundane. And it sounds like you’re also trying to capture the spontaneity of the moment.

Yeah, for sure. I feel like a lot of the things that I like to take photos of aren’t really things that are the first thing someone would want in a photo. Maybe it’s not really things that are a spectacle, it’s more just everyday things. And I’m not trying to make them a spectacle, I’m just trying to showcase them in a way that’s like, “this is also interesting and intriguing.”

(Janeth) I think your images are nostalgic to me because I identify with everything you put in like the wedding cakes and the plush toys. I basically grew up going to the Toy District every single day because my aunt would like to sell that merch directly. One thing I like to think about is, can you imagine how different your zines or your photos would look if you weren’t Latina or you weren’t growing up in LA? How different would that be to you?

That’s a good question, cause I also grew up going to the Toy District a lot. When I was little, we’d go to Grand Central Market when it was a meat place, like you could just buy meat. And so my memories of those places are just me, the same way, going nuts over seeing a bunch of things like that. And then trying to capture that because it’s a part of my memory and all those things. I feel like if I wasn’t Latina, I wouldn’t… I dunno, it’s not someone else’s place to… like, I would be mad if I saw a collage that someone made of things in the Toy District and then finding out that they were white. I would be annoyed by that. I think me, my background, all of that has a lot more to do with the work I make than I think it does. Those things come out in ways I don’t realize. And there’s things I include in my work that later on I’ll look back and realize, “Oh yeah, I included that because that resonated because I had a quinceañera.” Or I grew up with a family that was very religious so that’s why I felt visually intrigued by some of the images I included.

(John) The nostalgia that I get from looking at your photographs, going back to Boogie Nights, reminds me of classic cinema of the Valley. Your use of color, your subject matter, that’s what comes to my mind.

Yeah, I went to film school for a while so I remember thinking of all the films that showcase Reseda or the Valley or even LA and that has definitely inspired the way I capture things and the way that I want to preserve things as well. I’m definitely thinking about things that I learned from film school and how to make things look and capturing a feeling like, “Oh, that’s like the ’90s” or things like that. And then things like Janeth said, us being Latina, that background and growing up in that time and those environments really inspired me.

How do you feel like your education in film school affects your photographs?

Well, I learned a lot, but I also dropped out because I hated it. I feel like I was always going against what they were telling me to do, because the film school I was going to was super by-the-book. We were being literally taught by guys in the industry who were either directors or writers and it was a weird mix because they were working at a school that ended up shutting down because it had been scamming people. So it was weird because I was getting the education that you would be expecting to get from a film school, like learning from actual directors, but then being taught in a curriculum that was so not what people would think of film. They were telling you to make specific things that didn’t give you any creative freedom, so I think my actual practice was very against what I was being told to do. But then I also learned a lot of techniques and I learned about a lot of films from that. So it was a mix.

What’s your thought process in creating collage? What do you hope to express or capture?

Sometimes when I do it, it just happens. I usually will not have an idea when I start working on a collage because I feel like when I have an idea, then I just can’t do it because I’m struggling to make it work. So what I like to do is just start it. I’ll start with an image, I’ll then compile other images that make me feel like it will work maybe. Even if it doesn’t feel right, I’ll still grab images and I’ll just start putting them together and then it can start to feel right. Sometimes it doesn’t but I found that it kinda all works out in the end, like I wind up enjoying everything in the end. There’s a lot of images in the toy zine that I don’t even remember having that idea at first and it just kinda became that. And then I am also trying to create a feeling, and sometimes it’s a feeling I want to recreate with the collage image, but then sometimes it’s me trying to create a new feeling completely that maybe doesn’t have to do with the images I started with.

Some of your photographs have added stickers or drawings on them. How do you select which pictures get those additions?

I think if they feel like they need a little something and I don’t think another image will work with it, then I’ll start adding in little stickers. Sometimes I find them on apps, I use a bunch of different apps that I add my own images to and I’ll just copy them digitally and scatter them throughout an image. So if things feel like they need a little more then I’ll do it, and then other times I’ll do it and see if it works out. But it’s more me just adding flair to it and sometimes those things end up making the feeling a little more strong to me and I feel more of a connection with it.

Do those stickers have special significance to you?

Some of them, yeah. I’ll create digital stickers of images that I’ve already taken and I actually don’t really use images that aren’t mine when I do that. If I’m using a sticker or a little design from an app, that’s the only time that it’s not mine, but a lot of the time I’ll digitally crop things and cut them out and then scatter them or put them in different parts of the collage.

Can you share your experience making zines?

Yeah, I didn’t know what I was doing, and I still don’t really know. Like I couldn’t tell you how to DIY a zine. I’ve done it, and it’s probably not the best way because it would really take me hours to figure it out. And I feel like I could learn, I wanna learn, I’m just more focused on the work and then I’m thinking, “I’m just gonna put it in a book.” That’s like an afterthought. When I do it, I’ll open not even Word, I was using Pages, cause that’s all I have. And so I’ll put images in, I’ll think it out, how’s it gonna look when it’s printed, if I do front to back it has to match the other images, so that can take forever for me to figure out. And then I would go to FedEx and do it there, but the people there don’t know it either, so thinking back to that it’s such a nightmare. I’m probably going to have to figure out something else, because I couldn’t do it.

When I collaborated with another artist that was also a friend, she took me to this printing place where the guy is amazing and he knew how to do it. She was like, “Yeah, just give him the file and he’ll figure it out. Just tell him it’s a book and he’ll do it.” And he did it! So I feel like I’ll go back to him because I can’t do FedEx anymore. But that whole thing is not even something I enjoy the process of at all. I don’t like it. I’d rather make prints of things, I enjoy doing that more.

(John) So based on that, is there any advice you’d give to an aspiring zine maker? Aside from “Don’t use FedEx.”

Yeah, I guess you should probably learn how to do it online or through a friend. Don’t go the hard way that I did. Unless you want to, but I don’t even want to make anything that way anymore. It would probably be good to invest in a program online, like Illustrator or something like that to format things easier and then that’ll be easier to print out rather than having to tell them, “Oh, I did it on Word, or Pages, and can you figure out how to print this?”

(Janeth) I agree, FedEx sucks.

Oh my god, yeah. I had a really embarrassing experience every single time I would go because I kept seeing the same guy there. And every single time he didn’t know how to do it, but he was always like, “Well let me try to figure it out! Let me try to figure it out!” And he was like, “Oh, so are you in school for this?” And I was like, “No, it’s not for school.” I didn’t even feel comfortable saying I’m an artist or whatever. And he was just being really annoying and not understanding and then trying to figure me out. It was just bad, I don’t ever want to go to FedEx ever again.

Lastly, where would you take someone visiting Los Angeles?

I always hear about people that aren’t from LA coming here and going straight to West Hollywood or Downtown, you know, the places you’re told to go to. But I think those places are so boring and don’t deserve the attention they have. I don’t think it’s really representative of what LA is. I would say people should come to the Valley and they should go to places like Reseda and North Hollywood and Van Nuys, just a local area, and try to go to the places where the mom-and-pop places are. Just go to those places and when you’re in LA check out what the people in the neighborhoods are doing. I think seeing LA from the perspective of somebody who’s not from here, the things they think about are kinda the glamorous, Beverly Hills lifestyle, and I feel like that’s just not accurate at all. It’s not the life that any of us live. I think just taking part in the culture of the people that are actually from here is really important. So I would say go to the mom-and-pop places, go to the bakeries, the diners, especially in the Valley, and here in LA, check out the local spots that the locals are going to.

Try to explore an area, even just walking around and not going into any business, try to hang out in a neighborhood that’s not super gentrified-looking and check those places out. I already talked about it, but in Reseda, I would recommend people go on Sherman Way. Right where Reseda Boulevard hits, that area is really cool. There’s a Vietnamese restaurant that’s really popular, there’s a mariscos place that’s near that as well. A lot of those places I didn’t get to photograph inside but I wish I could have because, for instance, the mariscos place, it actually used to be a Chinese restaurant in the ’90s, and it’s really interesting how they kept everything the same but they just changed what the restaurant was. The inside is all decked out, they’ve got shells and fish decorations everywhere.

The Valley is a lot like LA in that it’s really vast and there’s little pockets of spots with different things. Anytime people talk about places to visit it’s always, one is in North Hollywood, one is in Pacoima, different areas, so it’s a little spread out, like LA. The Arts District in NoHo has a lot of nice historical areas, but it’s also really gentrified. I recommend taking the Orange Line all the way down to Chatsworth, you’ll get a really good taste of the Valley if you get off at every stop.


A couple stops past Van Nuys is Lake Balboa, and I recommend the Japanese Garden there. It’s really hidden, you have to go through a little park to get to it, and it’s really beautiful. There’s a famous image from Star Trek of where the headquarters is and it’s basically the Japanese Garden but they greenscreened the background to put in the Golden Gate Bridge and it looks really weird. But it’s a weird, futuristic garden because it’s right next to the water treatment facility, everyone’s toilet water gets filtered there. So it smells bad sometimes but it’s also really beautiful.

Chatsworth is really weird, at the Amtrak stop at the last station on the Orange Line. There’s a lot of emphasis on cowboys and it feels a little racist because of the history there. It’s a really strange area because it’s really quiet, no one is really there because they’re just taking the train or getting back. It’s a weird spot, but I’d recommend it because it’s really weird.

You can follow Brenda Escobar and see more of her artwork at her Instagram page, @beescobee.

And if you like our work, please consider supporting Transiting Los Angeles at our Patreon, where we post additional content and offer extra perks like postcards of our illustrations.

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