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Martin Sanchez, Tio's Tacos

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About the Artist/Site

Tio’s Tacos is an American dream come true for proprietor Martin Sanchez. As a kid growing up in the small town of Sahuayo in Mexico’s Michoacan state, Sanchez was very ambitious and driven to succeed. Because the other kids looked up to him they called him Tio (uncle) as a sign of respect. When Tio immigrated to California he supported himself by selling oranges by the side of the road. Soon he expanded his business endeavors by selling tacos from a hot dog stand on Mission Inn Avenue in Riverside. By 1990, as the tacos had started gaining popularity, he decided to turn his stand into a full-blown restaurant owned and operated by his family. Eventually Sanchez acquired the house next to the restaurant, and soon his property took up the whole city block. 

Growing up in rural Mexico, Sanchez wasn’t used to the kinds of affluent entertainment to which American children have access. When Sanchez wanted to play, he had to create his own toys from whatever scrap materials he could find around town. When Sanchez arrived in America, he couldn’t understand the casual waste Americans generate on such a massive scale. The overabundance of American refuse is what drives Sanchez’s creative obsession. The empty oyster shells, cow bones picked clean, discarded beer bottles and soda cans that litter the countertops at Tio’s are not regarded as trash but are considered the raw material for Sanchez’s huge sculpture installations. Very little waste that is generated by Tio’s Tacos leaves the property; instead, the trash is transformed into the bodies of giant characters that inhabit the restaurant’s back yard. Most waste is sorted by the type of material; then Sanchez and his family will shape the sculptures with chicken wire, and fill in the shapes with the accumulated collections.

In the early days, Sanchez’s art installation faced opposition from the City of Riverside, as trash was stockpiling on his property and creating an eyesore for the city.  It took several years, but as Sanchez’s visions literally started taking shape his court battles became less pressing, and the City started to understand his creative method. Although the sculptures create a dizzying and perhaps chaotic impression upon viewing, the figures aren’t built from random materials. Every object tells a story and has a personal connection to Tio’s family and their experiences. Leftovers from Tio’s culinary creations, his daughter’s old doll collections, mementos from traditional Day of the Dead celebrations, and numerous religious artifacts adorn the property, including a chapel made from beer bottles resembling stained glass that has been officially sanctioned by the Catholic Church.

Martin Sanchez has created an environment that celebrates the American dreams of ingenuity, individuality, and the freedom to dream big dreams, while expressing a gratitude for life’s bounty that is uncommon in American culture. Sanchez hopes his art and sculptures will leave a lasting impression upon viewers and prove that even from humble origins, great accomplishments can be achieved.

~Irene Rible



Map and site information

3948 Mission Inn Avenue
Riverside, California, United States
Latitude/Longitude: 33.984211 / -117.376848

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