Olvera Street's Steed

Times Staff Writer

To truly appreciate the legacy of Jesus Hernandez and Jorge the stuffed donkey, one must begin with the fortune-telling canaries.

Therein lies the tale of a show-biz savvy Mexican immigrant -- the "burro man" of Olvera Street -- whose donkey and photo stand created an institution of L.A. tourist kitsch with a panache worthy of P.T. Barnum.

For more than three decades, schoolchildren, lovers, politicians and partygoers have put on a serape and sombrero and, with tongue firmly in cheek, hoisted themselves into a saddle for a souvenir shot atop Jorge.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa posed beside it, as did his predecessor, James K. Hahn. Former Mayor Richard Riordan wore the whole ensemble.

Hollywood has its sign. Paris, its tower. Downtown Los Angeles has its burro.

Some passersby might cringe at the Mexican American cliche. Not the Hernandez children. Not anymore. Jorge is more than a breadwinner. He's familia.

Jesus Hernandez immigrated to California in 1952, scratching out a living dancing on street corners in a zoot suit. The dancing was OK, but the backup act was the real draw. He had trained a flock of canaries, including two named Panchito and Pablo, to peck at pieces of paper promising various forms of happiness and prosperity.

"The birds were his ticket into Olvera Street," said one of his sons, Richard Hernandez, now 40.

Housed in homemade cages crafted from bits of wood and wire clothes hangers, the canaries soon earned enough cash for Jesus to return to Mexico and prove himself worthy of his 16-year-old sweetheart, Maria Transito Velasquez. More important, according to family lore, Jesus had to outrun, then placate, her pistol-wielding older brother.

The two married, settling in Guadalajara in 1957.

But the promise of a better life in the late 1960s ultimately lured Jesus and Maria Hernandez to Olvera Street, where he worked as a part-time photographer for Spanish-language newspapers. He also revived the canary act, earning a stand near the plaza where he also sold name bracelets and rings fashioned from rolled gold wire and brass.

It was then that he noticed festival organizers dragging an old stuffed donkey from storage on special occasions.

"He saw an opportunity," Richard said. "He pitched the idea of bringing a real donkey."

Jesus brought Cirila the donkey home from a ranch in Pomona.

"The neighbors were up in arms," Richard said. "The donkey would holler out 'hee-haw, hee-haw' all night."

On Olvera Street, Cirila struck a chord with tourists, reminding them of the photo carts and striped donkeys across the border in Tijuana, Richard said. In the early 1970s, his father would charge about $2 for a Polaroid photograph. Cirila was a star.

At Christmas she ferried the pregnant Virgin Mary in traditional posadas on Olvera Street.

When word of the donkey spread at Loreto Street Elementary School, the schoolyard taunting began for Richard and his twin brother, Arturo. "Your dad is a burro man!" he recalled the children saying.

The taunting intensified when his father began picking up the children from school in an old, pistachio-green milk truck he had converted to a motor home. Much to the chagrin of the Hernandez brood, the rattletrap he named Eugenia honked to the tune of "La Cucaracha."

"It was embarrassing," Richard said. "He was so proud of it."

The brothers were put in charge of transporting Cirila from their home in Cypress Park to Olvera Street. Every Saturday morning, the boys struggled to coax the donkey into a makeshift trailer their father had built from junkyard scraps.

"No matter how much we tried luring her in with food -- or whipping her -- she would not get in," Richard said. "That donkey was so stubborn."

So the Hernandez twins, who were then about 11 years old, and their 16-year-old brother, Jesus "Lalo" Hernandez Jr., began walking Cirila along San Fernando Road and Pasadena Avenue. One day, Lalo said, the procession came to a halt when Cirila sat down in the middle of North Broadway and refused to budge.

The group decided to tie Cirila to the grille of Lalo's small Fiat Spider. But the Fiat's paltry horsepower was no match for a small donkey with an iron will, Lalo said. The bumper sprang loose and Cirila bolted for home, dragging the clanging bumper behind.

In another incident, Cirila sauntered away with a small child on her back, Richard said. A brief chase ensued and both child and donkey were reclaimed unharmed, he added.

Such mischief could easily have spurred any donkey's early retirement. But animal activists and health officials were the straw that broke the donkey's back. It was too cruel to keep an animal in the hot sun, they insisted. And if that wasn't enough, the health department had some issues with the proximity of restaurants to donkey "byproduct."

Cirila was put out to pasture at a ranch in South Pasadena, and the old stuffed donkey was resurrected from storage.

But a hand-me-down donkey wasn't quite right for the burro man.

"Well, we have to get a nice-looking donkey," Richard recalled his father saying.

Thus began the legend of Jorge.

Little is known of Jorge's early life in the fields of Mexico, or how he died. But a Mexico City taxidermist stuffed him and exported him to Los Angeles in 1972. His welcome at the U.S. border, after a long train ride, was less than cordial.

"I remember my dad being on the phone with [border officials]," Richard said. "He said the donkey came through customs and the drug-sniffing dogs were barking at it."

At one point, he said, his father was convinced that agents posing as tourists were staking out his business to see if it was legitimate and not a cover for drug smugglers.

For six months, the forlorn donkey lingered with customs.

Eventually, the Hernandez business was cleared and the donkey freed.

For more than three decades, tourists have put on a sombrero and hoisted themselves into a saddle for a souvenir photo atop Jorge.

"I've seen him out here since I was a kid," said 45-year-old Maria Lopez. "It still has the same ... musky smell."

Lopez had joined four other women at the plaza to celebrate a birthday. Laughing to the point of tears, the women put on the customary sombreros and serapes for a picture with Jorge.

"Is he real?" one asked. "Yeah," Richard Hernandez grinned. "Real stiff."

Jorge is also a matchmaker of sorts. Hernandez swears that at least two marriage proposals have occurred at the photo stand. Both, he said, were accepted. At festivals, teenage boys often try to woo their love interest with a photo.

"They'll say, 'Take a picture with me,' and so a relationship is born," he said.

Eventually, Hollywood came knocking. In 1987, Jorge's film career began with "La Bamba." The donkey has since appeared in more than a dozen television shows, commercials and movies, including "Memories of Me" with Billy Crystal and "The Whole Ten Yards" with Bruce Willis and Matthew Perry, Hernandez said.

The donkey may also have had a cameo in an amateur adult film. One day, Hernandez said, a group arrived with a video camera and sound equipment. The group paid the usual $3 to snap shots with their own camera. (It costs $10 if Hernandez takes the photo).

"It was a busy day," Hernandez said. "I turned around and there was this girl, half clad, strutting around."

Another scantily attired woman positioned herself in the saddle on top of Jorge, Hernandez said. A male actor took his place behind the donkey. When a crowd started to form, Hernandez said, he asked the group's members to put on their clothes and leave.

True to his Los Angeles identity, Jorge also has had some reconstructive work. When Hernandez inquired about refurbishing him 11 years ago, the $2,500 price astounded him.

"So I said, 'I'll do it myself,' and I bought some fake fur and I stitched him by hand," he said. Once, when the regular material was out of stock, he used a faux cow-skin substitute. The result was a bit awkward. "It looked like he had a mask on," Hernandez said.

Eventually, in honor of the 2000 Democratic National Convention, he caved in and had Jorge professionally reupholstered.

"It seemed apropos," he said, chuckling. "Isn't the donkey the mascot of the Democrats?"

His father would have approved of how far a dead donkey carried his family, Hernandez said. At a family gathering in Cypress Park before his death, Jesus Hernandez stood just outside the house looking at the new cars belonging to several of his eight children.

"He said, 'I never thought this would happen for me,' " Richard Hernandez said. "He wasn't educated, but he was a man that had the education of life."

Richard's twin, Arturo, died in a car accident in 1987. When their father died a decade later, Richard took the reins of the family business alongside his older brother Lalo, now 45.

"He was a dreamer," said Lalo Hernandez, who also runs the family souvenir stand on Olvera Street. "He was part of the history of Olvera Street. Every merchant has their own history."

The other Hernandez children opted for other careers, including teaching, nursing and court reporting.

When happiness eluded him as an engineer, Richard Hernandez followed in his father's footsteps, seeking work as a photographer. The job brought him to Olvera Street and later, to the family business that once had caused him such shame. Now his hat and business cards proudly label him "The Burro Man."

"When I was young, I was the burro boy. Now I'm proud of it," he said. "I'm the burro man of Olvera Street."

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