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INNER LIFE

Grace in leaf and stone

A lyrical Silver Lake garden lies at the heart of the indie film `Quinceanera.' But it's in the musings and history of its green-thumb folk artist -- full of pain and renewal -- that the story takes wing.

September 14, 2006|Ann Herold | Times Staff Writer

ALBERTO HERNANDEZ is out to repair the world. It is a broken place, he will tell you, and his garden is a prayer that it might be healed.

Cascading vines and well-rooted trees draw the earth up to the sky. Sunlight glows through green and gold wine bottles suspended overhead. A waterfall of white beads and coils of multicolored tinsel frame an altar Hernandez has built to one side.

Walk through this cathedral from green-enshrouded shrine to shrine, and you will hear Hernandez's prayer begin to hum. It was this humming that caught the attention of filmmakers Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer eight years ago when they were looking for someone to remake their Echo Park garden.

"We were amazed to find such an inspired, extravagant, private kingdom behind Alberto's modest house," says Glatzer of the 42-year-old artist. "Thoughts of the Watts Towers came to mind -- of a folk artist with a major vision working away unknown by the world."

No wonder they placed Hernandez's creation in the center of their movie "Quinceanera." Here the Silver Lake garden is both prayer and refuge for the central character, 84-year-old Tomas Alvarez, who has taken in his disgraced niece and nephew. On the altar, Tomas has placed their photos. In a later scene, he sits, tears falling, next to a tiled concrete fireplace screened by grape leaves laced with black beads. Above it, the wine bottles glitter in the frame.

Westmoreland and Glatzer's interpretation of this space as a place of solace and wonder, a place where saints may walk freely, seems right. Hernandez himself will tell you that this has been a place of love from the day he started cultivating it 14 years ago.

But it wasn't just Hernandez's garden that caught the filmmakers' attention. In their Echo Park neighborhood, they were observing the powerful impact of monied newcomers on their poorer neighbors. An old way of life was dying and a new one taking its place. Whom to admire in this anxious tableau? They admired Hernandez, whose story, as it unfolded to them, was of death and resurrection, of a child's body so broken that it would take years to heal and of an adult who moves gracefully through the world, using his work with plants to make it more beautiful.

"Tomas was definitely inspired by Alberto's Zen-like equanimity," says Glatzer.

WHEN Alberto Hernandez was 10, the 13th of 22 children, he decided he was tired of this life. He lay down behind a truck so that it would drive over him and kill him.

Alberto's much-broken body survived and he spent the next seven years in the hospital. You do not go through something like that and stay the same person, he says. It was here that he drew a bead on the importance of love, unqualified. Like that of saints. It embraces all people. It prays for healing. It makes gardens like this and inspires movies like "Quinceanera."

Not only did Westmoreland and Glatzer end up using the garden, but "we used bits of Alberto's own biography in constructing Tomas' past," including Hernandez's early attempt at suicide. They also used his spirit. "Alberto is a shy, private man who exudes wisdom. His charisma is all the stronger for being twinned with shyness."

Over the years Hernandez has taken some landscaping jobs, maybe 20 or 30, he says. He seems interested in doing it for a living. For now he works 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. as grounds superintendent at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, managing a staff of 22. They are from all walks of life and some can be trying. The garden helps him forget the aches of the day.

"Alberto is a true artist, someone who creates constantly, effortlessly, the way most people breathe," says Glatzer. "When we first met him -- before Hollywood Forever began taking up most of his time -- he would work long into the night inventing overripe displays for the garden. In fact, the displays changed regularly and you never knew what to expect."

In his native Mexico, Hernandez studied horticulture, opening his own nursery, but the business withered away in the poor economy. He went to Houston, where he sold champurrado and oranges on the street, but it was too hot. He came to Los Angeles 16 years ago and, looking for a job, wandered into a Culver City flower shop, where he was asked to do an arrangement on the spot and was hired. Over the years, as he was shaping the garden behind his house, he worked for other florists (the memory of one in Malibu is especially happy) and for a business that rented plants to offices. Often, perfectly good specimens would be discarded and he would bring them home like pound puppies to be loved.

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