A La Verne store dedicates artwork to a lost loved one.

A family unit still in spirit, Theresa, Jose and Annette Armas hold on to the memory of their lost son, Carlos Jose. / photo by Scott Mirimanian

A family unit still in spirit, Theresa, Jose and Annette Armas hold on to the memory of their lost son, Carlos Jose. / photo by Scott Mirimanian

by Tennille Wright
photography by Scott Mirimanian

It is an artists’ wonderland, an array of merging colors not unlike the aftermath of a rainbow exploding and spraying colors in every direction. The shelves and bins hold natural wood objects—miniature detailed skulls, paintings, bride and groom figurines—authentic Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) objects, all waiting for you to bring them to life. This is what you find at CJ’s Angels. The retail and wholesale store sells a multitude of art and craft supplies and specializes in Dia de los Muertos.

The motivation and inspiration to open CJ’s Angels came after the Armas family (Jose, Annette and daughter Theresa) lost 12-year-old Carlos Jose in a home accident. “It changed our lives entirely,” says his mother Annette. “Sometimes I ask myself, ‘Was he really here; did I really have him.’ Then I say, ‘Yes; I have the scar to prove it.’” The couple opened the business as a way to be together, to preserve the memory of their beloved son and to continue doing what he loved to do. The business exists in his name to share his memory, to turn tragedy into triumph, and to continue an enterprise that he seemed destined to lead. “It seemed only right to name the business after the individual who inspired us,” says his mother. The family now pays tribute to him all year long. “You have goals, but you never know what is going to happen,” she adds. Carlos passed away in 2001. He could always be counted on as an enthusiastic helper for his father with art events. “He was a little salesman,“ she says.

Building a family business

Owners Jose and Annette Armas, married for 30 years, met in high school. Jose, born in Mexico, knew the value of a college education. “I look at my mom, dad and grandma, and they’re brilliant, but they didn’t have the opportunities.” The young, energetic and self-motivated Jose set goals for himself and his future wife. “He told me that his wife would have to be a college graduate.” Annette, a gentle yet powerful woman, joined him in college his sophomore year. Both are alumni of the University of California, San Diego, and have shared an artistic passion even though their majors were not in that area. They bring their eclectic artistic taste to their store. As newlyweds, they purchased a table saw and made their own sofa and love seat. Annette enjoys making crafts; before Carlos’ loss, her favorites included country art pieces. She would cut wood into the shapes of barn animals and paint them. Then, as a way to cope with his loss, Annette moved to the Dia de los Muertos art. “My pallets changed. I used to paint pigs and cows,” she reflects. Jose worked as an insurance salesman until he found his niche 13 years ago importing art under the name, “Culture of Excellence.”

While working as an insurance salesman, Jose would use his vacation to return to Mexico with his family in tow. Jose decided that he would help the artists of Mexico by becoming their bridge to a better life. “If you do it for the money, you will never be rich, but if you do it for the love, the money will come,” says Jose. The Armases import art directly from the artists. “I love to boast about the people who make the art, and I love the people we deal with,” says Jose. One artist shared that he gained amenities taken for granted—bathroom fixtures for his family—with the money made from CJ’s Angels.

It was not until 2002 that Annette and Theresa joined the business, and CJ’s Angels was born. At first, it was a home based business. “I asked myself, “Am I able to commit to set hours?” says Annette. The Armases decided on a commercial location at 2061 Wright St., No. A6, La Verne. The site provided them the option to sell both retail and wholesale. “I found a diamond on the floor, and I knew this was the location for us,” says Annette.

Celebrating his life, the Armas family keeps a permanent altar on display in their La Verne store in remembrance of son Carlos Jose. / photo by Scott Mirimanian

Celebrating his life, the Armas family keeps a permanent altar on display in their La Verne store in remembrance of son Carlos Jose. / photo by Scott Mirimanian

Theresa, a student at California State University, Los Angeles, is referred to by her father as the future of CJ’s Angels, due to her incredible artistic talent. “Theresa has taught me to respect people’s differences, says Jose. She combines her culture along with contemporary art to create original and refreshing artwork. “I think my style is more Indie. I appreciate Mexican art, and it influences me,” says Theresa. She also looks to her surroundings as motivation. “I like to watch people. I am always aware of what’s around.” Theresa’s quiet, kind and humble personality are polar opposite to her art. Her bright and fiery paintings demand respect and attention. Jose credits Annette and Theresa as the gems who set CJ’s Angels artwork apart from other art retailers.

Most of their revenue comes from selling wholesale to businesses in northern California. However, due to current economic hard times, the business has suffered. “We went from dealing with 25 stores to five stores,“ says Theresa. She believes they are fortunate to still be in business. Nevertheless, the family is changing its format. “We plan to decrease our overhead by operating online,” says Annette. “We are stocked at 2,000 items, but we plan on reducing our stock to about 300 when we go online,” says Jose.

The Armas are a testament of what it means to be a family. “We’re a relay team. We don’t drop the baton,” says Jose. Even through hard times they have found a way to remain loyal and faithful to one another. They continue to persevere, fueling their artistic passion with their love for the son they lost. “We could have folded when our son died, but instead he is what drives us,” says Jose. They stand together strong and united. “You will see us, and we will survive,” says Jose.

For more information, visit CJsangels.com.