The Rancho San Clemente Business Park is home to countless companies, warehouses, and office spaces, all of them containing a different story and owned by people on wildly divergent paths in life.
Operating in one of those spaces is Aguas Frescas Festival, a business that refers to itself as the “original ‘Aguas Frescas’ company” and has supplied beverages such as horchata and tamarindo commercially for more than 45 years.
The company is operated by siblings Javier and Monica Esparza, who have spent many years of their adult lives helping to maintain the family operation that was launched by their father.
In most situations, one business or tenant would be all that occupies a single space, but Suite G at 1023 Calle Sombra is an exception.
Each day for the past few months, Monica Esparza, a 58-year-old Ladera Ranch resident, heads up the stairs to her workshop to continue her latest project, a concert guitar meant to be built according to the tradition of Spanish construction and inspired by a beloved figure in the world of guitar making.
The late José Luis Romanillos, who died in February 2022 at the age of 89, was a renowned luthier, or craftsperson specializing in string instruments, who spent more than 60 years crafting and teaching others how to make acoustic guitars suitable for professional performances.
Esparza studied under him from 2004 to 2012.
Now, she is in the final stages of constructing a guitar she’ll exhibit at the upcoming International Luthier Festival from June 16-18 in Badalona, Spain, roughly 20 minutes from Barcelona.
The Badalona Guitar Association organized the event, in which 10 luthiers, including Esparza, accepted a challenge to build a guitar that pays homage to Romanillos.
“There’s going to be a big program, a big festival and presentations, concerts and lectures,” Esparza said. “Ten luthiers from around the world were invited, and I’m the only American and the only woman, apparently. I was always the only woman who studied out there. Not a lot of women are in the craft.”
To anyone else, her workshop might appear difficult to comprehend, as it is filled with innumerable and varying kinds of wood pieces used to construct guitars, structural blueprints, and photos of memories from the past.
Esparza navigates through the space easily, however. She’s spent the past 10 years in Suite G, making the office her second home and unofficial place of business for Esparza Guitars, where Esparza builds classical and flamenco guitars to clients’ exact specifications.
Her 21 years of experience and production have earned her a stellar reputation in the acoustic guitar world. She’s taught and appeared at festivals and shows from California to Berlin and seemingly everywhere in between.
Before her passion came to fruition, however, it was her time spent under the guidance of the maestro, Romanillos, that set everything else in motion. Esparza spoke with the San Clemente Times about her history with guitars and the renowned maestro.
FORGING A PATH
Her first foray into music began in the fourth grade, when she started to play the violin, later adding the organ to her repertoire as a teenager.
Years later, while on a trip in Mexico with a friend around the early 1990s, she bought a classical guitar despite not knowing how to play or how to even read musical notation. Determined to learn how to play, Esparza began studying at Saddleback College.
She also joined a flamenco group in San Diego as a singer, her pursuits in Spanish music further developing her interest in the construction of guitars.
After studying biochemistry and graduating from Mills College in Oakland, she took an acoustics course at Orange Coast College, during which she built her first guitar, a flamenco.
“I was always into woodworking,” Esparza said, adding: “But also, as a classical guitar player, I was very interested in the music, the instrument. When I moved back to Orange County, I had heard that there was an acoustic class, and that class gave you two years to build molds and to study and put together an acoustic guitar.”
At the end of the two-year period, she wasn’t satisfied with what she had created.
“It was not built the way I knew that it would be built by the traditional Spanish makers, so I started inquiring on how I (could) get myself to Spain and learn under a master builder,” said Esparza. “That’s where my journey started.”
In 2004, she traveled to Sigüenza, a small town roughly 90 minutes from Madrid in the Spanish countryside, to learn from Romanillos after hearing about his workshops.
Each summer, Romanillos invited 20 students from around the world to participate, with every person receiving a bench and spending a month learning from the maestro before finishing the guitar back at home.
Esparza spent months emailing Romanillos’ son, Liam, trying to get into a workshop, which eventually paid off.
“I finally, one day, got in, so I packed my bags, and they sent me my material list and what I had to travel with, and I took off,” Esparza said. “I felt very intimidated. I walked in there, I was the only woman, and I didn’t know what I was up against.”
By the end of the program, however, she was one of only four students to have their guitars strung up, and she had earned an invite from Romanillos himself to come back the next year.
Their friendship developed over the years as Esparza attended workshops again and again, with the maestro asking her to fly out for numerous projects. In one circumstance, she was the only foreigner to join several local Spanish builders in helping Romanillos on a special project.
“He would have me over to his house for dinner, for interviews in his shop,” she said. “I have pictures where I’m finishing up an instrument in his shop. I felt very honored (and) very privileged to be a part of him and his family.”
His last workshop occurred in 2012, but Esparza tried her best to see him when she went to Europe for other events. She last saw Romanillos in 2015.
After coming back from Sigüenza, Esparza set up a bench in her garage to finish the guitar she was working on. Eventually, she outgrew the space, as she brought in more machines and piles upon piles of different types of wood.
Esparza said that even the thought of being able to use an organic material such as wood and make music from it is fascinating to her. There is a lot of engineering, the use of hand tools, and knowledge of each wood species’ properties that goes into creating a quality guitar, she added.
Trial and error comprised a significant part of her learning process, Esparza said, reiterating how intrigued she was by the intricate aspects of wood and what went into producing the sounds people hear when guitars are played.
She described the lengthy timetable of constructing a guitar as “organic” and “extremely laborious,” requiring patience, practice and skill.
“Today, there’s factories who, with all sorts of machines, can create an acoustic guitar with practically no human hands touching it,” said Esparza. “Whereas (with) this, we pretty much do everything but cut the tree down.”
COMMUNITY OF ‘GUITAR GEEKS’
Given that the previous Aguas Frescas Festival office space just across the way in the business park was twice the size of the current space, she found an area where her machines could make a lot of noise and she could protect her equipment as necessary.
Additionally, Esparza began teaching guitar-building through the Stringed Instrument Makers of Southern California organization and participating in guitar exhibitions both nationwide and internationally.
Her exposure through those new outlets combined to bring her many people interested in having her construct guitars for them.
Customers who ask her to make instruments just for them appreciate the fact that they will own a custom item, she added, and that they can have a relationship with her during the process.
“They want to be able to really translate their needs, what they’re looking for, the fact that it can have a story,” she said.
Working with Esparza, customers are involved in the measurements and the style of the guitar and what kind of wood it’s made from, so everything is to their liking.
She fields requests from varying kinds of people, including students wanting to upgrade factory-made guitars, serious enthusiasts and professional concert players.
“I remember being at a show up in Northern California called the Hillsboro Guitar Show—a very famous acoustic show,” Esparza said. “Someone came and bought the guitar, and they didn’t even play, but they were just (a) serious collector. It really is a wide range of people that come and choose.”
Her base price for making a custom guitar is $8,000, with the most expensive one she produced costing her client $10,000. Upcharges depend on the type of labor, materials, or other details such as inlays that Esparza includes in the process.
The guitar community is “hardcore,” she said, as many have their own collections and see no end to the number they can purchase.
“It’s a small community, but yet, it’s not that small at the same time,” said Esparza.
She calls herself and other people she’s met over the years, whether in California, Spain or elsewhere, “guitar geeks,” who discuss what projects they’re working on or what exhibit they’re attending the next each time they see each other again.
RECONNECTIONS AND FAREWELLS
In July 2022, around five months after Romanillos passed, a friend and former student under Romanillos sent her a link to a YouTube video produced by the Badalona Guitar Association, in which the organization summarized a two-hour tribute event featuring speeches from other former students and a guitar recital.
At the end of the event, the organizers decided to put on the larger event now scheduled for June, and the association president sent Esparza an email detailing the plans and inviting her to the festival, given her time spent under the maestro’s tutelage.
She gave significant thought to the invitation before accepting it, as it required a substantial commitment financially and timewise.
Regardless, Esparza is honored and looking forward to the event, she said, although traveling with such precious cargo is always troubling. She added that she is excited to reconnect with old friends.
“I made a lot of friends there throughout the years, including Jose’s wife (Marian Harris),” she said. “I’m looking forward to seeing her; I’m looking forward to seeing several of my colleagues that I built instruments in workshops with (and) stayed connected every time I would go back.”
Esparza will also travel to Spain with her daughter, Annelisa, a NASA research scientist who lives in Florida and has seen much less of her mother’s pursuits than others.
“It’s a big part of my life that she really hasn’t see in action, because she has studied (and been) out of state for so many years,” said Esparza. “We’re really excited to be able to do this together.”
In addition to applying a shellac wood finish to her guitar at home, she hopes to begin applying French polish by the end of May, glue on the bridge piece and install the tuners in early June, and have the guitar strung up at least a week before she departs for Spain on June 14.
Esparza’s earlier suspicions about the commitment her project required have been confirmed, as she’s had to juggle putting together the guitar along with running the beverage business. She’s also been caring for her father, an octogenarian who only retired in the past 18 months and has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
Altogether, those situations combine to exert a lot of stress on Esparza, emphasizing the importance of taking a few days to enjoy the beauty of Spain, spend quality time with friends and family, and listen to talented performers.
Most of all, she’ll get a chance to say one final goodbye to an old friend.
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