¡Oye! A LAtina perspective on food, fashion, familia and art.

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Portal to Oaxaca

by Laura E. Alvarez


The first time I entered a Santa Monica, California portal to the state of Oaxaca, Mexico was around 1992 when we came upon artist, Fernando Cervantes’ and his wife, Alicia’s gallery and folk art store, Artesanias Oaxaqueñas in it’s original location just off Ocean Park boulevard. It was about ten years before we became friends with Fernando. I remembered how the sweet shop full of textiles and jewelry and more transported me instantly to Mexico. I bought a black and white hand woven Oaxacan blouse and a black clay necklace to go with it. Lovely.

I visited Oaxaca as a child… kind of. I only have a foggy memory of arriving, sick in a dark hotel room, watching everyone leave me behind as I called out weakly, “Bring me back some Oaxacan cheese… please.” I was obsessed with that cheese. I must have thought the cheese would heal me somehow. My family and my uncle’s family were traveling from Acapulco east across Mexico and north up to my mother’s home state of Tamaulipas. Oh, the memories.

Back to Santa Monica as home to Oaxacan portals… Santa Monica is where 94 percent of Oaxaqueños migrate to from the central valley of Oaxaca. Isn’t that amazing? Santa Monica is SO Oaxaqueño. We have so much to be grateful for. The diversity in mole alone… at our fingertips! And look at this:

Unlike many other Mesoamerican Indians groups, the Zapotecs have no legend of migration and their legends claim that their ancestors emerged from the earth or from caves, or that they turned from trees or jaguars into people. Upon death, they believe, they would return to their former status. (John P. Schmal in OAXACA: A LAND OF DIVERSITY)

You thought Santa Monica was just film industry executives in mini craftsman mansions, bamboo yoga floors and breezy easy living… but in fact it is home to cloud people! It’s not every indigenous group that is born from its hometown. This is something special, and when you visit Artesanias Oaxaqueñas, you will experience some of the powerful yet dreamy qualities of this unique culture through it’s current art making practices.

When Fernando’s shop was right on Ocean Park Boulevard, we used to hang at Café Bolivar, an excellent place for coffee, arepas and art shows run by José Carvajal. I was looking for artists for a group show I wanted to curate at Bolivar, and José recommended Fernando for the show, who makes fantastic visual poems with materials both found and traditional like papier mached and painted palm fronds turned masks. From here a great and treasured friendship was born. We would continue to visit Fernando’s shop, not just for gifts, clothing, books, and pieces for our home, but also for the portal.

Yes, the portal. Places like Oaxaca and places like the tropical wonderland of the Huasteca where my mother was from aren’t easy to physically get to, so it’s nice to have these spots where you can almost feel like you are really there. May it be because of food, music, art or storytelling these spots cause everything else to fall away.

In Artesanias Oaxaqueñas the dense forest of wooden fantastical creatures, ceramic trees of life, and tin, beautifully worked mirrors surround you with the very heart and soul of a not-so-faraway land. Fernando’s ever-present artistic energy as he carves and paints makes the shop even more of a portal. I listen to his stories about the Oaxacan artists that he supports by carrying their works –  stories about life size sculptures of people in the fields that represent those that are absent back home. If I walk out the back door of the shop, it feels as if I will emerge into one of those fields, surrounded by copal trees, feeling the soft breeze with hints of ripe blue corn, grasshopper tacos, and squash blossoms cooking in an outdoor kitchen. And then I’ll just be another Oaxacan dreamer, as I close my eyes and imagine a Santa Monica beach full of palm fronds on which I can make my next mask.