Best Of :: La Vida
El Pakal is one tough-looking hombre. Not only is he ripped from head to toe, but his face is hidden by a gold wrestling mask and his torso is painted with Aztec symbols. Is he loco? Nah, just a participant in lucha libre (Mexican-style wrestling). Pakal is a member of Gladiadores Unidos, a local group that holds matches every Friday at a converted South Phoenix warehouse, and also a rudo (bad guy) whose main goal in the ring is to beat the crap outta the technicos (good guys). For those who're unfamiliar with lucha, here's a brief primer, wey: Originating in Mexico and similar in most respects to the WWE, lucha features faster, higher-flying action that's a little different from what you see on Monday Night Raw. First of all, many Mexican-style wrestlers wear colorful masks. Also, the action takes place in three-on-three tag-team matches that involve a whirlwind of action that often spills into the audience. Gladiadores Unidos is one of three lucha groups in Phoenix and is, by far, the best. Its characters are more over the top (a wrestler dressed as a cat) and humorous. Don't worry if you're not bilingual, because the action is easy to follow. Just stay outta the first three rows.
Barrio Cafe chef Silvana Salcido Esparza turned 50 this year, and she was pissed. It wasn't the number of candles on her cake or years she's spent building her restaurant business on 16th Street — it was Arizona Senate Bill 1070. Esparza's been glued to the news and images of Arizona's Mexican community in all its lackluster glory on the big screen. "Oh, we have a vibrant community here," she says. "We just need a center for that community to really shine." So she started with her back wall. Esparza brought in El Moises to paint a mural, and then she was struck with a vision: a Calle of Murals. She set up a Facebook page, then an e-mail address, then a website. She has almost 20 artists and 500 Facebook fans. The first official "Calle 16" mural will go up in October. "They can't stop us," says Esparza. "I want the city to crawl back to us and ask where they can help."
Art with a political edge is what this town's been needing in the worst possible way, and Phoenix's new Arizona Latino Arts and Cultural Center/Galeria 147 has been delivering. In a state where Latinos are under the gun, both literally and metaphorically — from the Legislature, in the form of the ethnic studies ban and SB 1070, to Sheriff Joe Arpaio's notorious anti-immigrant sweeps of Hispanic neighborhoods — ALAC's providing an outlet for the indignation and outrage of an entire people. ALAC's debut presented works from old hands like painters Ramon Delgadillo and Luis Mena, in addition to new ones, such as muralist Francisco Garcia, whose work depicts the sacrifice, the pride, the victimization, and the beauty of Arizona Latinos. Out of the crucible of oppression often comes the stuff of great art, and ALAC/Galeria 147 seems to be proving that with its very existence.
It was a collection of tentacles coming out of a Starbucks mug. How could we not love it? And that's just one of the bizarre creations we got to see at the Mutant Piñata art show at Bragg's Pie Factory. This annual event never fails to tickle our imagination with papier-mâché vampires and anatomically correct (or so we're told) baboons. You may be used to candy-filled piñatas, but we're telling you that the real treat is the eye candy you'll see at this show. Leave the bat at home. The mutant piñata show happens each March, during Art Detour, and the word is that several pieces from last year's show — including a fabulous vampire by Tempe artist Mike Maas — will appear in the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art's People's Biennial in October 2011.
Want to beat the crap out of Jan Brewer? Now's your chance — though at $85 a pop, we're not sure you'll want to deface your purchase. Leave it to Scott Jacobson — he of the impish grin and years in the middle of Arizona politics doing public affairs for a big, bad utility company. These days, Jacobson's pushing piñatas rather than power — though, really, his political spin on papier-mâché wields a strength of its own. E-mail him if you'd like one of his piñatas for your very own.
One of the best events of the year is the Dia de los Muertos festival, hosted by the Desert Botanical Garden on Halloween weekend and during the first week of November. The festivities include Mexican folk arts, storytelling, dance, and poetry, as well as a mercado with awesome wares for sale. Wander the garden paths and check out the ofrenda installations, pause to make crafts with the kids — like decorating your own calaca (smiling skull) mask or molded sugar skulls. There is enough pageantry and, yes, food to keep you entertained all day. Who knew celebrating death could be so fun?
We'll admit it: There was a time we thought that the aesthetic sold at places like Pier 1 Imports and Cost Plus World Market was charming. Decking out our homes in overpriced crap from Third World countries is our right as Americans and a hell of a way to look as though we're cultured and sympathetic to the poor souls who live in those places. Then we realized something. We live in Phoenix, home to one of the greatest import stores we've seen: Mercado Mexico. Unlike the aforementioned retailers, Mercado Mexico is the real deal. And the wares they sell are far from what we would call cheap crap. Did you know that Mexican ceramics are regarded as some of the best in the world? This fact is plainly apparent at Mercado Mexico, where the indoor/outdoor store explodes with garden pots, glazed ceramic figurines, Dia de los Muertos skeletons, bull skulls, chile pepper bundles, furniture, blankets, and, well, you get the idea. The locally owned store offers everything at low prices (they'll haggle with you if habla un poquito español) and their selection is fantastico.
Marguerite Tram, the owner of this funky boutique across the breezeway from a garden shop and a hamburger joint in a cute strip mall near Phoenix College, has the best taste. She stuffs her little shop with linen dresses, comfortable shoes, cute purses, and a lovely collection of the best Mexican-inspired gifts and wares we've seen in town. From oilcloth to Day of the Dead figures to tissue paper banners and pricier (but worth it) antiques, each piece is prettier than the one before — and we want it all! Gracias, Marguerite!
What?! You didn't know there was a such a thing as Mexican embroidery thread?! Okay, neither did we — 'til our friend Kathy "Crafty Chica" Cano-Murillo let slip that Mario Ramos is her favorite local Mexican craft store. We jumped in the car immediately. Mario Ramos himself is a doll, custom-making piñatas in the parking lot of his tiny shop. Inside there isn't much, to be honest, but we did find the promised selection of Mexican embroidery thread and other supplies. Turns out, this thread is thick and waxy, more like cord than thread, and it really pops on the fabric. The shop stocks a wide variety of colors, as well as pillowcases, placemats and other fabrics stamped with whimsical, Mexican-art inspired patterns. Loaded with a pile of the affordable wares, we're feeling crafty, indeed!
Let's be honest. The days of a dawdle down to Nogales are over. We miss the pretty drive through the desert to the sweet little town, where we used to spend hours hunting for punched-tin frames and Dia de los Muertos figures (and maybe a bit of time hunting for perfectly legal Xanax). But now, Nogales is war-torn, the victim of drug cartels, and we can't convince Aunt Dorothy that crossing the border is a good idea. But she wants a souvenir of her trip to Arizona, so we take her to Scottsdale — specifically, to Mexican Import. This store is packed with the embroidered dresses, painted terra cotta figures, piñatas, and other tchotchkes you'll find in the border town shops, but there's none of the drama, and you'll spend a lot less on gas. When you're done shopping, blow your savings on a margarita down the block at The Mission.
This El Mirage Food City offers an authentic taste of Mexico in its little snack bar, tortillería, and throughout its grocery aisles. Stop by early any day of the week for a bag of fresh roasted whole green chilies, the perfect ingredient for homemade green chile. Satisfy your sweet tooth with a bag of fresh pan dulce to enjoy with your morning cup of cafe. You can also find cooking essentials, such as large pots suitable for cooking menudo or steaming tamales, and nearly any ingredient for a Mexican meal that is simply delicioso!
Everybody already knows that The Mission is one of Old Town's sexiest dinner destinations — those chandeliers and candles everywhere create a moody, decadent kind of glamour — but it's just as cool a hangout during the day. We're huge fans of the weekend brunch menu, which has some unique and unforgettable dishes. Crave savory in the a.m.? Go for the delicious scrambled eggs with chorizo, grilled flour tortillas, and chipotle grits, red chile chilaquiles topped with a gooey fried egg, or delicate corn pancakes topped with Dungeness crab, fresh cilantro, and lip-smacking smoked Oaxacan pasilla crema. Or, if you like to start your day with a little sugar, try the dessert-like cinnamon pecan waffles with dulce de leche crema. Expertly crafted brunch cocktails like mimosas and the "Mission Mary," as well as French press coffee, are worth lingering over.