El Gran Mercado

Past the handmade wooden sign marking the entrada, you'll find an outdoor market lined with booths of colorful Mexican pottery, religious statuary, clothing, and Spanish-language cassette tapes. Locals dance to Mexican pop music, sipping cerveza and chowing down on roasted corn with goat cheese. Sounds like a wonderful vacation find, but this isn't Guadalajara — it's SoPo. El Gran Mercado at 35th and Buckeye is the closest thing to a Mexican carnival you'll find north of the border. Think of it as the granddaddy of weekend swap meets. We're talking 300-plus vendors including used car dealers, grocers, and an outdoor barber. You'll have to speak español — at least un poco — to haggle with the merchants; but if you're willing to pay sticker price, you'll do fine without.

So, perhaps the closest to Mexico many members of Friends of Mexican Art (FOMA) have been is Nogales. That doesn't stop this dedicated group of Mexican art-philes, founded more than 45 years ago in Phoenix, from generously donating their time, effort, and funds to promote all aspects of Mexican culture throughout Arizona.

FOMA is the forward-looking organization that had the vision years ago to give the Phoenix Art Museum, among other important artworks, its now-famous Rufino Tamayo painting Dos figuras en rojo (Two Figures in Red) (1973), as well as significant contemporary Mexican fine and folk art to other Arizona cultural institutions, including ASU Art Museum and Tucson Museum of Art. It has sponsored numerous exhibitions of Mexican art and brought working folk artisans stateside. FOMA raised funds for the moving and restoration of Diego Rivera's famous Del Prado Hotel mural painting after Mexico City's 1985 earthquake. It's also contributed to the restoration of frescos in the church of Atotonilco, the very spot where Father Hidalgo first raised the banner of Guadalupe to kick off the movement for Mexican independence from Spain. Known as the Sistine Chapel of the Americas, this church made the World Monuments Fund's list of the 100 most endangered world monuments.

Recently, FOMA ponied up bucks to help underwrite a historically critical issue on Mexican tourist pottery by Mexico's most prestigious arts publication, Artes de Mexico. The group's primary source of fundraising is its annual springtime Hacienda Home Tour and Mercado, which showcases elegant homes with mostly Mexican art collections and sells folk art that's cherry-picked for its quality. For gringos, this group's got it going on when it comes to putting its money where its heart is.

Trinidad Escalante crossed the border into Arizona about a century and a half back. While we could all sit around and argue about whether or not she did it legally, one fact can't be debated. Trinidad is yo' mama, Phoenix. In 1864, she married a man named Jack, and the two rounded up a bunch of their day-labor Mexican friends to work on a fancy canal system roughly 90 miles north of Tucson. That irrigation system became the foundation for a thriving southwestern community that we all know and love. For their act of desert insanity, we've christened Trinidad Escalante Swilling and Jack Swilling (indeed, the city's first mayor) the mother and father of Phoenix.

Trinidad is just one of the brown babes you'll meet at the Phoenix Museum of History's latest exhibit that showcases the stories of local Latinos from the Wild West days of the 1860s through the politically charged 1960s. It turns out that when Phoenix was founded in 1870, the population was over 50 percent Hispanic. Take a closer look at your Latin roots by peering into "The Mexican American Mirror" exhibit through October 2009.

For years, she's slaved with the hot glue gun, hoping to make it big. And she has — syndicated newspaper column, books, public appearances, sales of original folk art, workshops, even a show this fall at the Heard Museum.

But all that pales next to the shiny stuff. This year, Kathy Cano-Murillo hit the crafter's jackpot with her own product line, on sale at Michael's. Holy Chihuahua! In fact, you can have one of those, in the form of a Crafty Chica iron-on, as well as other iron-ons, paints, and even DIY shrine kits. But our favorite CC creation has got to be Cano-Murillo's staple ingredient — glitter, which comes in 10 custom colors including Frida's Fuchsia, Rockabilly Ruby, and Popstar Purple.

Star, indeed! The Valley's own Crafty Chica is making the world sparkle, one craft project at a time.

It was an agonizingly tough decision, given the competition, but we finally decided we're partial to a true Mexican folk art mural gracing the west side of MJ Mini Mart, a combo carnicería/casa de cámbio/restaurant in Sunnyslope. A visual paean to the platonic ideal of cows, pigs, and Mexican cerveza, the exuberant painting features two bigger-than-life-size horned cows — one of them looks as though it just had a root canal — that sort of levitate against green mountain vistas. Add a floating Tecate bottle, a flowering maguey, a bright yellow rope that spells out "carniceriá," and a decapitated pig's head staring ominously into the distance, and you get folk art at its finest — with the profound subtext that there are greener pastures waiting for us all.

Arizona Historical Society Museum

Arizona is now embracing its Mexican roots big-time, especially around the time of Día de los Muertos, an ancient Mexican tradition that marries pre-Columbian social ritual to 16th-century Spanish Catholicism. The raucous result is a less-than-somber celebration devoted to honoring the dearly departed by annual graveyard cleaning and partying all night next to one's buried kin.

Probably the best part of this four-day holiday is the elaborately decorated ofrendas, or home offering tables, decked out with family photos, flowers, sugar skulls and candles. They're created to present tidbits of the departed's favorite food, drink, and even smokes, to lure lost souls back to Earth for the evening.

Last year, the Calaca Cultural Center collaborated with the Arizona Historical Society Museum on its fourth annual Día de los Muertos Altar and Art Exhibition, which showcases altars built by artists and community members (check Calaca's Web site for details about this year's "Call for Altars"). The museum displayed the ofrendas and invited the public to add to a large, four-sided altar. If you're into spectacle and religious rites, or are just enamored of all things Mexican, don't miss this sensory-overloading celebration at AHS Museum, which also includes an opening complete with food, entertainment, and purveyors of Mexican folk art.

Best Place to Snag Day of the Dead Stuff

Mesa Arts Center

Mesa Arts Center

Give the dead their due and buy cool stuff, too, at the Día de los Muertos Celebration held at Mesa Arts Center in downtown Mesa. This annual Day of the Dead extravaganza, usually mounted as close to November 1 and 2 as possible (the dates conveniently coincide with All Souls' and All Saints' days on the Catholic liturgical calendar), boasts a two-day Mexican folk art mercado, a community-built altar (called an ofrenda) and altar contest, family-oriented artist workshops and a special procession with guest appearances by crazed skeletons decked out like José Guadalupe Posada characters.

Free to the public, this fiesta's the perfect place to score fabulous folk art from all parts of Mexico, with an emphasis on all things bony and skeletal. Selected sellers from various parts of town converge to offer convenient, one-stop shopping for choice Mexican handicrafts, including ceramics, papier-mâché and carved wood from Jalisco, Michoacán, Guerrero, Oaxaca, and other Mexican folk-art-producing areas, not to mention Mexican-inspired items made right here in Arizona. And don't forget to check out the Day of the Dead items stocked by The Store at Mesa Arts Center when you're not shopping and stuffing your face with homemade tacos. Check the center's Web site for exact days and event times for this year's festivities.

Dr. A.J. Chandler Park

Kids never seem to have an issue with things from which adults often recoil in horror. Like death, for example. So don't hesitate to take your offspring to Chandler's annual Día de los Muertos/Day of the Dead Celebration and Festival, a free, kid-friendly fiesta put on by Xico Inc. (formerly Xicanindio del Artes of Mesa), Vision Gallery and the Calaca Center (boy, do they get around) in Chandler Park.

Besides the predictable altars and a late-afternoon processional that ends in a blessing of the altars on display, this festival boasts Mexican music and dancing; last year, we saw house-rockin' performances by well-known mask maker Zarco Guerrero, traditional Mexican folk dances, mariachi numbers and the muy caliente band Barrio Latino. And, por supuesto, there are plentiful folk-art shopping opportunities and fabulous fiesta foods at bargain prices.

But the real enticement for kids is the festival's Vision Kidz areas, where they can make their own sugar skulls, calacas (skeletons) and papel picado (colorful tissue paper cutouts, a staple of any Mexican fiesta). We hope and pray they'll repeat last year's riveting puppet epic "Funny Bunny's Day of the Dead Holiday Adventure," staged by Great Arizona Puppet Theater. Even the vendors here are kid-oriented, offering colorful handmade Mexican toys (some obviously made in China) and candies for under a buck.

Best Authentic Mexican Dining Experience

Tradiciones

Fiesta Grill
Jackie Mercandetti

It's hard not to get excited about going to Tradiciones, because visiting this central Phoenix eatery is almost as good as taking a mini-vacation to Mexico. From street tacos and mini-chimis to lomo azteca (pork tenderloin in chipotle cream sauce), chicken in mole sauce, and plump camarones a la diabla (shrimp in fiery chipotle-red chile sauce), the dishes are as delicious as they are beautifully presented. The bar makes some knockout margaritas, too. And beyond the culinary offerings, there's plenty of eye candy to feast on. Out in the courtyard, there's a water fountain, vendors selling pottery and other Mexican imports, and a huge outdoor grilling area, which fills the air with mouthwatering smells of sizzling carne asada and grilled vegetables. Inside, rustic hacienda-style décor creates a festive atmosphere, while waitresses dress the part in colorful skirts and ruffled tops. And if you go during peak hours, you might even catch a live performance by mariachis in traditional garb. It's a fun, family-friendly experience that will put a smile on your face — and you don't need a passport to get there.

Best Authentic Mexico City Dining Experience

Plaza Grill

Okay, so it may not be Mexico City's posh, post-industrial minimalist dining mecca, Aguila y Sol, nor its Centro Historico's charming, pre-Columbian-inspired eatery, Los Girasoles. But Plaza Grill in north Phoenix is the place you want to head for if you're craving real Mexican food that tastes like, well, real food from Mexico, served with an elegant flourish on white tablecloths tastefully decorated with little vases of fresh flowers.

No Velveeta cheese crisps here. And don't be put off by the fact that Plaza Grill is in a rundown strip mall across from a screaming yellow pawn shop that orders people whizzing by to "Park and Pawn." Despite its low profile, this place features well-executed regional Mexican staples, like Yucatecan cochinita pibil, fork-tender pork slowly cooked in a citrus/garlic/achiote broth, and sea bass prepared al estilo de Veracruz, with fresh tomatoes, lots of garlic, peppers, onions and olives. Here, chicken mole poblano, a specialty of Puebla, is classically redolent of chilis and chocolate, as it should be, while the camarones al mojo de ajo, jumbo Guaymas shrimp backstroking in a divine garlic sauce, takes us back to dining on the beach in Baja. We also adore the freshly made guacamole, probably the best we've ever had, which is tangy with key limes, as well as Gil, Plaza Grill's omnipresent maitre d'/solicitous server extraordinario, who will never forget you once you've been here.

Ask to be put on Chef Luis Mata's list for his monthly multi-course prix fixe dinner, expertly paired with appropriate wine selections for each course.

One month Mata mixed it up, going solely Spanish, then followed that the next month with Mediterranean (including a Portuguese bacalao appetizer and an unforgettable Italian risotto) — we're still licking our chops and waiting for the next installment.

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