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  • Best of Phoenix 2013: Vintage Phoenix

She looked like an Indian princess. Tiny and dark, with huge, sad eyes that filled up her face, like a kid in a Keane painting. I was 6 years old, so it was easy for me to imagine her riding atop a big, bejeweled elephant.

Teresa Amelia Gomez was my first Mexican. Somehow, even though my family had settled on the west side, only a hundred yards from the Glendale border, I'd never met one before. I wondered: Did everyone from Mexico carry themselves with such regal bearing? Did all the girls from south of the border line their eyes with kohl and speak in tiny, hushed voices? I didn't care. Terry did, and — because she had married one of my brothers — she was my sister now.


Listen to Robrt Pela's podcast "My First Mexican" here.

Her timing was good. It was the Summer of Love, and my real sister had recently, as my father liked to say, "run off with a ditch digger. " I needed a new sister, and I got one who listened to me when I spoke, loved cats, and owned a wiglet. Terry was a superb visual artist and had flawless taste in music. When I loaned her my stack of Archies 45s, she told me she'd listened to each of them and liked them all. I knew she was just being nice, but it didn't matter. When she lied to me, it sounded like "Te amo."

My mother, usually slow to warm to people, was charmed by her new daughter-in-law. Terry taught Mom to make enchiladas and refried beans and quesadillas — strange, wonderful foods that no one I knew had ever even heard of before. And Mom, who didn't approve of house pets or guests who brought food to her dinner parties, only smiled when Terry arrived at our house on Christmas Eve with a mynah bird and seven dozen tamales. Terry was exotic.

More important, she didn't treat me like a little kid. She loaned me collections of short stories by Edgar Allan Poe and dime novels about extraterrestrials. She didn't laugh at me for wearing tie-dye and braided headbands and candy necklaces. Terry was the only grownup who saw what I saw when I looked in the mirror: a hippie who happened to also be in the first grade.

I saw less of Terry after my brother left her for the drug-addicted cocktail waitress who lived across the street, but she never abandoned me. She sent handmade Christmas cards and turned up at my high school graduation. I knew Terry was out there, somewhere, even if she couldn't join us for Christmas Eve dinner anymore.

She came to my art gallery the other night. At one point, we sat together on a bench, staring up at a complicated trio of abstract paintings I was especially proud to be showing. We gazed at the paintings for a long time without saying a word, and I thought, This is going to be one of those moments where Terry says something I never, ever forget. I was right. After awhile, Terry leaned slowly toward me and, without taking her eyes off the paintings, whispered, "No comprende."

I nearly levitated with joy.

Later that night, I asked her what it was like, marrying into my family all those years ago.

"I'd never met anyone like you guys," she said, a trace of wonderment still in her voice. "Italian people from Ohio! Your mom had a lace tablecloth, and everyone ate dinner together at the same time, and there were two dining rooms."

"Well, one was for company," I reminded her. "You were always so nice to me, even when I was pretending to be a 6-year-old beatnik."

Terry looked startled. "Sweetheart, you were my little brother," she said, then laughed. "Besides, when you were around, I didn't feel like the weirdest person in the room."

Azteca Bridal

What started as five wedding dresses in the back of a furniture shop is now the fully operational bridal, tuxedo, and quinceañera megastore that is Azteca Bridal. The original part of the store, now dedicated to fitting rooms and expansive mirrors, contains a vintage stairwell that has existed since Azteca's first days, and Royna Roselle says it is the oldest single object in the store. Even though most of Azteca's attire may be of the newest fashions for trendy Phoenicians, the store retains its classic feel. Upstairs, retro-looking colorful carpet and charming railings pop out among the racks upon racks of white dresses and highlight the store's character. The buzzing, familial staff is attentive to both the business side of things and the obvious excitement of their customers. By keeping the store in the family, the children of the Torrez store founders create a welcoming atmosphere and feel that they are continuing to honor their parents.


See our complete slideshow of Azteca Bridal here.

Roselle estimates that Azteca in some way services about 1,500 Valley weddings each year, between dresses, tuxedos, and a plethora of other decorations and supplies. Even she seems overwhelmed by the grandness of that number. With Azteca reaching its 51st year in business, it's easy to see why the store has established itself as a Phoenix wedding institution. In addition to wedding dresses, the store is packed full of everything else one could need for a ceremony and celebration, from flower girl and ring bearer attire to sparkly tiaras and cake cutters. Beyond wedding materials, Azteca's quinceañera room is an eye-popping burst of color and quite a departure from the rows of traditional white bridal gowns. Stacks of catalogs sit on a counter for girls to flip through and view their options, which also serves as a nice reminder of the pre-online shopping days. Ruffles, beads, neons, animal prints, and more: There's something for every taste, and even for a quinceañera queen's damas as well. When it comes to big dresses, stunning tuxes, and everything fit for a party, Azteca has it all. — Valerie Hoke

Vintage Phoenix Collection: Steve Davis' Mexican Folk Art

Steve Davis opens a tattered old book and flips through the pages covered with photos and descriptions of Mexican folk art. He lands on the right image and points to a standing figure of a woman, dressed in white and carrying a blue umbrella, in the artistic style of the Día de los Muertos holiday. This figure is Katrina, the original of which is standing five feet away at the foot of a bed in Davis' Paradise Valley home. He explains that a famous Diego Rivera painting called Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park inspired the three-dimensional Katrina figure because she was one of the people who strolled around the park. This book Davis references is what initially sparked his interest in vintage Mexican art, and to own such a collectible piece from its pages is very special to him.


Take a video tour of Steve Davis' home.

A Phoenix native and former stockbroker, Davis maintains a massive collection of Mexican folk and fine art that is the product of his love and appreciation for the country's culture. His vintage Mexican pottery is a highlight of the whole collection, originating mainly from the 1920s-30s. Davis was immediately drawn to the art when he first visited Mexico on a trip organized by the Phoenix Art Museum in 1988. He heard about the trip through his membership in the museum and took the opportunity to visit the country with a group of experienced guides and Spanish-speakers. It was during that travel experience that he acquired the exotic Katrina figure, making it the very first piece of his collection.

Since then, he has enjoyed filling his Southwest-style home with vintage Mexican art, with the help of his wife, Sandy, who has also gotten involved in collecting. Warm red, brown, and cream colors throughout the house provide the perfect backdrop against which to feature the masses of Mexican pottery, paintings, and figurines. Every space in the house is decorated with various pieces, because as Davis says with a smile, "when you collect art, you have to find a place to put it."

Davis specifically shows us his extensive collection of Mexican folk pottery, most of which is from a small pueblo in the Guadalajara area called Tonalá. He explains how several of the pots are signed on the bottom, which is a valuable feature since the artists so rarely felt the need to do so. A father and son by the names of Augustine and Balbino Lucano, respectively, crafted several of the pots, and Davis feels especially fortunate to have signed pieces of their work in his collection. On one of Davis' subsequent trips to Mexico, he was able to visit Tonalá, which he feels gave him greater insight into his vintage pottery. In the pueblo, Davis could observe the actual environment where so much of his pottery was made and could even view contemporary Tonalá pottery in a quaint museum.

When it comes to collecting, Davis acquires most of his art on trips to Mexico. In fact, he says that the most recent addition to his collection was at an auction in Mexico City over the summer. However, he admits that eBay can be a practical way of searching, especially for those who are knowledgeable enough about the art to know exactly what they are looking for. Although new additions to his collections occasionally fall into place, it is usually his searches for particular pieces that yield the best findings. Even though it might take him six months or a year to find the essential piece of art, the satisfaction of expanding his collection keeps him searching. — Valerie Hoke

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