Wearing colorful head pieces made from bird feathers dancers perform the Pinotepa Nacional Oaxaca Iguana dance on Thursday, July 25, 2019 in McAllen. Photo by Delcia Lopez/The Monitor

Handcrafted figures peppered Alba Cuevas’ tables on Thursday during MXLAN’s free Artisan Mercado at the McAllen Convention Center exhibit hall. Clay shot glasses, stylized beverage containers, and jewelry filled her space among the other vendors selling trinkets, clothing, food and drinks, and more.

Cuevas, a native of Taxco in the southern Mexican state of Guerrero, said she’s traveled here for more than five years to sell at events organized with the chamber of commerce, and assisted by the Mexican consulate.

Each piece is unique, she said, with “classic designs from my people in my hometown,” some telling stories from their villages.

Cuevas spins a figure, talking about the careful artisanship and revealing a design that wraps around.

“There is a scene from the fields they work,” she said. “Every piece has a story.

“It depends on how they feel that day what they paint.”

Outside the exhibit hall, artist Irving Cano looks as his phone as a reference as he works on a large mural. He is painting the piece live over the five-day fest.

“Oaxaca is a powerhouse in art … (and) is known as the center of art for the country,” Cano said through a translator.

He said he got into art after seeing an “exhibition of graffiti in an artistic way,” how figures could be made using aerosol.

Art is typically done inside, he said, where it doesn’t get the affection it deserves.

“My idea from the beginning was that art, of the people, and for the people. And it must be shared,” Cano said. “So, by doing it in public, the public can observe how a mural is made, the process, and the love.”

The soul of this event is the cultural appreciation of Mexico, and not only its influence in the Valley but in Texas and part of the United State, said Luis Cantu, vice president of community development and international business with the McAllen Chamber of Commerce.

“At a time when there is a border crisis going on because of the long lines (at the border) and the rhetoric creating a lot of tension … it gave us an opportunity to say we celebrate our traditions and our heritage,” he said. “We believe in our roots and our traditions because that what our community is.”

Traditional music Pinotepa Nacional de la Costa Oaxaca Chilena dance at the McAllen Performing Arts Center on Thursday, July 25, 2019. Photo by Delcia Lopez/The Monitor

It was also an opportunity to let “our friends and families in Mexico” know that McAllen supports and celebrates them.

And one of the gems of the festival are the La Guelaguetza dancers, “which in Spanish is considered friendship and celebration,” according to Jesus Dominguez, international representative of the Oaxaca Cultural Arts.

A McAllen native, Dominguez said the 150 Oaxaca dancers in the troupe come from 19 indigenous tribes with “no access to internet or TV.”

“What they do is all pure imagination and … it’s the most authentic show in the world,” he said. “We bring what is the most beautiful side of Mexico.”

Dances vary based on the stories of each tribe, he said, but the choreography tells their specific pasts. The performers don’t just represent themselves but were voted on by their peers back home.

Cuevas said it’s difficult for the indigenous people from her home to come to the United States, she said, because of governmental requirements. Because her family has worked in jewelry manufacturing for more than six decades, she’s developed relationships with these artists.

“We have a lot of compadres in the villages,” Cuevas said. “I personally like to bring some of these paintings and hand crafts because they want to show people how they work” with clay, weavings from palms and intricate lines skillfully decorated with brushes “made of one or two pieces of hair.

A Oaxacan dancer prepares to dance the traditional music Pinotepa Nacional de la Costa Oaxaca Chilena at the McAllen Performing Arts Center on Thursday, July 25, 2019. Photo by Delcia Lopez/The Monitor

“Every piece is a piece of art.”

She said the 32 different states of Mexico are all unique with varying identities, and the vast majority of those from her hometown are working in the manufacturing of jewelry.

And like other MXLAN artists, being in McAllen isn’t just about selling goods, creating something artistically or performing on stage. They’re representatives of their heritage and history.

Cuevas said she takes “great satisfaction” knowing she can help inform people about her home.

Photo Galley: La Guelaguetza from the state of Oaxaca