Symbolic power of nopales in Mexican culture at heart of Watsonville art show

If you don’t happen to spy it along the roadside in Santa Cruz County or just about anywhere across California, you can always find the prickly pear cactus on the Mexican flag. The familiar cactus, el nopal or la penca, is right there in the center, under the talons of an eagle devouring a snake, a reference to a national origin story that dates back to the Aztec empire.

Nopales are a nutrient-rich delicacy in Mexican cuisine, often used in salads and salsas, and with eggs, and have also been tapped for medicinal purposes for centuries. But the cactus carries significant symbolic weight in Mexican culture as well. All that cultural resonance is the focus of a new exhibition at the Pajaro Valley Arts gallery in Watsonville called “Pencas del Corazón/Heart of the Cactus.”

Co-curators and PVA artists-in-residence Yesenia Molina and Irene Juárez O’Connell invited five of the most prominent artists of the Pajaro Valley to produce work inspired by the nopal. The artists include giant figures in Watsonville arts — veteran muralist Guillermo Aranda and choreographer and dancer Janet Johns of the folklorico group Esperanza del Valle. Also included were younger artists such as filmmaker and artist Gabriel Medina, metal artist and photographer Salvador Lua, and graphic artist Mayra Ruiz-Valtierra.

“We wanted to get artists who have a voice already,” said Molina, “who already stand up to oppression or have certain viewpoints in their art that had a theme of resistance to it.”

Each of the invited artists had led a “pop-up” session online during the pandemic that touched on everything from artistic process and medium, to the value of arts to the Watsonville community. This yearlong effort all came back thanks to funding from the Rydell Visual Arts Partnership grant in a collaboration with Arts Council Santa Cruz County. A reception celebrating the show and the collaboration between the artists will take place Sunday afternoon from 2-4 p.m. at the PVA gallery at 37 Sudden St.

Rosa Sanchez of Watsonville takes in cactus artwork.

Rosa Sanchez of Watsonville takes in artwork of one of the exhibit’s namesakes Thursday.

(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

And it’s all centered on the nopal.

“I’ve always had a strong connection to that — I guess it would be a succulent,” said Molina, who came up with the concept. “I was just thinking of the analogy of resistance and how with that specific plant, if you cut one of the pads off the penca, or if it just falls off, it tends to just grow back again. That was something to me resembled resiliency and grit, and this reminds me of our Mexican people, our heritage, our history, especially here in the United States.”

Molina’s curating partner O’Connell has used the nopal in her artwork, particularly in the context of strong women.

PVA gallery coordinator Bianca Jimenez with exhibit artwork.

PVA gallery coordinator Bianca Jimenez with exhibit artwork.

(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“It’s timely,” added O’Connell, on the significance of the nopal as a symbol for Mexican perseverance, “considering the past four years and the previous administration and just the onslaught of challenges and hardship for people of color in this country. So we wanted to uplift that spirit of resiliency.”

There are about 125 individual pieces of art on display in the show that runs through Aug. 1 at PVA Arts’ famously yellow Victorian in downtown Watsonville. Mediums include acrylic paint, digital art, pen and ink, metalwork, and dance. Underneath all the art is yet another theme, said the show’s curators, a purpose to express that the Watsonville community needs an arts center.

PVA gallery coordinator Biana Jimenez examines mirror and metal artwork.

The exhibit is a tribute to the cactus, which “symbolizes resilience and sustenance for many Latinx cultures,” the PVA website notes.

(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“I really feel that this show is a love letter to Watsonville,” said O’Connell. “There’s not a whole lot of art spaces in Watsonville. There’s not a lot of spaces where people can engage with the arts or take art classes. So, it’s an acknowledgment of that. And it creates a space to invite people to think, ‘Well, what do we want to see? We can make it happen.’”

There is, in fact, an interactive piece within the show that asks visitors what kinds of art classes they would want to take if there were an arts center in Watsonville.

“And we also ask them to share what makes them feel strong, what makes them feel resilient, what makes them feel powerful,” O’Connel said. “That’s a theme that runs throughout the gallery.”

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