A strange noise comes from the doorway of what once was Leticia Valencia’s garage, now converted into a home sewing studio. A closer look reveals Valencia’s son Leonardo blowing into a small ceramic feline figurine.
“It’s the sound of the Jaguar, “said Valencia, smiling with the same pride of a parent who just saw their child score their first little league home run, “Louder!,” she encourages her son.
Suddenly we’re no longer in Visalia, we’ve been transported to Valencia’s native Puebla, a state in Central Mexico known for its cultural heritage.
“So, this is it. This is where I work, my clients can change and try on their dresses, I give them time and I work next door.”
Valencia is gentle with her words, the pauses between her thoughts prove it, and it’s exactly the type of person she is.
Valencia is originally from Cholula, a town on the outskirts of the bigger city of Puebla, known for being one of the key religious centers of ancient Mexico. Today it’s designated as a Pueblo Mágico (magical town), the official distinction given to places in Mexico maintaining their original architecture, culture, folklore, and history.
Valencia remembers picking flowers as a little girl back in Cholula with her aunt in preparation for Dia de Muertos, “I wore a little basket to collect flowers in the fields, all of the small children would collect flowers to make alfombras (rugs).”
The tiny baby’s breath flowers are used to make fine details in the alfombras. Alfombras are large colorful art pieces used in Dia de Muertos celebrations, they are made of flowers, colored sand, and sawdust. Valencia remembers watching alfombra artists tediously laying one flower after another and admits she didn’t see the point. Years later, that kind of task is central to her life’s work.
“But today, what I did as a child is what we bring here, and it is what we are trying not to lose and make known.”
In 2004 Valencia and her husband Claudio Martínez made the tough decision to leave their Pueblo Mágico, Puebla, and head to the United States, settling with family in Visalia, California. The pair was not about to disconnect completely from their hometown, though, they were determined to maintain their identity, and bring some of their culture North, everything from the Jaguar whistle, to the distinct Catrina dresses that Valencia sews and has become known for in the Central Valley. At first, creating crafts from her heritage was a matter of necessity.
“The necessity to expose other Mexican immigrants to our heritage, and to help them learn to love Mexico and its roots,” said Valencia.
She´s got a ready-made nearby audience for that, more than 350,000 people of indigenous Mexican heritage live in California, the majority in the Central Valley.
Hanging from the ceiling of Valencia’s sewing workshop is an empty rack she assures will be packed come prom season. Alterations and dress fittings line Valencia’s schedule until every last corsage is safely secured to survive the festivities.
Spring is when Valencia is at her busiest, some mornings she's up before the sun bent over her sewing machine. As much as she's an artist at heart, she's also a full-time seamstress to make ends meet during the summer and hangs up her La Catrina de Visalia stilts until November rolls around. Although, “Claudio begins to worry about my costume design every year around March.,” Valencia adds jokingly.
There’s no better way to really get a glimpse into Valencia’s mission than the annual Dia de Muertos celebration each November, which for Mexican indigenous communities is a time to commemorate and welcome the souls of deceased relatives and loved ones back to Earth.
In the Central Valley one of the most memorable events happens at Arte Américas, a gallery in Fresno’s downtown Cultural Arts District. Valencia says Dia de Muertos is at the root of where Mexicans come from, not only as a Pre-Columbian tradition but as a protected Intangible Cultural Heritage established by UNESCO.
Finding somewhere to celebrate Dia de los Muertos wasn’t always this straightforward for Valencia. She remembers going door to door fifteen years ago searching for someone or somewhere that celebrated Dia de Muertos, something she says is a cultural issue.
“More than a tradition, it is our culture and it’s important to pass on to our children, to begin with,¨says Valencia. ¨I didn’t know anyone who promoted our culture, I didn’t see anyone saying, “let’s celebrate Dia de Muertos.” she says.
With few promising leads, Leticia set up her signature 7ft tall Catrinas draped outside of her home hoping curious neighbors would approach with questions. The Catrinas brought about curiosity and conversations among neighbors but she says she noticed a lack of education surrounding the tradition’s cultural origins.
Two years later Valencia was introduced to the Tulare county League of Mexican American Women and through them, she displayed her Catrinas at a local Dia de Muertos celebration for the first time. She remembers how surprised eventgoers were to see the towering, lively five Catrinas. This is where Valencia says everything really started.
“My mom’s facebook profile, is a picture of her with Claudio and La Catrina.”, says local artist Mauro Carrera. A modern gesture of love and respect by Mexican mothers in the digital era. Carrera has known Valencia and Martinez for close to a decade. A picture of Carrera and La Catrina from 2018 captioned “Vibing with La Katrina” has a permanent home on his instagram feed. Inspired by the way the couple care for La Catrina through their art, Carrera calls their work “medicinal.” Carrera reflects on the importance of La Catrina del “VALLE” (valley) and its meaning to the local Mexican immigrant community.
“ I feel our community received a reminder of the abuelos, a whisper from the ancestors manifesting itself through the work of Leticia and Claudio for us to experience.”
Leticia Valencia’s exhaustive cultural expression and preservation doesn’t begin and end in her sewing studio, it seeps into other rooms like the smell of corn from the comal on her stove. She lists the ingredients for the “Memelas” she’s cooking for breakfast. Memelas, not to be confused with sopes, are toasted masa cakes topped with different fresh ingredients and eaten in the state of Puebla, Guerrero, and Oaxaca. Martínez, her husband, says back home it’s considered basic food, but making them in Visalia is therapeutic.
Sitting at the breakfast table, surrounded by her family and her art, Valencia is reflective. Whether it’s through a 7 foot tall Catrina dress, or a tiny corn cake, she says sharing her Puebla-culture is a way to combat negative stereotypes about Mexicans in the United States and a way for other Mexicans to, “get to know and learn to love your Mexico and your roots.” “Mexicans do good things too,” she says, kindness and a hint of authority radiating in her voice. “We have our culture and we are in this beautiful country that has given us a lot but, we have also given it many good things.”
Valencia grabs the last Memela from the comal and turns her stove off before rejoining Martínez at the kitchen table. “Mama, mama, yo quiero Memelitas!”, says Leonardo. Valencia gives him a gentle nod and hands him the hot corn cake.