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Mexican culture becomes lifetime connection at Sonoma Valley day camp

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ArtEscape hosts an open house, “The Magic of Art and Community,” from noon-4 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 19 at the arts center, 17474 Highway 12. The free event features live music, magic, tarot card readings, Aztec dancers, arts activities, cultural presentations and refreshments. For more information, call 707-938-5551 or visit artescapesonoma.com.

Betty Anguiano and Maria Elena Barron have fond memories of women in their native Mexico gathering to create decorative cotton cloths to keep tortillas warm. Painstakingly hand-embroidered or meticulously painted, each was a work of art and labor of love for families and friends.

That tradition from decades ago may one day spring up with youngsters in Sonoma Valley, who were treated to firsthand lessons from Anguiano and Barron at a recent day camp at ArtEscape, a nonprofit arts education center and gallery in Boyes Hot Springs.

The weeklong program, “Art Camp: Mexican Food and Decor,” provided a glimpse into the rich traditions of Mexican culture. The instructors were born and raised in Mexico: Anguiano in Nayarit and Barron in Guanajuato.

They shared samples of tortilla warmers made by their relatives, some intricately outlined with lace or crocheted edging. Twelve school-aged kids attending the camp used textile paints and imagination to create their own tortilla warmers in bright, colorful hues.

Lilah Hamner, an 11-year-old sixth-grader, chose a garden theme for her tortilla warmer. She used stencils to outline geckos, flowers and leaves, and carefully painted each design.

She and her 7-year-old sister, Miriam, enjoyed learning about the Mexican culture, and cooking and eating specialties like sopes rancheros de pollo, a thick, circular tartlike base of corn masa dough, with pinched sides, fried and then topped with chicken and salsa.

Although some of the students speak Spanish and have parents who’ve emigrated from Mexico, the Hamner sisters are “a little bit of everything. We have ancestors from random places,” Lilah said.

Kate Ortolano and Thena Trygstad, who founded ArtEscape in 2012 with three other arts educators, said the camp provided a fun, hands-on way for children to learn about other nationalities.

“It’s about honoring other cultures,” Ortolano said. English- and Spanish-speaking children “get an opportunity to work side-by-side and foster relations and create community.”

Trygstad said the children develop life skills working on projects together, but benefit in other ways, too. “It’s not just experiencing another culture; they learn to appreciate each other.”

Anguiano and Barron were happy to share arts, crafts and recipes from their homeland.

“It’s to teach a little bit of our culture,” said Anguiano, a mother of two young adults and a teaching assistant at Sonoma Valley High School. She has lived in the U.S. for 30 years, but maintains a deep appreciation of her native foods and traditions. Barron, a homemaker with four children between the ages of 3 and 16, said they love learning about their Mexican heritage, and always ask their grandmother to share stories from Mexico when she visits. Barron has been in the U.S. 17 years, but most of her family lives in Guanajuato.

The women say there’s much to learn — and value — from recipes, arts and traditions being passed down through the generations. They showed their students how to make festive cutout paper banners, or papel picado, used during Mexican celebrations including Cinco de Mayo.

The folk art banners were widely shown in the Academy Award-winning Disney-Pixar animated feature film “Coco,” which highlighted Dia de Los Muertos and the colorful Land of the Dead.

“They use lots of bright colors,” Anguiano said. “They’re still in use today. They’re very popular.”

Nine-year-old Solis Schnabel said the art camp reinforced her interest in Latino traditions.

ArtEscape hosts an open house, “The Magic of Art and Community,” from noon-4 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 19 at the arts center, 17474 Highway 12. The free event features live music, magic, tarot card readings, Aztec dancers, arts activities, cultural presentations and refreshments. For more information, call 707-938-5551 or visit artescapesonoma.com.

“It’s fun. There’s lots of cool traditions and lots and lots of arts and different styles,” the fourth-grader said. “You can get so interested and pulled so easily.”

She and her family observe Dia de los Muertos and Cinco de Mayo, and she now knows how to prepare a few Mexican specialties. Her dad is “mostly Irish” but her mother is “mostly Mexican,” Solis said.

“I knew tortillas, obviously,” she said. “I eat them all the time.”

Anguiano and Barron taught the day-camp students — 11 girls and one boy — how to make tortillas from scratch, even taking it to the next level. They made tortillas de colores using chilies to color tortillas red and cilantro to color them green while leaving part of the recipe in its original form. Side-by-side, they resemble the green, white and red of the Mexican flag.

Students took home a cookbook showcasing the recipes they made each morning and ate for lunch.

Afternoons were dedicated to the arts. In addition to tortilla warmers and paper banners, students made colorful spirals and flowers from recycled materials. They transformed plastic water and soda bottles into flowers they “potted” in vases made from recycled food cans. They also snipped lengths of the bottles into the curly spirals hung from dowels to create festive mobiles.

“I like to use recycled things from around the house,” said Anguiano, whose daughter, Yessenia, is an artist and bilingual instructor with ArtEscape.

Julissa Soria, a 9-year-old fourth-grader, likes all the celebrations in the Mexican culture. Her family is from Michoacan, and a favorite tradition is the procession every December honoring the Lady of Guadalupe, long revered by Latinos.

“They like dancing around,” Julissa said.

She was happy to spend time immersed in her heritage, preparing traditional foods and making festive artwork. Her tortilla warmer, designed from floral stencils and with a freehand border of alternating lines and dots, is among the treasures Julissa brought home from camp.

For 16-year-old Nina Morgenstein, volunteering as a teaching assistant at the camp “was a really awesome way to spend my time.”

She studies Spanish in high school in San Francisco, where she lives during the academic year, and appreciated “learning bits of another culture” while spending her summer in Glen Ellen.

With a wide range of free and low-cost arts programs for novice and seasoned artists of all ages, ArtEscape is an inspiring place, Nina said. Earlier this summer an arts camp focused on Asian traditions; another was Spanish immersion for kids from kindergarten to second grade. The most recent camp was a fiesta of Mexican culture.

“I love the environment that’s here,” she said. “Look at the walls and all the amazing art pieces.”

“Every day (at camp) is a special day,” Barron said. “And different.”