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A look into the Pacific Northwest’s only Chicano art gallery

By Daisy Zavala Magaña, The Seattle Times
Published: September 3, 2023, 6:00am

WHITE CENTER — A painting of Jake Prendez and his son wearing black T-shirts and blue luchador masks adorns part of a gallery of his original Chicano art on a bubble gum pink wall inside the Nepantla Cultural Arts Gallery.

The paintings sit above shelves displaying work from Latinx artisans from near and far, such as cactus soap, beaded earrings, and café de olla, a spiced coffee drink that traces its roots to the Mexican Revolution.

Opposite the display is a white wall that features rotating exhibits from local artists focused on Chicano, Chicana and Latinx art traditions, social justice and marginalized communities. Beginning Saturday, the wall will showcase Halloween-themed display dubbed “Trik or Tri.” October is usually reserved for El Día de los Muertos.

Jake Prendez and Judy Avitia-Gonzalez, a married couple who are longtime White Center residents, opened the gallery in 2019 with two main goals: making art more accessible in the area and providing opportunities for artists of color who they say have long been neglected in traditional art spaces.

Prendez said their gallery is also the only Pacific Northwest public art space grounded in the traditions of Chicana and Chicano art — depicting culture, community and shared struggles of people of Mexican descent born in the United States. (Latinx is a gender-neutral term used in place of Latino or Latina.)

While there are a couple of Latino galleries in the region, they’re usually focusing on work from artists in Mexico, he said.

The gallery’s namesake is Nepantla, a Nahuatl word that means “in the middle,” which Prendez describes as the place where one heals, rejuvenates or creates.

His personal creations focus on Chicano, Chicana and Latinx culture, resiliency and powerful individuals — calling on experiences and strengths within his community that he said are often overlooked in daily life and traditional art spaces.

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“Artists of color are often seen as only making lowbrow art or folk art, and when we’re included in exhibitions, we’re either exotified or tokenized,” Prendez said.

Prendez, 47, recalls being told in high school that his art was “too ethnic” or “too gangster,” leading him to quit for years. Now he and his wife’s gallery makes space for a diverse array of artists, showcasing works from queer, Pacific Islander and Black contributors, among many others.

The idea for a Chicano gallery had long been in the back of Prendez’s mind, as he’d previously hosted pop-up exhibitions in East Los Angeles and kept organizing and participating in the small events when he moved to Seattle, where he met Avitia-Gonzalez.

Before Nepantla, both were part of an artist’s collective that organized such events and fostered opportunities for area artists of color.

“That’s where we saw the start of the journey of the idea of Nepantla,” said Tacoma-based artist and longtime friend Maribel Galvan, 36.

Avitia-Gonzalez, 42, recalled facing immense culture shock when she moved from Los Angeles to White Center in the 1990s, coming from a place surrounded by Latinos to a city with only one Latino store. That has since changed.

“It felt lonely,” she said, describing how the gallery staves off feelings of cultural isolation with its bright colors and celebration of Chicano and Latinx artistry.

A Latinx art scene did exist, Prendez said, but there was no dedicated space to such works.

Then came Nepantla.

He said it was clear from the response that there was a desire for a brick-and-mortar space to highlight Latinx art — and credited Avitia-Gonzalez with having the tenacity to bring their ideas to fruition.

The gallery and gift shop, modeled after Prendez’s favorite Los Angeles scenes, showcase items made by women and Latinx artisans, the Chicano art gallery, and a multiuse space for community events, such as free workshops led by local artists.

One of those artists, Teresa Martinez, praised Prendez and Avitia-Gonzalez for cultivating a vibrant community and providing a platform for Latino artists.

“Most of us are used to attending events where you have no idea what it will be like,” she said. “But with them, you know they will make sure to center Latinos, and it will be comfortable.”

Martinez credited the couple for encouraging her to sell her Mexican inspired jewelry.

“It just literally makes me smile seeing how people feel represented by it when they see it and wear it,” she said.

Artists also keep every dollar from their gallery art sales at Nepantla, which hosts an annual block party and works with the Seattle Art Museum to connect community members to art.

“Our mission isn’t to get rich off this,” Avitia-Gonzalez said.

The couple is seeking to expand their footprint in White Center. They’re looking for a new space, at least triple the size of their current site, to add a coffee shop that serves as a community hub.

That search has proved difficult, given the city’s rising costs. But Prendez and Avitia-Gonzalez are confident they’ll find a fitting space to display the works of an even wider array of artists while maintaining the cultural connections that makes Nepantla special to creators and patrons alike.

“Our goal is not to get accepted by the upper and bougie whites art spaces,” Prendez said. “Our goal is to serve our community, bring art, and amplify the voices of Chicana and Chicano artists and other marginalized artists.”