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(Image: Richard Schmitz)

Nepantla Cultural Arts Gallery is the Latinx/Chicanx arts hub of Seattle

Walking up the city sidewalk in the White Center neighborhood, we stop outside the sandstone painted door of Nepantla Cultural Arts gallery, the hub for Latinx/Chicanx artwork in the Seattle area.

Stepping inside, we find co-owners Jake Prendez and Judy Avitia Gonzalez re-arranging some newly arrived pieces to the current art exhibit for Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). They welcome us as warmly as they welcome the community of local artists and artisans who show their work in this space.

Nepantla is a term meaning "the space in the middle" and often refers to marginalized communities, cultures, or gender identifying groups who otherwise feel overlooked.

Prendez describes Nepantla as "a space to live, to heal, and to create." It is a beautiful refuge in which to make art.

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Before the pandemic, that is exactly what they did. Make art. Nepantla held workshops, art classes, open mics, and hosted guest speakers. Prendez and Avitia Gonzalez, while shut down for several months, looked at how they could pivot and continue to bring these important gatherings to their community.

They went virtual with their open house every second Saturday of the month, and Prendez began looking at YouTube as a medium for teaching workshops.

The doors of Nepantla may have shuttered for safety reasons, but their work and spirit remained a vital heartbeat within this art and culture community.

Now with their doors back open, they are currently exhibiting Dia de los Muertos through November 8th. The exhibit features several local and national artists, focusing on the cultural significance of family, connection, and heritage.

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Dia de los Muertos is celebrated between Oct. 31 and Nov. 2 consisting of a multi-day festival to celebrate generations of family members, friends, and loved ones who died and, as tradition tells it, traveled to the Land of the Dead (Chicunamictlán).

As believed throughout many cultures, this day represents a thinning of the veil between the spirit world and this world. The souls of the departed (Difuntos) may return to the living world to feast, drink, dance, and enjoy music with their loved ones. But only for one 24-hour period. Any children who have passed come to visit as Angelitos.

On both sides of us, as we wander through the gallery, are paintings and mixed-media depicting various aspects of this holiday, including the symbols of skeletons (calacas) and skulls (calaveras) so commonly associated with Dia de los Muertos. These symbols generally represent rebirth into the next phase of life and are an integral part of this festival.

Along one wall stands four altars, or ofrendas, dressed with colorful flowers, paper decorations (papel picado), candles, and, most importantly, photos of loved ones who have passed. Each altar has been decorated by a different community group - with one specific to Prendez and Avitia Gonzalez and the whole community who supports Nepantla.

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Ofrendas are a cherished ritual of the holiday celebrating and, more importantly, remembering loved ones who have passed, along with the legacy they leave. It is about family, however you define it, and connection to our cultural roots. And with a year shadowed by a global pandemic, it is all the more poignant to remember our family and those we hold dear.

As we gazed upon each altar, Avitia Gonzalez explained how hard it has been for some not being able to visit family and how the neighborhood of Nepantla has become family.

"Do not forget your loved ones," she said. "Losing them can be hard. One altar remembered the loss of four people to COVID-19 this year. A whole family."

On the opposite wall from the altar's are bright, bold portraits painted by Prendez himself. He captures the essence and personality of each model, breathing their spirit onto the canvas and ink. One of our favorites is a portrait of Prendez and Avitia Gonzalez's daughter wearing a traditional headpiece in which she performs with a dance troupe. It is a sweet and tender representation of her, and when asked for a photo of him and his work, we can see the pride in Prendez's eyes as he chooses the painting of his daughter.

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Where Nepantla Cultural Arts Gallery may be the beating center for the Latinx community, it is Prendez, Avitia Gonzalez and their values of family, which are the heart of this welcoming, inclusive space, even if it is "in between."

The current Dia de los Muertos exhibit runs through November 8th and is well worth a visit. Artists receive 100% of their sales from this, showing with the gallery being open Thursday to Sunday from noon to 6 p.m. COVID protocols are in place with a maximum of four people inside the store at one time and face coverings are required.

Nepantla's next art show is a youth exhibit beginning Dec. 13 through the end of the year. It focuses on artists 13 years old and younger. They are closed during the holidays. The gallery houses a gift shop filled with unique, hand-made gifts, clothes, cards, and ornaments — all a perfect fit for that holiday stocking or package under the tree.

Looking to support more small businesses like Nepantla? We're proud to collaborate with Intentionalist, an online guide that makes it easier for you to find/connect with diverse local businesses owned by women, people of color, veterans, members of the LGBTQ community, and people with disabilities.