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Artwork, diverse flavors of Mexico to take center stage at The Woodlands Waterway Arts Festival

March 6, 2019

Guests coming through the main gates at The Woodlands Waterway Arts Festival in April will be welcomed by the spicy, sweet smell of chiles and the nostalgic strums of Mariachi guitars.

In partnership with local integration non-profit Asociación Amiga, officials with the popular spring-time arts festival in The Woodlands are working to put on a “living museum” — a Spotlight on Mexico — within the wider arts weekend featuring food, art and cultural exhibitions from south of the border.

“Our two organizations are coming together to celebrate our cultural diversity,” said Diana Ontañon, president of Asociación Amiga. “Art unifies and brings harmony between cultures — it has no boundaries.”

Mexico, said festival director Kelly Batterson, was an obvious choice to test the new exhibit, which, if well-received, could live on in coming years and feature a different country at every festival.

“We’re 14 years old, but we don’t want people to feel like they’re coming to the same festival,” Batterson said. “Why not start with our closest neighbor?”

For a fully-immersive experience, Batterson said, the exhibit will take on the look of a provincial Mexican town center, with stalls — home to live art works, chef demonstrations and a photo gallery — surrounding a central seating area.

The project is still in its final stages of completion — Batterson and Ontañon are in the process of whittling down a list of about 10 of Mexico’s 32 different states to four or five that will be best representative of the country’s culture as a whole. But all 32 states, Ontañon said, have their distinct individual identities that make it difficult to exclude one without taking away from the wider picture.

“Each state (in Mexico) has its richness,” Ontañon said.

For visitors, the living museum will transport them to the United State’s neighbor to the south without leaving Town Green Park. Mexican canned goods brand La Costeña will have its wares available for purchase on-site; Don Julio tequila will host a bar with signature cocktails; and local Mexican eatery Caffe di Fiore will cook up samples from the yet-to-be-determined featured states, like Jalisco’s tortas ahogadas — sandwiches smothered in red chile sauce — mole negro from Oaxaca, barbacoa from Hidalgo and ceviche from Guerrero.

And, of course, there will be unique, Mexican art.

Spotlight on Mexico will feature live artists, including Gabriela Magana and Mexico City native and Glassell School of Art resident Vero Ibargüengoitia, who will be creating an folk art oil painting on-site.

“It’s good for people to know where we come from,” Ibargüengoitia said. “We have a rich culture with a lot to offer.”

Ontañon said for residents of the United States, the exhibit will provide a rich cultural learning experience. For Mexicans, hopefully, it’ll provide a little taste of home.

“They are going to learn a lot about Mexico, they’re going to learn a lot about this culture — about its food and its music, about the regions,” Ontañon said. “It’s an opportunity to see it being displayed as part of (The Woodlands) community.”

Among the thatched roof stalls and papel picado bunting, the arts festival will display an open air photo gallery of the Mexican landscape and cultural celebrations. A Dia de los Muertos — the Day of the Dead — exhibit is in the works, as well.

Just as it is the United States’ closest neighbor to the south, the diversity in Mexico closely mirrors the diverse landscape and cultures of Texas, Ibargüengoitia said. The exhibit, she hopes, will bring about a greater understanding of Mexican culture for those who have never been to the nation.

“We’re sisters and we’re neighbors,” Ibargüengoitia said. “I’ve been (in The Woodlands) 10 years and I still see (people misunderstanding) our culture, art and customs.”

For Ontañon and Batterson, the living museum will serve a similar purpose — to showcase the color, culture and vibrancy of Mexico, a value closely shared with Asociación Amiga, which works to facilitate integration by Mexican families living in The Woodlands.

“We create bridges,” Ontañon said.

mrincon@chron.com