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In Southern Mexico, Bay Area Artists Seek Refuge and Cultural Exchange

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a man and his dog sit in front of a plant at his home in southern Mexico
J.K. Fowler has been living in Xalapa, Veracruz, for over a year; he's inviting Bay Area artists to join him as part of a new residency.  (Alan Chazaro)

“Xalapa is a magical portal of colors, culture, great energy and healing. It felt like my soul knew it was right at home.”

Those are the words of Oakland poet Mimi Tempestt, who recently traveled to Xalapa — the capital of Veracruz, Mexico. She spent a week in the Spanish colonial city, visiting for the first time as part of a new artist residency that has taken root in the city’s downtown: Huerto de Osos Perezosos (“vegetable patch of the sloths”).

a mural of a sloth is painted on a tall concrete wall in an outdoor garden
A mural of a sloth (or “oso perezoso”) is painted within the arts residency compound. The mural was painted by San Francisco’s Adrian Arias, who visited Xalapa last year. (Alan Chazaro)

It’s not every day that a Bay Area poet decides to visit Xalapa. I would know. It’s my parents’ hometown, where my mother and grandfather currently live. I’ve been there many times throughout my life, and have always enjoyed its quaint historical vibe with narrow cobblestone roads, orchid blooms and artistic ebullience. But I’ve never encountered Bay Area artists there, especially ones who aren’t Mexican.

So I was delighted — and surprised — when I heard that a poetry acquaintance of mine, J.K. Fowler, had relocated from the Bay to Xalapa, a place that feels hidden, tucked in the misty mountains along Mexico’s southeastern shoreline. Previously, Fowler operated Nomadic Press in Oakland, which was known as a grassroots hub for diverse voices until it shuttered about a year ago. (Over the years, I read my work at several of their events.)

As Fowler does, he is now working down there to connect others through his growing network of local artists — and he has a slate of Bay Area writers, muralists and multidisciplinary creators who are just beginning to enter Xalapa’s “magical portal.”

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On my recent trip to see family in Xalapa, I caught up with Fowler at his artist compound. “Consider it your second home,” he told me as we strolled through a wondrous garden where he hosts events.

“If you ever need chayote, you can take some from here,” he said, and I could tell he meant it.

a tropical garden in southern Mexico
One of Xalapa’s biggest attractions is the verdant greenery. Within the artist residency, there are two tropical outdoor gardens. (Alan Chazaro)

The thing about Fowler’s vision is that it doesn’t function like a simple Airbnb might. It’s an integrated cultural exchange, in which Fowler partners with artists from the region and fosters an international dialogue through collaborations and events.

Fowler also has a cafe, Bundo, which used to be located less than a 10 minute walk from the residency, and offered an array of beverages and snacks, specializing in oven-fired pizzas. He is currently in the process of moving the cafe inside of Huerto to give visiting artists an on-site dining option. (Xalapa has a heralded food scene, even by Mexico’s standards.) 

Huerto has high ceilings and earth tones that radiate a modern, minimalist Mexican aura. The lower portion of the living space has a total of five rooms, including a dining area, lounging spaces, an office, a bedroom and a kitchen, with Fowler’s living quarters located beyond the courtyard’s garden. While touring the spacious property, I met two local artists lounging in the outdoor patio discussing their ideas in Spanish, before switching over to English to introduce themselves to me.

plates of food are laid out on a wooden table
Part of Fowler’s vision is to provide a cafe space for locals and visiting artists. At Bundo’s former location in downtown, the cafe served a variety of fresh dishes. Fowler plans to relocate Bundo. (Alan Chazaro)

Huerto feels fresh, and full of potential. It’s a bicultural space where artists of diverse backgrounds can intermingle and inform each other’s practices. It also offers respite and privacy for those in need of a fresh environment.

Visiting artists from Northern California include Tempestt (who recently published her debut book with City Lights), Keenan Norris (a novelist who received the 2022 Northern California Book Award), E.K. Keith (a San Francisco-based poet) and Adrian Arias (a Bay Area writer, painter and illustrator). 

books about Oakland art are on display at a shop in Mexico
Fowler’s mission is to create an international exchange between artists, and he shares work from Bay Area authors and painters with local Xalapeños. (Alan Chazaro)

This summer, Ayodele Nzinga (Oakland’s poet laureate) and Tongo Eisen-Martin (San Francisco’s poet laureate) have signed up for visits. Nzinga is planning an anthology titled The Bridge, in which she will gather poems from authors based in both the Bay Area and Xalapa, culminating with a reading at Bundo.

And it’s not only for Bay Area artists, either. Huerto is also a way-point for local Xalapeños and Mexican nationals from other parts of the country. In fact, Huerto’s inaugural resident was Javier Peñalosa, a screenwriter and children’s book author from Mexico City.

“The space is genuinely tranquil and inspiring,” Peñalosa wrote in Spanish on Huerto’s website. “It’s like an oasis in the heart of Xalapa,”

For first-timers in Xalapa — a small city that has virtually no foreigner presence, unlike Mexico City with its influx of U.S. transplants — the scenery and ambiance can overwhelm with its quiet positivity and reflective possibility.

a quaint kitchen in Mexico
Huerto de Osos Perezosos offers ample living space for visiting artists, including a full kitchen that is attached to an outdoor garden. (Alan Chazaro)

There’s a certain synergy that artists can tap into in this off-the-radar destination, whose population is slightly larger than Oakland’s. Xalapa is ensconced in verdant greenery and often clouded and foggy like London, but with much warmer weather and tree-lined avenues where friendly women sell banana leaf-wrapped tamales. It’s the kind of unknown dimension that you might stumble into as a U.S. citizen and return from with an altered sense of gratitude.

“My last night at Huerto, I walked out to the courtyard after dinner and stood in the lovely mist, and appreciated the way the lamplight fell over the compound walls and into the courtyard, beautifying the quiet, tropical scene,” Norris shared in a testimonial. “It really did feel like a caesura in time itself, a space to contemplate.” 

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Huerto de Osos Perezosos (located in Xalapa’s historic center) is available for seven-day visits with varying price ranges. Xalapa is roughly four and a half hours from Mexico City’s easternmost airport via bus, and one hour via taxi from Veracruz’s international airport.

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