Artist Gerardo Navarro Gómez lives in lush, tranquil and delightfully simple surroundings with his mother and three sisters. One would not expect to encounter art ranging from the mildly erotic to pieces that test the sensibilities of the most liberal among us. But yes, accompanying paintings which express religious imagery and childlike carefree scenes, are those of quite another theme, carefully tucked away from view.
The women in the Navarro Gómez family weave cotton textiles on their back strap looms, while Gerardo is busy painting all manner of contorted body parts spewing the lifeblood of humankind. On this day they all, matriarch included, lightly laugh and joke in response to this writer’s pointed and arguably embarrassing questions, sloughing it all off. No subject is deemed taboo, nor provokes shame. Perhaps the Eden-like environment is the key to the harmony between such seemingly different forms of creativity in one family. Gerardo, a bachelor, lives in the very Catholic and rural world of Santo Tomás Jalieza, sharing daily chores as well as workspace with three spinster sisters and their mother.
Santo Tomás Jalieza is a small town about a 35 minute drive from the South Central Mexican city of Oaxaca. Oaxaca is tucked away in a series of central valleys in the state of the same name, surrounded by the Sierra Madre del Sur mountain range. The region is a popular destination for travelers seeking a cultural vacation – rich in pre-Hispanic ruins, impressive Dominican churches dating to the 1500s, and museums and galleries. The area is also known for its gastronomic greatness, with arguably the best cuisine in all of Mexico – and of course its broad diversity of quaint craft villages, including Santa Tomás Jalieza.
Residents of Santo Tomás have been weaving cotton textiles for generations, more recently for primarily the tourist trade – tablecloths and bedspreads, table runners and placemats, napkins, purses, leather-trimmed belts, change purses, eyeglass cases, embroidered blouses, and more. In the case of the Navarro Gómez family, full service massage proficiency in this cottage industry dates back only a couple of generations, since Gerardo’s parents didn’t move to the town until they married. They then made it a priority to learn to weave, and with the assistance of relatives in the village, teach their children.
Through ranching and agriculture the inhabitants of Santo Tomás remain to a large extent self-sufficient, relying if not on sheep, goats or cows, then certainly upon chickens – and of course subsistence crops such as corn and beans, supplemented by squash. The vagaries of tourism in Oaxaca require it.
Navarro grew up rejecting formal education, whether by design or circumstance: “I never did finish public school. I didn’t think I was learning anything, and in fact spent about four years languishing in first grade. Finally, when I was 14 I packed it in for good.”
But there was one teacher, Maestra Lupita, who did impact his future: “She was the only one, I now realize, who saw something in me that was different from the rest. She gave me crayons and a drawing book, and left me to work. I never asked her why she centered me out, and she never offered an explanation. She just left me alone most of the time, to draw.”
After school Navarro would tend his father’s goats, while sometimes doing a bit of leatherwork, and regularly jotting down his thoughts, even making little verses. Twice the government sent instructors to the village, initially to teach about working with animal skins, and then to show the townspeople how to combine textiles and leather to make purses and belts. Gerardo became proficient at making leather belts decorated with narrow strips of cotton textile produced by his sisters and mother on their looms.