In the long months of the pandemic, feeling grief and isolation, visual artist Jessy DeSantis found herself wanting to reconnect with her ancestry, and the land, foods and language of Nicaragua.
She planted a native crop, corn, for the first time in her Reservoir Hill backyard. She began learning Nahuatl, an Indigenous language native to Meso-America. And in her studio, piled with paints and plants, she turned to the canvas.
DeSantis painted images of corn with vibrant colors of pink, green and blue, in the form of magical realism, a style popular in Latin America that weaves fantasy into everyday life. The husk and leaves turn into Quetzal bird feathers, which are sacred and were used as currency in Aztec and Maya cultures.
“It was very difficult to find a place to go and sell,” said Alejandra Martinez, a founder of Tianquiztli, which means marketplace in Nahuatl. (It is pronounced Tee-an-kiss-tlee.)
Her grassroots arts business, MexiArt by Ale, will be a vendor Saturday, too, selling handmade jewelry and accessories influenced by Mexican culture and Indigenous traditions. She said artists can sometimes not afford to pay for spots at other markets, when they don’t know how much they will sell.
“That’s why I decided it would be good to support Hispanic artists and try to exhibit all Latin American artists in one place and expose people to different types of art,” Martinez said.
Tianquiztli will feature food from Cocina Luchadoras and Codetta Bake Shop, as well as beaded accessories from Marina Jewelry. Tabitha Hitchye from Baltimore Salsa Dance Company will be there offering free dance lessons, and the Banda Guerrerense — which features folk music from Guerrero, Mexico — will perform. L@s Caza Vacunas de Baltimore (Vaccine Hunters of Baltimore) will help people sign up and find vaccine appointments.
DeSantis will be selling digital prints of her paintings, work inspired by her connection to nature, family, Central American roots and Baltimore landmarks. In one artwork that celebrates Latin American immigrants and diversity in Southeast Baltimore, red-lored Amazon parrots perch on the street sign for the corner of Gough and Wolfe streets, while the Mayan glyph for “companion spirit,” lights up the crosswalk sign.
DeSantis said all her art is personal and her aim is to pass on stories of heritage and truth to future generations.
She found herself digging into this during the pandemic. Raised in a multiracial Nicaraguan household in Miami, she was reminded of pinolillo, a popular Nicaraguan drink made from cornmeal, cacao and spices.
“Why did I grow up drinking cacao?” DeSantis said. “Where did it come from? What’s the origin story? All these questions about myself led to answers about my indigeneity and so all of this transpired into my artwork.”
She marveled at how her Indigenous ancestors domesticated corn from wild grass thousands of years ago: “It’s medicine that we’re still consuming and eating today.”
She’s also found herself in a virtual class learning Nahuatl. In Mexico alone, an estimated 1.5 million speak this language. One of the Tianquiztli organizers, Yesenia Mejia, also is learning the language with DeSantis.
“[The class] teaches us that we must continue to love our language, our beloved land from where we come from, our roots, to continue to support each other and to be human,” said Mejia, 37, the Artesanas Mexicanas coordinator at the Creative Alliance. Her band, Conjunto Bruja, will perform at the marketplace this Saturday.
The Nahuatl class has given them community and a safe space to connect with other Indigenous descendants across the diaspora.
“It’s a collective of activists who are fighting for land back, for Black liberation, for Indigenous sovereignty,” DeSantis said. “It’s very important when you talk about this that you don’t historicize it. Millions of people speak Nahuatl today, and every year, thousands of people are learning.”
Art and mutual aid are things DeSantis has leaned on in recent months.
“Currently, I’m trading a painting for some ancestral foods and medicines from a Nicaraguan woman that I met and finding ways to use our art to help one another,” DeSantis said.
She’s donated 20% of her art sales to the Latino Racial Justice Circle and their COVID Humanitarian Fund, which has helped families meet rent and other needs during the pandemic. Most recently, she raised funds toward Nicaraguan hurricane relief efforts and painted the mural for Greenmount West’s Community Fridge, which provides free food to fight food insecurity and food waste in Baltimore.
At Saturday’s Tianquiztli, corn husk flower pins, handmade by the Artesanas, will sell in two varieties: roses, which symbolize love and fidelity, or lilies, which symbolize femininity and sensuality. Mothers attending will receive a free gift. The theme for the event is flowers, and Martinez said there is a flower for every occasion.
“We looked for the flowers that are most used in Latin America, such as vanilla for desserts, hibiscus for freshwater drinks, [and] chamomile for teas,” said Martinez, who was an Artesana for seven years.
Tianquiztli will be held in the parking lot across from the Creative Alliance. Mejia said the space can permit only one food vendor and four artists at a time. She and Martinez hope to grow Tianquiztli with more vendors, host the market more frequently, and have pop-up events in other cities.
“We’re in a society that wants us to assimilate,” DeSantis said. “We’re struggling to hold on to our heritage and so having Tianquiztli, these markets, these collectives, these dance events and festivals, it’s so important. We feel that in the diaspora, because we’re not in our homeland.”
Visit Tianquiztli Marketplace to honor mothers May 8 from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. in the lot across from Creative Alliance, 3134 Eastern Ave.