Room and Border

Room and Border

There’s a store on Court Street with a window display that’s busier than the rest. It’s packed with decorative depictions of the Virgin Mary, dancing mariachi dolls, a sombrero-wearing mannequin head, rotating colored lights and a sign that flashes “Open / Abierto.”

This is La Chula Mexican Art Gallery, where the art on the walls and shelves is as densely packed as a late-stage game of Tetris. Unlike most small galleries, La Chula hosts the work of hundreds of artists, not just a handful, all of whom hail from various small pueblos, or villages, in Mexico.

The curator of this gallery is Dr. Ricardo Jiménez, a former dentist who spent most of his early years in Mexico. Jiménez got his dental degree in Mexico City and worked in New Haven as a dentist from 2005 to 2011, until a fateful medical emergency changed his life. Jiménez tells me how, after he came out of a one-week coma following complications during surgery, he felt that God had allowed him to live on the condition he do some non-dental good in the world.

sponsored by

College & Crown - Live in the center of it all!

He left his career as a dentist and opened La Chula with a mission to help the people of Mexico. If Mexicans had work, Jiménez tells me in Spanish, they wouldn’t be risking their lives crossing the desert into the US. So Jiménez uses his gallery as a way to deliver beauty to New Haven and economic stimulation to Mexico.

Every few weeks he gets in his car and drives for 15 days. Between three days to the border and three days back, he goes from small village to small village looking for paintings, tapestries, masks, sculptures and shirts to buy for La Chula. He tends to avoid the mid- to large-sized pueblos because, he says, art there is typically sold secondhand. Instead, Jiménez wants every dollar he spends on the art in his gallery to go directly to the people who made it.

By buying one of the more expensive pieces of artwork, you could be supporting up to five families, Jiménez says—not just the artist’s, but also the assistant’s and the framer’s, plus the families of those who craft the art supplies, most of which he says are hand-made in the areas where the art was made. One of the higher-priced items in the store, a $900 woven reproduction of Diego Rivera’s Nude with Calla Lilies, Jiménez bought for $700 in Mexico. $700 can go a very long way in Mexico and even further in small rural villages like the ones Jiménez buys from—and, as evident from the meager markup, Jiménez’s mission isn’t driven by profit.

Not content with delivering a financial benefit alone, Jiménez also gives these small artisans a morale boost. Every time you buy something in La Chula, either he or Luna Rodz, his more English-adept business partner, will snap a picture of you with the item you bought and put it up on La Chula’s Facebook page for the artwork’s creator to see. “Es un orgullo para ellos ver su trabajo vendido a un extranjero,” say Jiménez. They’re proud to see their work sold to a foreigner.

The volume of vivid crafts that can be found at La Chula gives the impression of a Mexican toy or souvenir shop. They range from serious Catholic-inspired pieces of saints to Día de los Muertos-themed motorcycle sculptures and tongue-in-cheek stormtrooper piggybanks. I bought a $38 hand-carved demon mask and have since named him Jorge.

There are also some actual toys scattered around the shop. Jiménez tells me local Mexican parents bring their American-born kids to the store and point to the yoyos, trompos (string-wound tops) and valeros (cup-and-ball toys) and tell them: “Before there was Xbox, that’s what I used to play with.” Jiménez says 10% of every purchase made in La Chula goes to buying these kinds of toys and games to give out to children as he makes his journeys through Mexico.

Recently, La Chula launched a sort of scholarship program called “Nosotros Somos Mexico”—We Are Mexico—where for one year patrons donate $20/month to cover a student’s lunch, books and school supplies for the year, with Jiménez adding $5 of his own money for every $20 donated.

Education is fundamentally important to him. He says that while his father—an undocumented worker on California’s lettuce and cantaloupe farms—couldn’t leave his kids property or wealth, he left them an education. All six of his sons, Jiménez included, obtained university degrees in Mexico. One is a psychologist. One’s a lawyer. Another is a chemical engineer and Jiménez himself, as we know, was until recently a dentist.

Jiménez has two young kids of his own and plans to leave them, at a minimum, the same inheritance his father gave him. “No es el mundo que vamos dejar a nuestros hijos,” Jiménez says. “Es que hijos que vamos a dejar al mundo.”

It’s not about what kind of world we’ll leave for our kids, he says. It’s about what kind of kids we’ll leave for the world.

La Chula Mexican Art Gallery
123 Court St, New Haven (map)
Mon-Sat 10am-7pm, Sun 10am-2pm
(203) 606-5593
Facebook Page

Written and photographed by Daniel Shkolnik.

More Stories