Ceramic skulls from El Interior, perfect topping your ofrenda on Día de los Muertos

Image: Michael Novak

Día de los Muertos is a big tradition for Laura Gutierrez and her family. Every year during the multiday Mexican holiday, she builds an ofrenda, an altar at which to welcome the spirits of her loved ones who have passed. She says it’s important that her two children understand that the tradition is a time for celebration. And as the owner of El Interior, which specializes in handmade Mexican rugs, ceramics, jewelry, clothing, and more, explaining that tradition to curious customers—especially customers intrigued by the decorative ceramic skulls she sells, which always do well this time of year—is also important.

"I tell [customers] that when our loved ones pass we believe that their spirit comes and visits us every year when we celebrate them," says Gutierrez. "And that’s why we make our ofrendas. It’s for them because they visit us, our loved ones, our friends, who passed.”

The skulls, of course, are among the many aspects of an ofrenda, but that same handcrafted approach and emphasis on bright colors and generational techniques has defined that items Gutierrez sells at El Interior, which she’s been running from a booth at Portland’s Skidmore Market since 2011. From floral table runners to cutely decorated ceramic cats to pillowcases and bracelets, all of it has been handcrafted by artists, friends, and family from Mexico—and all of the proceeds are shared between Gutierrez and those artists.

This aspect of El Interior, Gutierrez says, is especially rewarding because, prior to living in Oregon, she and her husband Francisco lived in Teotitlán del Valle, a Zapotec village in Oaxaca where they, and many others in the village, made their living as weavers. There, even though she grew up learning how to weave, Gutierrez learned to appreciate all kinds of art “because I know that takes a lot of time. It's daily life in Mexico.” 

“To have a life [in Mexico] as an artist is really hard and sometimes it’s really hard to sell your art if you’re not a big corporation or tourist group, so that’s why we decided to come here and make another life,” Gutierrez says, noting the continued relationship she has with artists in Mexico “I feel really helpful and it makes me happy that I can help my people and they don’t need to immigrate so they can stay with their family and doing what they like to do.”

When she and her family moved to Oregon in 2004, she recalls being inspired by the Saturday market in Portland, knowing then it was an avenue to help her friends and family back home. For 10 years she’s called the Skidmore Market home, but Gutierrez dreams of opening up a small brick-and-mortar store one day.

Along with El Interior, Gutierrez and her husband operate Bautista Weavings, where they make hand-spun, hand-dyed wool creations including rugs, runners, and pillowcases, using a foot pedal loom.

Like El Interior, the venture aims to showcase time-honored techniques that have been passed down from generation to generation, while also exploring the ways contemporary art can shape those traditions.

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