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Community Portrait: Magical art assists children of Oaxaca

Community Portrait
By: Story and photo Michael Kirby
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Marla Jensen and Sharon Frederick are sisters who grew up in the San Diego area before migrating north and settling in the Auburn area. Growing up, Jensen and Frederick made frequent trips to Mexico, mostly with their family for getaways. They have always had a love of Mexico and are now very involved with the Mexican state of Oaxaca. As adults, Jensen and Frederick have made numerous trips to Oaxaca, with Jensen first discovering the region in 1987. They fell in love with the Oaxacan people, their culture and beautiful crafts that are handmade in the Oaxaca City areas by the talented artisans. Oaxaca City is the capital city of Oaxaca state. Oaxaca is one of the largest states in Mexico and is bordered on the south by the Pacific Ocean. “Oaxaca is one of the poorest states in Mexico,” Jensen said. “There is a historical center in Oaxaca City that was built by Cortez and the Spanish in the 1500s that is just beautiful, but outside the historical area is surrounded by poverty.” Jensen was always interested in Mexican folk art and made her first trip to Oaxaca 25 years ago. “Oaxaca has the reputation for some of the most extraordinary folk art in Mexico,” she said. “There is a huge indigenous population so the art is still pretty original, particularly the weaving, ceramics and wood carving.” Jensen soon got her sister to come along on her sojourns each year, and the two women have made at least two trips to this wonderful place annually since. They are now well known in the area and are welcomed with open arms by the Oaxacan people. Jensen and Frederick have become experts and buyers of the unique hand-crafted folk art produced in the area of Oaxaca City. They return with artwork, which they then sell through their online gallery. The purchases of the artwork help support impoverished families get by in an area where the typical family earns just $4 a day. “What really hit me was how many young children were working the streets selling candy or trinkets to tourists and not in school,” Jensen said. Oaxacan children often stay out of school and work to help their families meet basic needs. Jensen and Frederick have since become involved with helping children attend school by being associated with Centro de Esperanza Infantil. CEI is a social service agency that helps children get off the street and into school, helping with everything from health services to school scholarships. “Every trip we go down we take as many suitcases as we can afford to take full of supplies for this agency,” Frederick said. Jensen and Frederick have also escorted friends to the area. “When we take people with us we ask them to also bring things on CEI’s wish list,” she said. Many have brought school supplies; one guest was a dentist and brought hundreds of toothbrushes and dental care products. Jensen and Frederick also sponsor a student who is now in high school and has ambitions to become a chef. Ten percent of their online folk art sales are donated back to CEI, and used to help area children achieve their academic dreams. The regional artwork of Oaxaca is beautiful and some of the artists have gained a dedicated following. Many such pieces are displayed in major museums. Jensen and Frederick are having an open house to showcase the work from noon to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 1-12, in their La Sirena Oaxacan Gallery, 195 Agnes St. in Auburn. The public is invited to drop by and see the unique work, learn about the talented artists and support the children.