June 28 2002

Tomboctou Brings Latin American Folk Art to San Diego

By Yvette tenBerge

Stepping through the bougainvillea-covered doorway of Back From Tomboctou, a retail shop and wholesale warehouse that specializes in Latin and Central American folk art, is like stepping into the shoes of the village artists who carved, painted or sculpted the colorful crafts that decorate its shelves.

Claudio Deluca and Maribel Siman-Delucca, owners of Back From Tomboctou.

This 3564 Adams Avenue store, which also carries items from Asia, boasts a museum and garden and is packed full of painted wooden crosses, vibrantly colored figurines, sculpted ceramic skulls, traditional silver jewelry, La Virgen de Guadalupe mouse pads and large, carved images, such as a five-foot-tall statue of St. Francis of Assisi.

Claudio Delucca, a recently retired naval officer from Brazil, has spent the past 20 years importing Latin American folk art and crafts. The passion that both he and his wife, Maribel Siman-Delucca, have for the stories behind each handmade object and the artisans who create them, is obvious.

Mr. Delucca launches into the history behind his deep-rooted interest in Latin American art and culture. He describes his love for the 1760s, colonial farmhouse in which he was born and his background in anthropology. He adds that his wife, who is from El Salvador, also spent much of her life traveling throughout South America and studying its various cultures.

“We both grew up in the days when there weren’t many conveniences, so we developed an appreciation for things that are handmade, folkish and ethnic,” says Mr. Delucca, who explains that he began his business working out of his living room. “The retail side of our business is minor compared to the wholesale side, but it is satisfying for us to do cultural outreach and education.” 

Folk art made by the Castillo family in Puebla, Mexico.

Not only is Mr. Delucca able to discuss the history and cultural significance of virtually every piece in the store, he often selects merchandise based on the history of the families who crafted the items. He walks over to the side of his shop that is dedicated to Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, a religious holiday that honors the dead in many Latin American countries. It is celebrated on November 1 and 2.

“These days are holy days of obligation in Brazil, Panama, Puerto Rico and El Salvador, but the rich tapestry of Día de los Muertos, such as the skeletons, lights and offerings, comes from Central Mexico. These were made by the Soteno family in the village of Metepec, Mexico,” says Mr. Delucca, motioning toward a group of glazed, ceramic skulls located in the middle of the display. “This family has been making clay crafts in the same area since pre-Colombian days.”

But authentic folk art and mini history lessons aren’t the only things that draw San Diegans back to Tomboctou. The Delucca’s show their commitment to educating the community by holding classes on such things as the making and decorating of sugar skulls and altars for Día de los Muertos, the making of traditional, Mexican masks and the cutting of decorative, paper banners, which are also native to Mexico.

About four years ago, Ms. Siman-Delucca taught Back to Tomboctou’s first workshop. She states that her favorite class to teach is one on the making of altars, or ofrendas, for Día de los Muertos.

“I love eliminating people’s negative preconceptions of Day of the Dead,” says Ms. Siman-Delucca, who explains that before attending her workshops, many people erroneously believe that the holiday centers on the devil. “People are very relieved and happy to find a culture that gives them permission to express their feelings for their dead relatives.”

Next door to the retail shop is the Back From Tomboctou museum, which houses the exhibit “Mexican Retablos and Ex-Votos” through July 15. This exhibit showcases dozens of ex-votos, Mexican plaques that are produced as a sign of thanks for an answered prayer or a miracle granted.

Papier Mache skull from Mexico.

After touring the museum, which comes complete with thick handouts detailing

the history and cultural significance of the exhibit, Mr. Delucca pauses to highlight shop shelves that house nativity scenes from around the globe. He points to pieces from Bethlehem, Venezuela, Mexico, Ecuador, Peru, Venezuela, Guatemala and El Salvador.

“We carry a great deal of religious crafts because religion is the foundation of Latin American art,” says Mr. Delucca, who explains that about half of his wholesale clientele are religious shops, missions and museums. “We have buyers in place in each country, and we make sure that our artists are paid a fair price.”

When asked about his most unusual piece, Mr. Delucca heads toward an Aztec Eagle warrior dance costume made from canvas and carved wood.

“These warriors were part of a regiment in the Aztec army that was made up of the most experienced soldiers,” says Mr. Delucca, pulling the large mask from the wall and gently running his hands along the cloak. “This costume was made for a dance that celebrates the conquest of Mexico.”

Whether customers are looking for a well-worn cloak used to transform dancers into revered warriors of times past, or the colorful, papier maché works of the well-known, Mexico City artist Miguel Linares, they need do little more than pass through the flower-covered doorway of this Adams Avenue shop and place their order with the Delucca’s, a couple who would have undoutedly traveled the worn trade paths of Tomboctou, themselves, in centuries past.

Return to the Frontpage