At Whatcom County’s craft markets, Pacific Northwestern goods are the norm– but Artesanías El Alebrije stands out from the crowd. Rather than locally made clothing, the business specializes in artesanías, or Mexican handicrafts, that are difficult (if not impossible) to find elsewhere in Bellingham. For owner Alex Martinez, Artesanías El Alebrije is also a way to connect with and share Mexican culture in his community.
Early in the pandemic, Martinez made a hobby out of offering embroidered Mexican face masks to Latino families in Bellingham. Soon enough, his customers began asking if they could purchase other items through him– namely clothing, crafts, and other traditional goods.
Despite the fact that 10% of Whatcom County’s population is Hispanic, such items are not readily available in the area. Martinez saw it as an opportunity, and as a result, what began as a hobby blossomed into a genuine business.
Now, Artesanías El Alebrije sells a variety of artisanal Mexican apparel and goods to the residents of Whatcom County. Clothing items include embroidered dresses, blouses, and guayaberas, which are traditional men’s summertime shirts.
Shoppers can also purchase alebrijes, which are vividly painted folk art renderings of animals and magical creatures. Martinez says people may recognize them from the Pixar movie Coco (“The dog, Dante, and the cat– those are alebrijes”).
“My personal favorite items are going to be the alebrijes,” Martinez says. I actually ordered one for myself. It’s not ready yet; it’s still in the process of getting carved in wood, and it’s a cockatiel because I love birds.”
Through his business, Martinez hopes to connect Bellingham residents with the artesanías of Mexico as well as the indigenous artesanos (artisans) who make them. Part of his stock is sourced from a merchant in Everett, whereas other items come directly from his hometown of Oaxaca as well as states such as Chiapas and Michoacán.
Martinez’s client base has expanded beyond the Latino community thanks to local markets. Sometimes converses with shoppers who aren’t familiar with Mexican culture; other times, however, people immediately recognize what he is selling.
“During the market, I would meet a lot of people that would walk by,” Martinez says. “They were like, ‘Oh, I know this is from certain state, or this is from Oaxaca, and I’ve been to Oaxaca!’”
Martinez is also happy to answer questions about the process behind each artesanía. He takes time to explain which shirts and dresses are handmade and which are embroidered with a machine, as well as the noticeable differences between the two.
Beyond markets, Martinez sells goods directly to Latino community members– many of whom are not able to visit their hometowns. As a result, the business fills an important cultural void in the community.
“As a Mexican, I go to the Mexican stores around Bellingham. They don’t offer any of that. They usually have, like, Mexican food products and carniceria [butcher shops],” Martinez says. “They don’t have anything like artesanía.”
Martinez has taken a temporary break to focus on his main job with Whatcom County’s Washington State University Extension, where he teaches Latino youth about Mexican culture and traditions. However, he’s planning to return with more goods in 2022. Keep an eye out for Artesanías El Alebrije at markets such as the Rebel Markets of Whatcom, and in the meantime, customers can shop online on Facebook or Instagram (@artesanias_elalebrije). Bellingham, facebook.com/ArtesaniasElAlebrije/