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Authentic art: Bemidji eatery brings its artwork straight from Mexico

Maggi Stivers | Bemidji Pioneer David Mendoza Gutierrez is the owner of Mi Rancho in Bemidji.

BEMIDJI — Pride in heritage is seen throughout Bemidji, admittedly a primarily Scandinavian city, what with the Sons of Norway, Concordia Language Villages, and even a coffee group that meets at Wild Hare Bistro and Coffeehouse to “just talk” Norwegian.

But there is another ethnicity in town, housed in building on Anne Street that brings a Disney-like atmosphere of amazing colors and celebrations to those who enter.

Right inside the front entrance stands an oversize bench that sports a welcoming motif of sunny Mexico, and that is exactly what the owner wants to show in the collection of modern art work at Mi Rancho.

“I started working in Colorado in a Burger King when I was 15-years-old,” said owner David Mendoza Gutierrez. “I like working in the food business and decided to open my restaurant here because there is not much competition.”

When David and wife Alicia decided to open a restaurant in Bemidji, his main focus right from the beginning, was to showcase the folk-art so popular in the Mexican state of Jalisco, which he said is near the “middle west on the (Pacific) ocean side.”

To that end, he still brings oil paintings and complex metalwork representations of historic figures and events back to Bemidji when he visits family in Mexico. The chairs are all imported from La Condora, a factory deep in the heart of Tonala, a town known for its folk art work and open markets, he said. The chairs are all hand-carved with different scenes: Mexican cities and villages; people such as cowboys, beautiful children and women, as well as peasant agricultural and social life in old Mexico. The chairs are then painted in the bright colors so familiar for that region: vibrant reds, deep greens and sunny yellows offset by the black hair and eyes of the characters. The manufacture and selling of folk art in all media forms is an important part of the local economy.

“I made all these tables myself,” said Gutierrez. “My family helped me; we worked very hard before the opening a few years ago. I wanted to make Mi Rancho as authentic as I could in feeling and atmosphere. There are pictures of Aztec warriors on the walls and some of them are very famous in folk lore.”  

Gutierrez pointed to artwork of Cuauhtemoc, the last Aztec emperor. “When the Spanish came to Mexico, they wanted to steal our gold and he wouldn’t give in; they burned his feet but he never told them where the gold was hidden. It’s a very famous story in Mexico.”

Naturally, there is a puppet set of the famous Mariachi bands so prevalent in Jalisco and indicative of the region. Mariachi bands are considered to be a true representative of the people; their joys, triumphs and defeats through the years. The music and the instruments have changed, but Mariachi bands are still an integral part of the culture, including during Catholic masses. Gutierrez’s marionettes are of the guitar, violin, trumpet players dressed in the conventional black suits with white ruffled shirts and large sombreros.

So, while so much the art shown today in the museums tend toward that of the macabre with painters such as Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, who was considered to be a feminist icon of her time. Most of her paintings as well as those by her husband, muralist Diego Rivera, were moody and showed the dark side of human suffering both physically and emotionally. All of the art work at Mi Rancho is dedicated to the soul of the people, their joyfulness and generous nature and it will take more than just one visit to see it all.