There are people who see beauty in the world, and there are people who make beauty in the world. Cristina Martinez, founder of VeryThat and all-around badass Chicana, does both. I first met Martinez in early 2014 at an art market on South Flores Street. Among a crowd of crafty vendors selling everything from artisanal lip balm to locally sourced honey, Martinez stood out. The space she and her wares filled was colorful, welcoming, and Mexican. There was something different about the art she was making: a funky mix of handcrafted ceramic tiles bearing glossy images of drag queens, Selena, Frida Kahlo and so many familiar cultural dichos (“échale ganas, mija” was my personal favorite). When I asked her how I was supposed to use the tiles (Was it a coaster? Should I hang it on the wall?), she tilted her head and told me they could be whatever I wanted them to be. To this day, one of her tiles is placed above the sink in my guest bathroom, offering up a friendly reminder to anyone who passes through: “Please don’t do coke in the bathroom.” She wasn’t pretentious or eager to sell for the sake of making a sale. She just wanted to share a part of who she was with the world, and she stuck with me.Martinez recently took time to chat with me about her work, her inspiration and the celebration of being chingona.
Originally published in our sister publication, Out in SA.
Tell us a little about yourself and how you came to begin your work.
I’m from the Southside of San Anto. It’s a huge source of pride for me! I grew up in the very same house I live alone in now, and it’s such an integral part of who I am. My parents are both from Mexico, so as a kid, I spent a lot of time there. I was a border baby in between Piedras Negras, Coahuila, where my dad was from, and Eagle Pass, Texas, where my mom’s parents lived. My work and life are super reflective of that time, and I think anything I make is like a little love letter to that time. Strong, independent cabronas are my muses and I’m lucky to have had plenty of those growing up and in my life now. Mami’s sayings, abuela’s dichos — those are kind of the foundation to VeryThat. One day, probably about 10 years ago, my niece Lexi and I walked into Target around back to school time and Lexi pointed out that all the little girls in the posters above us were white and did not look like her. That left an impression! Now, in addition to the tiles, totes and tees, I’m working on calendars, planner accessories and stationery — all inspired by my Lexi.
What keeps you motivated?
So many things! Women, my comadres, are such inspirations in general. I so often get asked to make and carry things for cis men, but nah, my work is for women. When I quit my last job, I knew that I had to work hard to make it work — to make a living for myself and live comfortably. I never realized how many obstacles would come with that decision, but honestly, it was the best one I ever made. I’m so excited to learn new mediums that I generally close myself in for a few days to figure things out. That’s so exciting to me — getting a new machine or wanting to try something that I don’t know anything about and just learning it through and through. I have a lot of support — my mami, who is the number one muse in my life, my sisters and nieces, my best friends and comadres, and of course, my partner. She reminds me every day that she believes in me; she comes and rubs my shoulders when she sees me stressed about something. She’s at shows with me doing a lot of the hard work behind the scenes. My business as a whole changed dramatically last year — something just clicked for me. I finally started selling online. It took a few months to fully figure out, and I’m still learning new things every day. I could not have pulled it off without Vanessa and her support and love.
Gloria Anzaldúa famously wrote about living in borderlands, that mystical space where we inhabit so many different personas all at the same time. What aspects of your identity speak to your work the most?
Wow! Gloria came to me later. I wish I knew her in my early 20s! My work, the cositas I put on my tables, is so bright and intentionally funny, vulgar, nostalgic. Sometimes I have to go to a past place for that. I think about Carmen, the mom in Real Women Have Curves. That’s the best role in the history of roles, in my opinion. She reminds me of so many tías, my mom — that mix of pinche and loving; that was my childhood. So, in one breath, I would hear how pretty or smart I was, and in the next, I’d be told to lose weight. This was like when I was 9! I mean, really, how fucked up is that? Pero, that’s what it was, and now I can find the funny in it. Now I embrace the gorda, much to some family members’ scoffs. I can finally say that, yes, I’m femme even when I don’t always abide by that aesthetic. It’s a beautiful thing to let go of these pendejadas passed down to us — as if we ever asked for them. My work is colorful and funny, but sometimes that’s inspired by a hurt 9-year-old kid, and sometimes that’s inspired by the cabrona in me that I have worked so hard to bring out again. Vending life is funny because you’re always “on.” Oh my god, especially at first, you don’t want to lose that sale that literally pays your bills! So, for a long time, I buried the cabrona and only brought out the sweetest parts of me. Ya no. I have done a lot of personal work to make sure I allow the full me to be present, always.
What has the most fulfilling experience been for you since you began VeryThat?
Connecting with other women, hands down. I never expected to organize shows, collaborate with women and businesses that I admire so much, and be a part of this really badass network of local (and sometimes not so local) mujeres. Also, sometimes it’s hard for me to say that I’m proud of myself, but I am. I have created this crazy little life where I support myself with my art and cositas, connect with people all over the world through social media, and live a life that I would have loved to read about as a kid.