Marisol Catchings is a Black Chicana artist born and raised in San Francisco and the founder of Azteca Negra. Azteca Negra is a culturally-conscious line of textiles, handcrafted jewelry, accessories, and novelty pieces that was founded in 2013 after Catchings was let go from her 9-to-5 data analysis job. A creative at heart, she launched her business and has been creating art and wearable pieces ever since. Catchings feels that cultural knowledge and expression are her greatest source of creativity, and cultural representation, self-love, and resistance are her motivations.
When Catchings isn’t creating culturally inclusive art she is working as the co-founder of Just BE, a community for Black Women Entrepreneurs. The work is rooted in social justice, representation, and culture, as they share resources, create opportunities, and hold space for other Black women in their entrepreneurial journey. Just BE also annually hosts Oakland’s largest Black womens’ holiday market which highlights 50+ businesses.
BELatina spoke with Catchings about her business, brand, and how her lived experiences as a Black Chicana have inspired her creative pursuits.
Not until recently — and even so now — the words Azteca and Negra were not always in relationship in the minds of society. How did you choose the name Azteca Negra for your business?
As I have continued to explore culture and ancestry, I have found that influence from African cultural symbols, traditions, and styles are embedded in the art across Mexico, Latin America, and the world. I wanted to showcase the beauty in being a Black Mexicana. In our society, the African ancestry is often tucked away, forgotten, or a source of shame. I want to celebrate and highlight that influence. When people would ask about my cultural identity, I would usually say that I am Blexican. When I was in college, my mother shared Azteca Negra as an alternative to Blexican. And when I was looking for a name for my business, I wanted one that expressed exactly why I started creating my jewelry. Azteca Negra was the perfect name. It calls forth beauty, spirit, ancestors, complicated histories, and it’s a bold name for sure, because it forces you to acknowledge Black and Native people in just those two words.
On your business “about me” page you share that you come from a long line of women artisans. Who are they and what is/were their mediums?
This reminds me of a conversation I was having with friends not too long ago. We were asked about the first entrepreneurs that we remember as children. I couldn’t really think of any because I associated the word entrepreneur with CEOs of large companies, not with hairstylists, nail technicians, or the lady that makes tamales down the street.
This really made me think of my familia and the word “artist/artisan” differently as well. We have so many talented women on my mother’s side, each with their own individual gift of art. My great grandmother used to create intricate art pieces via tatting. Her vintage grand tapestry of the Virgencita is hanging in my mother’s house. My grandmother used to sew and embroider, one tia was a hairstylist and bomb seamstress, one tia is a knitting master, my mom is a crafter and master seamstress. A number of my generation of cousins have that creative bug too, with gifts in beading, illustrations, and crafting. These women are all artists in their own right, and even though the art usually remains amongst family, they have all influenced me in my creative expression.
What inspired you to start Azteca Negra?
I love big accessories. I love bright, bold colors. I love textiles and leather. I love exploring culture and learning in what ways the soul and histories of those cultures are infused into the art. I am always on the lookout for things that I feel represent who I am and that give me joy. In 2012, I was looking for accessories that were representative of both of my cultural identities and were at a loss. Since I couldn’t find what I was looking for, I decided to create earrings for myself. I wore those earrings everywhere! They were big, bold, colorful, and best of all, they were a mixture of a Ghanaian-style of earring and Mexican textile, a fusion of West African and Mexican ancestry.
After seeing customers’ responses to my art, I felt really encouraged to continue creating art and form a small business. Azteca Negra started as a dream, using my mom’s kitchen table as my art studio (which I still use today — she gifted me the table) and my unemployment checks.
As a business owner who is conscious of reusing and upcycling materials please share a bit about how the process of sourcing materials for your merchandise has been.
In an effort to reduce my carbon footprint I use as many upcycled and reclaimed pieces as possible. Many traditional artworks are now being created outside of their country and culture of origin, and I believe it is important to support the source. All of the leather for my jewelry and accessories is reclaimed scrap leather, and many of my accent materials are repurposed from upcycled and vintage jewelry and clothing. Most of my vendor display is also designed using reclaimed materials that have been reimagined. Thrifting/antiquing is one of my favorite hobbies, and it’s really fun to incorporate and find new purposes for certain materials in my art.
It’s also very important to me that authentic cultural textiles are used in my work. The majority of my pieces are crafted with super vibrant cambaya textiles. For the last seven years, my mother and I have traveled to Mexico to source and bring back all of the cambaya that I use in my pieces. I also like to incorporate authentic African textiles into my art, and currently work with local merchants who source goods and textiles from their home countries.
What has been the most impactful customer experience you’ve had thus far?
Last year, during one of my Dia de los Muertos events, a customer and her 10-year-old daughter came by to try on some wraps. The daughter picked out a Diosa headwrap and asked if I could tie it up for her. I tied the wrap, handed her the mirror to see herself, and her entire face lit up! A few days later, Mom shared that her little one was also Afro-Latina and loved her wrap so much that she snuck it to school so that she could wear it the next day.
Being able to see the joy on her face and hear about how excited she was about her wrap made me so filled with joy. I was able to give someone else a feeling that I had tried so long to seek out for myself. I always found things that represented and validated one side of my cultural identity, but it wasn’t until I started creating things for myself that I truly felt represented overall. It can be difficult to navigate through childhood and adolescence having very few reflections of yourself in the world. It felt really dope to be able to provide someone with that experience.