“El Jaguar:” A Mexican Whodunit

El Jaguar

My visit to Oaxaca, Mexico, has been fun and interesting in all of the ways I expected. But it has also involved a mystery that has connected me to a lot of people in ways I could never have expected. The mystery involves a water color painting called “El Jaguar.”

The story of “El Jaguar” begins in 1990, when I traveled to Oaxaca with BFFs Vic, Sarah and Craig. During our visit, Vic and I bought “El Jaguar” for about $60 at a small gallery. There is some dispute about who picked the painting (I did) but there is no dispute about who has it now. It’s in a cheap frame over Vic’s fireplace. 🙂

After 1990, “El Jaguar” got the amount of attention most nice paintings get, not that much. But when I arrived in Oaxaca this week, I thought it would be fun to investigate whether there was anything interesting or significant about it.

I started by visiting several galleries and showing the gallery people a photo of the painting I had on my phone.  The first three gallery people said “Looks like Alejandro Santiago but I am not sure.”

I did a little research and learned that Alejandro Santiago had become one of Oaxaca’s most important modern artists some time after 1990. He died in 2013 at age 49.

Oaxacan painter, Alejandro Santiago


In the fourth art gallery I visited, the owner saw the photo and pointed to a man looking at a painting in another room. That man was Robert McDonald who (1) was in Oaxaca for a week and in the same gallery as me for a few minutes (2) is originally from Oakland and owns a gallery of Latin American art in San Francisco and (3) was Alejandro Santiago’s agent for the 20 years before he died.  When Robert McDonald saw the photo of “El Jaguar” on my phone, he said “Looks like Santiago. I can’t be sure because it was painted before I represented him, but coincidentally I am having dinner with a woman who represented him when this was painted.” I sent Robert McDonald the photo of the painting.

Robert McDonald in his SF gallery, Bond Latin. The photo is from his gallery website.

The next day Robert McDonald sent me an email that said “…sorry, it’s not a Santiago…”  I was disappointed but I decided to let it go. Sort of.

A painting by Alejandro Santiago I found online. Hmmm….

Something else that seemed unrelated turned out to be relevant. The same day I heard the bad news from Robert McDonald, I went horseback riding at a small ranch in the Oaxaca countryside that is owned by Mary Jane Gagnier. It was a great ride and, during our in-the-saddle chit chat, Mary Jane told me about her 26 year old son, Gabriel, who manages a gallery in Oaxaca called “La Mano Magica.” She herself had owned and managed the gallery for many years. I remembered visiting that gallery. I didn’t ask her about the photo on my phone because, in the moment, I only remembered that La Mano Magica had some nice handcrafts. I had forgotten that it was the same gallery that had the $12,000 Rufino Tamayo print.

Here is Mary Jane in a selfie with sunglasses.

Here is Mary Jane and Gabriel’s gallery, La Mano Magica

On the day I went riding, Mary Jane introduced me to her favorite taxista, Jose Luis, who agreed to take me to the artisan pueblos the day after I sort of stopped thinking about whether the “El Jaguar” was a Santiago.

Jose Luis

I loved talking with Jose Luis using my crude approximations of Spanish and he didn’t speed on the highway. After we had visited the Mother of All Mercados in Tlacolula, I asked him to take me to Teotitlan, the rug weavers’ village. He replied that he thought I might be interested in seeing his friend’s studio there. I expected a normal weaver’s workshop. But Jose Luis took me to the studio of Pantaleon Luiz, who is a very gifted painter, sculptor and rug weaver.

Pantaleon Ruiz with a print of his painting a Mexican mask.

When I walked into Pantaleon’s studio, I saw a painting that had the feeling of “El Jaguar” so I asked Pantaleon if he would look at the photo on my phone. When he saw it, he said “Alejandro Santiago. He was my good friend for twenty years.” We compared signatures on his Santiago painting and mine. If I showed you a picture of Pantaleon’s Santiago painting, I would have to kill you. I asked him this question: “Why would Robert McDonald and his art dealer friend say this is not a Santiago?”


Pantaleon suggested I go to “La Mano Magica” because the owners would be able to confirm whether “El Jaguar” was a Santiago. Coincidentally (do I have to say that at this point?) I had planned a second ride with Mary Jane and coincidentally Gabriel joined us for that ride. During our ride, I told them the story of my search for information about “El Jaguar” and how it led back to them.  They both thought the painting on my phone looked like a Santiago.

Gabriel Gagnier, photo from his FB page

But Gabriel told me that if I wanted to be really sure of the painting’s authenticity, I needed to talk to Santiago’s son, Lucio. Gabriel called Lucio for me and Lucio agreed to meet me at his father’s studio, which is called “La Telarana.” Telarana means “the spider web” in Spanish…like the spider web of people connected to each other by one small painting.

Lucio Santiago, photo found online.

Today, I went to La Telarana where I met Lucio and saw his father’s most important work — hundreds of statues of humans, large and small, that express the sorrow and hardships of the millions of people in the world who are escaping war and poverty. My Oaxacan adventure had connected me to my life-changing experiences with refugees in Greece.

And when Lucio saw the photo of “El Jaguar,” he said “Yes, of course, that is my father’s work.”


  1. Oh Kim, this is one of your most magical stories of all! You tell it so well, like a mystery story. And I love your “El Jaguar” painting. Your travels to the artists of Oaxaca have brought back many memories of mine from 1979. I was a student teacher in Santa Barbara, where the art museum put on an exhibit called Artesanos Mexicanos. It focused on three brilliant artists, including two my parents and I visited in Oaxaca over my winter break. One was Manuel Jiménez, the first woodcarver to create the creative, colorful wooden animals in the village you visited. My booklet from the exhibit, that I still have, says he was born in 1919, the same year Emiliano Zapata died. I treasure the wooden animals he carved and signed for us. Your visit to San Bartolo Coyotepec reminded me of meeting Doña Rosa, the ceramicist who started that style of polished black hand-built pottery. I bought a vase from her that is on my living room shelf. Buen viaje!

  2. Kim spins a intriguing, but largely fictional, tale regarding the acquisition and true ownership of this marvelous painting which has been over my fireplace for nearly 30 years.

    I picked it out!

    I paid for it (and it was more than a bundred bucks, btw)!

    And I arranged for and paid for the extraordinarily well crafted framing within which it resides above my fireplace!

    Why she has concocted this revisionist history of the acquisition of this masterpiece is beyond me. She clearly didn’t care for it, cheerfully leaving it behind in exchange for an old beaten up couch.

    Tsk-tsk Kim. You should be ashamed.

    And keep your paws off of my treasure!

    You may view MY painting, Kim, by scheduling an appointment on viewing days which are now limited to one day or er year- April 16th.



  3. When I visited Oaxaca, I fell in love with a painting. I would visit it every day wishing I couuld take it home with me. But my car was dying and any money I had needed to go towards a new car, not a painting. I still carry a photo if it on my phone. When I think if returning to Oaxaca, I always wonder if the painting would still be there waiting for me.

  4. Well fantastic present day tale, truth be told. I can’t remember much about the painting purchase or packaging or binging back to the USA, but I do remember the feel of Oaxaca and the days we shared together there. And that fills my heart.
    Love love

  5. It was a fun trip, and just because I almost was swept down to Guatemala by a rip tide while boogie boarding as Kim waved happily at me from the beach didn’t sweep away my fond memories.

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