Dreaming in Color at Alebrije Homewares

Santa Barbara Shop Carries Authentic Oaxacan Goods

Dreaming in Color at
Alebrije Homewares

Santa Barbara Shop Carries
Authentic Oaxacan Goods

By Tyler Hayden | Photos by Ingrid Bostrom
May 25, 2023

Alebrije Homewares | Credit: Ingrid Bostrom

There is more color packed into one small corner of Alebrije Homewares than in the entirety of most stores. A menagerie of Oaxacan goods — from pottery to textiles to the figurines of the fantastical animals that give the shop its name — there’s no other selection like it in Santa Barbara.

Alebrije Homewares owner Esperanza Lopez-Vargas travels to Oaxaca every other month to buy goods directly from artisans. | Credit: Ingrid Bostrom

“Everything is handmade. Everything is authentic,” said owner Esperanza Lopez-Vargas, who grew up in Oaxaca and now travels there every other month to buy items directly from artisans in the south Mexican state. She’s friends with many of them and often gives young makers their starts. “I look for quality,” she explained of her hand-selections, warning against the cheap knockoffs you find online.

Lopez-Vargas is about to celebrate 10 years in business on De la Vina Street. The road to reaching that milestone was anything but easy. She was 15 years old when she got married and soon after became pregnant. Her mother died the night before Lopez-Vargas gave birth. The couple struggled, sometimes just to eat, and they immigrated to Santa Barbara, where Lopez-Vargas’s husband had an uncle.

Lopez-Vargas enrolled in English and business classes and started a cleaning company while her husband gardened. She earned her associate’s degree and transferred to San Francisco State for her bachelor’s. Once back in town, Lopez-Vargas went to work for an import/export company but always fantasized about opening her own store. In 2014, she did.

“I try to carry a little of everything,” Lopez-Vargas said, pointing to a rack of vibrant Tuxtepec blouses; patterned Otomi throws; sets of rich, black barro negro pottery; and small shadowboxes, called nichos. On the lushly planted back patio, which is available for rent for private events, is a kaleidoscope of Talavera tiles and flowerpots. Lopez-Vargas also does custom orders, she said. If you see something you like online, bring in a photo and she can usually track it down.

Credit: Ingrid Bostrom

Lopez-Vargas wants to see Alebrije grow. She’s eyeing a second location at Paseo Nuevo. She even has ambitions to one day open a restaurant that specializes in traditional Oaxacan recipes. She’d bring in a chef and do some cooking herself, Lopez-Vargas explained. In all her spare time, Lopez-Vargas also rescues dogs. She’s up to about 20 at her home in Oaxaca and four here. Plus a few cats and a handful of birds.

In the early days, Lopez-Vargas would drive down to Tijuana to pick up shipments of goods, leaving at 4 a.m. and getting back by midnight. She’s since streamlined the process but still puts in a lot of hours. She can’t help it. Her work ethic is “insane,” said the friends and family who staff the store. She sleeps only a few hours a night. Her husband, who still operates and has grown his gardening business, says she’s “not from this planet.” 

Alebrije regularly hosts artist workshops, Lopez-Vargas said. The last one featured Oaxacan artisan Jesus Sosa, and more dates will be announced soon. In the meantime, Lopez-Vargas suggested, come by and pick picking up some of their new homemade salsas or hot cocoa powder.

See alebrijehomewares.com. Follow on Instagram @alebrijehomewares.

Credit: Ingrid Bostrom


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