Christmas hasn’t ended for Tucson residents.
For 38 years, artist María Luisa Teña’s nativity scene – El Nacimiento – has kept the holiday alive at La Casa Cordova within the downtown Tucson Museum of Art, 140 N Main Ave.
Until she ended the 800-piece project in 2008, she added new pieces of clay and glass figurines every year to tell a story linked to Mexican traditions. Although no one is certain what became of her, many suspect she returned to Mexico for her family.
But her legacy remains displayed each year through Easter. It’s believed to be the longest running nativity scene in the Southwest. And it’s quite a masterpiece.
You don’t immediately see the spectacle when entering La Casa Cordova, a beautiful blue adobe house. There is a poster to the left that describes what El Nacimiento is. Beyond that, the wall on the left is a doorway where the immensity of the display hits you.
A street vendor sells oranges and apples. A buyer holds yellow bananas and wear a blue dress with a red scarf.
Flowers surround a Virgin Mary. An angel sits at the bottom of her dress, and St. Juan Diego kneels down holding his cloak.
Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus are the centerpiece. An angel in the background protects the newborn. An ox and a donkey surround the family. Mary and Joseph gaze down.
Tena started the project in 1978 to commemorate her mother, who died the year before. She began gathering clay pieces she bought in Guadalajara, and incorporated pieces from her mother’s collection.
John McNulty, who has been working at the Tucson Museum of Art for 36 years, was there when Teña approached the museum to house her project.
“She was a lovely woman,” McNulty said.
Teña made the moss and the river that runs through it. It was one of the last things she finished.
The scene represents the everyday life of a Mexican village. From ducks to lambs and clay pots to the Virgin Mary, Teña describes the culture of Mexican tradition.
The array is now behind glass to preserve the array of sculptures.
Every year, from 1978 until 2009, Teña slowly added to the project.
“Unless you had gone the 30 years to see the nativity scene, you couldn’t see the subtle changes that she did to it,” McNulty said.
Valeria Flores is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
High-resolution photos can be found here.