In case you do not have your plans set for the Holy Week vacation period here are some suggestions for this year. Because it is such a major holiday season in Mexico, many tourist destination have events during this week, and many have a section dedicated to Mexican handcrafts, with actual artisans and often with high-quality products (which usually sell out very fast) Here are three examples:
The Tianguis Domingo de Ramos (Palm Sunday Market) is a major event for the small city of Uruapan, in the heart of avocado-growing country, but still fairly unknown to tourists outside of Michoacan. While the market is worth going to on its own, there is much more, parades other events dedicated to the state’s indigenous peoples, a food market to die for and one of two of the state’s major handcrafts competitions. While there are events all week, for shopping, Palm Sunday is recommended as all the best stuff sells pretty much on the first day or so. The area does have a reputation for being unsafe as it is on the edge of the Tierra Caliente (where drug routes are) and the Michoacan highlands. However, I have been here and the town proper is quite safe, especially for this event. There are major hotels in the town center and most of the city is walkable.
The Festival de Cartonería (Paper Mache Fair) celebrates Mexico City’s tradition of making figures for celebrations and holidays such as piñatas, Judas effigies, skeletal figures and alebrijes. This annual event began only in 2012, but it has quickly become an important venue for a craft tradition that has not yet received its due. The event extends from Holy Thursday to Easter Sunday, but I recommend visiting on Saturday afternoon, when they “burn” (really explode) various effigies of Judas… either as the traditional devil figure or more creative images…often of politicians. It is one of still few events that can obtain permits for this activity.
Artisans all over the central valleys of Oaxaca will be out in force for the tourists with many different small exhibitions of local handcrafts. All of the towns with handcraft traditions such as San Bartolo Coyotepec, San Martin Tilcajete, Arrazola and others will have events during the week, especially on Easter weekend. A list of ferias and expos for the state can be seen here.
A newcomer to the Holy Week scene can be found in the small town of Zacualpan, Morelos. This is a sugar-cane growing area just east of the city of Cuautla. Handcraft-wise the town is best know for its paper mache work related to its annual Mojiganga event, where groups called cofradias compete with themed costumes with elaborate masks and other accesories which take the entire year to create. This is the first year for this particular event, which will resurrect the Burning of Judas in this area on Holy Saturday along with promoting the handcrafts of eastern Morelos state, including paper mache, ceramics, wax, and textiles including rebozos. Be sure to try the local aguardiente or sugar cane liquor, which holds its own against any rum. The burning of Judas will occur at 6pm on Holy Saturday at the town’s main square.
Have you ever seen an advertising campaign that recognizes artisans and their crafts? Actually, there are few celebrations around this topic. On March 19 is the Artisan’s Day in Mexico, date recognized by the National Fund for the Promotion of Fine Crats (FONART), since 2013.
The actual reality of artisans is complicated. According to Sedesol, in Mexico there are nearly 12 million artisans, of whom 55% live in poverty. In Jalisco, there are about 400 artisans and 13 representative fine craft techniques; some of them endangered.
Clearly, this is not the best-case scenario for artisans, who, through the teachings of their parents and grandparents, have created unique and soulful pieces from generation to generation. This people, who put their talent and effort into the creation of wonderful pieces, deserve a better quality of life.
Therefore, in Fundación con Causa Azul, we believe it is necessary to emphasize the importance of handcrafts and start to unleash a movement. The Artisan’s Day campaign aims to generate positive messages in favor of handcrafts, with the objective of increasing their appreciation and consumption in Jalisco. This year’s slogan: “With the hands and heart”, talks about the passion and dedication that is present throughout the whole crafts creation process.
Some of the main elements of this campaign are the realization of a music video with FANKO, a Mexican music band, as well as the creation of a micro documentary, which seek to demonstrate the richness and transcendence of the artisanal topic. In addition, we will be organizing different events, activities and workshops that will take place in academic spaces and which aim to raise awareness around this topic.
Mexican handcrafts (artesanía) may have started as trades to produce items of utilitarian importance or, sometimes, the creation of products to be consumed only by certain classes of people (e.g. silverware).
The Industrial Revolution took its toll on handcrafted items, wiping or nearly wiping them out worldwide. Where they do survive, it is because their making as taken on a cultural significance.
This is the case in Mexico as well. By the beginning of the 20th century, most handcraft traditions in the country were in a death spiral because of mass production. Such production is still a threat, with the added “bonus” of even cheaper products from abroad.
But artesanía still clings to life in Mexico and there are even bright spots in the tradition. There are two main factors: the recognition of these traditions to Mexican culture and the tourism industry. How this works is for another article.
Promotional video on the artesanía represented at the Museo de Arte Popular in Mexico City
This cultural aspect means that artisans can receive government, NGO and other support other business might not. These include state and federal handcraft competitions and grants, private efforts such as the Feria Maestros de Arte and sometimes spontaneous efforts from Mexican students.
Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Studies (generally referred to simply as Tec) is Mexico’s largest private high school and university system, with campuses in most of the country’s states, especially in the north and center. It has a privileged position with access to the latest technology, and students who can use it.
Animation on the history of the Vochol
All Mexican undergraduate students are required to complete an insane number of community service hours (480) in order to get their degree. How that happens is up to the student and the institution they attend. Since 2011, the Mexico City campus of Tec has a unique program that allows students to create online resources, particularly in Wikipedia called Wiki Learning Tec de Monterrey.
Students are permitted create any kind of content from the text, to photographs, to videos, animations and more. They are also permitted to choose topics, but since one of the coordinators of Wiki Learning is your humble blog author, Mexican handcrafts is a favored topics. Most Wikipedia articles on Mexican artesanía are either authored by us or have been translated from our work in English and Spanish.
Animations on alebrijes and the Monumental Alebrije Parade
But we are not limited to text. We have majors in video, sound engineering and animation, which has allowed us to create everything from short gifs to 15 minute mini-docs. Two examples of our best work relates to artesania. One is a video about alebrijes, done in collaboration with the Museo de Arte Popular and another on the Vochol… a VW Beetle decorated by 4 Huichol families using 2.7 million beads. This piece has traveled to countries in North America and Europe to raise awareness of Mexico’s handcraft tradition.
The beauty of these videos is that all are in Creative Commons Share Alike license, allowing anyone to use the videos for any purpose (with attribution), a requirement of Wikipedia. This not only allows students to use the work as part of their portfilios but individuals and organizations can also promote the video and its content. A must in today’s world, even though very little of traditional media has caught onto this.
In the past 20 years or so, Mexican cartonería has opened up to participation to artisans who are not from families who have no history associated with the craft.
While traditionalists may bemoan the “lack of connection” oft these nouveau-artisans to the past, it has become clear that they are responsible for expanding the reach of cartonería both geographically and artistically.
Gabriela Diaz is an interesting case, converting herself from student to international cultural embassador in paper and paste.
For most of her life, Diaz lived an ordinary life. She was born in Mexico City, living there and neighboring State of Mexico, but not from any artisan family. Her interest came only 3 years ago, living in Colonia Roma, Mexico City and discovering the Tlamaxcalli Workshop. She began taking classes with the intention of doing cartonería only has a hobby while she worked in marketing. However, in a short time she fell in love with both the craft as with maestros Alvaro and Jazmin, who she counts as dear friends, even leaving her job to create full-time.
In 2016, she and her husband decided to move from Mexico, where they lived for 10 years to his home of Rennes, France. Instead of trying to do marketing work, Diaz decided to continue her work as a cartonera, creating her own workshop called “La Poupée de Carton” (lit. cardboard doll). The move allows her to work her own schedule, one of the attractions of being a craftsperson, but still use her marketing background to promote her projects.
But perhaps it is fate that have given her the biggest boost. Last year Disney released the animated feature Coco, which features Mexican imagery, especially that related to Day of the Dead. While not about cartonería, this craft features prominently in the making of decorative items for altars such as colorful skulls and skeletal figures reflecting attitudes and actions of life.
Diaz saw the movie in France with French friends. She fell in love with the movie (has seen it three times so far) and her friends with Mexico’s Day of the Dead.
While Diaz makes and sells purely Mexican pieces, the making of Day of the Dead decorations and the tradition of incorporating local color means that she has the freedom to mix in French elements into her work. For example, she makes a kind of Brittany Catrina…. Mexico’s skeletal grand dame, but dressed in the traditional finery of the region of Rennes.
Her work has great appeal to those fascinated by Mexican culture, selling her pieces in both art and handcraft markets in France, as well a though the Internet and special orders. This work has also caught the attention of local and regional press despite her short time in the country.
Diaz admits that she will never get rich doing this work, but the satisfaction and appreciation she has found in France makes up for it.
I had hoped not to have to write this, but unfortunately this is not the case.
Due to health and financial issues (somewhat connected) I will have to put Creative Hands on hold for a while. Neither of the two kinds of issues are so serious… but the two together have been a time and energy drain. The good thing is that only one needs to be resolved in order to bring this blog back.
Which I really hope to do as soon as possible. If the last two years taught me anything, is that the world of Mexican artesanía is far wider than anyone might imagine and includes people from many different origins, social classes and life circumstances.
There are SO MANY that deserve attention and havent gotten it.
If you are interested in helping me get Creative Hands back online. By all means contactme at osamadre at hotmail dot com and lets talk!
Continuing blogging the book. Chapter 3 can be seen here. To go to the beginning, go here.
The most notable families and individuals in this field are multifaceted, they are artists as well as business people, who have international reputations. They are creators, teachers and promoters.
Traditional family workshops
Linares family today
Maestro Pedro Linares died in 1992, with several branches and generations of the family continuing to make cartonería products. Two workshops have the strongest claim to the Linares legacy and the prestige that comes with it, those of sons Felipe and Miguel.
Felipe’s workshop is located in the old family homestead in the Merced Balbuena neighborhood of Mexico City, in which he works with sons Leonardo and David, as well as David’s sons. This branch of the family preserves much of the old traditions, including the annual burning of multiple Judas figures on Holy Saturday, which is still covered by national and international media. It continues just about all of the old ways, from the apprenticeship system, to the division of work to what is made. Each person in the family cultivates their own clients and patrons, but members will pitch in with large projects and/or when deadlines loom.
The Miguel Linares workshop has been somewhat more innovative. Women have a somewhat more prominent role with daughters Blanca and Elsa achieving a certain amount of independent status. However, the more prominent member of the younger generation is Ricardo Linares, who has worked with the more recent trend of making monumental (two meters and higher) pieces, particularly pieces for the annual monumental alebrije parade of the Museo de Arte Popular.
The story of the Lemus family is probably the most representative of the history and current status of cartonería in Celaya today. The family today consists of several branches, which are relatively disconnected, despite their close proximity. What ties them together is their connection to Bernardino Lemus. This link to Bernardino has more to do with family ties than the artistic development of Lemus family products as Bernardino and later generations would marry into families with cartonería roots much older than theirs.
Bernardino Lemus Valencia grew up and worked in the Tierras Negras neighborhood of Celaya in the early 20th century. Family lore states that he was taught the craft by brother-in-law Gregorio Luna, with whom he ran a bakery in the 1920s. The first generations mostly or exclusively focused on the making of Lupita dolls, and were known for the fine painting of details such as the eyes and the intricate decoration that covers the chests of these dolls.
Bernardino established the family compound on Santo Degollado Street in the Tierras Negras neighborhood, where several generations of the family still live. The family worked here through most of the 20th century. During their heyday, areas of the compound would be stacked with dolls and at times other items, and all members of the family participated in production. Family roles here were traditional, with more basic tasks done by women and children, with the fine detail painting (which had the most effect on the value of the finished piece) generally reserved for the ranking adult male(s).
Bernardino first married Ildefonso Flores, and taught all of their children. However, the workshop passed onto one son, Sotero Lemus Flores. He preferred to call himself a “monero” (doll maker) and personally focused on the painting of Lupitas, but he did not work at this full time, working also in a local factory. His wife Remedio Muñiz Cruz was more responsible for the development and success of the family business at this time. She was an innovator, introducing new products such as Judas figures, masks, skeletons, etc. and raised the importance of working paper-and-paste rather than just painting pre-made dolls. The variety of products made the workshop more economically successful, able to sell more, including to toy wholesalers and well as at their stand in town. At this time the family also began competing in local and regional handcraft competitions, which made their products more widely known, even gaining clients in Japan. A frequently-told family story has some Japanese customers coming to the workshop to see the “factory” where the Lupita dolls were made, only to be amazed to see a dark workshop, a old battered table and a few tools.
This generation saw the height of Celaya cartonería, from the 1930s to the 1950s, before the introduction of cheaper plastic toys would undermine their market. However, it was not without changes. Commercial paints and brushes replaced those the family made themselves, and new molds could be made of plaster or cement along with fired clay.
Two of Sotero’s sons took up the trade, Martín Lemus Muñiz and Guillermo Lemus Muñiz. Over time, Martín became the head of the original family compound, with Guillermo moving to a new house one block west on Mariano Abasolo Street. Martín is long retired, mostly due to eyesight, but Guillermo is still active. This generation has lived through the decline of Celaya cartonería to where very little of this work is still done at either location. Like many family-trained cartoneros, Guillermo places a special quality on traditional, family-produced work, and is the most philosophical about it. He mourns the loss of the trade and its relationship with the culture of Tierras Negras. He has little respect for those who go into cartonería with the sole aim of earning money. Although most Celaya work, past and present, was based on serial production, Guillermo today prefers to focus on individual pieces, even though he still makes and uses molds. Like generations before him, his focus is on painting, stating he can spend a whole day painting and not get bored. He also states that he is very likely the only remaining artisan who, when mining clay to make new molds, still thanks the Earth in the old tradition.
None of either Martín’s or Guillermo’s children are dedicated to the craft, although Guillermo’s son Pablo will help his father from time to time. In the original family compound, Sotero’s grandson Miguel Angel Lemus Martinez struggles to keep the family tradition alive. Although only in his early thirties, as a child he did learn the craft as a child, working with his father. However in later years, he focused his attention on schooling and learning a completely different profession. About five years ago, having established a business and having some leisure time, he decided to try and revive the family tradition. It has not been easy, lack of time and lack of market means that the activity at best provide a small amount of side income. Miguel Angel has had artistic success, especially competing in local and regional handcraft competitions and various pieces are in the collection of the Centro de Artes in Celaya.
In the mid-20th century, there was an exodus of people from Celaya, mostly towards Mexico City. Among these migrants was Bernardino’s son Leobardo Lemus Flores, who went to the capital in the 1960s to work in construction. He had married Leonor Gervasio Mendoz, also from a Celaya cartonería family. By the 1970s, the family needed another source of income and, drawing upon their heritage, obtained molds from Celaya to start producing and selling Lupitas and other items. The business took off when Leonor began selling pieces in front of the National Museum of Folk Arts and Industries in downtown Mexico City, attracting the attention of the authorities of the museum.
Their children grew up working the craft in the 1970s, with son Sotero Lemus Gervasio obtaining some status Mexico City cartonería scene. He has benefitted by the fact that cartonería has become a growing cultural phenomena, adapting forms and techniques found in this city as well as taking art classes at the prestigious Academy of San Carlos. The basis of his work is still figures produced by molds, but he has experimented with adding other elements such as springs to give different movements. His most successful individual piece was a 12-meter tall figure of Don Quixote on horseback, which toured parts of Mexico, appearing at the National Palace and the Cervantine Festival in Guanajuato. Sotero still works with his mother and sister at the family workshop, now just outside the city proper, but neither he nor his sister have any children to take over after them.
Later in life, Bernardino married Alicia Mendez Juarez, who comes from a cartonería family with roots back to the 19th century. He worked with this family until his death in 2010 and the couple had several children. Today, this branch of the family is based in Tenerio del Santuario, just north of Celaya and is headed by Mendez.
Despite her connection to Lemus, Mendez has an independent reputation as a cartonero. Her career extends over fifty years, over twenty of which have been dedicated to teaching as well as making. Unlike the family still in Celaya proper, Mendez, her daughters (Alba Lemus Mendez, Rosa María Lemus Mendez and Alma Luisa Zarate Mendez) and their children have had more success with the craft and it remains the family’s main source of income.
They have kept the traditional apprenticeship system and most of the production techniques. What distinguishes this branch is design innovation and a much better sense of marketing. While they do a range of items, dolls remain their main product. They can and do make traditional Lupitas, but they have also developed other styles, including miniatures (still using molds!), the addition of fiber for realistic-looking hair in various styles and fabric clothing. These dolls can represent babies, fairies, mermaids and more. Marketing includes more aggressive participation in handcraft competitions and various fairs as far away as Guadalajara, which includes the wearing of the old traditional dress for women of Celaya, as it attraction attention. They are particularly mindful of the tourist industry in Mexico, which prompts much of their innovation efforts.
Those from old-school families such as the Linares and the Lemus, as well as many collectors of Mexican folk art insist that “true” cartonería can only come from artisans of families with generations of experience. While links to the past do seem to be important in this and other Mexican crafts, the majority of cartoneros today in Mexico are not from these kinds of families, but rather learned the techniques from a teacher, sometimes from apprenticeship but more often through formal or semi-formal classes. This shift has allowed the craft to expand geographically, both retaking areas in which it had died out as well as introducing it into new regions. This rise of “non-traditional” cartoneros has meant those who have gained recognition for a specialty, the reestablishment of cartonería in areas where it had been lost and the establishment of it in areas where it has not been a part of the culture. The following are just some examples of these phenomena.
Many cartoneros, especially those who use it as a primary source of income, teach classes and a number indicate that they earn more from this than the creation of their art. One reason for this is the increasing visibility and popularity of items such as monumental altars for Day of the Dead and alebrijes of all sizes. These classes have also had the effect of reinforcing Mexico City style cartonería as the dominant style in Mexico, with most classes taught by people either from the metropolitan area or having a strong artistic connection to the city.
Classes have spread the cartonería-making as far south as Chiapas and the Yucatan and as far north as Zacatecas and Sinaloa. In these new areas, the dominant technique is mostly freehand with frames for larger pieces, rather than the use of molds. The pieces created are still very similar to those which dominate in the Mexico City area: alebrijes and skeletal figures (especially Catrinas). As this phenomenon in only at most a couple of decades old, there is little to distinguish a piece made in Mexico City from those made by new cartoneros in other parts of the country.
Some cartoneros have managed to make a significant reputation with their teaching, (re)introducing the craft both in areas of Mexico and even abroad.
Osvaldo Ruelas Ramirez
Osvaldo Ruelas Ramirez was in a small town outside of Celaya, Guanajuato. He is the founder of what may be the newest and most dynamic cartonería production in the state of Guanajuato, not in Celaya, but in Salamanca, just west in the same Bajio region.
Unlike many Guanajuato cartoneros, his reputation does not stem from being from a cartonería family, but rather the quality of his work. He was trained as a cartonero by local artisan Rafael Hernandez, who gave a series of workshops in Salamanca and other parts of Guanajuato in the 1990s. Since then, Ruelos has been the axis of a growing collective of young people who work and socialize together, creating both traditional and novel designs. His base of operations is the Casa de Cultura (House of Culture) in Salamanca, where he teaches. He has a number of loyal students, all under the age of 30.
Ruelos’s own works tend to be fairly traditional, as he believes that the importance of cartonería stems from its role in Mexican culture and the human psyche. Nevertheless, he both respects and encourages the experimentation of his young students who have been ambitious. These include new takes on traditional designs, such as shocking pink Judases and non-traditional figures. These students tend to dominate the annual Celaya cartonería contest’s “free design” categories. They also take cues from other handcrafts. José Eleazar, specializes in the making of figures and scenes which can only be fully appreciated only when they are set in motion. This motion is provided with simple cranks, belts, levers, etc. inspired by the area’s wood toy tradition. Some of his students have won national awards such as Mexico’s National Grand Prize of Folk Art.
Oscar Becerra Mora
Becerra is a self-taught cartonero who mostly specializes in the making of alebrijes and small scenes with cartonería figures in boxes. However, most of his professional time is dedicated to teaching the craft to others, including internationally.
Born and raised in the northern part of Mexico City, Becerra is now based in the far south, in the municipality of Tlalpan, near where city ends and forest begins where he lives with his wife and small child. He began working with cartonería as a hobby while in college in 2000, learning some basics from a family member. He developed most of his techniques himself, by studying pieces made by others, including the Linares family, who he admires, and by asking questions of fellow artisans. Despite graduating college with a degree in anthropology, he has since become a full-time artisan.
Much of his time is spent teaching classes with the Museo de Arte Popular in the center of Mexico City, where he teaches mostly children and other artisans. Since 2013, he has expanded his teaching to the international level, despite very limited English. His first experience was with Denver Art Museum that year, where he taught classes. He was invited back in 2014, not to teach a class but also commissioned to make a monumental alebrije, one of the first to be exhibited in the United States, which was exhibited at the museum, the Mexican Cultural Center and at the Denver International Airport.
This was followed shortly after by an invitation to demonstrate and teach alebrije making in Poland by the Polish embassy in Mexico. Becerra spent several weeks at the Ethnographic Museum in Warsaw teaching children learning Spanish and a number of adults as well. These classes have led to a group of Polish women now dedicated to the making of alebrijes in that country.
Hector Fernandez Hernandez
Hector Fernandez Hernandez was born in the state of Oaxaca and eventually moved to Mexico City to study art at the prestigious La Esmeralda School. He had begun to work with cartonería as a teen, in conjunction with work with educational theater, making puppets. He has continued to work in this endeavor among others since starting his career over 45 years ago, living in various locations such as Culiacán, Sinaloa and Morelia, Michoacán and with institutions such as the Secretariat of Fine Arts and the National Autonomous University of Mexico.
Thirty years ago, he moved to Villahermosa, Tabasco to work for the state government there as an art promoter, teaching drawing, other visual arts, with cartonería initially reserved for projects related to holidays such as Day of the Dead and Christmas. He still continues to do this, with projects such as a Christmas exhibit made depicting the various indigenous ethnicities of Mexico.
His work has evolved to mostly working with youth and while other artistic endeavors have not been completely abandoned, cartonería has become a principal activity, as an economical means to introduce, or sometimes reintroduce, children and teens to artistic expression.
Cartonería is not a traditional handcraft of this southeastern Mexican state, so Fernandez is essentially establishing it at least in the city of Villahermosa. Much of his students’ work is classic figures from the Mexico City tradition, skeletal figures, skulls and alebrijes, along with puppets and masks. Fernandez estimates that he has taught over 1,500 students the technique, with about 600 people he knows of that work the technique either full or part time.
Fábrica de Artes y Oficios (Arts and Trades Factory)
While there is no single outstanding teacher associated with the institution, it is hard to overstate the importance of the Fábrica de Artes y Oficios (lit. Arts and Trades Factory) to the development of cartonería in the past twenty years in Mexico City.
Its purpose is to teach trades, handcrafts and arts to some of the poorest residents in Mexico City, to provide skills to start small businesses and act as a cultural center. The first FARO was established in the far east of the city. Its success has since lead to three other FARO centers in other parts of the city.
Work with cartonería started when FARO was founded in 2000, but the first activities were projects rather than formal classes, as it was not considered part of its main activities. The popularity of alebrijes eventually changed this. In 2005, the first work with monumental-size pieces changed the institution’s perception of the craft. FARO sponsored a concert by the popular ska band Panteón Rococó. An idea emerged for FARO to make a monumental sized tzompantli (Aztec rack for enemy skulls) for the main stage, with meters-tall skulls and the letters “FARO” filling the stage. The success of this event showed the possibilities for commercial and artistic use of the medium.
Soon after, FARO students and others participated using the medium in events sponsored by civic associations and businesses, primarily in the making of monumental pieces. One in particular was sponsored by Volkswagen, for its 100th anniversary, for which FARO made a “Vocho-trajinera” which roughly translates to “boat-Beetle,” combining an image of the Volkswagon Beetle with that of the traditional flat-bottomed boats used on the canals of Xochimilco in the south of the city. This piece won first place. These events launched the making of monumental pieces, much larger than anything made before.
Cartonería is one of the classes most in demand at FARO, and space fills quickly with 30 or 40 students each trimester at the original campus alone. Over 1,600 students have taken classes at the institution since they were offered, which does not include those who have participated in projects at a more informal level. Numerous alumni have gone on to create businesses, become teachers and even win awards for their work.
The classes attract three types of students: those who do it as a hobby, those interested in it as an artistic medium and those looking to earn some money. Most students come to the classes with little or no idea how cartonería is made or its history. Those who do know something generally come from a family or community where cartonería is still important, but may have declined. Most of FARO’s students have discovered the craft through the Day of the Dead and Alebrije Parade events. FARO’s classes have been the template for other institutional classes such as those offered by the Museo de Arte Popular.One significant difference is that FARO’s classes focus on festival and event use of cartonería, rather than the making of pieces for collectorsof cartonería, rather than the making of pieces for collectors.
Cartoneros preserving and expanding the craft
Hermes Arroyo Guerrero
Hermes Arroyo is an all-around jack of all trades artisan. Able to work with wood, plaster, fabric, gold leaf, ceramic and other materials aside from cartonería. He began his career apprenticing as a child with a friend’s father, named Genero Almanza. Almanza specialized in the making, reparation and restoration of religious images, other items for religious celebrations and church interiors. In San Miguel Allende, Guanajuato, such artisans are called santeros after the word for “saints.” However, Maestro Almanza did not make the giant puppets called mojigangas that have made Arroyo a major part of preserving local culture.
Born in 1950, Arroyo grew up in San Miguel, mostly before it became one of Mexico’s main centers for U.S. expats living in Mexico. Arroyo recalls seeing mojigangas as a child in pre-Christmas processions, made by a cartonero named Don Pitos. Arroyo’s development as an artisan was primarily with Maestro Almanza, but it also include fine arts classes in San Miguel and Monterrey. By the age of seventeen, Arroyo was accepted into the santeros’ guild and was able to take on his own commissions, which included becoming the caretaker of several local churches. He also began teaching handcrafts, especially at the El Charco del Ingenio Botanical Gardens, working with environmentally-friendly materials and the special needs school in the nearby town of Comonfort.
His work with mojigangas began in the early 1990s, when a local French expat, who was also a puppeteer, asked Hermes to make mojigangas for a local festival in the neighborhood of El Valle de Maiz. The skeleton and devil figures he made were very successful, despite being weighing about fifty kilos. Since then, Arroyo has worked to make the figure lighter, now rarely surpassing twenty kilos. He has also replaced the normal hemp shoulder straps for those made from inner tube, which are not only more comfortable, but make the puppet bounce more when danced.
Although most of his paid work relates to mojigangas, he has not abandoned work with religious images, etc. In fact, he divides his work into “business” (using the English word) and cultural, with much of the business income supporting the rest. He never married or had children but he still works with members of the family in his parents’ home on the upper section of San Francisco Street in the historic center of the city, which is filled with mojigangas to greet visitors.
Arroyo’s work has been exhibited and bought for collections in various parts of Mexico and the United States. One purpose of the exhibitions is the preservation of San Miguel’s uses for mojigangas.
His work in this now bicultural city has attracted a number of others into the making and preservation of mojigangas. One of these is American Cindi Olsman, who has a doctorate in psychology but fell in love with mojigangas when she saw them in San Miguel and meeting Hermes in his small workshop in the chapel. Sometime later she moved into her own studio in San Miguel and has been friends and colleagues with Hermes ever since. She continues to make mojigangas after moving back to the US and is based in Philadelphia.
Alfonso Morales Vazquez
Just to the south of Mexico City, the small state of Morelos is not one of Mexico’s handcraft powerhouses, which much of what is made being crude, with the exception of sculpted wax for elaborate candles. Cartonería has a similar history here as in Mexico City and Guanajuato. What distinguishes the craft here is that it is still strongly tied to the festival calendar (piñatas, Judases, etc) and the use of reed frames is very common, as the plants grow in the state’s still-abundant wetlands. In the past decade or so, alebrije-making has become popular, especially among younger craftsmen due to influence from Mexico City. This influence has made the technique more popular with both professionals and hobbyists and there is now a statewide competition for cartonería.
Alfonso Morales Vazquez is from a small town called Tlatenchi, just outside the city of Jojutla, Morelos. Morales began his handcrafts career as a potter, specializing mostly in making figures of farm workers and animals. In 2000, he became exposed to cartonería techniques through his son, who was learning in school. Seeing similarities with his clay work, Morales learned through experimentation, especially through making iguanas and other reptiles.
By mid-decade he had his first competition with the technique in his home state. However, since cartonería was not commonly included in such events, his pieces went into a miscellaneous category, competing with pieces of wood, metal, etc. The work received positive attention, so Morales continued to develop his work, mostly by researching on the Internet, finding the work of Susana Buyo and then of Pedro Linares.
By 2007, his work began to sell, especially small skeletal figures and toys, which reminded older people of similar items from their childhoods. In this same year, Morales competed in the inaugural version of the Monumental Alebrije Parade of the Museo de Arte Popular in Mexico City, despite his distance from the capital. While they did not win, the exposure was instrumental in establishing a reputation outside of the state of Morelos. This led to an invitation to Monterrey to represent his state in cartonería, and since then, his work has been profiled in various local and Mexico City newspapers.
Unlike many artisans new to the technique, Morales has established a family workshop called Taller de Cartonería Morales, which works in both the creation of mostly traditional objects and teaching. All of his children and a number of grandchildren work here on a full-time basis. This workshop was originally dedicated to clay, but has since completely changed to paper. However, this does not mean that he is against those who work in different setting or those who innovation in designs or materials, as he believes the value of the craft lies in the talent of the craftsman. Morales himself also promotes the work of cartoneros from his home municipality.
His work has made cartonería more popular in the Jojutla area, finding many people interested in the craft, especially the making of Catrinas, iguanas, Judases and alebrijes. Morales has brought back the tradition of the burning of Judas, personally making monumental figures for the occasion worth between 2,000 and 7,000 pesos. Beginning in 2012, these figures reach over five meters tall, with a wicker frame. However, he insists on only devil-like Judases instead of ones patterned after political or popular culture themes.
Sales of his pieces have expanded to various parts of Morelos, especially at festivals and into the gift shop of the Museo de Arte Popular. Morales and family still regularly participate in the Night of the Alebrijes event. Some clients have found them in Tlatenchi. His students have gone on to compete in the Night of the Alebrijes event and to teach others.
Rodolfo Villena Hernandez
Villena is by far the best-known cartonero in the state of Puebla, mostly through his work creating monumental altars with cartonería figures. He was raised in the state capital of Puebla, but by the early 1990s was living in Mexico City involved in theater production.
In 1990, he took at class in cartonería with Susana Buyo and although he was interested in skeletal figure and the like rather than alebrjies, she worked him. It was more of a hobby at first, even though his first monumental altar, built in his garage in the Coyoacan district of Mexico City received much positive attention from friends and neighbors. By 1996, he became involved full time in the craft as he moved into making altars to participate in community competitions for altars, especially for Day of the Dead. He recalls seeing a line for the first time of people waiting to see his creation in the main plaza of Coyoacan, amazed that it was so popular.
For personal reasons, he moved back to his home state by the end of the decade, with the reputation from Mexico City competitions opening doors to finding work in the making of monumental altars. Here, he switched from altars for competitions to those on commission, mostly from local and state government agency. By far his busiest season is the months and weeks up to Day of the Dead, but he is regularly commissioned to make altars for Holy Week, Corpus Christi and other holidays as well as nativity scenes. Like the Linares’, Villena’s skeletal figures for these altar are representations of people and activities in life, as well as homages to historical and popular figures, often created with a sense of irony.
Most of his work is related to Puebla, exhibited there and/or representing the state in other parts of Mexico and abroad. His most regular exhibitions are in the city of Puebla and his mother’s hometown of Atlixco in venues such as convention centers, main squares and museums. Outside of Puebla, his work has been exhibited at the Museo de Arte Popular in Mexico City (which named him a “grand master”), multiple times at the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago and other locations. In 2015, Villena was commissioned to make a major work for the Mexican embassy in London, invited to spend a couple of weeks to not only promote his work but also represent the state of Puebla.
Like the Linares family, his cultural and artistic success has not translated into much economic success. Villena’s workshop is based in a humble structure which he rents cheaply from a neighbor, located in an old industrial corridor on the old highway leading out of the city of Puebla to the city of Tlaxcala. The only thing that distinguishes the workshop on the outside is his name on the door. Like other cartoneros, his two-room workshop is filled with materials, pieces in various stations of completions and numerous awards and other recognitions on the walls. However, it is a lot better organized than most artisans.
Prior to Villena’s work in Puebla, the state had (and still has) some cartoneros, primarily toymakers with roots in Celaya, but cartonería was not a major, visible aspect of the state’s culture. Villena has established the monumental altars as a tradition in central Puebla, but it has not spread beyond that, because most municipalities are poor and cannot afford his services. He regularly teaches students in Puebla, but he remains the only cartonero who is dedicated full-time to the making of altars, with no apprentices or heirs-apparent to his work. This may be because of the way he works, alone with no helpers, unlike those who work on monumental projects in the Mexico City area. It remains to be seen if the tradition that Villena founded can develop over the next decade or so into something that can survive his retirement.
Pepe el Monero
Pepe el Monero (real name José Octavio Azcona y Juárez) is Oaxaca’s best known maker of monas de calenda or mojigangas. He does not come from an artisan family, but began his career over 30 years ago, stating poetically that he began when the tree outside his shop was only a twig. He is Oaxaca’s best known cartonero. In the city, many may not know his name but many do know where his shop is, on Héroes de Chapultepec, near the ADO bus station. It is a very unassuming place, just a typical shop, until the metal security curtain is opened to see a wide variety of figures in various states of completion staring back. Even more have seen his work, as he is the maker of the monas de calenda that appear each year in the Guelaguetza, the state’s main showcase of the various cultures of Oaxaca.
He began making the figures because he wanted to borrow a figure but was denied. Frustrated, he learned to make them and has ever since make them for sale, rent and even to lend (though he admits lent figures can be hard to get back). Azcona has made figures from the traditional generic man and woman to caricatures of Mexican presidents, to homages to popular artists (such as La India Maria) and modern cartoon figures such as El Chavo el Ocho. He states he does not like to do a lot of the modern popular characters but does them because he needs to make a living. Not all cartonería figures are human, despite the name “mona” which means doll. Azcona has make images of colorful spheres and even a VW Beetle with its doors open. These figures tend to be smaller and placed on sticks, rather than worn, covering a dancer.
Despite his relative obscurity, his work can be found in the permanent collections of the Regional Museum of Oaxaca and the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.
Cartoneros extending the craft geographically and culturally
Emilio Sosa Medina
The work of Emilio Sosa Medina is quite distinct in a number of ways from other Mexican cartoneros. First of all, he is not from an area with a cartonería tradition, but rather from the very rural town of Yobain, Yucatán, Mexico, born there in 1955. He grew up in a very poor family with now artistic background, and finishing only the third grade.
In 1974, he had the opportunity to move to Isla Mujeres, finding work through a woman he met. Here he worked in the tourism industry in various jobs. In 1986, he took a class at the local community center in the craft being taught by a teacher from Mexico City. Interestingly. Sosa insists that he learned only to work with newspaper and paste from the teacher, who apparently did not even know how to painted the dried pieces.
Sosa’s specialities are masks, mostly with Mayan imagery, and imaginary animals. He does use the term alebrijes, but denies that his pieces have any influence from the Mexico City tradition, insisting that his work is purely from his dream, fantasies and imagination. Unlike other Mexican cartoneros, imaginary animals also include sea monsters, lizards and dragons similar to those made by paper maché artists in the United States.
Sosa calls his word paper maché and not cartonería as he uses pure newspaper, about 150 kilos per year.(eshapiro) His supply comes from papers he buys from his own use, those given to him by neighbors, and when that is not enough, buying old newspapers. He creates between thirty and forty pieces a year from those the size of a hand to those two meters long. These pieces can take from weeks to up to three years to make. Despite the use of newspaper, his pieces are extremely strong, generally with more than twenty layers of newspaper. On YouTube, the artisan has a promotional video where he takes a small mask and proceeds to step on it, putting his entire weight on it. Large figures use up to forty kilos of paper, and may even be completely solid paper, which he describes as “wood from paper.” Wire is an essential part of his creations, to form the basic body shape and/or to create the base for details, such as a beard on a mask. Dried pieces are painted with acrylic paint and coated with a polymer resin.
Sosa states the the main evolution of his pieces is that they have become much smoother, which is exceptional and allows for very fine painting. With a high gloss, the pieces look more like ceramics than paper maché.
Sosa began selling his work shortly after taking the class, at his artesania store. Today he sells his work exclusively through this shop called the Artesanias Glenssy, in dollars, as his clientele is American visitors to the island, especially to those who come each year and buy a new piece from him. He is fluent in English. Prices range from $50 to $13,000, although as of this writing the $13,000 piece, a solid paper dragon two meters long, has not yet sold. Sosa rarely takes special orders as he prefers to work in his own way, at his own pace.
Sosa’s is an isolated artisan/artist. He is the only artisan who works with paper full time. There are a few who make piñatas, but only seasonally. He is not aware of any other cartonería/paper maché artisans in the Yucatan region, and is only aware of the work of the Linares family in Mexico City through the Internet, whose work he calls “artisanal” and sees his work as more finely done.
Maria Magdalena Jimenez Jimenez
Maria Magdalena Jimenez Jimenez is a local historian (called crónista) in the Zoque community of Chiapas. Cartonería has not been a part of the state’s culture. She took classes with a teacher who came to the state to teach and fell in love with the craft. She specializes in the making of figures from the Zoque’s history and lore, with the aim of promoting the community’s culture. The pieces are about a meter or so high and take about a month to make. They are used in local religious festivals and have been featured on TVAzteca in Chiapas.
Unfortunately, maestra Jimenez no longer seems to be an active cartonera, with no mention of her work in local traditional or social media since the early 2010s.
Miguel Alejandro Gonzalez Vacio
Despite the strong influence that Mexico City has over modern cartoneria, there is some evidence that regional variations are or will be developing. Some of these are subtle, such as the work of Zacatecas artisan Miguel Alejandro Gonzalez Vacio. He is a newcomer to the field, deciding in his mid-thirties to learn the craft. He began along with a number of others from the Zacatecas city area in the mid-2000s when two teachers came to the area. Previously, there had been no cartoneria tradition, except for poorly-made Judas figures which here are dragged behind horses when they are set up. His pieces are mostly limited to the making of skeletal figures, particularly Catrinas. What sets them apart from others is the coloring and decorations. Being from a semi-arid area, he does not connect with bright colors and loud floral designs, instead opting for more somber colors and simpler lines.
Casa de Artesanias, Aguascalientes
In nearby Aguascalientes, the story is similiar, with the main cartonería product being Judas figures (however, not dragged behind horses). There are about a half dozen cartoneros who make these, as well as the alebrijes and Catrinas, showing influence from Mexico City. One very recent development is experimentation with monumental figures, prompted by the popularity of the Mexico City Monumental Alebrije Parade and Aguascalientes’ native Festival de las Calaveras event at the end of October. While monumental pieces have been made for this event, only in the mid 2010’s have there been entries made with cartonería. These have been entirely limited to skeletal figures, but local images such as the “chicahual” have been represented. While the skeletal figures have not been as sophisticated as those in Mexico City, several craftspeople have managed to create fairly realistic clothing.
The A-Trejo workshop
The workshop consists of several artisans, Mauricio Vargas, Oscar Rolón, Elisa Alvarez, along with the namesake, Alberto Trejo, who makes most of the pieces. The workshop is in the west coast tourist city of Puerto Vallarta, although none of the members if from here. The group learned the craft in various ways. For example, Mauricio Vargas learned from the uncle of a university classmate in the 1990s. While he lived in León, Guanajuato, there was an incident at a book fair when puppets needed to put on a show had not arrived from Mexico City. It was then this uncle, Alberto Serrato Manteca, or “Nacho,” decided to make a new set of puppets in cartonería, and Vargas learned by helping out. Since then, he has improved his techniques on his own, at first as a hobby. Sometime later he met Alberto Trejo, to whom he taught what he knew.
In 2005, they became more involved in the craft, making pieces for family and friends and eventually they considered the idea of selling their work. This was set in motion in 2008. Eventually others joined in the enterprise.
The workshop is based in Vargas’s home where the members. The base of their work is paper and paste, with or without wire frames. Decoration can include the common acrylics or common colorings, such as pastels, pencils, ink and watercolors. Decorative items such as glass marbles for eyes may be used.
Their work is inspired by the cartonería of central Mexico along with the work of artists such as Sergio Bustamante, Carlos Albert, Javier Marin, Jorge Marin and Remedios Varo. Another important influence is the traditional pottery of the state of Jalisco, where Puerto Vallarta is located. The styles of the work vary, but they are mostly recognizable animal or human figures. Rarely are bright colors combined. It is more common to see more subdued tones and shades showing the different painting/coloring processes used. They even make pieces with no paint or coloring at all; the natural newspaper print provides a black-and-white color scheme.
The vast majority of their clients are foreign tourists and residents, principally from the U.S. and Canada, selling in local galleries and a farmer’s market. Like Emilio Sosa in the Yucatan, this has an effect on the development of their work, looking to catch the attention of their target market.
So far, Vargas and Trejo have only trained the other members of the group. They have interest in classes for children and believe the craft to be viable in Puerto Vallarta. That said, they have already had issues with people copying their work, and even successfully sued a gallery for selling (bad) imitations of thier work
Today, the making of cartonería items is strongly associated with certain celebrations, with most items made seasonally depending on the holiday that is approaching.
The best known cultural object both in Mexico and abroad is the piñata. Its importance in the country is underlined by the appearance of these in works done by many Mexican artists, including Diego Rivera, who painted a mural dedicated to it in 1953. They have also appeared in numerous Mexican movies and television shows and even some American ones. Despite being strongly associated with Mexico, their origin is a bit complicated. The Aztecs did have a tradition of breaking an old pot in covered in feathers to celebrate the birthday of the god Huitzilopochtli in December. However, the modern version has its origins in China, where the breaking of a decorated pot with treats was associated with the New Year. This idea migrated to Europe, where it was associated with Lent. The Spanish introduced this version of the piñata, specifically at the monastery in Acolman just north of Mexico City, but reinterpreted it in order to replace the older Huitzilopochtli tradition. The breaking of the piñata was moved to December, and the piñata redesigned to be used as an evangelization tool. Seven points added to the decorated pot to symbolize the Seven Deadly Sins and the treats inside, released when the pot was broken, then symbolized the reward for overcoming sin.
While there are still piñatas made in Mexico using ceramic pots as a base, the vast majority of those sold today are made completely with paper and paste, but the resulting figure is not as hard as other cartonería items as it needs to be broken relatively easily. The most traditional piñatas are still those made for the Christmas season, especially for the weeks prior when families participate in “posadas,” reenactments of the search of Joseph and Mary for a place to stay before the birth of Jesus. Come December, traditional markets all over the country fill with these. They are round in shape but the number of points varies from five to nine, with nine now being the most common. The colors of these piñatas comes from the use of crepe paper, which is cut and glued to both the sphere and the points. The end of the points often have tassels, which can be of fine strips of crepe paper or other materials. The most traditional treats include jicama, guava fruit, pieces of sugar cane, peanuts and other fruits of the season, but store-bought candy is now more common.
Their popularity with children is such that piñatas have become staples of birthday parties as well. However, these piñatas are not of the traditional star shape, but rather take on a wide variety of motifs including, princesses, sports figures, cartoon characters (almost always made without permission of the copyright owner), animals and much more. These are most often achieved with the use of molds, with the dried figures painted in bright colors. Whether a traditional Christmas piñata or not, the process of breaking one is the same. The piñata is suspended in the air in such a way that someone on the ground can move it around, making it harder to hit. A child is blindfolded, spun then sent to hit the pinata, receiving verbal help from spectators to locate it. The time the child has to break it is determined by singing a song for this purpose. When the song ends, so does the turn.
Unlike other traditional cartonería products, piñatas have not generally transformed into artistic pieces or collectors’ items. They are still made to be broken. However, one exception to this is an annual piñata making competition held by the Folk Art Museum in Mexico City. Piñata themes generally do not run into political or social commentary, but in 2015, Tampico artisan Dalton Javier Avalos Ramirez created a piñata of Donald Trump to sell to fellow Mexicans, after the Trump’s remarks about Mexican immigration. In this case, it was not for filling with candy, but rather for the simple pleasure of hitting it.
Most piñatas are made by families and small businesses that specialize in making and selling them. Piñata making can be found all over Mexico, not limited to certain regions most other forms are. In the State of Mexico, two towns are particularly noted for this activity, Temascalcingo, where many are still made with ceramic pots, and San Agustín Acolman, where they originated. Acolman holds a fair dedicated to piñatas for a week or so before Christmas. Noted piñata makers from here include Romana Zacarías Camacho, who can make up to thirty in one day, and a younger member of the same family, María de Lourdes Ortiz Zacarias.
The piñata has been familiar to Americans as a symbol of Mexico especially since a scene appeared in Walt Disney’s The Three Caballeros featuring one. Its popularity as a crossover item in the United States is traced to only about the 1980s, particularly in the states bordering Mexico. Because of this crossover, with piñatas now made in northern Mexico in the forms of Santa Claus, Christmas trees, Easter eggs, large wedding cakes and more which target the U.S. market, generally for supermarkets, stationery stores and speciality boutiques. Their popularity in Latino households is nostalgia, whereas for others their popularity has been fueled by piñatas’ appearances in popular media, such as comics and children’s shows, making them common at birthday parties. This exportation of piñatas has not been without problems, however. There have been cases of piñatas being used to smuggle drugs, copyright issues of piñatas in the forms of images from popular culture and even finding nude images from the paper used to made the piñatas. Even within Mexico, which is more lax about enforcing copyright laws, piñata makers for the domestic market have lost inventory to raids, but continue to make images of cartoon characters and the like because the demand for them is so high.
The making of Judas Iscariot figures may have been one of the first uses of cartonería in Mexico. These figures and their destruction appear to be an amalgamation of two southern European traditions. Their first is the burning of figure for the Fallas de Valencia, when carpenters made figures of wood for the feast of Saint Joseph on March 19th. Usually these were devils, but they could also be humorous and/or related to current events. The burning of Judas effigies on Holy Saturday can be found in various parts of southern Europe, but in most cases, the effigy is crudely made and truly is destroyed by flames. How it was introduced to Mexico is debated. One story states that it was introduced by Franciscan monks for evangelization purposes. The other asserts that it rose in popularity as a response to the Mexican Inquisition, with cartonería dolls, representing heretics, given to children.
A Judas effigy in the shape of the devil made with cartonería emerged, which represents Judas after the betrayal as a symbol of evil. Over time, these figures became more elaborate and also used as a form of social and political protest. In past, the Judases would be authority figures, which at times invited restrictions and prohibitions. Today, political figures are still a target, but public ire can also extend to celebrities and sports figures. As recently as 20th century, there are stories of the secret police of then president Adolfo Ruiz Cortines checking workshops to make sure no effigies of the president were being made. In an odd twist, sometimes the person the effigy is representing is being honored with the burning. This has happened with well-loved figures such as comic actor Cantinflas and lucha libre wrestler El Santo. It is interesting to note that Judas effigies to be burned never represent women.
Judas figures are usually large, from about fifteen centimeters to three or four meters tall, necessitating the use of a wicker or wire frame to support the cartonería “skin.” This skin is painted often elaborately, but very rarely are other decorative materials used.
Until the mid-20th century, the destruction of Judas Iscariot in effigy was an extremely popular, with thousands made in many parts of Mexico for Holy Saturday, especially in Mexico City, in no small part due the simple burning of the figure giving way to its being torn to pieces with the use of strategically placed firecrackers. In some areas, their popularity was even further enhanced with the addition of coins or candy inside, so that when they exploded, the public was showered with the gifts as a reward for destroying evil. In the San Antonio neighborhood of Celaya, this was taken another step further with sausages from local butchers’ shops.
Judas figures experienced a sudden drop in popularly when a warehouse in La Merced, Mexico City caught fire and exploded in a heavily populated area, causing a number of deaths and injuries. It is still debated exactly what was in that warehouse, fireworks or stronger military explosives, but the result was the ban on the making and sale of almost all fireworks in the capital. The tradition nearly died out in the latter 20th century and many cartoneros left the business as the Judas represented a major part of their income. Outside of Mexico City, their popularity also declined with the more-gradual introduction of fireworks restrictions. Such event can still be found in parts of Mexico City, its suburbs, Guanajuato, Puebla, Zacatecas, Hidalgo, Morelos and the State of Mexico, but most Judases today are burned as community events, which obtain special permission from authorities. In some neighborhoods in Celaya, Judas figures are again simply burned after being doused in gasoline, in order to avoid the fireworks.
Before the ebb in Judas figures, artisan Pedro Linares, and to a lesser extent,Carmen Caballero Sevilla laid the groundwork to assure that Judases would not entirely disappear. Linares had begun experimenting with new shapes for Judases, which attracted the attention of the city’s artist and intellectual community, who began buying his work as cultural and artistic pieces. These would eventually evolve into a new form called alebrijes. Diego Rivera found Caballero’s work in the Abelardo Rodriguez market and had her work for him making her heavily simplified Judas figures, which can still be seen today in the Rivera/Kahlo House and Studio Museum in Mexico City’s San Angel neighborhood.
Alebrijes are are an innovation in Mexican cartonería. As mentioned above, they evolved from Judas figures and can be attributed to the work of one man, Pedro Linares (1906-1992). Unlike most other cartonería products, alebrijes are not associated with festivals or celebrations and since their inception have been collectors’ items. Their current place in Mexican culture is due to their acceptance as a kind of folk art by the artist and intellectual communities of Mexico City in the mid 20th century.
Pedro Linares began as a part time cartonero, making many of the same pieces that his father and grandfather did, in the same family homestead, today just east of Mexico City’s historic center. The traditional story of their origin is that Pedro dreamt or hallucinated them during a fever and upon his recovery sought to recreate what he saw. However, Susan N. Masuoka’s book, En Calavera: The Papier-Mache Art of the Linares Family, makes a strong case for their gradual development from Judas figures in the 1950s, mostly likely after the fireworks ban dropped the bottom out of the Judas market in the city. Early Judas figures bear a strong resemblance to Judases and many alebrijes still have animal heads and wings that can be found on Judas figures.
Later in life, Pedro also admitted that the creatures had evolved. The inspirations for this evolution are unclear as well. They have been compared to naguals, fantastic creatures with a pre Hispanic origin, but there is also some evidence that Linares may have been influenced by his contact with the Academy of San Carlos (then Mexico’s national art school), where he did festival decorations in technique, design or both.
The innovative Judas or early alebrijes caught the attention of Mexico City’s artist and intellectual community, leading to patronage for the Linares family. The unlikely connection allowed this poor family to continue with cartonería when many others had to find other work with the demise of Judases. Not only that, the popularity of the alebrijes, along with the La Catrina and skeletal figures mentioned earlier meant that the family could make a living from the activity year round and even specialize in it.
By the 1970s, the Linares alebrijes had brought international attention to Pedro and the family. Third generation alebrije maker Leonardo Linares states that the creatures have been touted as being good luck or scaring bad dreams, but he says that people probably have said this to sell more alebrijes. To him, they are purely decorative.
Alebrijes are classified as a handcraft or folk art, which unfortunately for the Linares, means that their creations do not have the same intellectual property rights as art. Pedro Linares created the name to refer to his “ugly” brightly colored creatures of various real and unreal animal parts in cartonería. His grandson Leonardo Linares obtained a court order stating that the name belongs to the family, and he would rather that any colorful monsters made by others not be called alebrijes. However, he has had very little success in enforcing the court order. Not only is “alebrije” the common name for these figures, no matter who made them, it has since become used to refer to a series of small wood carvings made in Oaxaca. These figures are generally recognizable creatures, painted in bright colors with intricate designs. They are more recognized as “alebrijes” by many outside of Mexico as they have been popularized by tourists visiting Oaxaca.
Cartonería alebrijes can be considered Mexico City’s main, if not only, indigenous handcraft, and its popularity among Mexican cartoneros continues to grow. It has spread in many parts of central Mexico, and where cartonería is spreading and/or growing in popularity, alebrijes are at the forefront. This is in spite of the fact that alebrijes are labor-intensive, done entirely freehand with no molds. Each alebrije is unique and commands higher prices. Each begins with a wire frame, sometimes with unicel or crumpled newspaper to form the head and/or body. Layers of paper cover this, and fine details are made by folding and crumpling newspaper or heavier paper such as craft. The most traditional alebrijes consist only of cartonería and paint although other elements have been added, especially by younger generations of cartoneros.
Skeletal figures for Day of the Dead
Today, the making of items related to Day of the Dead is the largest segment of most cartoneros’ business, making the weeks leading up to November 2 the busiest on their calendar.
Day of the Dead in Mexico is an annual commemoration for those who have died. It has pre-Hispanic roots, when it was believed that once a year, the dead could return to be with family. After the Spanish conquest of Mexico, this commemoration was grafted onto All Soul’s and All Saint’s Day. Day of the Dead proper is November 2, but in many communities, observances can extend from October 31 to November 2 and in a few places to November 3. This commemoration is not morbid, but a mixture of respect for one’s own lost loved ones and gentle mockery of death itself.
Commemorations revolve around an temporary altar which is set up specifically for this purpose. How this altar is arranged and decorated vary from region to region, with a number of communities having notable local traditions. However, most of the decorations involved marigolds and seasonal fruits, certain foods related to the holiday such as pan de muerto (bread of the dead) and foods that deceased loved ones favored in life.
Decorations depicting skulls and skeletons have become important element both on and off altars during this time. However, this is a relatively recent phenomenon. Traditionally skulls and skeletal figures have been made with a variety of materials, including sugar paste, clay wood and more, most likely originating as toys for children. Cartonería skeletal figures are not meant to be scary. Despite the growing influence of Halloween at this time, elements of this foreign holiday have not yet appeared in cartonería. Instead the figures are most often made to be humorous, dressed as and/or engaging in activities of the living. Sometimes they are made in reference to historical figures or classes of people important in the past, such as the Aztecs. Cartonería skulls are imitations of those made with sugar, heavily decorated but often using bright colors instead of white being dominant. Their popularity have increased such over the years that large and even monumental figures are common in public institutions and common spaces, especially in central Mexico during Day of the Dead. Exhibitions of skeletal figures have even broken the barrier of the holiday. The Linares family was commissioned to make life-sized skeletal figures for the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, and exhibition that cemented the figures’ role in modern Mexican culture. Their importance was further demonstrated with another Linares creation La Muerta Tembloroso (Death in Tremors), with over fifty life-sized figures representing key elements of the 1985 Mexico City Earthquake including firemen, victims under rubble, soldiers and even a looter with a television set. There are essentially two kinds of skeletal figures. The first is called “La Catrina,” a figure dressed as a late 19th century upper class woman and the rest, which are simply called “calacas.”
The origins of cartonería skeletal figures and their relation to the living is somewhat controversial. A pivotal figure in their development is the graphic art of José Guadalupe Posada. He has been credited with the invention of Catrina and even with inventing the use of skeletal figures for social and political commentary. The use of skeletons in graphic content for the same purposes dates back at least until mid-19th century and probably earlier. The use of skulls and skeleton figures for Day of the Dead extends back even further.
Why his Catrina became famous enough to become a separate entity in itself has to do with Posada’s politics. He lived during the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz as a fierce critic, dying in 1913 when the Mexican Revolution was in full swing. The post-Revolution government put significant resources in the arts, particularly those who would promote “revolutionary ideals” and give the new government legitimacy. These include emphasis on Mexico’s indigenous past, it rural and poor, and of course the role of government and arts to improve the country. Posada was idealized for this purpose, and his work, including his skeletons were promoted by the artistic and intellectual elite. One important work in this vein is Diego Rivera’s mural Sueño de una tarde dominical en la Alameda Central (Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda Central). It takes Posada’s original image of just a skull wearing a wide 19th century ladies’ hat with large feathers, and completes with figure with a long gown and feather boa, strolling in the park alongside Rivera, depicted as a boy. The promotion of Posada’s work continued into the time of Pedro Linares, patronized by the same elite classes, began to commission skeletal figures based off Posada, especially La Catrina.
The Linares developed the basis of depicting skeletal figures in cartonería which is most commonly in use today. They have not changed radically since those made by Pedro with his sons in the mid-century. The only differences with pieces made today by the Linares and others is that they tend to suggest more movement, and sometimes are depicted with more modern clothing, doing more modern activities, such as skateboarding. Sometimes they may even be dedicated to the memory of the more recently deceased, such a Michael Jackson. Their popularity in Mexico and perhaps the curiosity that Day of the Dead provokes in foreigners have made skeletal figures, especially Catrina, an item that is sold year round in Mexico and abroad, especially in the United States and Europe. Just about all cartoneros have experience in making Catrinas. Large versions for public Day of the Dead altars are becoming more common and larger. The best-known altars that employ them include those at the Mexico City main square (Zocalo), the National Autonomous University of Mexico, the plaza of the city of Aguascalientes and the Dolores Olmedo Museum.
The term “mojiganga” originally referred to a kind of comic theatrical piece. In Mexico today, it still can refer to a number of events with comic character, such as the mojiganga in Zacualpan de Amilpas in the state of Morelos in September. These events use cartonería props including masks, elements for floats and large to monumental pieces such as alebrijes and realistic animals which are carried over the parade route. Interestingly enough, they generally do not have the giant puppet figures known by the same name in the rest of the country.
These, usually called mojigangas or “gigantes” (giants), grew out of some mojiganga events in Spain and from there introduced to Latin America. However, their use has not been adopted uniformly in Mexico. Only certain communities have continued with their creation and participation in certain festivities, which have evolved somewhat different based on local customs and local materials. There are prominent in festivals in parts of Guanajuato, Michoacan and Oaxaca and can appear elsewhere. Towns noted for their use include San Miguel de Allende (and some surrounding communities), Patzcuaro, Oaxaca (city), Santo Tomas Jalieza and Cuilapam de Guerrero. Most mojiganga makers do not do the craft full time, but it is one of several economic activities. For example, in Oaxaca (state), most mojigangas are made by those who also produce fireworks, although the two are not put together.
The forms they take and how they are traditionally used vary from place to place, but can appear in both religious or secular events, most often for processions or parades. Their main purpose is comic relief, as they have a Carnival-like appearance, generally several meters tall, with exaggerated facial features, often in colorful costume and arms which are left to swing loosely, with no control of the dancer supporting the figure.
Depending on the location and occasion, mojiganga can be of buxom blondes in revealing attire, Mexican historical figures, devils, angels, skeletons, brides and grooms. They have also included Aztec priests, Gandhi, Einstein, astronauts, Frida Kahlo and La China Poblana. They play a prominent role in the famous Guelaguetza festival of Oaxaca. Their use in weddings and events in September, celebrating the patron saint of Archangel Michael and Mexico’s Independence Day is a defining characteristic of the local culture of San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato. Other events includes their use in the National Autonomous University of Mexico’s observances for Day of the Dead.
The puppets can be divided into two halves. The upper half is cartonería, constructed in a similar manner as Judas figures, with frames of wicker or wire. This upper half may be the head and upper torso, as is common in Guanajuato or just the head, more common in Oaxaca. Regardless of preference, the lower part to the legs of the dancer is then made with cloth, which may or may not be over a frame. It functions as both costume and puppet, with a dancer inside who generally carries the figure using integrated straps which rest on the shoulders. Overall height, with dancer, can be between two and six meters tall.
The figures are painted with additions such as hair of some kind of fiber such as yarn or ixtle (from the maguey plant), jewelry, etc. The dress or suit that the mojiganga almost always wears is meant to further conceal the dancer, although the dancer’s legs are the legs of the mojiganga, and may or may not match the character. The dancer sees through a hole placed in the mojiganga, usually at the lower abdomen level. In the past mojigangas weighed up to 30 kilos, but today they can weigh 22 kilos or less. The reed frames and cartonería have been conserved, but heavier plasters have been replaced by lighter more-modern ones. Interestingly enough, there is no indication of replacing the cartonería with lighter materials. This is mostly due to tradition, but also because in some communities, mojigangas are ritually burned after their use.
Toritos and other figures with fireworks
While the Judas is the most important cartonería object made to support fireworks, there are others that need to be mentioned.
The warehouse fire that has nearly killed the making of Judas figures in Mexico, has also had profound effects on the production of fireworks and related products. The main one is the push of fireworks to outside the Mexico City limits, primarily to the northern suburbs of the capital in the State of Mexico (Estado de México, commonly referred to as Edomex), with some in the Toluca Valley. Today, the city of Tultepec claims to be the fireworks capital of Mexico, and the importance of fireworks has affected the production and use of cartonería products.
These toritos are almost exclusively made and exploded in relationship to patron saint and some other religious events, rather than secular. They are a kind of offering in appreciation for blessings and protection.
Toritos appear in other areas in Mexico, but Tultepec is best known for them, especially their appearance during the town’s feast for its patron saint, John of God on March 8. Until the end of the 20th century, all toritos were small enough to be carried on a person’s head or worn around a person’s waist. The wearer danced among the crowds while the fireworks on the torito were set off. This is still the case in most festivals in Mexico, but in Tultepec, they have been eclipsed by monumental bull constructions which require wheels and a team to both build and run the bull in the streets. Because of this, the toritos are paraded around the town in the afternoon, to show off the handiwork before they are set off in the main plaza after dark. In the 2016 festivities for John of God, there were over 300 of these gigantic bulls, which were set off one-by-one until about 3 am.
Tultepec is also noted for making other figures of cartonería, which are made to have movement when they accompanying fireworks are set off. These figures generally depict characters from folk and modern popular culture. Most of the movement is provided by wheels which spin when the fireworks are set off, The wheels have pistons attached to appendages which then move in a specified way. These are also almost always made for and used in conjunction with Mexico’s many religious celebrations, but are festive rather than a kind of offering.
In an interesting return to the roots of alebrijes, those which are made in communities such as Tultepec and Zumpango are not made for sale as folk art, but rather to be exploded at religious and secular events in the same way as their Judas antecedents. However, these figures are not associated with Holy Saturday.
Lupita dolls and other toys
The most common use of cartonería items is the making of paraphernalia for various Mexican festivals, generally to be used once, with the item ending up destroyed or simply thrown away. One exception to this is the creation of toys, which emerged as an industry in Celaya, Guanajuato among certain families in the Tierras Negras, El Zapote and San Juan neighborhoods by the 19th century.
The origin of cartonería toys is related to the festival of Corpus Christi and some other feast days and some secular holidays such as Independence Day. Parents until the 20th century (and in some places still today), would buy items such as Roman helmets, shields swords, hobby horses etc, with girls traditionally receiving dolls and other items related to traditional roles, such as miniature brooms, dishes and even baskets smaller than a thimble. Another customary item was cartonería dragon called a “tarasco,” with wheels for feet and the tail in the shape of a lance. It is a miniature of a larger such dragon carried in processions for the festival, along with other figures. The toys were a kind of teaching tools, related to the Biblical stories and personajes of the festival, but were not meant to last. Cheap toys, but today of plastic, are still ubiquitously found at popular religious festivals, but most are generic, with the same purpose, to give children a way to participate in the festival.
The toys became used year-round as they represented the a way many poor children could have toys at all. The most important toy is the doll. From the colonial period to the 19th century, the finest dolls were imported from Europe and were had only by the daughters of rich Spanish or criollo families. The most expensive of these has heads of porcelain, with a somewhat cheaper and more common doll called the “Pepona” doll from Spain, which had a body made of cloth and a head, heavily covered in plaster, lacquer or other such substance, with clothing made to fit. These dolls were still out of reach for poor families.
“Lupitas” (sometimes called Peponas, Juanitas, Rositas, Mariquitas, Celaya dolls or just cartonería doll, depending on the community) are simply cheaper versions of the Spanish Peponas. The entire body is made of cartonería, which is easier to reproduce via molds. Gone are the heavy coatings to make the doll more durable and clothing is only hinted it through designs painted on the body itself. Their purchase became disconnected from festivals and the ease of production led them to become their first instance of mass toy production in Mexico.
They are always made with molds, and come in sizes from about five centimeters high to up to a meter. The most common sizes are designated such dedal (finger), cacahuetita (from peanut), quinta (fifth), cuarta (fourth), tercera (third), segunda (second), primera (first), extra and jumbo. Most are made with arms and legs that are tied to the body, hence movable, but there is a variation called tabloides, which are completely rigid. There are also some which only the arms are tied, with the legs rigid. The proportions of the dolls are such that they can be likened to the “…hefty circus riders on the posters of…” the 1940s. Skin color is somewhat realistic, but generally limited to a dark peach pink, representing Europeans, not the indigenous. Traditional hair colors include black and red, generally tied back. There is more variation on hair color today, and to some extent style, but it is always a fixed part of the doll. The “dress” of the Lupita figure is based off of a style of 19th century bathing suit or that worn by circus performers. The “dress” is often painted with flower patterns, generally to form a diamond-like shape in the center of the torso.The chest of the doll used to also be painted with the name of the child for whom it was intended. Glitter and other elements may be applied to mimic jewelry. The dolls appear in a 1943 painting (Girasoles or Sunflowers) by Diego Rivera.
The popularity of cartonería toys reached at its peak in central Mexico from the 19th century to the first half of the 20th. The technique became used to make a variety of secular toys including clown figures, mamertos (figures of fat Mexican cowboys with large mustaches), horses on wheeled carts (some large enough to hold the weight of an adult), other common animals in miniature, rattles, trumpets, masks, often in animal shapes, soldier’s helmets and swords. By far, the Lupita doll remained the most popular and still is today.
The introduction of mass-produced plastic items decimated the market for cartonería toy. The new versions were not only cheaper, but more durable and by the latter 20th century able to do things the traditional toys never could, such as speak, move on their own and even wet a diaper. As late as the 1990s, Celaya had a Christmas fair to sell locally-made toys, but this has since disappeared.
Few cartoneros make toys today, mostly located in Celaya and in Mexico City. In fact, most of the toy makers in Mexico City, Puebla and other locations have roots in Celaya. Those which are still made are now for collectors or as decorations, with the most popular being Lupita dolls, followed by hobby horses and miniature animals. Far more difficult to find are clowns, charros, figures from Mexican popular culture such as Cantinflas and soldiers’ helmets and swords, which are disappearing. Humorous skeletal figures were made as toys for Day of the Dead in Celaya.
Tradition has a strong effect on the making of toy figures, and the variation of what is made is narrowing, rather than expanding, with little innovation in the forms still made. In 2010, Mexico City artist Carolina Esparragoza initiated a project with the aim of rescuing and promoting the making of Lupita dolls in Mexico City. She recruited artisans and artists from Celaya and Mexico City to found workshops to teach the basics of cartonería as well as encourage participants to create new forms and designs. Most of the production was Lupita dolls with novel and even wild outfits, from 19th century ladies, to those with indigenous appearance and dress to prostitutes and one in honor of 20th century Mexican poet Pita Amor. The project caught the attention of Sokei Academy and Sagio Plaza Gallery in Tokyo, which held an exhibition of the resulting figures. However, the concept ran into difficulty with traditionalists in Mexico, including the use of the English title “Miss” in front of “Lupita” (added to give a pageant-like feel to the project). Not all cartoneros were against the concept, significantly third generation Celaya artisan Carlos Derramadero, who agrees with Espargoza that younger generations have the right to reinterpret traditional objects and designs as they see fit,
Masks are a very important element in traditional Mexican culture and have been made of all kinds of materials with the most popular being from wood, followed by leather. Most are made by indigenous communities for traditional dances and often have religious significance. Masks also appear in mestizo and urban environments as well, as entertainment, in theatre and in celebratory events,especially patron saint days and Carnival in certain parts of the country.
Cartonería masks do not have the same status in Mexico in for collectors that those made with other materials do. Traditionally they were non-religious items made for children and were one-use items, with little attention paid to their making. For this reason, cartonería masks are classified in Mexico as “toys” (juguetes) rather than cultural items with one important exception. The Cora people in Nayarit create fantastic cartonería masks for dancers participating in Holy Week rights. These, too, made for a single use, then destroyed by dissolving in a river as an act of purification. Interestingly, these are a relative innovation, dating back no further than the 1930s. Before this, dancers painted their faces.
Unlike masks made of wood, cartonería masks do not have any pre Hispanic links as the technique was introduced fairly late in the colonial period. Most cartonería masks are made in central Mexico, especially Celaya, with some made for cities and towns that hold Carnival celebrations. As late as the 1990s, mask making could be found various parts of Bajio region, including Querétaro, Irapuato, Silao, as well as in Mexico City and Puebla, but today, it is mostly limited to Celaya. There used to be a section of town where mask makers were concentrated, but today masks seem to be part of the inventory of most cartoneros.
The masks of Celaya are generally colorful and those who make them have had the designs passed down from generation to generation. Many traditional masks are of animals such as wolves, birds, rabbits, tigers and more, as well as human and humanoid figures such as clowns, devils, characters from popular cultures such as movie stars, historical figures such as Maximilian I and Victorian ladies. Those made for Day of the Dead are intricately and colorfully painted skulls, often decorated with flowers and crowns which refer to the concept of death in a humorous or satirical way. (The James Bond movie, Spectre, was accurate in the use of skull masks, but inaccurate in the pale-ivory malevolent expression that they had.) Satire is also prominent in masks that are related to politics.
Cartonería masks are almost always made from molds, usually made of clay, plaster or wood. They may be only painted or other materials may be added such as paper strips, fur, plant fibers and more. They are not made to be realistic, but rather in unnatural and even wild colors, especially devil’s masks which can be in yellow, purple and red together, with red, white and black striped horns. Lacquered masks resist sweat and last longer, but cost about double those with only paint. The making of masks is still strongly tied to the festival calendar with most made for Carnival, Holy Week, Independence Day and Day of the Dead. Masks are also popular for a number of school-related events.
Cartonería masks are an important part of the mojiganga event at the end of September in Zacualpan de Milpas in Morelos. This tradition began in 1965, when some young men decided to run around the streets on the feast day of Our Lady of the Rosary, principally comic relief. Since then the event has become a kind of artistic outlet for the young people of the municipality and even those from other parts of Morelos and Mexico who now participate. Overall, the effect of the masks, costumes, floats and live music is Carnivalesque, with brotherhoods preparing each year for the event, choosing themes from fantasy, history and religion. These mask range from small ones covering part of the face to large helmet-like objects, which create a new head for the dancer.
It is a young tradition with an emphasis on creativity, with cartonería integrated mostly because it is economical. For this reason, the masks and other elements tend to vary widely and are not as attached to tradition than other uses of cartonería. These masks vary from those depicting alebrijes, to realistic animal heads and skulls (especially bulls), to Egyptian gods, devils, European fairy tale creatures, pre-Hispanic and colonial era personages and more. While there are masks that cover only the face, often oversized, most of the masks are helmet-like, covering the entire head. These are made particularly hard and are lined with foam rubber to keep them steady while in use. All masks tend to be in high relief, with prominent facial and cranial features, such as cheekbones, protruding eyebrows, chins and horns. They may be painted in realistic or fantastic colors, with or without added decorative designs or non-cartonería elements. Comparsa Zacualpan Mágico even used the technique one year to make samurai helmets and armor. While costumes, floats and other elements may have themes such as popular modern movies, masks and other cartonería elements tend to avoid this.
Cartonería has also been one of various materials used in the creation of floats for parades, especially for the large carnival celebrations in Veracruz, Mazatlan and Campeche. It has been gaining somewhat in popularity in a number of places both because it is cheaper than some other materials, most notably wood, and is more ecological than fiberglass, plastics and styrofoam. However in most cases, the paper mass is only one of several materials used for the creation of floats and does not replace fiberglass, wood, metal and plastics. It is simply one other option. For example, roughly sculpted styrofoam bases can be created, then covered with paper as this is a cheap, light and quick way to build the large pieces that such floats need. If a frame is used, it is metal, not reed as the latter is not strong enough to withstand the shaking and bumps suffered by the floats during their journey along the parade route.
Most of these floats (using cartonería or not) are made or sponsored by local brotherhoods called comparsas (like the krews of Mardi Gras in New Orleans). Since the carnival is the focus and not the cartonería per se, themes and styles can widely depart from the more traditional ones found in the center of Mexico City. They can include paper maché tanks, biblical scenes pop culture references and human or animal figures of all kinds. However, the making of floats has provided work for a number of cartonería artisans from the traditional areas, who do bring their influence with them In particular, giant alebrijes have found their way into carnival floats in Mexican coastal cities.
For the introduction see https://creativehandsofmexicodotorg.wordpress.com/2017/12/18/writing-a-book/
Most people in English-speaking countries are familiar with paper maché, mostly from elementary school arts and crafts projects. Their experience almost never extends beyond this and, therefore, do not consider the material or technique to have artistic or cultural value.
This is not true in Mexico. In this country, the craft is called cartonería, from the word “cartón” which means cardboard or heavy paper. According to Celaya master craftsman and author, Carlos Derramadero Vega, cartonería can be distinguished by its history of coming to Mexico from Spain, where it developed slightly differently than in France. It can also be distinguished by its texture, which is harder and more resistant than most paper maché, leading to the alternate name of cartón piedra (literally stone cardboard). One other traditionally distinguishing feature is the use of molds, where the paper is layered over or inside (depending on the kind of mold) to make all or part of the final piece. However, Derramadero and others admit that the term cartonería is now used almost indistinctly for works using all kinds of paper and paste, with or without molds, with the only marker now that the final piece is hard, smooth and resistant to most minor knocks. Although not by definition necessary, most cartonería artisans (called cartoneros) prefer heavier paper, especially for the basic shape, as the desired hardness can be achieved with fewer layers.
The term “cartonería” will be used in this book to respect Mexican cultural tradition, distinguishing it as a folk art form. The best pieces show no seams or wrinkles from the layered strips of paper and can even appear to be lacquered wood. The use of molds made of plaster, wood, and other materials, created specifically for cartonería projects, is still an important part of the trade in some areas. Even with the use of molds, no two pieces are exactly the same, mostly because of the use of hand painting and other decorative techniques. Every artisan has his or her own techniques, which vary mainly in how the paper is handled.
Cartonería objects range in height from only a few centimeters to life-sized (1-2 meters) and monumental pieces which can be up to 12 meters tall, requiring the support of wicker, wood, metal or wire frames. Cheaper works to be sold for festivals and to the general public are often made with a base of recycled paper, with decorative elements, such as crepe paper, being new. The popularity of the craft has been driven in part by its use of waste paper, which was (and still is) easily and cheaply available, with stiff paper obtainable from the packaging of certain construction materials, such as cement, along with the ubiquitous newspapers. However, those created for their artistic value and/or for collectors will usually be made entirely or almost entirely with new materials.
The most traditional means of decorating a cartoneria piece is by painting, and for a number of cartoneros and experts, this is the only acceptable method. Until the mid-20th century, paints were made by the cartoneros themselves, with families such as the Linares of Mexico City and the Derramaderos in Celaya retaining knowledge of how to make these paints. Today, the use of commercial paints, including cheap acrylics is uncontroversial, but this is not the case with the use of other elements such as plastics, sequins, feathers, even other recycled materials. As most cartonería items are meant for festivals, the colors used are not realistic, but often gaudy, and often have wild designs as well. The reason for this is that the decorations are meant to attract attention. The quality of the painting on cartoneria, at least until the latter 20th century, was generally poor, simply because they were meant to be used only for a brief time and often destroyed; therefore, customers were more concerned about price than appearance. This has changed for most of what is now produced as the two main markets are now community festivals and collectors (both more demanding and with more money). Both molding and painting have improved, but fine detailed painting will add the most value to a piece.
The process of making of cartonería pieces is a long one, generally due to the drying and curing procedures employed. It is even longer if the pieces are to be made completely by hand and/or are of large sizes. Those who make monumental pieces can spend months working on a single creation. These processes take even longer in the rainy season due to the high levels of humidity common at that time of year. For these reasons, most family workshops and cooperatives have a low output. During certain seasons or when there is a large order, many of these workshops have to outsource work to other cartoneros, or even to general laborers. In Celaya, many of the general laborers are elderly women, who work on helmets or other small, specific parts. It is also the reason why the vast majority of cartoneros work in other occupations and/or work with the medium for reasons other than economic ones.
One distinctive element of cartonería in Mexico is the use of molds for smaller pieces meant to be produced serially, such as masks, toys and some festival items. Initially these were only made of wood and clay, but later those made of plaster and cement have come into use. The most traditional cartoneros make their own molds, which require sculpting skills. Most of these are convex, meaning that the paper that touches the mold will become the interior of the piece. These are easier to use, but also mean that the outer surface cannot be finely detailed by the mold itself. For each use, the mold is prepared with some kind of lubricant. This was originally rancid animal fat, but today it can be motor oil, vegetable oil, or vaseline. The paper strips covered with flour-and-water paste are carefully laid over the mold, and when this part is finished, paper and mold are left to dry.
The vast majority of those made without molds use a reed/wicker or wire frame, which is called an alma (soul). This is particularly true of large pieces up to a meter or so. For monumental-sized projects, soldering of metal frames may be required. Laying the strips onto such a frame to get a smooth “skin” (hiding the frame) is tricky, with some cartoneros experimenting with overlaying frames with plastic strips, especially from old PET bottles, and/or masking tape. However, this is somewhat controversial as pure paper-and-paste-work is seen as the most authentic technique to use; not to mention that there can be problems with cracking and separating over time. This can be problematic with pieces meant to be a part of a collection.
Paper was not always the inexpensive commodity it is now, especially not when sheets of paper were made by hand. In the past, paper was not simply thrown away after its primary use was completed. The reuse of old paper with some kind of paste or glue to make new objects is very old, with origins in the Orient. The idea migrated west to Europe and then from there to the Americas by the 18th century. Originally, it was a kind of industrial material. Old paper was mashed, mixed with chalk, glue or sometimes sand to make a substance much harder than what is usually made today. It was hard enough that with heavy varnishing ancient Chinese soldiers made helmets from it.
In more recent centuries, one of its attractions has been as a substitute for more expensive materials, such as wood or plaster; for example, it was used to make ornate lacquered furniture in the Victorian era. In the 19th century, this material was also popular for the making of dolls’ heads in Europe.
Paper maché began to fall out of favor in the late 19th century, as the technology was no longer new, and the idea of paper furniture began to be seen as unsophisticated. By the mid–20th century, paper maché became more of a simple craft practiced by women than an industrial material. The advent of even cheaper plastics has led to the disappearance of commercial paper maché products in most parts of the world.
By the latter 20th century, it had been almost entirely relegated to elementary school arts-and-crafts projects in Europe and the Americas. One exception to its diminished role is that it is still valued in theater production for making large props, such as trees and rocks, as they have a realistic look and are relatively light. However, the technique has not been completely abandoned as an artistic and decorative medium in the United States. Dan Reeder is a paper maché artist in the Pacific Northwest, known as “Dan the monster man” for making dragons and other fantastic creatures from paper maché and cloth. He has uploaded a number of YouTube videos which have gone viral and has a website called Gourmet Paper Maché. As a craft, people such as Martha Stewart has presented it on television and online as a means of making holiday-related and other decorations. However, this has not elevated the status of the material as a whole in this country.
The story is quite different in Mexico. Paper crafts were common in the pre–Hispanic era, mostly in relation to religious ceremonies, but the making of three-dimensional objects from paper and some kind of glue is a European introduction. One very early example is an image of Saint Anne in the collection of the Franz Mayer Museum in Mexico City, dating from the 16th century. The interior of the body is modeled from recycled paper, including documents written in Nahuatl. The head, hands and backs of the legs are carved from wood. Paper images of this kind were principally made to be lightweight for carrying in processions. Instead of page, animal glue held the layers in place. As it was a religious image, steps had been taken to conceal the paper to imitate a purely wood piece.
Modern cartonería was introduced to Mexico by the Spanish Catholic clergy in the 17th century, at first encouraged for the making of religious objects. By the mid–18th century, it had become an indispensable part of festivals, both religious and secular, especially for the making of Judas Iscariot effigies, small bull figures and other popular themes, often made as mediums for fireworks, with the piece destined to end up in ashes. Another use for the medium was the making of cheap imitations of certain products, especially dolls and other toys. Because they were not intended for long–term use, the pieces were generally not finely made.
With the exception of piñatas, the making of cartonería has mostly been concentrated in the central highlands of the country, especially in the Mexico City metropolitan area and Guanajuato. The craft has been dominated by mestizos (those of mixed European and indigenous heritage) as these areas have low indigenous populations. The low cost of materials has made it popular with the lower socioeconomic classes up to the present day.
The use of cartonería for religious objects has since faded, being favored now for popular celebrations that are often related to religious holidays, but not part of religious ritual. One notable exception to this is found within the Cora indigenous population of the Jesús María, El Nayar and Santa Teresa communities in the state of Nayarit, who create cartonería masks to depict the Pharisees during Holy Week. When their role in the festivities is finished on Holy Saturday has finished, the masks are ceremoniously placed in a river to dissolve, as an act of purification.
Although Celaya, Guanajuato was named the “cradle” of Mexican cartonería by the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes, it is not absolutely certain where the craft was first established. However, by the 19th century, Celaya had become a major producer of cartonería, in particular, of toys and masks. This came about from using cartonería to make cheaper imitations of European products, the first and most popular of these being dolls, followed by masks, heads for hobby horses, soldiers’ helmets and swords, rattles, and toy animals. Masks commonly depicted clowns, devils, goats, witches, old people, sultans, monkeys and beautiful women. This activity became concentrated among certain families in the Tierras Negras, El Zapote and San Juan neighborhoods, where there was an established population of artisans, with potters making the first cartonería molds. Eventually the making and sale of toys extended beyond these holidays, becoming a major industry as it allowed poorer children to have something to play with. This industry began to decline with the introduction of commercial plastic equivalents in the mid-20th century, collapsing in the 1990s, with the deaths of many of the old masters. For many Celaya families, the marked the end of the tradition, so much so that they did not even keep the old toy molds; instead, they were thrown out, broken or used as filler in construction. What is left of cartonería production is almost entirely limited to the Santiaguito and Tierras Negras neighborhoods. In the 1950s, there were over thirty family workshops in Santiaguito and Tierras Negras. Today, that is down to about a dozen in total.
With the exception of piñatas, central Mexico remains the center of most cartonería production, with the Mexico City metropolitan area becoming the largest and most varied producer of this craft. In fact, cartonería is one of few handcraft traditions to survive in the Mexico City area, which offers other, better-paying, options for work. It can still be found for sale in traditional markets and on the street, with the La Merced, Jamaica and Sonora markets its most important sales venues. Celaya and other communities in eastern Guanajuato are in second place. It should be noted that cartonería is concentrated in urban areas rather than in rural ones. In addition to Mexico City and Celaya, significant production can be found in San Miguel Allende, the city of Puebla, the city of Oaxaca, Pátzcuaro, Cuernavaca, and the major cities of the State of Mexico. This overall link with urban Mexico means that cartonería has followed a somewhat different track than better-known handcrafts, such as pottery, which are generally linked to the country’s rural and indigenous populations.
Like other handcraft traditions, cartonería has thrived mostly where there is an abundance of raw materials. Granted, paper can be found just about anywhere in Mexico, but cartonería requires a large amount of readily available paper. Until recently, cartonería objects were always made with a base of waste rather than new paper, and only urban areas can produce an abundance of this. Originally, much of this arrived in Mexico as part of expensive imports from Spain, and, instead of it being thrown away, other uses were found for it. While most professional cartoneros, such as the Linares family, now use new paper bought in bulk for most of their creations, the use of waste paper has not been completely eliminated. New techniques for assembly and decoration use other waste products also produced in abundance in urban areas, notably PET plastic, although this is somewhat controversial. Masking tape is favored by a number of younger artisans to hold the basic form together (either a frame or crumpled newspaper), which may or may not be removed as the layers of paper and paste are added. The use of natural materials such as straw and wood is rare in cartonería, with the exceptions of reeds in few areas in Mexico City and Morelos state where these grow in abundance. The reason for this is that today’s cartonería is an urban folk art, created in an urban environment, and intended for an urban market.
In the mid–20th century, there was a shift from the making of cartonería items purely for local festivals to making pieces for collectors and others with a cultural interest in the craft, following a trend found in most branches of Mexican handcrafts and folk art. This has resulted in changes in the designs and materials used. In fact, much of its survival since the mid–20th century has been due to innovation, especially the integration of more modern imagery. Regarding these changes, one cannot overstate the role of the Linares family in Mexico City. Five generations have been documented as making cartonería starting from the 19th century, but the fame of the family began in the 1950s, with the work of Pedro Linares. Pedro’s father and grandfather made traditional throwaway items related to the Mexican festival calendar, limiting cartonería to a seasonal occupation for the family. However, Pedro’s work inventing colorful monsters and lively skeletons has not only made it a year-round occupation, but has also brought the family international fame.
There is a chapter dedicated to the family later on in this book, but the point to be made here is that Pedro used cartonería techniques to create new forms which can be linked to the various cultural and social changes that were taking place in Mexico City, as it began its chaotic sprawl over the Valley of Mexico, swallowing former farmland such as that which the Linares had worked for generations dating back to the colonial period. This sprawl put the formerly rural Linares family in contact with urban artists and intellectuals, in particular the work of José Guadalupe Posada, whose work became very important to the social changes of the 1920s and 1930s Mexico. Pedro’s innovations remain the base of what most cartoneros, even the younger generations, do today.
But this innovation seems to have limits. Modern cartonería can and has adapted some images from 21st century life and mass media, along with foreign influences from the United States and Japan. However, it pales in comparison to the innovations from Pedro Linares’ time, with most current artisans sticking to what he created and to forms even older than that. With the exception of piñatas and, to some extent, skeletal figures engaged in modern activities and Judas figures mocking or paying homage to public figures, cartonería pieces do not integrate modern influences on a large scale. The main reason is that today artisans sell to collectors, who generally want objects inspired by tradition, or to public institutions for traditional festivals and celebrations. Another issue is copyright, especially for images from mass media. As will be discussed in the chapter on the craft’s future, the main innovations today are related to size and mobility of pieces.
The trajectory of modern cartonería also shows its urban tendency. Most family workshops of any size and reputation date from before the mid–20th century. These are still run traditionally with the tasks often divided among members, under the direction of a master craftsman. Children learn the craft very young, starting as apprentices to craftsmen and master craftsmen. However, these families and their workshops are disappearing, and outside of them, such an apprenticeship system is rare. Most younger cartoneros learn the craft through classes, and occasionally through friends. One reason is that the traditional families do not take on apprentices outside their own children, but perhaps more importantly because urban youth tend to absorb their culture’s knowledge and traditions through media and institutions. This is particularly true in the Mexico City metropolitan area and in areas where the craft has been (re) introduced. In areas where such classes are available, the craft is stable and even growing; in areas where this is lacking, it is on the decline.
Cartonería does not have the same status as a collectable that other types of Mexican handcrafts do. One reason is their relative lack of durability. Only exceptionally well-made pieces can last for decades or more and even those require careful storage and handling. The Museo Casa Estudio Diego Rivera y Frida Kahlo has the largest collection of cartonería from the mid–20th century, which consists of 38 Judas figures, 72 skulls, 7 dolls and 12 figures, toys, alebrijes, etc. However, most of the pieces that can be seen in museums are of much more recent origin. With the exception of the work done by the Linares family and a few other artisans, major foreign collectors of Mexican folk art have not shown much interest in cartonería, especially if the work has been done by someone who does not have a link to the craft through family or community ties, which are so important in most of Mexico’s other craft traditions. Ironically, while the Linares works command higher prices because of family ties, those ties are to an innovator, to someone who kept the technique alive by transforming it from a simple repetitive craft form to one that creates unique works of folk art.
Those who defined the modern craft in the 20th century
The decline of cartoneria in Guanajuato was countered by its growth in the Mexico City metropolitan area, principally due to contact between cartoneros and the Mexican art world. It is not possible to write a book on cartoneria without discussing the work of Pedro Linares. His work extended cartoneria beyond its traditional boundaries and popularizing it outside of its traditional markets. His work still remains as a reference point for the craft in Mexico City and beyond.
Pedro Linares was born 1906 in Mexico City. He became the third generation of his family to make cartoneria objects, learning from his father, José Dolores Linares and grandfather, Celso Linares. Like for most cartoneros, this as a part-time occupation, as its production was exclusively tied to Mexico’s festival calendar. For five months out of the year, the family did no cartonería work, instead fixing shoes, working on masonry and selling items in markets to survive.
Pedro taught his three sons, Enrique, Felipe and Miguel. Much of their production was Judas figures, making as many as 300 a week to sell on the streets before Holy Saturday. When Pedro’s sons were small, he could afford to buy them clothes once a year, when all the Judas figures were sold.
The pivotal moment in Pedro’s career came in the early 1950s. In 1951, a friend of theirs took a group of Pedro’s Judas figures, with which he had begun to innovate from the general devil image, to the Angel of Independence statue in Mexico City. This location is important because it was outside the Linares’ usual sales venues near the family home. The statue area, now called Zona Rosa, was an upper class neighborhood with artists and intellectuals. The unusual Judas figures caught the attention of anthropologist Eduardo Pareyon, who became the Linares’ first patron, and more importantly introduced Pedro’s work to artists such as Diego Rivera. This not only led to the making of Judases for this famous painter, but also an annual commission for decorations at the formal ball of the Academy of San Carlos.
In Mexico City before the mid 20th century, the sale of Judases was the most lucrative of all cartonería products. In 1957, their sale was essentially banned after a warehouse containing explosives caught fire, killing a number of people and injuring many more. As the use of fireworks was essential to the Judases’ role in Holy Week, with the ban rendering the cartonería figure useless. This had the effect to putting most cartonería makers out of business.
Fortunately for the Linares family, Pedro’s experimentation led to a new branch of cartonería, alebrijes, pieces made not for a holiday but rather aesthetics. These strange creatures not only save their business, but allowed it to grow enough to become the family’s central occupation.
Pedro Linares used to insist that the concept of alebrijes was completely from his imagination. An oft-retold story has Pedro coming down with a illness and high fever that caused him to hallucinate being in a strange place with colorful but ugly creatures which were a mixture of two or more animals such as a donkey with butterfly wings and a lion with an eagle’s head. Susan N. Masuoka in En Calavera: The Papier-Mache Art of the Linares Family (1991) traces the evolution of alebrijes from humanoid Judas figures with animals heads and wings to the creatures known today, amalgams of various animals decorated in bright colors and great detail. However, Masuoka and this author concede that the fever-dream story is an essential part of the alebrije’s place in Mexico folk art.
The other Linares innovation was the production of skeletal figures in animated positions. These was not completely new, but the focus on imitating the living allowed the figures be in demand outside the traditional season of Day of the Dead. Skeletal figures are produced year round, but still are in the most demand for Day of the Dead. They have lent themselves to large scale commissions usually to commemorate an event or promote a theme.
The Linares’ first large scale commission, the creation of almost 70 large-sized skeletal figures for the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, was part of cultural activities directed by Dolores Olmedo. In 1986, the family was commissioned to create “Earthquake Scene” only a year after the 1985 disaster that left thousands dead. The scene had the expected figures of rescue workers and rubble, but raised some eyebrows with realistic depictions of victims, women carrying buckets of water (plumbing in many areas was out for months afterwards) and even a looter with a television set. There have been a number of major commissions and exhibitions by the family, mostly while Pedro was still alive. The Museum of Mankind exhibit consisted of skeletal figures by Felipe and Leonardo called The Atomic Apocalypse: Will Death Die? in which several scenes are featured focusing on the various crises faced by the modern world.
By the time Pedro died in January of 1992, the family had achieved international recognition, with Pedro’s sons as well-established artisans in their own right. However, the three sons of Pedro, Enrique, Felipe and Miguel, have gone their own ways, with their own workshops. Enrique moved to his wife’s family’s ranch in southern Hidalgo in 1979, taking with him molds made by his father. While he and his family continued to made cartonería items, the move meant that this branch of the family has left the sphere of international recognition. Felipe and Miguel both have family workshops in Mexico City and maintain the family’s influence, but these workshops no longer work together. Felipe’s workshops, which is base for the work of sons Leonardo and David, as well as David’s sons, is in the old family homestead. Within this workshop, Pedro’s system work division remains. Each artisan cultivates clients and patrons, but when there are approaching deadlines and/or major commissions, family members pitch in under the direction of the artisan who obtained the work and are paid by percentage of work done.
Pedro’s work remains the base of the family’s production and style. They use the apprenticeship system established by him to maintain this style, but there has been some evolution, especially with some more modern themes, such as skateboard riders and basketball players. Perhaps the largest change initiated by Pedro’s sons, according to Leonardo, is making the figures, especially the skeletons, more fluid and artistic. However Leonardo credits the apprenticeship system, which begin with having children simply play with the paste and newspaper, with giving him a solid basis in the history of the craft, and a sense of its place in Mexican culture, something he tried to pass along in the classes, workshops and talks he gives to museums, universities and other institutions. Their status gives them an exception to Mexico City’s laws on the burning of Judas figures, and each year the family burns about twenty or so, with national and international news coverage.
It is important to note that cartonería remains mostly the purview of men in the family. Female members help and in younger generations, their role has increased in Miguel’s family. But the public faces are still of Pedro’s sons and three of his grandsons, Leonardo, David and Ricardo. Their works can be found in the permanent collections of the Modern Art Museum in Tokyo, the Pompidou Center in Paris, the Fowler Museum in Los Angeles, the British Museum, the Royal Museum of Modern Art in Glasgow, the Museum of Mankind in London. In Mexico, they can be found in the Dolores Olmedo Museum and the Studio Museum of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. The work of the Linares family has been documented in books, newspapers, videos and photographs, and more recently in Wikipedia.
While a number of museums and galleries do sell authentic Linares’ work, many more sell imitations, especially of alebrijes. While Pedro’s role as originator of alebrijes is not disputed, whether or not there is a trademark on the name is. Leonardo has received a court order awarding ownership of the name, which he has successfully used in several lawsuits against television and movie production studios. However, most Mexican museums and institutions which teach classes on making alebrijes state that the name is not trademarkable or that the claim to the name was filed too late. The name has become widely used with an mostly unrelated woodcarving craft in Oaxaca, and more recently, the Museo de Arte Popular has been promoting a kind of lighted puppet figure called an “illuminated alebrije.”
Carmen Caballero Sevilla
Although a contemporary of Pedro Linares, Carmen Caballero Sevilla is not well known today, but during her time, she was an important producer of Judas figures. Like Linares, she was a humble artisan, whose work came to the attention of Mexico’s artistic elite.
Caballero was born in Celaya, Guanajuato, the daughter of a lieutenant colonel in the Mexican Revolution. He died when she was only five, and she worked with her mother selling fruit.
When she was 18, a cartonero by the name of Gregorio Piedrasanta taught her the basics of the craft, but she went on to develop her own style, by dramatically simplifying the forms. Caballero eventually moved to Mexico City, where she made a living selling fruit and making seasonal cartonería items in the Abelardo Rodriguez market. Carmen was exceptionally poor. According to art critic Raquel Tibol, she was mistreated by her spouse, but, despite this sad existence, her Judas figures had a element of happiness to them.
It was in the market that none other than Diego Rivera discovered her work in 1955, buying a Judas 2.5 meters high, with a frame of over 150 strips of cane, the first of what would be many. Rivera invited her to his studio in San Angel, becoming her patron, and she his “official Judas maker” until the artist’s death. Here she created Judas and skeletal figures (including one called “Diego at Death”), all one-of-a-kind pieces. Depictions include those of charros, bicyclists, lovers, workers in overalls, Cantinflas and goats. All these pieces were kept by the artist, covering ceilings and walls, as well as taking space on floors and shelves. By the time Caballero died at the age of 58, she left behind one of the largest collections of cartonería objects in the world at the time. Although she likely made thousands of Judas figures, only dozens survive. She never signed her work, as this was not custom for artisans.
Rivera appreciated Carmen’s use of color and compared her work with that of Picasso. The shapes of her pieces are simplified, with the angles created by the frame not only not hidden, they were actually emphasized. Her work appears in several paintings by the artist, including El estudio del pintor and El niño Efrén José Antonio del Pozo a los 12 años (1955). The fame from this work brought in new admirers such as English sculptor Henry Moore, and Mexican photographer Nacho Lopez documented various pieces. A number of her works can still be seen at the House Studio Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in the San Angel neighborhood of Mexico City, as well as in the Frida Kahlo (Blue) House and the Anahuacalli Museum, both in Coyoacan, Mexico City. In 2009, the National Museum of Popular Culture held an exhibition of her work under the name of “Carmen Caballero, maker of Judases” which included photographs by Nacho Lopez.
Caballero bore twenty children, but only four reached adulthood. One reason why her work has not survived in the history of cartonería is that the family has died out, according to Pilar Fosado Vazquez, whose family has own Mexico City’s oldest store dedicated to folk art (Victor’s), operating since the 1940s. Carmen’s son José Miranda Caballero also made Judas figures, along with devils and skeletons, selling primarily to the Fosado family until his death in 2006. Although his son, Raymundo Miranda (who also used his grandmother’s surname of Caballero) also followed the tradition, he died tragically young only two years after his father, leaving no one to carry on.
A rather different story is that of Susana Buyo. She was not born into a cartonería making family, nor in Mexico. Buyo was born in Luján, Argentina and moved permanently to Mexico in 1978 as a young woman. She and her family settled in the upper-middle class Condesa neighborhood of Mexico City.
Some time after that, the former ceramics craftsperson became enamoured with Pedro Linares’ alebrijes. Not having the opportunity to learn from the Linares or any other cartonero, she set about teaching herself basic cartonería techniques, then moving on to creating her own unique style and mode of working.
Buyo never strayed from alebrije making, preferring to call herself an alebrijera, rather than a cartonera. Her background as a self-taught artisan leads her to stress that her work is “instinctual” rather than “academic,” unwilling to entertain ideas of what has influenced her work. This may be because she considers alebrijes to be magical creatures with a kind of psychological reality as a personal or home guardian. She stated that once she was exhibiting an alebrije and when a boy saw it, he became wide-eyes and stated “That’s what I dreamt last night!” She also may not want to stress her distinctive background from other alebrije makers.
Her work has the same basic form that the alebrijes that Pedro Linares developed over his lifetime, but they are far less “ugly” (as Linares called them), with more delicate and sophisticated lines. In fact, they have a feel of European surrealism about them. Unlike many other alebrije makers, there is attention to color combinations and the effects they have together on the piece. They are also distinct from the Linares’ work in that she has incorporated commercially-made elements in her pieces, such as glass marbles for eyes and sequins.
The height of Buyo’s career extended through 1990s into the early 2000s, with her activities taking over the entire living room of the family apartment. It was during these years that she exhibited her work in Mexico and abroad, such as National Museum of Popular Culture in Coyoacan, Mexico City (1990 and 2006), the Library of Mexico (1992), the Sor Juana Cloister University (1994) the Mexico City International Airport (1996), the Soumaya Museum (1999), the University of Bergen, Norway (2000), the Oslo Historical Museum (2001) and the La Mama Gallery in New York (2003). However, the most important of these was an exhibition at the Museum of Anthropology of Denmark in 2001, which not only bought the collection brought for display, but also invited her to give classes at the institution.
In addition, she taught hundreds of students during this time, including a few that attained their own prominence, such as Rodolfo Villena Hernandez, currently the center of cartonería activities in the state of Puebla. However, she and her work has never been fully accepted as part of Mexico’s cartonería tradition. Although she has pieces in the permanent collections of European museums such as Museum of Anthropology in Denmark, the Museum of America in Madrid and the National Ethnographic Museum of Copenhagen, neither Buyo, nor the students interviewed for this text, know of any public collections in Mexico that include her work.
Buyo recognizes that her work has been more appreciated abroad than in Mexico, invoking the saying “No one is a prophet in their own land.” (Nadie es profeta en su propia tierra.) She does not feel it is discrimination per se, but rather that her work is not completely part of Mexican culture. Former student Rodolfo Villena echos this sentiment, acknowledging that although he developed as a cartonero under her, his work is more traditional. He also states that Buyo “reinvented” the alebrije, something that most cartoneros do not feel is necessary.
In 2013, Buyo ended her work in the apartment in Mexico City, feeling that at her age, she needed to move to the quieter and safer Mazatlan. She still creates pieces and teaches classes, and in the past couple of years has staged something of a comeback in the Mazatlan area. One of her former students, Saul Ibarra, took over her Mexico City classes, but only teaches a couple of days a week.
Mr Bezos… you certainly have the money to do better… so why is Create Space (for self publishing) like something out of 1992 rather than 2017?
I thought the hardest part of writing a book on Mexico’s paper mache (cartonería) tradition, especially since I have no monetary interest in it, would be the research and the actual writing. That turns out to be the easy part.
Publishing, even in this era of self-publishing, seems to be the real stumbling-block.
I went through the usual publishers of books on Mexican handcrafts but got rejections or no response. Oh well… let’s try Amazon/Kindle.
To say these are not user-friendly environments is an understatement. I do not know if this is because they do not want to put the development money into making a better interface or they want to discourage submissions. I believe I have about 85-90% of what the Create Space interface wants, but I am stuck with formatting issues I cannot resolve. And for some time, no money to hire someone to do this for me.
So I have decided to “publish” my book in pieces here, with the hope that it at least gets read… but if I dare to really hope, maybe attract the attention of someone willing to see that the work of Mexico’s paper mache or cartonería artisans, gets more and better attention than it does now.
I will start with the shortest part of the book… the introduction.
To Anglo senses, Mexico is a never-ending wave of sight, sound and movement. Parties go on until the early morning and festivals, both religious and secular go on for days. The importance of celebration in the Mexican psyche cannot be overstated, so it is no surprise to find that there is an entire branch of Mexican folk art dedicated to created celebratory paraphernalia.
By far, the best known of these is the piñata, originally for Christmas but today also an indispensable part of children’s and even some adults’ birthday parties. But the use of paper and paste to make stuff for celebrations does not stop here. It extends into laughing skeletons for Day of the Dead, giant wearable masks and puppets for various festivals, monumental figures to commemorate historical figures and events, effigies of Judas Iscariot that are exploded on Holy Saturday and even giant colorful monsters which now have an entire annual parade held in their honor in Mexico City.
Cartonería is generally harder and more culturally relevant than any school paper maché project in the United States, but it is still “ephemeral.” Except for those made for collectors, objects are only meant to be used for a specific purpose or ritual, then destroyed during the event or discarded afterwards, no matter how much effort was put into it, which is almost always considerable.
The world of Mexican handcraft and folk art is like the famous Russian matryoshka dolls; what you see on the surface indicates many hidden layers underneath. Decades of introduction of Mexican handcrafts to foreign collectors have raised awareness levels, but to date there is no complete volume dedicated to this handcraft tradition in either Spanish or English. This book serves as both an introduction and a reference into a world of paper skeletons, monsters, dolls, traitors and more…. but never with malicious intent.
Mexico’s paper maché, its history and traditions are unlike any other in the world, and is still evolving…
Although not as well known to tourists as places such as San Bartolo Coyotepec, Mata Ortiz and Tonalá/Tlaquepaque, Metepec in the State of Mexico is an important producer of pottery. Its making dates back to the pre Hispanic period. Bowls with legs called “cajetes” are a common archeological find here, used for ceremonies on the hill that still overlooks the center of the town. A number of the decorative elements on these pieces can be found on modern ones.
The making of these ceremonial pieces was forbidden by Catholic authorities, and production of utilitarian items became important. Even today, local markets are filled with locally-made bowls, plates and “cazuelas” actual cooking pots made of clay, which range from those holding only a few cups of food to giant ones requiring two or more people to lift and put onto a charcoal stove.
But the need for something ceremonial/religious did not entirely disappear with the evangelization efforts. Sometimes during the early colonial period began the making of Trees of Life, originally representations of the story of the Garden of Eden, which over the centuries became a traditional wedding gift and more recently, a tourist and collector item. More about these trees can be seen here.
There are several families who dominate the making of these trees, having developed reputations over 3 or even more generations. One of these is the Hernandez family, the proprietors of the El Sol Family Workshop.
The roots of this family extend back in the Metepec area well back to when this area was farmland and wetlands, before the urban sprawl of Toluca overran Metepec with shopping centers and housing developments for commuters both to this state capital and Mexico City.
But the family works to preserve what they can of old Metepec. They still live and work on the family homestead, although it is now limited only to the family house. Economic pressures forced the development of all of what was the surrounding farmland. But inside the house, things are pretty much the same as they were a couple of generations ago. Extended family lives and works together and one is surrounded with representations of traditional Metepec culture.
Like traditional artisan families of this type, the transmission of knowledge from generation-to-generation is important, as well as having a patriarch who represents the family to the outside world. Today, this role falls to Hilario Hernandez Sanchez, despite the fact that he is only in his forties.
Hilario began modeling clay as a small child, learning from his father and grandfather. He began as apprentices do, learning to work the clay from the initial stages, spending years on preparation tasks such as grinding, kneading and mixing. The maestro insists this experience was extremely important, as it gave him a basis in understand how the three clays of the Metepec area feel and work alone and mixed.
At that time, however, the family’s production was limited to the making of pitchers for pulque and other utilitarian items. But the making of the pitchers, with their decorative heads of farm animals and personages from popular culture, gave young Hilario a creative outlet, which led to more. He began painting simple designs when he was 8 or 9 and despite having absolutely no formal training, his decoration was soon noticed. He was invited to enter a piece in a competition for young artistans, which won second place.
The experience encouraged him not only to learn absolutely everything his family could teach him, but also to seek out other maestros (who he reverently calls “señores) in Metepec, including those in their 80s and 90s who had been doing this themselves since they were children. They taught him many of the philosophical attitudes towards his work that he maintains to this day.
The outreach to other local artisans also resulted in his personal shift from utilitarian items (which are still made by the workshop) to Metepec’s iconic trees of life. These trees not only present more financial opportunity, but artistic opportunity as well. The señores taught him the basics, but his techniques and style have been developed over the decades to pieces that are clearly that of the Hernandez family.
One aspect is to conserve as much of the old techniques and designs as possible. For Hilario, Trees of Life are not just decorative objects or collectors’ items, but rather representations of Metepec’s history and culture, and need to be respected as such.
He is rather romantic about work and artisans of the past. While he admits that the work was done primarily to make a living, he believes that the artisans of the past had a more emotive and spiritual connection to the working of clay. To him, this relationship is extremely important. He talked at great length about the need to “caress” the clay and even ask its permission before adding foreign elements such as the wires used to suspend small decorative elements on Trees. While there are many machines to help with the preparation work, he has resisted their use because he feels it disconnects the artisan from the clay. Hilario will also not work on days he feels bothered or angry because he believes his feelings are transmitted to the clay, with sub-optimal results.
The family does what it can to preserve the old technique, but modern realities have forced some changes. Wood-fired kilns are now prohibited and brushes made with animal hair are impossible to purchase, so gas and synthetic brushes are standard. Hilario states that he avoids orders for mulitple copies of a design and design he feels are not respectful to tradition. But there is some flexibility here as well. While no two overall pieces will be exactly alike, many of the tiny elements on trees, etc. such as birds and flowers are created with the use of molds.
Absolutely traditional Trees of Life represent the Garden of Eden, but other themes can be found, such as Day of the Dead, Mexican handcrafts and aspects of Mexico’s history. These he does gladly as they honor Mexico’s heritage. He has refused orders for more commerical themes, such as a request for a Pokémon Tree, but he has done ones for Mexican companies (the Toluca area is home to many factories), even putting company logos on the tree if he is permitted to interpret the design in his own way.
Hilario’s role as the face of the family workshop means that he himself is limited to making 3 or so pieces per year, but these pieces tend to be the best the family produces for national level competitions and very special orders, such as a Tree depicting the life of Pope Frances, given to the Vatican by the Mexican government.
The rest of the production is by other members of the family, under Hilario’s supervision. This work includes other detailed decorative pieces such as (Noah’s) Arks. These tend to stick more to the traditional Biblical story but there are signs that this two is seeing a similar development as the trees of life. Pulque jars, some with elaborate decoration can be found, as well as figures of dolls, Metepec’s “mermaids” (in reality a water sprite said to have inhabited the old wetlands) and even cazuelas still made by his mother.
Despite their insistence on tradition in production and design, the family embraces modern technology in both the promotion, marketing and administration of the business end. They generously allow photos of their work online, with the knowledge that the more the work is known, the more it is recognized as their, whether or not their clients and resellers document this fact or not. Several of his children are involved in this aspect of the family business.
Hilario believes in the future of this family business, not only because several of his children and grandchildren show promise as artisans, but because the family has been able to manage the various aspects of the business in house, keeping costs down and allowing them to maximize their ability to make a living. As of now, nine are involved full time in some fashion over 3 generations. The youngest generations are trained as Hilario was, but they start a little later than he did because of compulsatory education.
Another reason he belives in the family workshop is that it distinguishes their work. The growing popularity of Trees of Life means that the younger generations of artisans in the town include those who are not from multigenerational artisan families, but rather those who learned techniques in classes when they were in their 20s or so. Hilario dismisses the work of these artisans, stating that while a number do have good technique, they do not have the same connection to the clay that he and his family have. Their products lack the “soul” of pieces made by multi-generational workshops.
Photos by Alejandro Linares Garcia except those with a *, which used with the permission of the El Sol Workshop.