Mexico’s overall south-to-north migration has led to some interesting cultural consequences, some unexpected.
One of Mexico’s main “exporters” of migrants is the state of Oaxaca, the second poorest in the country with 50 of the poorest indigenous communities. Many of these communities are found in the Mixteca or Mixtec region, which lies in the northwest of the state. It is generally inhospitable land, either due to rugged terrain, hot dry climate or even both. Since the second half of the 20th century an estimated 150,000 Mixtecs have made their way north to northern Mexico and parts of the United States.
The exodus is mostly due to declining agricultural yields in areas that were not all that apt to farming in the first place. At first men migrated seasonally then more permanently as the area’s economy continued to decline. Eventually, it was such that women and children followed the men north as well.
Northern target areas for migration on either side of the border have been those with large-scale farming operations. Many rural Mixtecs in Oaxaca grow up without learning Spanish, reading or writing, which leaves them limited to seasonal field work and other very low paying jobs. On both sides of the border, Mixtecs have found discrimination because of their indigenous heritage.
Today, migrants may be seasonal or permanent, but so many Mixtec have moved to the northwest of Mexico that new, Mixtec-dominated communities have sprung up since the 1970s. The largest and best organized of these is the San Quintin Valley near Ensenada. About 63% of all of the indigenous (in the sense of not mestizo or white) population here is Mixtec, large enough to organize communities to maintain traditions and demand social and economic rights. There has been success in keeping the Mixtec language alive in these communities as well, but no 100% because of the need to work and otherwise interact with non-Mixtec.
One tradition that has been brought north is the making of handcrafts, often adapted to the sensibilities of the new land. For example, basketry from palm fronds is now made from plastic strips produced for the purpose. Wood working and embroidery is done, sometimes with designs being a mixture of north and south.
One family typical of this migration story is the Ramirez Huerta, whose parents moved from San Jeronimo de Progreso 40 yrs ago to San Quintin. The mother was widowed early so she and all nine children worked in handcrafts, selling to the tourist trade of the area (especially the Wine Route) to earn their sustenance. In 2011, Magdalena Ramirez Huerta and Ofelia Ramirez Huerta found out about efforts by the National Commission for the Development of Indigenous Peoples (CDI for its acronym in Spanish), to support female-headed households in the area, through workshops in product design and marketing as well as loans. Through this program they along with 9 other families formed a cooperative called Mujeres Mixtecas (Mixtec Women).
At first the group started with the making of the Maria dolls so often seen in tourist markets, but further development has led to the creation of new kinds of dolls as well as some other products. For example, they make Maria dolls with dresses that have designs related to Baja wine country and elements from local cave paintings. There are versions of the dolls meant to portray artist Frida Kahlo and a skeletal figure called Catrina (an important symbol related to Day of the Dead in Mexico). The dolls and the project all have Mixtec names and are registered with local authorities. The project is called Nu’umi (“hug”); the Fridas are called Nia’taquini (woman of character) and the Marias are called Nuit’alo (small flower face).
The CDI program has had great impact on the families of this cooperative. The women now sell their wares in museum in Baja California as well as stores in San Diego and Mexico City. They participate in various handcraft fairs in Mexico, including the Expo de los Pueblos Indigenas held twice a year in Mexico City. The success of the enterprise not only allows them to contribute to family finances as they could not before, it has raised their status as women in the Mixtec community.
Photos by Alejandro Linares Garcia or Leigh Thelmadatter unless otherwise noted.
It would be difficult to underestimate the importance of woodworking in central Michoacan. Just walking around the tourist town of Patzcuaro reveals the prevalence of wood ceiling beams and wood columns in front of many buildings. Such things can be found in other parts of Mexico as well, but they are almost always because they are originals from buildings constructed 100+ years ago. Woodworking shops here still produce wood columns carved in traditional styles.
Wood furniture is made in a number of communities here including Capacuaro, Comachuén, Arantepacua, Turícuaro and Tocuaro. But by far the best known furniture producer is the community of Cuanajo, close to Patzcuaro. It is only about 15 minutes by car, deviating from the highway to Morelia onto a small, winding road that is the only access. Surrounded by low but steep hills, it is a small community of under 5,000, with just about everyone here ethnic Purhepecha and speaking this indigenous language.
Like all colonial towns, the center is the parish church. It is definitely worth a visit not only for its history and architecture, but because it also showcases two of the town’s handcrafts, woodworking and embroidery. The pews are new and obviously made here. The pulpit and other elements are painted in the signature bright colors and the lecturn even shows the Mesoamerican symbols for speech. Above, huge hand-embroidered banners hang from the ceiling.
The church faces a plaza which was recently renovated, but most of the woodworking shops/outlets are not on this plaza, but rather on the street that leads up to it. While past write ups of Cuanajo have encouraged visitors to see all the colorful furniture all over town, this has changed over the past 10 years according to local craftspeople. During our visit, it was necessary to do some looking to find the highly colorful carved pieces that made the town’s name. Instead, most of the furniture on display in front of workshops was unpainted and of a rustic style that had little to distinguish it from such furniture made in other parts of Mexico.
The reason for this is that much of the business is still for people of the region, whose tastes in furniture have changed. The unpainted condition allows craftspeople to paint or stain the furniture to order (generally in a single color) as to not lose a sale over the finish. Traditional furniture now is generally made only by special order, for handcraft competitions or for sale to customers in the United States. This does not mean that visitors cannot see and talk to authentic craftspeople and see the old furniture. It is just necessary to step past the plain to find the good stuff.
The most common furniture items are tables, chairs, headboards and trunks. Although furniture is iconic, smaller wood items are also made such as spoons/spoon racks, picture frames and even decorative items based on the motifs found on traditional furniture. Most items are made from pine, with some from harder woods such as cedar and “parrota,” which of course costs more.
The best carpinters here regularly win awards for their work in the traditional styles, both at the state and national levels, and can be found at major handcraft outlets such as the Casa de las Artesanias in Morelia and the federal government FONART stores in various major cities in the country. One of these carpinters is Mario Gasimiro Tellez, who has done this work for over 25 years. Like most others in the town, making furniture is a family affair with all members working on one aspect of the trade or another, carving, sanding, painting, etc.
Despite the recognition of the work, Cuanajo is poor with a high level of socioeconomic marginalization. Deforestation is a major problem for the area and a threat to the craft. The environmental problems are not only due to overexploitation (a problem all over Mexico), but also because of the incredible success of avocado farming in the states. Areas which used to have pines are being replanted with avocado trees instead. While there have been federal and state efforts in reforestation in the area, success is far from assured.
The town celebrates both its religious and economic heritage in the first half of September with the celebration of the Birth of the Virgin of Cuanajo and the Furniture Fair. The festival has furniture of all types on display along with traditional dances, local dishes and bands playing pirekuas and Purhepecha son, styles of traditonal music.
Featured image: Painted wooden chest from Cuanajo at the state handcrafts competition of the Tianguis de Domingo de Ramos in Uruapan.
After the Conquest, the Spanish introduced many European technologies to what is now Mexico. However, not all were completely new.
Amate paper had been produced in Mesoamerica for centuries and was a very important commodity reserved only for the ruling and priestly castes. For the former, it was used for record keeping, particularly history, and for the latter even the paper itself had supernatural qualities.
This supernatural connection prompted the Spanish worked to get rid of amate, made from the bark four different trees of the Ficus family. This tree is relatively abundant in central Mexico, but today amate paper production is limited to only a few small communities in the rugged mountains of northern Puebla and Veracruz. This is because the Spanish were able to stamp out the paper and the rituals surrounding it everywhere else.
It would be hard to underestimate the inaccesibility of these towns. San Pablito is the best known of these, a tiny community of a couple hundred, poised precariously on a ledge on the side of a mountain. The area receives significant moisture from the Gulf of Mexico. Road conditions are poor overall and hard to maintain. Landslides are common; roadways are either covered by rocks and dirt or themselves have fallen down ravines.
This area is one of several to which the Otomis fled with the rise of the Aztec Empire in Mexico City, and later the arrival of the Spanish. What the area lacked in agricultural capability it made up for with the protection it gave from massive social changes going on elsewhere. It is only here that the making of amate paper for ritual purposes was able to survive until the latter 20th century.
Until the 1960s, the making of the paper was restricted to local shamans, who kept the process secret and used the paper only for the making of cut-out figures of gods and spirits for rituals. At this time, the shamans and their communities came into contact with anthropologists and others, finding out that the outside world had interest in their culture. Economic pressures also necesitated the use of commerical paper (such as tissue paper) for rituals, making it acceptable, and the making of amate was in danger of being lost.
Commercialization of amate paper began sometime in the 1970s, with shamans and others traveling to Mexico City to sell cut outs along with other Otomi handcrafts. This did not devalue the cut outs to the Otomi because the paper had no sacred quality unless the cutting was done as part of a ritual. So the cutting forked, the sacred still reserved for shamans, but now there was an opportunity for others to learn the making of amate paper and cutting the images.
The figures are usually symmetrical as the paper is usually folded before it is cut. There are five different kinds of figures: those that represent kinship ties, those related to fertility of crops, those representing the forces of nature, those that represent elements that are in contrast to the values and beliefs of Otomi culture and intermediary figures (whose who intercede in the spirit worlds on behalf of the people). Amate paper naturally can range from a dark brown to a near white, mostly depending on whether the older outer bark is used or the newer inner bark. Certain figures were traditionally made with certain colors.
While some ritualistic cutting of amate or other paper still survives in the San Pablito area, it has been overwhelmed by simple commercial production of the paper. Most now is made and sold to Nahua groups in the state of Guerrero, who use it to make folk paintings based on their traditional pottery. Commerically-made Otomi cut outs are usually mounted on a larger sheet of amate paper to be framed and hung, but images of gods and spirits now compete with more mundate and even modern designs.
For over 1.5 years now, we have had the honor of working with Mexican artisans and others with the aim of getting more and better information freely available in English about the best of Mexican handcrafts. And we have been able to do quite a bit with the limited, personal resources we have.
“We” are husband and wife team Alejandro Linares Garcia, a photographer and graphic designer and Leigh Thelmadatter, a writer and English teacher. When we began in the fall of 2015, we thought of this as a hobby, and considered ourselves fortunate to be able to self-fund our visits to artisans, their communities and some of the handcraft events that occur in Mexico.
The most important thing we have discovered is that the world of Mexican handcrafts and folk art is like the famed Russian matroyshka dolls… but with an infinite number of layers! Especially since we do not limit our efforts to those artisans who have already gained recognition in their fields but also those who do exceptional work but have not received the attention they deserve.
This leads us the two devils that always complicate this kind of work… time and money. Interviewing, writing and photography tasks take up most of our weekends, but this is not really a problem as it’s a lot better than watching television or being on Facebook. We have also been blessed with some contributions from other writers such as Norma Schafer of the Oaxaca Cultural Navigator and Leslie Rutlege of Puerta Vallarta who have shared their posts here and even written specifically for this venue. We have also received support from the Vallarta Tribune, which republishes selected articles in their newspaper, getting the word out about Mexican artisans.
We live in Mexico City and while there are many more artisans here than one might expect, most artisans do live in rural villages, often very difficult to get to. We have stories of combining GPS with “human GPS” to find houses and literally getting out of the car to inspect the road to see if there was enough space to pass. This is all part of the adventure.
We have also been fortunate to see our readership slowly but steadily rise, from about 25 or so per week to between 250 to 500 per week, depending on how popular the articles are. Over half of our readership is in Mexico and about 75% claim English as a native language. One of our goals is to reach expat communities in Mexico who want to know more about where they live, but for one reason or another, are unable to do that in Spanish. One thing that suprises us is that the most viewed articles are still the basics … those about particular types of work and where to travel to find handcrafts. The record holder is the article on huipils, which has to date over 3,000 views
There is one change now to the blog… a donation button or tip jar. The purpose of the this is the hope that we can defray some of the costs associated with gathering information and photographs.
The purpose of this blog was never commercial. We considered advertising, but decided against it. Of course, artisans never have nor ever will be asked for any sort of compensation, that they are willing to share their time and expertise is more than enough!
One reason is that both of us have years working with open information/open source movements (like Wikipedia), and more importantly, the goal is to present information about artisans to encourage people to visit them and buy directly whenever they can. This is better for both artisan and buyer. For those who are not able to do this, the benefit is to know what you are buying and what questions to ask. We are not vendors, rather organizations such as Los Amigos de Arte Popular, Feria Maestros de Arte and Friends of Oaxacan Folk Art are our role models.
If you have enjoyed our articles, please consider sending a donation to help support the work and get more information up online!
The panels embroidered by Teofila Servin Barriga and her family are both simple and sophisticated at the same time. Most of the embroidery consists of highly stylized people, animals and plants which do not try to be realistic, but at the same time provide snapshots of traditional rural life in the Lake Patzcuaro area.
This particular kind of embroidery does not have a long history in Michoacan, and it is heavily dependent on the tourism trade in the state. Nonetheless, one of its goals is to preserve and promote tradtional culture and traditions.
This embroidery can be and is done on clothing items, but the bulk of the work are panels which contain one or more scenes, with motifs ranging from the pre Hispanic past, modern indigenous communities and life in the countryside. Specific scenes include, but are not limited to, patron saint’s day celebrations, fishing in Lake Patzcuaro, holidays such as Day of the Dead, folk dances and weddings. These panels are sold either to be framed as artwork or to be integrated into cloth items such as rebozos, tote bags and pillows. The latter has a number of these for sale in its store, but they do only the embroidery, contracting with others to do the sewing.
Some motifs depicts things that have since disappeared because of modernization such as certain folk dances and rituals such as the “kidnapping” of a woman’s clothes by a suitor whose father disapproves in order to push him to agree to the match. One novel concept done by the Servin family is a tree-based allegory pattern with themes such as love and family. Scenes are separated by branches with elements such as birds indicating the love of Christ. The images bear a resemblance to the trees-of-life created in Metepec, State of Mexico, where Servin’s husband is from.
The history of this embroidery extends back only to the 1980s. Previously, women in the Tzintzuntzan area did embroider, but it was limited to cross-stitching items such as napkins, pillowcases, etc. for family use. Outside of Patzcuaro proper, the Lake region is very poor, with an economy based on agriculture and very simple commerce of agricultural products. This has forced most men to migrate to other parts of Mexico and into the United States, leaving women and children behind to take care of houses and farm duties.
The figurative form of embroidery here is based off work done in San Juan Parangaricutiro, west of the Lake region. In the 1980s, functionaries with the Casa de Artesanias of Michoacan introduced the embroidery specifically to give women in tiny communities such as Santa Cruz another source of income. They taught the women modern embroidery stitches, along with design and marketing techniques. Since then, the women here have developed their own styles in both embroidery and commercialization. Lake Patzcuaro embroiderers favor figures that are filled in with color (generally done with a kind of backstitch or tied threads) and have a wider variety of motifs/scenes in their repertoire. Women in the Santa Cruz and other parts of the Tzintzuntzan area began forming cooperatives. In this way, members can spend most of their time home taking care of family and production duties, while traveling and sales tasks are rotated. Today, there are two main cooperatives in this area, with Servin’s family belonging to the Don Vasco de Quiroga cooperative.
Servin was a child when her mother became one of the first in the community of Santa Cruz to work this embroidery. By age 12, she became interested in it herself, working ever since. Servin considers herself a “second-generation founding embroiderer.” The work has become popular with women in this area because not only does it allow them to earn enough to make a significant impact on their family’s finances, it also allows them to help preserve their culture and way of life.
The embroidery is mostly done on a medium-weight cotton cloth called manta (similar to muslin), which the cooperative states is woven on pedal looms in Patzcuaro. Clothing items can be made of manta or other cotton fabrics. Despite the variety of items available, the techniques and motifs that are embroidered have not changed much in the past 30 years.
The Servin and the cooperative use about 15 or so different modern embroidery stitches, but what really stands out on a number of pieces are borders painstakingly made with interconnected French-style knots that Servin calls Palestine knots. These give not only geometric shape but also texture to the piece. Embroidery thread is bought commercially, ranging from thick to thin and from a matte to a high shine. Which threads are used depend on the creativity of the artisan, as well as the final purpose of the piece. Those destined for the general market are usually done with matte thread as it is cheaper. Gloss and other finer threads are reserved for pieces destinted for competitions or for special orders. Most of the cooperative’s pieces for sale are small, as these are much easier to sell. Large tapestry type pieces are generally done only by special order.
Servin’s mother worked in embroidery for many years, but today is retired at age 90+ because of her eyesight. Today, the cooperative is run by Servin’s generation (with sisters and sisters-in-law), with some of the third generation now also participating. All of the family participates in the cooperative and the store they have on the Patzcuaro-Quiroga highway KM15 (near the turnoff for Ihuatzio). This includes some of the men. Both Servin’s sons know how to embroider although today they work in different occupations. Servin’s husband, Julio Flores Garcia does much of the design work and waxes quite poetic about it, connecting it to environmental awareness and social issues.
By the 1990s, Servin’s work began to be noticed and recognized, winning her first prize in 1996 in Patzcuaro. She has traveled to sell and exhibit all over Mexico, various locations in the United States and into Canada, sponsored by various government entities and other institutions.
In the 2007, her work was featured in the book, Bordados para ser contados by Carlos Jesus Gomez Flores, which was accompanied by stories of fact and fiction related to Servin’s panels. This book has led to other kinds of invitations to speak about issues related to rural women in Mexico and the United States. It also led to being one of 54 women in the short documentary Mi verdadera lucha, produced by the Instituto Mexiquense de Cultura in 2014.
The purpose of the Expo de los Pueblos Indígenas event is to showcase and promote indigenous-owned small business, but it is also one the best Mexican handcrafts expo despite is less-than 3 year history.
The Comisón Nacional para el Desarrollo de Pueblos Indígenas (National Commissioin for the Development of Indigenous Communities or CDI for short) is a federal agency tasked with supporting indigenous efforts towards economic development, taking into account culture and ambient resources. Most of projects revolve around preserving and marketing native handcrafts, along with the development of processed food products based on traditional agriculture.
It is held twice a year, late spring and late fall, at the Expo Reforma. The latest edition was held from 4-7 May at the Expo Reforma in Mexico City with over 230 participating vendors. Participants are those who work with CDI and are all ethnically indigenous, most speaking native languages.
Each edition has shown improvement and innovation. The main one this time is the creation of an online catalog (click on the catálogo tab) of participants whereas before it was printed, not allowing for all participants to be represented in this way. This is important because not only do the vendors do good business during the for days at the venue, they also make important contacts for later business relationships.
Most of the stands relate to handcrafts, especially textiles, pottery and workworking. Many of Mexico’s overall handcraft traditions are represented although a few are either not there or not strongly represented because they are not done by indigenous people. Most vendors are from the center of the country, followed by the south. The north is not well- represented principally because environment (sparsely populated desert) and that fewer of the indigenous communities survive than in other parts of the country. Those who were there were almosst exclusively from the states of Sonora and Chihuahua, which have the largest and most cohesive communities such as the Tarahumara and Seri.
I have spoken to a number of artisans related to this event over the past couple of years and they have nothing but good to say about CDI and the event in general. This is quite surprising because relations between artisans and federal agencies (along with handcraft museums) are usually poor. Either the agencies do not do as promised or they negotiate prices down to levels that fail to support artisans. Several artisans told me that even those who come to this event are a different breed. It seems to attract more people who truly appreciate the effort involved in production as well as the cultures behind the goods. Heavy negotiation of prices, a general hallmark among Mexicans, is almost non-existent.
This does not necesarily mean that the goods offered here are the absolute best that Mexico has to offer, although they are the best produced by the country’s indigenous communities. Most are traditional goods, but there is also innovation. Two that stand out are the creation of rag dolls in various traditional garb and the making of modern shoes with traditional motifs and/or colors.
The artisans include those with interesting backstories. The Nuumi cooperative has 10 female members, all Mixtec women whose families were originally from Oaxaca but currently live outside of Ensenada, Baja California. They are part of Mixtec migration to the area about 40 years ago. These families formed independent communities that preserve Mixtec culture and language here, but their handcrafts are innovative. They originally made “Maria” style dolls for sale to tourists, but have since branched out to dolls depicting Frida Kahlo and La Calavera Catrina. They also make necklaces and other jewelry similar to what is locally made with seeds, but in their case, they use wooden beads. From the other corner of the country is the stand belonging to the Tres Reyes Mayan cooperative from the small village of Buenavista near Bacalar, Yucatan. This community does not have a handcraft tradition. Instead several families began working with native hardwoods with the support of CDI to take advantage of local tourist markets. The cooperative originally began with masks and other trinkets with ancient Mayan motifs, but have since expanded to kitchen wares (including wine bottle holders), jewelry. The most important development is foregoing any sort of paint; rather they combine woods to let the combination of natural colors take center stage.
The word “artesanal” in Spanish also applies to the making of various food stuffs, especially moderately-processed foods such as alcohol, honey products, coffee, salsas, marmalades and other preservatives. The line of coffee producers particularly stands out, with producers from Puebla, Veracruz, Oaxaca and Chiapas. The next most important area focuses on mezcal from various states, both north and south of the countries. There are also stands promoting tourism, especially to areas that are vitually unknown even to Mexicans. Ecotourism and aventure tourism dominate here.
Most of us who get hooked on Mexican handcrafts and folk art begin with the typical tourist markets selling trinkets to tourists, with the colors and novel forms as the attraction. As we learn more, we become more interested in the processes, culture and people behind the items that we admire.
Tours specifically to bring people into contact with artisans and the places they live are a growing but still niche business. So many of these towns are still neglected, in part because of tourist’s fears and in part because artisans do not know how to market themselves to a global audience. But the extra effort is worth it. Buying in the small crafts towns is that it is much more likely to buy locally-made items and even buying directly from the artistans themselves.
Michoacan is one of three major producers of Mexican handcrafts, but knowledge of this lags behind the reputations of Oaxaca and Chiapas. One reason for this is that it has no major resorts. Its major tourist attraction is Patzcuaro, along the lake with the same name. Most of its tourism is national, with the exception of the Day of the Dead, when it is insanely crowded with people coming to see the marvelous traditions relating to this holiday.
Although the rest of Michoacan has a number of notable crafts towns, the highest concentration of these are around this small lake. The reason is historical. In the early colonial period, authorities sent a man by the name of Vasco de Quiroga to Michoacan to bring order to the chaos created by the first conquistadores. Atrocities by Nuño de Guzman and others forced native populations to flee. Working from Patzcuaro, Quiroga not only put an end to slaughter, he also laid the groundwork for the establishment of tradesto entice the native population to return. Different towns specializing in different trades, such as the working of various textiles, metals, wood, etc. carry on much of this old system.
The cultural and economic heart of the lake region is the small city of Patzcuaro, on the south shore. However, the city’s economy is based on tourism, not handcrafts. It does serve has the main outlet for much of the handcraft production of the area, with many shops and street vendors making merchandise easily accesible to the casual visitor. The quality and authenticity of this merchandise varies quite a bit and a little knowledge goes a long way in a country that truly believes in “buyer beware.”
One exception in the sea of resellers is the workshop and store of Mario Gaspar, located in the first portal of the Casa de las Once Patios. Gaspar specializes in the making wood items and gourds covered in a lacquer technique that dates back to the pre Hispanic period. Lacquering is a very labor intensive process, as is the application of extremely fine gold leaf that can be found on most pieces. Unlike the vast majority of shops, Gaspar has informative signs (in Spanish) among his wares and visitors are encouraged to see the family at work in the back and talk to them about what they are doing. Gaspar has won numerous awards over the decades, and says he is the only person doing the work in Patzcuaro. That does not mean his is the only outlet, but you will be buying what you pay good money for.
Various towns work with wood, including Cuanajo, Erongaricuaro, Quiroga and Pichataro, but Cuanajo is the best-known and most-accessible for tourists, with the others have little or absolutely no indications for visitors that any handcraft activity goes on here. Cuanajo is best known for furniture in which flowers, plants, some animals and even people are carved relief-style and painted in bright colors. This furniture is easily found in Patzcuaro and is prominent in handcraft fairs such as the Tianguis and Competition held in conjunction with the Day of the Dead festival. But despite the numerous shops/workshops in Cuanajo lining the only road entering the town, few sell this iconic furniture. Today, most of the furniture made and sold here is a generic rustic or even modern design, a change that came about about a decade ago or less. The reason for this is that most who come to Cuanajo are locals, whose taste in furniture has changed. Most of the carpinters can still make the “old” furniture but the few who do regularly do so for foreign customers.
Wood masks are the speciality of the small town of Tocuaro, located a short distance west of Patzcuaro. It has about 15 blocks tops, with about 5 or 6 families dedicated to this craft and some other woodwork. The best known name here is that of the Horta family. Wood masks are a necessity for several traditional dances, but they were not always made here. Juan Horta learned the craft in Pichataro and Quiroga and brought it back to his hometown, established a workshop on Morelos Street. The workshop still bears his name, today run by his sons. It and the nearby workshop of Felipe Horta are open to passing visitors. Just ring the bell.
More in line with expectations is Santa Clara del Cobre, just southeast of Patzcuaro and away from the lake proper. This town specializes in the making of copper, with many of the town’s residents dedicated to it. Individual workshops may or may not advertise their presence to visitors, but the town has a small but decent copper museum, various stores on the main plaza and the main parish church is very tastefully decorated with elements made from this metal.
Ihuatzio is on the eastern shore and best known for the working of reeds and rushes gathered from the lakeshore. Traditional items include baskets of varying sizes and shapes as well as sombreros. It is also home to the Tzumindi workshop, which specializes in the making of surprisingly heavy and sturdy furniture covered in the twisted dried leaves of bullrushes. The sturdiness comes from the frame, which is soldered metal over which the rushes are woven. The town center does not have shops, but there are a few on the main road that lead to the town from the highway that connects Patzcuaro to Quiroga.
The next major crafts town is Tzintzuntzan. The main tourist attraction here is the local archeological site, with its unusual round pyramid/platforms. The added traffic supports a number of shops in town focusing on (mostly) locally-produced pottery and various decorative items made from straw. It is home to the Morales family. Angelica Morales is noted low fire pottery with unique line designs. These were initially developed by her father, but she has since perfected them. Her brother Luis Manuel has gone in a different direction, introducing the production of high-fire wares with modern designs based on traditional and pre Hispanic motifs. The best known family working with straw is that of Faustino Guzman, which can make very large and very elaborate scenes with this very simple material.
North of Tzintzuntzan is Quiroga, which does have shops and stalls selling handcrafts, but the goods here are of dubious quality and origin. It is a small, crowded city, not condusive to wandering tourists. On the north shore is the very very small community of Santa Fe de la Laguna. The area facing the highway is filled with shops selling mostly pottery to passing traffic, but there is nothing here that cannot be found anywhere else. What is worth a stop in the area around the town plaza. Most women here still wear traditional dress (all or in part) and there are several interesting shops selling blouses, skirts and aprons, some of which are heavily embroidered and/or covered in sequins. Also recommended are the local breads which are sold on the square.
The little towns around the lake are worth the visit, even if they do not have the tourist amenities that Patzcuaro has. They are real towns with real people living real lives, and pleasant surprises wait in store. In Ihuatzio, my husband and I was invited off the street to partake in atole being served in honor of the local image of the Virgin Mary and I had the best tortilla I have ever had… hand pressed and cooked over a comal on a wood fire, of course.
Artisans are heavily dependent on tourism to survive. A common refrain we heard is how sales are down because of the drop in visitors to the region. Unfortunately, Michoacan has a reputation for being dangerous as it is the home of one of Mexico’s drug cartels, La Familia Michoacana. This keeps many tourists away, both Mexican and foreign. I strongly believe that any danger they may pose is way overblown. The reality is that it is the people who live in Michoacan who have far more to risk from organized crime than any tourist there visiting for a few days. I should also note that the dangerous areas are near drug trafficking routes, which are in the mountains/coast significantly west of the Patzcuaro area. It is perfectly safe to rent a car and go exploring around this beautiful country side…. the biggest “danger” we encounter here is stray cattle crossing the road.
All photos by Alejandro Linares Garcia unless otherwise noted
The “Tree of Life” (Spanish Arbol de la Vida) is a unique clay folk sculpture which arose in central Mexico sometime during the colonial period. Soon after the Conquest, the Spanish destroyed indigenous religious figures made of clay (and other materials) and set about replacing them with Christian iconography. The original purpose of the trees was evangelical, particularly related to the story of Adam and Eve and a reminder of original sin.
Although today Metepec, State of Mexico is best-known for their production of elaborate trees, the sculpture most likely originated in Puebla. Today, the two main producers in Puebla are Izucar de Matamoros and Acatlan de Osorio. In both locations it has a history of at least 250 years. It became a traditional gift for weddings as it was not only related to the first human couple, but it was also considered to be a talisman for fertility. By the early 20th century, this custom and the making of the trees had just about died out, but in the mid 20th century, the craft was revived due to a highway connecting Mexico City and Oaxaca which runs through both towns. The highway provided a new market for the craft, Mexican tourists traveling between the two cities. The boon lasted a few decades, enough time for the craft to be reestablished and even develop in new directions.
In Puebla, as in the State of Mexico, traditional trees of life still are based on the story of Adam and Eve, and these still dominate the market. These traditional ones always have images of the couple (usually naked except for fig leaves) at the base of the tree, and often a snake can be seen as well. This is true in the State of Mexico as well, but the form the trees take are distinct. Metepec trees seem to branch out like real trees, but the Puebla version is more stylized with “branches” bending inward onto the body of the tree.. However, the main giveaway that a tree is from Puebla is that it will have at least one place to insert a candle (even those these are almost never used), showing the craft’s relationship to the making of candelabras. Some artisans have developed trees with other themes such as the four seasons, death, chocolate, local dances and food; however, purists do not consider these to be true Trees of Life but just very ornamental candle holders.
Despite sharing the ability to hold candles, the trees made in Izucar de Matamoros (generally simply called Matamoros) and Acatlán de Osorio are quite distinct from each other. This is likely due to the very different environments of the two towns, despite being only about an hour or so drive apart.
Matamoros is southwest of the city of Puebla. Its climate is significantly warmer than Mexico City or the city of Puebla, but its climate and identity is not radicaly different from that of the state capital. Mass agriculture is still practiced here, especially the growing of sugar cane, along with the production of sugar products such as piloncillo and aguardiente (a kind of rum). Its relative proximity to Puebla and Cuautla and better highway infrastructure makes is a fairly large town/small city.
This makes Matamoros a colorful places, especially in comparison to Acatlán. This propensity for color, even if somewhat paler than in other parts of Mexico, shows up in its trees, which are painted in various bright colors and very often with tiny lines and geometric patterns and even sometimes figurative patterns as well. Clay elements such as flowers, leaves and other plants can show up as profusely as on their cousins in Metepec, but this is not as common.
The current incarnation of the craft in Matamoros is credited to the Castillo Orta family, beginning with Catalina Orta, who taught her children (who carry the last nams of Castillo Orta as per Spanish tradition). The two best known are Alfonso, who was named a “grand master of Mexican folk art” by the Fidecomiso Banamex before his death, and his sister Isabela, who despite being in her eighties still works, including doing some of the finest detail painting in the town. Isabel states that her mother revived the craft after it had died out, and therefore, all the artisans working in Matamoros are of the family or have been taught by the them. Major workshops in Matamoros include Taller Isabel Castillo (Herculano Sánchez 8), Taller Joaquin Balbuena (Calle del Bosque 5, Barrio de Santa Catarina), Taller Alfonso Castillo (Callejon del Partior 3, Barrio San Martín, Huaquechula), Arte Casbal (Carratera Mexico-Oaxaca, Barrio de Santa Catarina) and Taer Tomas Hernandez (Mariano Matamoros 18, Barrio de Santa Catarina).
The Trees of Life of Acatlán de Osorio are even less known that that of Matamoros, primarily because the town is more isolated. Only the highway to Oaxaca connects it to the outside world, and in this area, the road is winding and narrow (though in the process of modernization) and the incline down from Matamoros is noticeable. The significant change in elevation changes the landscape and identity of the area. It is hot, dry desert/semi-desert with organ pipe cactus dominating the surrounding landscape. There is no mass agriculture here, although it does produce a fruit locally called “pitaya seca” from the same cactus that surrounds the town.
On Puebla’s southern border with Oaxaca, it is the “cradle” or entrance to the lands of the Mixtec people, which means the area has more in common culturally with Oaxaca than with the rest of Puebla. Athough the population is mostly mestizo, the Mixtec identity is still important with a locally prominent archeological site (Yucundoxi) and replicas of pre Hispanic artifacts sold in craft stores.
Although native languages may no longer be spoken here, the indigenous heritage is still evident, with local archeological sites (esp Yucundoxi) and replicas of pre Hispanic pieces offered for sale.
Acatlán de Osorio’s work is even less known than that of Matamoros. Unfortunately, because of their isolation, the artisans here have an even harder time selling and getting their work recognized. Despite this, a number of its artisans have exhibited their work in museums in Mexico and abroad. There is an Acatlan tree in the Rockefeller collection.
Acatlan is a handcrafts town, making items in stone and metal, but especially in clay. Most wares are decorative and include sun and moon wall hangings, pots, jars and figures of animals. The distinction for all of Acatlán’s wares is the burnishing technique and the use of earth tone pigments from the various subsoils of the region. In knowledgeable hands, these pigments produce gray, various shades of brown, a near-white, red, black, orange and even pink.
The history of the trees here is similar to that of Matamores, but in this case, credit for its revival goes to Heron Martinez Mendoza, who worked with his wife Olivia and his family. Much of his inspiration comes from his dreams along with the forms and colors of his hometown. His work was mostly in two colors, a white/gray background ( with darker brown/black depending on pigment purity) for designs and other decorative touches.
It is important to note that, unlike in Matamoros, the making of Trees of Life does not dominate here, but is rather a relatively small part of the volume produced. The stalls off the main square and on the highway proper rarely carry them. It does, however, represent the best the town has to offer. To find these, visitors must find the artisans and their workshops/homes themselves, like that of Pedro Martinez Lopez and his wife Irma Luz Flores Velazquez.
Pieces from Puebla can be found in both public and private collections in Mexico, the United States and Europe. Those who make the finest wares generally sell abroad as they can get much better prices for their work, but one can buy from their stock in their workshops or make special orders. Sizes can range from a few centimeters to several meters in height, but most are between 250 and 500 cm. The extremely large pieces are almost exclusively made for cultural and governmental institutions.
In both Matamoros and Acatlan, here are artisan who experiment with making more innovation designs and even artistic pieces. Jorge and Ulises Casbal (Arte Casbal) have experimented with other forms such as human ones decorated with the elements and painting style of the trees. Pedro Martinez creates realistic and stylized pieces, a number of which are more for his own pleasure than for sale.
However, the boom decades that the highway afforded both these towns came to an end with the construction of a newer, more modern and much faster highway connecting the two cities, routing to the east. Matamoros has fared the downturn better than Acatlán due to the aforementioned proximily and highway connections. But both have suffered declines in sales, not just to passing motorists but also to wholesalers as the world seems to forget that the towns even exist.
Despite being called dolls, the muñecas of Josefina Aguilar and her family are anything but playthings.
To the casual visitor to Ocotlan de Morelos, Oaxaca, there is nothing readily visible to indicate that the town is important to the world of Mexican handcrafts and folk art. It is larger than the surrounding communities, with a pleasant square, an interesting museum in the former Santo Domingo monastery, and some really good food to be had in its municipal market (especially the mole coloradito).
But ask anyone about Josefina Aguilar, and you will readily get directions to the family compound on the highway through town, near the Hotel Real de Ocotlan, where she serves as family matriarch. Josefina is the eldest of four sisters (along with Guillermia, Irene and Concepcion) who are known for the making of “muñecas” (lit. dolls), ceramic figures which have become important collectors’ items.
The muñecas trace their lineage to the work of Josefina’s mother, Isaura Alcantara Dia. The family had worked in clay for many generations, making utilitarian items and some religious paraphernalia such angels and candleholders for festivals such as Holy Week. It was Isaura’s idea to start making purely decorative human figures which depict rural life and sensibilities of the Central Valleys south of the city of Oaxaca. Josefina described her mother as “humble, thin, not fastidious (because she did not like that).“ She worked with her husband Jesus Aguilar Revilla, who sketched and painted, often coming up with new designs, which Isaura executed in clay. Unfortunately, Isaura did not have much time to develop her craft as she died in 1969, at the young age of 44. Isaura and Jesus’s work is still the basis for the work of subsequent generations although each has evolved their own styles, from slight adjustments to somewhat radical departures.
At the age of eight, Josefina began working with her mother. She worked on utilitarian items as per the family business, but she loved her mother’s work with the muñecas. She started by making parts of the figures, such as arms and heads, but her talent showed early and soon began making her own complete muñecas in all sizes. She worked with her mother until the latter’s death and on her own until she married, garnering national and some international media attention by the time she was in her twenties. She married Jesus Aguilar Revilla, who like his father-in-law, supported and involved himself in his wife’s efforts.
Josefina’s skills and long trajectory have expanded the cultural influence of her work far beyond Ocotlan de Morelos, becoming a grand dame of Mexican folk art. Examples of her work can be seen in various museums in Mexico along with the International Folk Art Museum in Santa Fe, the Rockefeller wing of the San Antonio Art Museum and the Mexican Museums located in San Francisco and Chicago.
The Aguilar compound today is not where Josefina grew up, although she is from Ocotlan. She and her husband built the first house here, in what was a field outside of the town. (Guillermina has a house next door.) It was here that noted Mexican handcraft and folk art collector Nelson Rockefeller came to visit her and discover her work for himself in the 1970s. Josefina remembers the visit as quite a commotion, with Rockefeller “surrounded by motorcycles, police and everything.” Impressed, he bought much of her work and exhibited it in the United States, which cemented her reputation in the international Mexican folk art market.
It is important to note that Josefina’s and her family’s work is more than handcraft, it truly is folk art. Not only are the “muñecas” non-utlitarian (a radical departure from traditional Ocotlan pottery), but they are more than just decorative. One idea behind the muñecas is to capture the essence of life in this rural area.. Most of the figures depict life in Ocotlan, often with women in indigenous garb and doing traditional work and other activities such as selling in the market, tending babies, getting married, attending funerals, spooning with boyfriends and participating in all kinds of festivals. She makes individual figures as well as elaborate sets depicting local weddings, funerals, religious processions and traditional festivals.
However, Josefina has not limited herself to only these themes. Others include images of prostitutes (which she always calls “women of the night”) and figures from Mexican history as well as those which make statements against abortion (recently legalized in Mexico). Another relatively recent addition is depiction of Mexican artist and cultural icon Frida Kahlo. These portraits are based on Kahlo’s self-portraits, but she does not do exact copies, rather she makes small reinterpretations, adding peripheral elements such as monkeys, flowers and other animals and/or by changing her dress, usually by making it even more colorful and grandiose. While she makes both male and female figures, it is obvious that the feminine has the more dominant role.
The craft element of the figures remains in the clay itself. It is still mined from the same local pits that previous generations exploited, and preparation work such as purification, grinding, and kneading the wet clay is still done the same way. From here, the process is more artistic. All figures are made completely by hand, no molds are used even though Josefina admits they could make more pieces if they did, even partially. Each piece is unique, Josefina does not limit herself to one body type. Figures vary both is height and width, depicting fat and thin, tall and short, young and old. Hairstyles on women vary from short to long, from traditional braids to modern cuts. Sometimes she is asked what kind of piece is her favorite to make, but that is difficult to answer as each piece is original. She does not think of her work in a serial way. She advises her children “…put a bit of your own life and heart into your pieces that you are making so that you give them a bit of life; if they do not have life, it is a thing, nothing more.” For this reason, all Aguilar pieces have a wide variety of facial expressions, from anger to happiness.
Josefina has not thought much about why her work has been so successful, only that people like her pieces. Only with the Frida does she offer an opinion about why they are success, stating that she believes, that her depictions are different that most that are available.
The craft is now firmly situated as a family tradition, with children and grandchildren involved. Her children also began working young, but not quite as young as her as they went to school. Most which became involved did so because they saw what their mother was doing and became interested. Each has developed their own style, especially in painting and the creation of faces. She says she encouraged this somewhat in part because she continues to experiment with new designs and themes. Most members of the family who have taken up the craft are collected around the world.
Of her nine children, the ones involved in the craft include Demetrio, Rodrigo, José Juan, Fernando, Sergio, Roberto and Leticia. Each of of these and sign their own names to their own work. Sergio works with his wife Alba Noemi, who learned from both her husband and mother-in-law, and whose work rivals anyone else in the family. Not all of the children (and grandchildren) work in the family compound, but their all of their work can be found for sale there. Even some of Josefina’s young grandchildren are involved, and have even won recognition in Oaxaca.
Today, Josefina Aguilar is well into her eighties. She has suffered diabetes for some time now, which has led to the loss of much of her hair, one reason why she became attracted to images of Frida Kahlo, which have the long, thick braids she used to have. More recently, the condition took her sight as well. Despite this, the artist continues to work as best she can. She is still able to create the basic forms of the muñecas using touch only and still using the same processes she has always used. However, she now relies on her husband and the younger generations to do the tasks she cannot. The creation of the facial expressions, though eyes, nose and mouth are done by others, under her direction, along with fingers. Painting is also done in the same way. Although she could retire, she refuses, saying she needs to work, to keep herself active and also to continue supporting the work of her children and grandchildren.
Featured image is of Josefina in the 2000s (credit:FOFA), all other images by Alejandro Linares Garcia unless otherwise noted.
The word “alebrije” refers to two separate traditions of making colorful creatures of varying sizes. In central Mexico and some other places, it refers to the making of creatures which are an amalgam of parts from real and imaginary animals, and even sometimes people. It is part of a larger craft tradition of paper mache objects (cartonería).
In the state of Oaxaca, the word refers to a style of wood carving and is essentially a stand-alone craft, rather than part of something larger. Most depict recognized animals although amalgamations and even human figures can be found.
Oaxacan tour books, guides and even alebrije makers will swear that their alebrijes have a direct link to the inventor of alebrijes, Mexico City pioneer Pedro Linares, usually by stating that he has roots in San Antonio Arrazola, where the Oaxacan version originated. The real linage of these wood carving is a mix of native Oaxaca Central Valleys native woodcarving traditions and influence from Linares’s work.
The native aspect is in the carving and in the depictions of animals real and imagined. Carving real animal and spirit animal/monsters called nahuals (sometimes spelled nagual) goes back to the pre Hispanic period at least among the Zapotecs that dominated much of this area. The more realistic animals were related to hunting and the nahuals were related to native religious beliefs. By the 20th century, the tradition was waning, generally to create toys for children.
However, Arrazola is the “cradle” of Oaxaca alebrije making, and the credit belongs to a man named Manuel Jimenez. The maestro began carving as a boy in the 1920s as a side activity, often while doing other chores such as tending sheep. His carving was traditional and by the 1950s, his work was well enough known to be sold in the city of Oaxaca. It was even noticed by an early notable collector of Mexican folk art, Nelson Rockefeller.
The shift came when Jimenez was invited, along with Pedro Linares and others by filmmaker Judith Bronowski to demonstrate their work in the US. Jimenez was impressed by Linares’s alebrijes and set about making a version using a local soft wood from a scrub tree called copal. The new, colorful creatures took off, and by the late 1960s, he was exhibiting his work in Mexico City and the United States. By the late 1970s, tourists found their way to his workshop in Arrazola. This popularlty permitted him to become the first full-time carver in Oaxaca.
Jimenez guarded his methods, teaching only those in his family. For this reason, even as late as 1985, when the alebrije business began to boom, there were only six families in Arrazola making alebrijes. This is probably the reason why another town, San Martin Tilcajete, has been able to build a bigger name in the craft than Arrazola.Jimenez died in 2005, and today, those lucky enough to buy even a small piece of his need to pay in the hundreds of USD. The Jimenez family still makes alebrijes, but interestingly enough have shifted to carving a tropical cedar imported from Guatemala.
Neither the old or new carving traditions had names and since the Linares influence was obvious, the name “alebrijes” stuck. It is important to note that most carvers are not Zapotec and the figures are considered to be novelty ítems, not expressions of cultural heritage. Despite this, the craft is one of the most recognized from Oaxaca, and there are a number of well-known and highly respected artisans in the field each with his/her own style. In Arrazola alone there are several including the Antonio and Sergio Aragon and Martin Sandiego, whose works command prices of hundreds of dollars and often comes in sets.
But Arrazola, as Jimenez’s hometown, is the undisputed origin of this colorful figure. It not only produced them first, but its proximity to the state’s political and tourist capital means that the town popularized them as well. Today, the city has nearly overrun the small town and it’s accesible by local city bus. Despite this and the annual “Cradle of Alebrijes” fair it holds each year, Tilcajete is better known for its alebrijes.
Initially, alebrijes were more crudely carved, today called a “rustic” style, and generally carved in pieces which would assemble and disassemble only by pressing the tabs of an extremity into the corresponding hole in the body. This is not easy as the pieces are dried after carving, which changes the sizes of both tabs and holes.
Today, some small details are still carved separately, such as thin tails, wings and spines, but rarely legs. Originally local animals were the base, those known to the rural carvers making them. Over time, these carvers gained contacts with dealers and with markets that wanted other animals as well such as lions, dragons, elephants, etc. The start of carving competions in the 1970s also prompted artisans to experiment with new forms as a way to winning prizes and getting museums to buy their work. Perhaps the last change is that the rustic gave way to smooth, flowing forms which are often surreal. Two things have stayed the same, which distinguish Oaxaca alebrijes from their paper cousins. Oaxaca alebrijes are almost always of a single animal. The most common are dragons, dogs, armadillos, iguanas, giraffes, cats, elephants, deer, dolphins and fish. Arrazola specializes in the making of alebrijes with complicated bodies, especially iguanas with curled tails, often from a single piece of wood.The second is the use of bright colors, almost always a single background colors with intrícate lines, geometric shapes and/or dots covering the piece. These can be so fine that some artisans have taken to using medical needles to paint dots.
Copal carved soon after it is harvested, meaning it is still wet. This allows it to be carved easily and quickly, using hand tools such as machetes, chisels and knives. The tree is kind of scraggly, so these capricious turns are taken advantage of in the final carving. After carving the figure is left to dry for up to ten months. The soft wood cracks during these stage, so they are then filled in with paste made from copal sawdust and resin and sanded before painting. Every piece of copal is used. Paints were originally made from local plants and minerals but today the vast majority are commercial acrylics. The old paints give a rustic look that some customers prefer.
It would be difficult to underestimate the economic impact that the craft has had the rural familes of these towns. At least 150 families in Oaxaca make a living from it, and the income even for modest carvers is enough to allow families to add onto their houses and send children to secondary school. By 1990s most households in Arrazola were making at least part of thier income through carving, shifing local economies away from farming. But it has not eliminated the need to farm or send family members to Mexico City or further to work.
The main reason for its success is likely that these alebrijes are far less “scary” or “intimidating” than their central Mexican cousins, making them more appealing to the tourist for whom they have been sold from the start. Alebrije making has a two-tiered market. The high-end features high-quality, unique and labor-intensive peices, with pieces from those with excellent reputations commanding prices into the hundreds to thousands of dollars. The lower-end market is mostly for the casual tourist and tend to have pieces which are small and repetitive.
But there has been a price for all this success. Copal was almost a “waste wood,” with little economic value, growing all over uncultivated lands. The success of alebrijes created a high demand for the wood, and now wild stocks of copal trees in many parts of the Central Valleys have become seriously depleted, with nearly all the trees around Arrazola and some other location disappeared. The situation is similar to the ficus trees which are the base of amate paper making in northern Puebla. Like the ficus, copal trees need at least 5 to 7 years growth before harvesting, either whole or just taking branches. There have been efforts to reforest and even farm the trees, but the demand outpaces these activities significantly.
This issue has led to an interesting development, seen only in Arrazola so far in any significant way. While there are carving styles to be sure, one way to distinguish work is through painting, especially in very fine designs over the piece. In fact, the fineness of this work can add significantly to the piece. With copal wood scarce, artisans here have been transferring painting techniques to objects which are not alebrijes and not from copal wood. These include wood cases, picture frames, crosses and even bottles and other commercially made items. This may wind up being the future of the craft.
Special thanks to the Friends of Oaxacan Folk Art for various photos (in CC-by-SA 4.0 license). All other photos by Alejandro Linares Garcia.