Trees of earth

Acatlán de Osorio is a dry, dusty town in the small desert that separates southern Puebla from Oaxaca. Calling itself the “Cradle of the Mixtec region” it is a good example of the hardscrabble and precarious life of these people.

Pedro Martinez comes from a pottery family with at least 4 generations of experience living and making pottery in Acatlán. The family’s pottery was basic and utilitarian, making itesm such as washtubs, water jugs, jars, plates, molcajetes (a type of mortar/pestle) etc. It was just one of various activities that the family did to survive, sometimes trading items just for basic foodstuffs.


Martinez began working very young, by age seven he was hired out to do farmwork and began to work with clay as well, making small figures of farm animals to sell in the local market. At first it was like play, and Martinez says he began by “crawling” in clay.

Tree with traditional Adam and Eve theme

The making of decorative “trees of life here is part of the larger tradition that extends into neighboring Izucar de Matamoros and even to Metepec, State of Mexico. While thier origins are from the making of candelabras, with those made in Puebla still having places for candles, even if they are rarely used. Today they are more folk sculptures, with the transformation coming from emphasis on the branches leading to the candleholders and their decoration to form a tree shape, holding various small elements in clay and with decorative painting that can be intricate. In all three towns, the trees had become a kind of wedding gift, although this association was weakest in Acatlán.  (See Trees in Puebla for more information)

In Matamoros and Acatlán the tradition of making and gifting these trees had nearly died out by the mid 20th century and was rescued with the construction of the highway connecting Mexico City and Oaxaca.  The highway brought tourists who stopped by for provisions along the small two-lane road and sometimes something of local color.

In the 1950s, potter Heron Martinez Mendoza (no relation) began to revive the local version of this tree in the 1950s. By the 1960s, Pedro Mendoza was a teenager who became attracted to the making of these trees and had even begun to make some of his own, very crudely, he admits. He went to Heron Martinez’s shop looking to apprentice but was told no.

Piece before the adding of colors

Undeterred, our Martinez continued experimenting on his own, reinventing techniques he was unaware of and a few that are completely his. Lacking equipment, he used local rocks, plastica, bottles and other throwaway items for purposes such as molding, injecting and burnishing. Some of his methods are distinct from other local potters’ because of this experimentation, such as the use of lead from old batteries to create black pigment instead of coal. (Today, his blacks are lead free because of market demand.)

Stores popped up along the highway, and one of these store owners, Don Nachito, took a liking to the teen, calling him “little cousin.” Martinez was permitted to sell the trees in the store on consignment to passing motorists, leaving trees Don Nachito liked and when they sold, returning to receive his share of the money.

AcatlanPuebla044This new market and the hard cash it could provide prompted the young Martinez to improve his trees and to experiment with new designs and themes. From then to the present, the most popular theme has been the traditional one depicting the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.  But he also makes those depicting the local fandango dance, the tree as a peacock, farmworkers and farmlife, Mexican historical figures and more. Soon he was selling through 4 or 5 stores in town, his pottery specialized in these trees.

Much of his work respects the traditional colors of Acatlán pottery, heavily dependent on browns, grays, orange made from pigments made from local minerals. He has expanded the palatte somewhat, added white, black and pink, but still keeping with materials found locally. (Pink is created by mixing red earth with kaolin.) His modifications are an expansion off of traditional pottery, rather than a break from it. He is aware of the trees from Matamoros and Metepec and respects both traditions, but has no interest in integrating aspects of these styles into his own.

About 25 years ago, Martinez began to experiment with other kinds of decorative pottery, even sculpture in the medium. This began with decorative bowl with animals and the like. Like his trees, these pieces are the result of experimentation, with no formal training, but more than a few show influence from modern art. They vary from reliefs to standing pieces often with images of women, the devil, monsters etc, with messages about cruelty and marginalization. Although very proud of these creations, they are side activity, with the trees remaining the mainstay of the business.

By the 1990s, the highway passing Acatlan had become outdated and a new, faster one was constructed through a different route. It has meant the end of selling directly to tourists stopping by for the most part, but fortunately, Martinez’s reputation was well-established by that time. He sells his work to various galleries and other intermediaries in Mexico and abroad, and in fairs mostly in central Mexico. However, he has had a few special commission, such as a tree depicting the life of Emiliano Zapata and one depicting the harvesting the sugar cane which is at the University of Chapingo in the State of Mexico.

He has been interviews on local and regional television, given pottery workshops in various locations and was even a visiting professor at a local tech school in neighboring Oaxaca. However, Martinez says his work is far better appreciated abraod, with his works selling in at least 15 countries, especially in the US and Japan, where he work has won awards. He even gets visitors from these countries, both art/cultural professional as well as curious collectors.

The Martinez family lives in a modest, but well-built house just outside the town center. There is no air conditioning, despite the brutal heat, but it is a long way from how he grew up, in a shack, sleeping on a woven mat on the floor. Martinez is grateful for the opportunity that the trees have afforded him to raise his family’s living, including sending his children to college. Most of the family is involved in clay, be it the making of trees and sculpture with his wife and some extent children, to the making of basic items, the specialty of his mother-in-law. Martinez hopes that the making of pottery will continue in the family. His highest hopes are in his 5-year-old granddaughter, who is showing both interest and talent in the medium.









Glass that was the base of an empire


As you might remember from your grade-school science classes, obsidian is naturally-occurring volcanic glass. Most is jet black but there are varieties in green, gray, golden and even “rainbow.”

One of the musts for any visitor to the Mexico City area is a jaunt up to the archeological site of Teotihuacan, 2nd most important touristically after Chichen Itza. Contrary to what many believe, it is neither in Mexico City nor is it Aztec, predating bot by centuries. In fact, its name means “birthplace of the gods” by the Nahuatl-speaking Aztecs, because of the awe they felt seeing the ruins.
Pyramid of the Sun (credit: Mario Roberto Durán Ortiz)
At its height Teotihuacan, was the most important city in Mesoamerica, whose power and wealth was based primarily on contol of area obsidian mines. The extremely sharp blades made from this glass were immensely important because metals such as bronze and steel were unknown. It also had importance in the making of religious items, masks, mirrors and jewelry. In fact, it was so highly prized that it worked as a kind of currency.
Small duality mask in progress by Efren Hernandez

Obsidian kept its importance until the conquest, but the introduction of various metal working techniques killed the value of obsidian and objects made from it.  However, in the 1920s, anthropologist Manuel Gamio founded a school in San Francisco Mazapa specifically to revive working with obsidian and other local stone. Today, it is the economic base for about 300 families working almost exclusively in home-based workshops in the municipalities around the Teotihuacan archeological zone. Most work exclusively in obsidian, still relying on the same deposits their ancestors did. Others, such as Efren Hernandez, have branched out into the working of other stones such as kaolinite-serpentine, opal, quartz, tiger’s eye and more, obtaining their raw materials from various parts of Mexico and sometimes from abroad.

But obsidian here rules supreme, as does the fashioning of this and other stone into replicas and near-replicas of pre-Hispanic imagery, mostly Aztec and Teotihuacan, but others such as those related to the Maya and other indigenous groups. Popular items include the Aztec calendar stone, jaguar heads, deities, duality masks and pyramids. Sometimes blades are made as well, but these are dulled. There has been movement to other kinds of items such as bowls, plates, pipes and other utilitarian items, but these are still rare.
 Three large obsidian works by the Itz Yollotzin cooperative in San Martin de las Pirámides
The reason for this is that most of the market for these goods is related to Teotihuacan, although it has been recently expanding. For example, the making of beads and other inlays for jewelry to sell to silver and macrame artisans (“hippies,” who create pieces on the street to sell to tourists in Mexican cities) is a mainstay for a number of artisans. On the other end of the spectrum are artisans such as those of th Itz Yollotzin cooperative who make finer replicas of pre Hispanic pieces with some movement towards more artistic works.
 Beads and other small items at the workshop of Efren Hernandez
The movement towards other and better-quality pieces comes from an increasing demand from foreign buyers. Fortunately, for these artisans, their proximity to Mexico City means good and reliable Internet and cell phone service, allowing online advertising, although as a community they have not taken advantage of this resource to the extent that Mexico City paper mache artisans have. Interestingly enough, the growth of tourism to Teotihuacan has not been a main driver of this simply because most visitors are still looking for cheap trinkets.
Sculpture of the legend of Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl in obsidian (in progress)

The overwhelming majority of artisans are those from families who have been doing this work for generations and many believe that the ability to work in stone, especially obsidian is “in the genes.” Obsidian today is neither a precious or semi precious stone, nor the second most common, serpentine. Its value comes almost entirely from the work put into the finished product. Depending on size and complexity, pieces can take from hours to months to make, with very few able to make large-sized objects. Chisels are used for the rough form but diamond-incrusted tools are needed for the fine details. Polishing is done with bands of cotton or wool making a paste from the obsidian powder by-product from sculpting.

Some artisans have been able to make a decent living with the craft, but most live in poverty, earning only a subsistance income. Lapidary work is labor intensive and requires specific, sometimes expensive tools such as diamond-incrusted drills. The craft is still obscure in Mexico and for that reason, does not receive much government support. There are local and some state efforts, including the annual “International Obsidian Fair” which takes advantage of the crowds that come to Teotihuacan for the spring equinox in March. It attracts dozens of artisans with hundreds of pieces vying for prizes,.
 All photos by Alejandro Linares Garcia








Stitching together connections

It is always satisfying to know when a Creative Hands article has made an impact for artisans.

South of the border quilting was published less than two weeks ago, and the Expo Quilting México Internacional was held this two weekends ago. As soon as I walked in the door, organizer Silvia Barba wanted to introduce me to a visitor from Mazatlan. Turns out this visitor has a fascinating story to tell.

Linda Hannawalt has been associated with Mazatlan for only three years and living there for one, but a quilting project she began here has already made an impressive impact.

The San Francisco Quilt Shop de Mazatlan is not your typical quilt shop. Although it sells quilting supplies and even finished products, much like any such business in the States, its purpose is not to make Hannawalt money, but rather to provide economic opportunities for local Mazatlan sewers.

Foto 02

Hannawalt is an expert quilter, specializing in art quilts. She has made over 500 quilts since she began in 2006 with many winning prizes in contests in the States. She is also an entrepreneur, having started both for-profit and non-profit quilting ventures in San Francisco.

News report about Hannawalt and her work in San Francisco

In 2014, she was in Mazatlan visiting a friend and decided to do work on some projects during her time there. Interest from locals in her work and meeting a local women’s sewing cooperative resulted in a collaboration which is still ongoing. Hannawalt began to teach the women of the cooperative how to make quilted items, even bringing the group of 10 all the way to her then home in San Francisco with her own money. For 10 days the women concentrated on the US handcraft, then they went home each with a sewing machine, cotton fabric and quilting tools all as gifts to continue the project. (For seven of the 10, it was their first time outside of Mazatlan.)

One of Hannawalt’s art quilts

Meanwhile, she fell in love with this coastal city popular with Canadian and US expatsand has just completed tasks needed to live her full time indefinitely.

While it is impossible to leave out Hannawalt’s role in the founding of San Francisco Quilt Shop en Mazatlan (its name bears homage), she insists that the success and its future is in the hands of the cooperative women who have worked so hard. Together they moved the shop from Hannawalt’s house to a prominent spot on Mazatlan’s Blue Line, making it the first shop cruise ship tourists see when the get off and the last they see as they are leaving. Hannawalt’s art quilts hang in the shop to attract customers, but they come in the see the quilts and leave with items that the members of the cooperative make.  The women have been quick not only to learn quilting, but entrepreneurial skills as well, gaining confidence in themselves.

Long-arm machine working on a quilt

The shop sells varies products from small quilts, handbags, along with other locally-produced products such as jewelry. In-house products are tagged with the name of the artisan, who receives 80% of the price. The other 20% is for the maintenance of the shop. The shop also offer services such as quilting classes, repairs and a long-arm quilting (sewing) machine for fixing the three layers crucial to any quilt.

The cooperative is growing with each of the original ten women teaching one other to double the number of quilters. They have also reached out to local high school students to work the store and help them learn retailing before they graduate.

At the Expo Quilting México Internacional

Hannawalt and company admit that they thought they were the only quilters in Mexico until seeing the Creative Hands article, and in that short time, set up a trip for three of them to Mexico City to attend the Expo Quilt México Internacional. Here they have had a chance to interact with quilters from central Mexico, compare business practices and brainstorm projects with local quilters to continue the growth of this craft in Mexico. I look forward to the chance to report on these developments that are sure to come.

The cooperative has a web site at  and a Facebook page at


Pepe el monero

In areas outside of central Mexico, hard paper mache (cartonería) objects can hold important cultural niches. Like in San Miguel Allende, giant puppet figures worn over the shoulders of a dancer are an important element of various patron saint days and other festivals …. and can be seen both on the streets and on the stage of Oaxaca city’s annual Guelaguetza festival.

The Oaxacan version is distinct in style but also in name. Instead of being called “mojiganga” as in San Miguel, they are simply called “monas de calenda” lit. party dolls). Although construction is similar, from frame to the use of paper mache, these dolls generally vary in size with  relatively few getting to the heights that are seen with their northern cousins.

Monas de calenda at a local festival

To talk about monas in the city of Oaxaca is to talk about “Pepe el Monero” or Pepe the dollmaker. His real name is José Octavio Azcona y Juarez. 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.

Two of Azcona’s figures at the Santo Domingo Museum in Oaxaca

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.

He began making the figures because he wanted to borrow a mona, 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. 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.


Pepe has a colorful personality, bouncing from story to story. He works with his wife, who is Cuban and who he absolutely adores. But he is happiest in his little workshop, making his figures rather than looking for publicity. 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.

Featured image by Leigh Thelmadatter. Other images by permission of the artisan.

Growing venue for handcrafts and traditional cultures

4-fiesta-culturas-indigenas-cdmxThe month of September is very important to Mexican artisans. This is the month that hosts Mexico’s Independence Day (Sept 16) and the many outdoor events that are held during this time feature handcrafts (and food, of course).

Last year we attended an event in the main square (Zocalo) of Mexico City with a rather long name Feria de las Culturas Indígenas, Pueblos y Barrios Originarios de la Ciudad de México. (Rough translation: Indigenous Culture and Authentic Communities of México City Fair.) We didn’t know anything about it, but it was close to where we live. The handcrafts were typical of a small event, the kinds of things that attracts people like me initially to Mexican handcrafts, but not the best to be had by any means.

Still being close, we decided to go by again to see what might have changed and maybe find a couple interesting artisans. We already knew that two artisans we had previously profiled, Ana Karen Allende and Mujeres Alfareros, would be there.

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The event has grown impressively, easily doubling the size of last year’s event and despite that, still crowded. Last year, invited artisans were mostly from the Mexico City metro area with few beyond that. This year, there are artisans from the State of Mexico, Puebla, Michoacan, Oaxaca and Chiapas, leading to a wide variety of available handcrafts, but Mexico City was still well-represented. The overall quality of the crafts for sale has significantly improved, but still the event is not for  absolutely serious collectors. Be that as it may, it was obvious in all but a few stands that the goods were being sold by artisans, not middlemen, and many goods were worth considering for purchase, especially women’s blouses.

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Since the event is really about indigeous cultures as well as long-standing traditional cultures which are not associated with indigenous people, there is a lot more to see and experience other than handcrafts. Of course there is food, with lots of stands representing Oaxaca and its famous tlayudas. There are also stand with practitioners of various traditional medicines, a small portable court set up for exhibitions of the Mesoamerican ball game, numerous talks on topics from massage to poetry and exhibitions of art and history. But by far the stands selling handcrafts and foods attract the most people.

L-Michoacan corundas and R- exhibition of the Mixtec version of Mesoamerican ball game

The event is continues the rest of this week, ending on September 10, 2017 and is worth the trip to the Zocalo if you live anywhere near Mexico City. I did find three interesting new artisans to interview later, all in Mexico City.

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From cookware to souvenirs

Tourism both saves and often changes handcraft traditions in Mexico, sometimes profundly. Tourism is one of Mexico’s main sources of income and its reach continues to grow. The center of Querétaro state is pretty much unknown to many foreigners, but that is slowly changing because of its proximity to Mexico City and San Miguel Allende.

Central and southern Querétaro is Otomi territory with many small communities whose life has only very recently begun to change. A good example of the change in local handcrafts in particular is the pottery of Damián Trejo Resendiz and his wife Angelica Gonzalez Luna.

Festival for Christ the King

Both live in the tiny, rural, Otomi community of Boxasni (pronounced Bosh AHS ni). The community is traditional with patron saint days still being the most important social and cultural events especially that honoring the patron of the parish church, Christ the King. There are two main sources of employment here, the making of pottery and fireworks. The first is the oldest occupation of the town by far, as there are local clay pits. The latter provides fireworks for these same traditional festivals here and neighboring towns. But Boxasni is changing. In the past 20 years, the town has received basic services such as water and electricity, and is connected by paved roads to larger towns such as Cadereyta. This has raised the economic situation, but the local Otomi language is starting to disappear.

367257891_Loza vidriada
Credit: State of Querétaro

Both Trejo and Gonzalez come from Otomi pottery families. In the case of Trejo, he does not even know how many generations this activity stretches back. But until his generation, the family made the same utilitarian items that the area is known for, pots, pitchers, large flat pans called cazuelas and dishes. Unfortunately, these are primarily made for local consumption and do not sell for much, even if well-made. Seeing that it was too hard to make a living with this pottery, Trejo decided to break with tradition and design entirely new products. Using his love of drawing, he began to design more decorative items. While he worked on these for some years, he launched his new business in earnest about four years ago.


Trejo’s basic idea is the creation of small tiles with raised images, primarily as souvenirs for the tourist market. The area is wedged between the weekend getaway of Tequisquiapan and the Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve, on the highway that connects the two. About 20 years or so ago, efforts were begun to tap into this traffic to visit local sites. These were bolstered in the past five years with the nearby towns of Bernal and Cadereyta being named Pueblos Mágicos (Magical Towns) by Mexico’s federal tourism authorities. This presented an opportunity to Trejo and his family, who began designing images related to regional landmarks and other icons.


Almost all of the tiles are small, about 5 or 6 cm square and are meant to be set into small wooden frames or boxes. Many have the names of a locality popular with tourists, such as Bernal (with the image of the Peña de Bernal), Sierra Gorda and Querétaro (which can refer to either the state or its capital). As most of his business is done in the state, and by far the most popular image for these tiles is that of another handcraft, Maria dolls, made by the Otomi in Amealco, but have become symbolic for the entire state. Other images include parish churches, haciendas and natural landmarks. He sells mostly to gift shops and other outlets popular with tourists and has become successful enough to start lines related to Mexico City and even as far as the state of San Luis Potosí (with a Maria doll in the indigenous dress of Tamazunchale). Local tourism has picked up enough that the family now has a stand with their tiles in the center of the town of Cadereyta. He continues to experiment with new designs related to these and other tourist attractions.

TrejoResendiz018At first glance, the tiles may look like they are mass-produced. And they are, in a rustic, handcrafted way. The main workshop is a large warehouse-type building. A section of it is filled with plaster molds, which Trejo makes himself, using metal casts which he designed. The molds are filled with the clay mixture and pressed using a lever machine (no motors, just muscle). It is important that the clay be of the right consistency and pressed hard into the plaster mold to produce the raised images with no cracks or chips. This means that the plaster molds wear out relatively quickly, necessitating their making on a regular basis. These pieces are fired only once in a large, modern kiln outside (with a traditional one as backup). The fired tiles are transferred to a smaller workshop where they are all hand-painted (usually by young people the family hires) and set into their frames and boxes, bought from a local area artisan. Ever aware of the importance of tourism to his business, Trejo is working to decorate the painting and boxing area, to make it ready to receive visitors interested in his work.


While most are sold through third parties, the family also travels to sell at fairs and other cultural events, often by invitation. Mostly this is still in Querétaro, but he has since been receiving support from the National Committee for Indigenous Peoples (CDI), a driving force in helping Mexico’s native people develop businesses and achieving economic autonomy. Like other artisans who work with CDI, Trejo and Gonzalez have nothing but great things to say about the agency.

TrejoResendiz043Trejo has a strong work ethic, believing that with enough drive, dedication and patience, anything is possible. The family’s living standard is significantly better than the situation of the average resident and much better that what they describe of their parents’ and grandparents’ generation. While the family lives on land given to him by his parents, all the buildings, equipment and other improvements were done by Trejo. The success of the business also means that their children (son, 20, and two younger daughters) can study to a much higher level than they did. All work with their parents part time, in both production and sales, and they hope that one eventually takes over.

One last thing I have to mention about Trejo and his son. Both are very good mechanics. Trejo still owns his first pickup truck, which is still in pristine condition despite the decades. Being a city person, it always amazes me how generous country people are. Two blocks after leaving the family home, our car broke down, needed a part not locally available. They found what we need among the collection of parts they have and fixed it for us, refusing to take any kind of compensation whatsoever. God bless country people.

The family’s business is called Boxarte. Email is


All photos by Alejandro Linares Garcia unless otherwise specified


In an article about popotillo I talked about the division of handcrafts in Mexico as “artesanía” and “manualidad” with the former having a higher cultural status. The work done by Josué Samuel Hernandez and his wife Elidee Arellano Dominguez might just straddle the divide between the two.

They work a technique called “crystalized tissue paper.” When thinking about classic Mexican handcrafts, a commercial product such as tissue paper does not come to mind. Most of our experience with it is its use as wrapping or maybe to make flowers in primary school arts and crafts classes.


Hernandez and his wife live in the small town of Nogales, just outside the state capital of Veracruz. Crafting with tissue paper and the like does have some history in Mexico and in Veracruz as there was a time when it was associated with expensive imports. Papel picado was born as a way to reuse the paper. It is also used in a number of areas to make sky lanterns (called globos de cantoya in Mexico), with one Veracruz town, Zozocolco, particularly known for the making of elaborate lanterns for Day of the Dead.

Bird figure before varnishing

The paper is also used to make a number of figures such as animals and flowers by folding, crumpling and twisting it into desired shapes. Such figures are set by applying multiple layers of varnish, hence “crystalizing” the paper.

Both Hernandez and Arellano come from families who have done this technique for 3 generations, and between the two of them have over thirty years of experience. While a number of other artisans do this in Veracruz, this family has experimented with new designs and ideas. The main distinction is the creation of alebrijes. Hernandez is from a small town in Oaxaca but also spent years living in the northern suburbs of Mexico City. Both areas have distinct crafts called “alebrijes.” In both areas, it is the making of fantastic creatures, but from different materials and in different styles.

Hernandez’s alebrijes are strongly reminiscent of the Mexico City version, which is made from cartoneria, a hard paper mache. Not only does he also use a paper base, he also follows the example of making creatures with body parts from several real and imaginary animals. All but the smallest figures start with a wire frame, but instead of layering the tissue paper over the frame (which would be terribly time consuming and wasteful) he uses crumpling and twisting create all but the very outer “skin” which is a layer or more of tissue paper. It still requires a lot of paper, with an alebrije of only 20cm long or so using at least 50 large sheets. According to Hernandez, they did experiment with more traditional paper mache, but found it did not work well in their humid environment, not to mention that the area’s insects liked to eat the paper/paste mixture.


Thought not as strong, there is influence from the Oaxaca alebrije tradition as well. Tissue paper comes in an almost infinite variety of colors, but the family seems to be inclined to strong bright colors, very similar to the colors used in Oaxaca. While the tissue paper provides the basic color(s) of the piece, tiny, repetitive, decorative details are painted on alebrijes, but not to the extent seen in the Oaxacan variety.

The workshop’s alebrijes and other pieces also have unique elements. First, Hernandez is very fond of iguanas and many of his alebrijes are based on these animals. Second is the use of local natural elements such as seeds, seed pods, seashells and even local pottery in their works.  Details such as teeth, horns figures etc, maybe be made purely with tissue paper and/or with these local resources. This is very distinct from Mexico City artisans, for whom the use of anything other than paper and paste for the creation of items is controversial.


Hernandez calls his fantastic creatures “Verabrijes” (Veracruz+alebrijes), which is accurate. There are ties in form and technique, but the end result is distinct. The color that the tissue paper provides along with the high shine of the layers of varnish make the figures more “kitsch” than those in either Mexico City or Oaxaca. But this does not keep the family from selling their work, especially to vendors in tourist areas as far as Cancun. Hernandez says he has had the chance to meet David Linares, grandson of the inventor of alebrijes (Pedro Linares), who has approved of his family’s innovation.



Photos courtesy of the artisans and Alejandro Linares Garcia





South of the border quilting

Mexico is not the first place you think of when you think of patchwork quilts, but it’s fairly popular despite its short history.

It is big enough such that many Mexican cities have one or more quilt shops, a number have quilt “guilds,” social groups of quilters, as well as two major expositions in Mexico City alone.


One of these, the Expo Quilt México Internacional, enters its fifth edition this year, running from 31 July to 2 August 2017 at Casino Campo Marte, Avenida Reforma, San Miguel Chapultepec in the western part of Mexico City. It was founded and is run by Silva Barba Alhadro, the propietor of the Quilting Studio, a quilting supply shop/studio/school in the upscale San Angel neighborhood.


Barba’s story is fairly typical of those who have become attracted to the craft here. She discovered it quite by accident, working as a kindergarten teacher at a local British/American school. A illustrated alphabet had images of quilts for the letter “Q” and one of her students told her that her mother makes them. Curious, Barba got in touch with this mother and soon after took her first quilting class. She has been quilting ever since.

Quilt hanging in the Quilting Studio in San Angel
Silvia Barba (R) with fellow teacher Teresita Gurria

She did not get involved with the aim of starting a business. She had her afternoons free and was looking “for a way to entertain herself for a few hours each day.” But within a couple of years, she found herself teaching a couple of other women. Word of mouth brought more students over the next 5 or 6 years, she was regularly teaching and quilting in her home. Finally, it got so big that she decided to move it into the current location, where it has been for about 7 years. She estimates that she and others at the shop have taught over 60 women in Mexico City. They also import and distribute supplies and equipment for various parts of Mexico… everything from cloth, to tools and even industrial sewing machines designed to sew the three layers that make a quilt a quilt.

Quilt making most likely came to Mexico via American expats who came to retire here since the mid 20th century. There are well-organized groups of such quilters in expat havens such as San Miguel Allende and Ajijic. But the establishment and spread of quilting in Mexico has not been documented. Barba states that quilting in Mexico “is still in diapers,” but has been growing rapidly, in Mexico City and other areas, especially in the past 6-7 years.


There are quilters in a number of Mexican cities such as Veracruz, Guadalajara, Merida and Monterrey. Most are in metropolitain areas, but there are some in more rural areas as well. Unlike traditional Mexican craft tradition, quilting is dominated by hobbyists. While Barba’s students have ranged in age from 15 to 75+, she says by far most are women around 40-45 years of age, upper class, whose children are now older, either in school full time or are grown. Most of these women have domestic help and time on their hands. Quilting and quilting classes provide both entertainment and a social outlet. For more than a few, they find the work and the comaraderie therapeutic.

Very few sell the quilts they make, although such artisans can be found communicating with quilting circles.


Those who make money from the craft do so by teaching. The giving of quilting classes has grown into a cottage industry, with most giving classes in their homes and a few, like Barba, in quilting studios. The Expo Quilt is dedicated to such teachers, providing them an opportunity to demonstrate their quilting skills and ability to teach aspiring hobbyists.

The 2017 version with have not only expositors from Mexico City, but also from Morelia, Guadalajara, Toluca and Querétaro. Last year’s exposition attracted about 1,000 visitors.

Another important part of the Expo is the Quilt Competition, with this year’s theme being stars. Prizes are awarded in various categories, such as those for beginners to advanced quilters as well as one for children. One prize is reserved for the crowd favorite. There are also displays of quilts that are not part of the competition.

Special thanks to Silvia Barba for the photos of the 2016 Expo








Texture and color or The Drive Part 2

See The Drive, Part 1 here

Although best known for the beaches of Acapulco, most of the state of Guerrero is a world away from nightclubs and Spring Breakers. Poor, mountainous and with bad infrastructure, most of the state’s rural (and indigenous) populations still rely on the land and its gifts to survive. Such conditions allow many traditions to survive as well.

Overlooking Temalacatzingo, Olinalá

Although modern production is heavily influenced by European and even Asian influences, the lacquerware of Olinalá is one of the remaining pockets of an economic activity with pre-Hispanic origins, and used to exist in much of what was Mesoamerica.

The lacquerware of this are comes from two towns, Olinalá proper and the smaller communityof Temalacatzingo, which belongs to the Olinalá municipality (like a township). The style is similar in both, though the production of Temalacatzingo is not quite as sophisticated and its more limited in variety, especializing much in the lacquering of gourds and gourd pieces.

Pieces from Olinalá on display at the Museo de Arte Popular in Mexico City

The history of the craft here is well-documented in oral tradition as well as records dating back to the first centuries of the colonial period. Like other handcrafts, it was developed to create wares for local use, generally utilitarian. One local variation was the creation of decorated gourds for holding liquids, carried by indigenouswomen on their heads. Another traditional use was the making of a large chest in which a bride brought a collection of goods meant for the new household. Some of these antique chests can still be found. The making of very fine lacquerware, including pieces with gold leaf, can be traced to the San Francisco de Asís convent in the 17th century.

Lacquer and gold leaf chest for the Host at the parish church of Olinalá

In the 1920s, the making of lacquered items here was documentedby Rene d’Harmoncourt, but it nearly disappeared by mid century. By the 1960s, only 20 or so master craftsmen were left. Interventions by writers such as Carlos Espejel and Mexican government agencies in the 1970s worked to promote the work to the outside world and preserve techniques and designs. One artisan to greatly benefit from these efforts was Francisco Coronel, who worked to revive a sub-type of Olinalá lacquer called “dorado.” For years, he was the only one producing this type and just about all artisans who do this work today studied under him. His work was gifted by the Mexican government to Queen Elizabeth II during a state visit in the 1970s and later to Pope John Paul II. Coronel won the National Folk Art Prize in 1978 and the National Prize in Sciences and Arts in 2007.

Punteado style box

The crafts comeback did not make significant impact on the town’s economy until the late 1980s into the 1990s. Today, Olinalá is Mexico’s largest producer of lacquered items, with the majority of the people involved in the craft in some way. Lacquer faces many of the same challenges that other traditional handcrafts do: principally competition from cheaper imitations and younger generations who look for easier ways to make a better living. But Javier Jimenez of Artesanías Olinalá states that the craft transformed the town from a village with maybe a couple of trucks in the early 1990s to a area economic center; the town center filled with businesses selling furniture, appliances and more to people of the town and the surrounding communities. It is the only community in many miles with a gas station. The craft means that the community is far better off than many of its neighbors who have no other economic options but for agriculture during the rainy season.

Mural in progress celebrating Olinalá lacquer and its artisans at the Instituto de Capacitación para el Trabajo in Olinalá

The items that are lacquered vary greatly here. Gourd cups such as those made for Aztec nobility for drinking chocolate can still be found, but they are overwhelmed by European-inspired wood items fashioned into utensils, boxes, chests, screens, masks, toys (cars, helicopters, etc.), musical instruments and even entire bedroom or dining room furniture (made to order).

While there has been some concessions to the modern age in both materials and techniques, most artisans still honor the basic techniques and materials of past centuries.  Individual pieces can take from weeks to months to make, but much of the reason for that is the drying times needed between stages. Wood pieces are made by local carpinters who cater to lacquer artisans. The best pieces are made with a local tree called olinalué (Lignum aloes), valued for its agreeable scent. However, overharvesting has made this wood expensive and most pieces are now pine, which might be treated with the scented oil.

Chest made of linaloe wood

Lower quality pieces may use commericial oil paints, but traditional wares are treated and colored with lacquers made by the artisans themselves. The best of these are produced from crushed chia seeds but sometimes commercial linseed oil is mixed in as well. The coloring comes from earth pigments which are obtained locally. No matter how the piece is ultimately decorated, all pieces get a base lacquer coat with defines the background color. Unlike other parts of Mexico, these background colors can vary more including white, red, dark blue and black. In traditional workshops even brushes and other tools are made by artisans. It is a marvel the fine work that can be done with simple tools mades from turkey quills, thorns and cat hair.

Olinalá lacquer subdivides three styles. The oldest and more technical is called “rayado” (lit. scratched). The name comes from the use of a agave thorn or quill to etch designs. After the base coat is completely dried, a second coat in a different color is applied and while still somewhat wet, it is removed in places to created figures and abstract designs. The vast majority of pieces done this way are two-toned such as black on red or blue on white. In the hands of skilled artisans, the scratched designs can be so fine as to look like lace, and three or even more colors can be applied in this way. The finished product is not completely smooth. The overcoat created a slightly raised surface. Design elements often include rabbits, birds, flowers and geometric designs.

Javier Jimenez demonstrating the rayado technique at his family’s workshop in Olinalá

The other major style is called “dorado” (sometimes “aplicado”), possibly introduced by Franciscans in the 17th century. The name “dorado” (gilded) does not mean that the piece has gold leaf, but it is a nod to a time when pieces of this type could have it. The obvious difference is how the decorative elements appear on the piece and how they are applied. Essentially, they are painted on and are reminiscent of oil paintings. Images include a wide variety of animals and plants (particularly flowers) and even scenes from history. These pieces may have images related to Mexico and even patriotic symbols, but they are not really Mexican. They are closer to designs found in Europe and to some extent, Asia.

Finely painted dorado platter

The last style is called “punteado” or dotted. This combines main elements applied through the rayado technique. But rather than leave the exposed background color plain, it is filled in by painting tiny dots in the space. This is a 20th century innovation which became popular starting in the 1970s. Like other rayado pieces, animals, flowes and geometric designs prevail, and just about all available space is filled.

When the decoration of the piece is complete, it is covered in a commercial varished to protect it.

Although most pieces are still traditional in form and decoration, but there is innovation in a number of directions. New colors such as pastels have been introducted as well as new and modern design elements such as tigers. Artisans have also experimented with painting designs onto new items for markets such as bottles, handbacks and jewelry. This shows the very strong influence that modern collector’s and tourist markets have on the craft’s evolution.

Just about everyone in Olinalá is involved in the craft in some way, but most labor anonymously in their homes for relatively little money. Pieces are rarely signed and if they are, it is by the person who made the decorative design. This work is usually reserved for adult males in the family. Most artisans learn as children, apprenticeship style, but in the past few years, state and federal agencies have worked to provide training and other help to artisans in more formal settings.

As noted extensively in Part 1, getting to Olinala is not easy. One can buy directly from artisans there and get discounts from between 10% and 50%. But the real benefit is not financial but rather getting a sense of where the lacquerware comes from, the culture and people behind it and how it is made. For this reason, Olinalá does get visitors, even as far away as Europe because of its lacquer. (The town has several basic and inexpensive hotels.) But most people buy Olinala wares through retailers in Mexico and abroad. One notable place is a long-time stand at the gourmet San Juan Market in Mexico City.

My husband and I did consider returning to Mexico City by first driving to Chilpacingo, as the highway between there and home is a first class toll road, but several artisans and other residents dissuaded us, stating emphatically that road to Chilpancingo was far worse than the one we used to arrive. Deciding that we preferred the devil we knew, we took their advice. There had been rain the night before and, believe it or not, make the road worse with new rockslides. Total travel time, without stopping to take photos…. 6.5 hours….






The Drive, Part 1

It is impossible to go straight into a talk about the beautiful lacquer ware of Olinalá without talking about just how isolated this community is.

Olinalá is a small community in the Mexican state of Guerrero. While I have met a couple of their artisans, I had also been told that not many travel to sell their merchandise because of the area’s roads. So a decision had to be made….

  1. Really really really rural area? – check
  2. Tiny, singular “highway” for much of the ride? – check
  3. 5hr 20min to travel 260km (according to Google)? – check
  4. 1999 Ford Escort with rebuilt motor and transmisson? – check
  5. Only $2800 pesos between my husband and I until payday? – check
  6. A couple in their mid-fifties that really ought to know better? – check


We have driven slow roads before. The culprits have been either really rugged terrain with a LOT of sharp curves, (e.g. mountains of Oaxaca), or a ridiculous number of topes ( highway between Toluca and Zihuatanejo). Yes, poor road conditions have cause some headaches in the past, but they were NOT kidding about the road into Olinalá.

The first leg of the drive, from Mexico City to Cuautla, is no problem. Heading east and south from Cuautla to Axochiapan is pretty straightforward, too. Our first issue was the area around Chiautla. Google tried to direct us twice to two short cuts to avoid the big bend of highway to the town, but our car was not cut out for either of them. To be fair to Google, the highway heading south from Chiautla was really bad for a stretch.

Continuing on Highway 23 and crossing into the state of Puebla, we were soon rewarded by much better road and by some of the nicest scenery we have passed in Mexico, as the photos below show.


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We even got treated to views of eagles and buzzards.


Most of the drive on Highway 23 (from Chiautla) is in the state of Puebla proper, ending in the municipality of Ixcamilpa. Road quality did go down noticably as we traveled south, but the views and the feeling of having the road to ourselves more than made up for swerving around the bad ones.  While definitely mountainous, the curves were gentle. Its not super highway, but we did not see the reason why the drive should take so long.

Until we crossed into Guerrero…

Our first warning was that immediately upon exiting the town of Ixcamilpa, the road turned to dirt/mud for a few hundred meters, then we entered a modern bridge to cross the river. There was no traffic, and we felt quite safe stopping in the middle of the bridge to take photos.

The mountains do get a bit more rugged here, forcing significantly more cuts into them. But this is not really the problem. The problems is that … well to say it is poor maintenance would be the understatment of the year. The rock is this area is particularly crumbly and the cuts all pretty much vertical. Not a good combination. Where the Puebla issues were easily overlooked, the road conditions degraded to dangerous as we approached Olinalá. Average speed… about 30kph…. 60 felt like flying. Rock falls everywhere, in places closing a lane and lots of evidence of where very large rock had fallen previously.


The scenery was still beautiful but unfortuately the road took almost all of our attention. We made a short stop in the other lacquer town of Temazcalcingo, but time and the need to meet contacts, pushed us onto Olinalá proper.

Then the trip was worth it again.

Our first reward was the town church. Average colonial style rural church, but the inside is covered in evidence of the town’s creative hands. Walls, columns and more are covered in the designs of the lacquerware, using the same techniques and materials. We also discovered a second traditional handcraft here, the making of items with fine wood inlay.

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The people inside were busy preparing the image of the patron for her Day of Assumption on Aug 15, but several were happy to talk to us about her, the lacquer and the woodwork, giving us a couple of contacts.

To be continued….

Photos by Alejandro Linares Garcia (the other 50-something that ought to know better)