Last week I had a chance to take family to Oaxaca to encourage them to see more of Mexico than just the typical tourist resorts. In this respect the trip was very successful. I also had every intention of squeezing in at least one or two artisan interviews. In that I failed miserably. Time flies by on vacation and there was so much for the family to see just to get the absolute basics, center of Oaxaca city, food, drink, visting some little towns in the valleys, more food and drink, archeological sites, more food and drink…. I think you get the picture.
Dancers from San Antonino Castilla Velasco at Guelaguetza main stage (1)
We went during Guelaguetza week. I had hoped to attend the main events on Monday on the hill, but I was unable to get decent tickets and I refuse to see it any other way. Fortunately, there are many other smaller events and the people watching is great.
Handcrafts are always on sale in Oaxaca city, from upscale stores to street vendors with quality ranging from what are really fine works of art to cheap trinkets. But little compares with the sheer numbers of street vendors on the main square (Zocalo) and into some adjoining streets during Guelaguetza.
By far, these stalls are dominated by resellers with indigenous-style blouses for women. The main shows of Guelaguetza feature dancers and others in authentic regional dress, and the women’s clothing is far more varied and colorful than those of the men. Many visitors buy and wear these items during the time they are in town.
I have mixed feelings about this. I do not worry about “cultural appropriation” as the makers of regional dress generally do not and a blouse paired with a pair of jeans is not trying to pass oneself off as a member of an indigenous group. Whether they conscientiously realize it or not. visitors are acknowledging that it is its indigenous heritage that makes Oaxaca so special. Perhaps what I do not like is that the buying of these shirts (authentic or not) is that of a “throwaway” item… something to be used during the festival then relegated to the back of a closet for a time until it is finally gotten rid of.
The “party favor” aspect of these clothes is noted by the extreme poor quality of most, with the aim of selling as cheaply as possible. There wasnt a single shirt I could comfortably say was close to authentic (either in design or manufacture)… and many would not stand more than a wash or two before seams frays to the point of making the garment useless.
Sales of authentic garb could be found, but making the situation worse, these opportunities were hidden beyond the Zocalo where most of the tourists roamed. Other than the usual galleries that specialize in these, there were stand set up for artisans from various regions of the state, these stalls were set up at the far north end of the Andador Macedonia Alcala. While there was a respectable crowd there when we visited, it was nothing like the areas closer to the Zocalo.
All in all, I heartily recommend going to Oaxaca for the Guelaguetza (and getting tickets for the main show if at all possible) and seeing the items for sale. While most is not for collectors, they do show some interesting innovation in design and colors, especially those which are a combination of traditional and modern dress. Better and better made examples of these can be found in Oaxaca and other areas such as Mitla and who knows, may be cherished as “traditional” garb some point in the future.
Jose Luis Arzola Tovar lives in the famed pottery town of Tonalá, Jalisco, on the edge of the Guadalajara metro area. He is well-known among the artisan community here and has a following of collectors. But he does not work in clay but in tin.
The working of sheet tin is not traditional in Tonalá, but rather in San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, a few hours to the east. Four generations ago, Arzola’s great grandfather worked in the 1880s by soldering metal items in the streets of San Miguel and neighboring Dolores Hidalgo along with making items such as toys from sheet tin. His grandfather and father followed suit. The Guanajuato handcraft tradition extends into his mother’s lineage as well, with the making of beeswax figurines and highly decorated candles popular in the southern part of the state.
Upon entering don José’s modest home on Madero Street, one notices immediately the collections that give historic weight to the work that the maestro does. One side of the living room contains tables filled with tradtional tin toys, from the 20th century up to 1980s, some of which have been made by Arzola and predecessors.
The main bedroom wall is filled with old tin folk retablos, naif paintings dedicated to a certain saint or other Catholic figure either as a petition or in gratitude for a favor received.
But the main surprise awaits lucky visitors in the back of the property. Here there is a very small two-room structure that used to be Arzola’s parents’ home. When his father died, the family turned the space into a museum for a multi-generational interest in collecting cultural objects, especially tin handcrafts. The collection was started by Arzola’s grandfather. It includes pieces made by the family over 100 years such as tin frames, toys, and lanterns as well as soldered glass enclosures. From the mother’s side there are candles and beeswax figures and even one piece that is a mix of wax and tin.
The museum does not limit itself to work done by the family. Most of the pieces are tin frames surrounding religious icons which come from various parts of Mexico. There are also various wood pieces from all over Mexico, some pre Hispanic ceramics from Jalisco and some other areas and more. The two oldest pieces in the collection are both folk retablos on tin, one definitively dated to 1800 and the other likely from the same time, but too badly eroded to be certain. There is also an interesting collection of retablos depicting scenes from Mexico’s history, in particular the Mexican Revolution, noting suffering and escapes from death/injury by famous and not-so-famous participants in these events.
Arzola has been invited to exhibit the collection in museums in various parts of Jalisco and has even had one international exhibition in Buenos Aires. He says much of the interest in the collection is from foreigners, with most visitors to his home from the U.S. and Canada.
Don José’s work is based on the tradition demonstrated in the home and museum. He was born in Guanajuato, but when he was only three, the family moved to Monterrey and shortly thereafter to Tonala to the same block where he and various members of his family can still be found. He began working metal with his father at age ten, starting with the soldering of glass enclosures then moving on to working in sheet tin. When he married, he specialized in tin work, with one brother specializing in the glass structures.
Although he still makes tin toys, Arzola is better known for making the intricate frames for religous imagery. In the past, sometimes the family painted the images of the Virgin Mary and saints, but today Arzola focuses on the tin work to enclose commercially-produced images. (This is common for artisans of this type in Guanajuato as well.) His frames are replicas or near-replicas of the pieces found in his museum, using the same materials and techniques for the most part. Exceptions include commerically made elements such as military buttons, but these are sparingly used. The tin is worked only with hand tools on a simple table in the living room.
Keeping the tradition alive here is proving difficult and it is very likely that don José will the last in his family to continue the tin work. While the family is interested on conserving and promoting the musuem/collection, none of his children have decided to dedicate themselves to craft. He has received support from government agencies and some academics, but the frames and toys have gone out of fashion in Mexican culture. However, the support has translated into the teaching of classes in Tonalá and Tlaquepaque, and the maestro has hopes that one or more of the young students will continue on after him.
Interestingly enough, the most eye-catching thing in the maestro’s living room is not the toy collection but the colorful marionettes that cover nearly an entire wall. These figures represent an interest of don José that began in 2012, after meeting marionette makers in Buenos Aires. He researched the tradition of marionettes in Mexico, and especially in western Mexico, finding people to teach him to to make and handle the figures.
Arzola took what he learned and decided to form a small marionette company that specializing in stories from and about Mexican indigenous people. Arzola’s family is Otomi (a dominant ethnicity in Guanajuato) and has been involved in indigenous groups in Jalisco for some time, leading him to speak a bit of other languages such Nahuatl, Tecuece and Coca, which are important in the history of Jalisco.
Arzola’s home, workshop and museum are on Madero #295 in Tonalá
Cel 33 1386 0881
All photos unless otherwise indicated by Leigh Thelmadatter
The center of just about any community, large or small, in Mexico is its local Catholic church. I cannot tell you how many times I oriented myself in car, public transport or walking by looking for bell towers. These churches replaced pre Hispanic temples as the center of Mexican life, legitimizing the new social and political situation.
While religion does not play the all-consuming function that it did up to the late 19th century, the parish church still has a function in the identity of a place. It not only marks the geographic and political center (as the main government building is almost always on the same plaza), but it also reflects the cultural and economic bases of the people who live here.
Mexico has quite a few towns whose main economic focus is the sale of handcrafts, the tourism it attracts or both. Some are quite famous, such as Mata Ortiz, Chihuahua and many others obscure. Although not all do, a number of the parish churches have elements related to this economic activity, and in some cases rather dominate the place of worship.
One of the first churches of this type that we discovered is the Nuestra Señora del Sagrario Church in the center of Santa Clara del Cobre, Michoacan. Santa Clara is famous for its copper working, and may be the only town left in Mexico dedicated to it. The Purhepecha had just developed techniques for working this metal when the Spanish arrived, but the emotional attachment to the office is related to the work of Vasco de Quiroga, who set up a system of trades and trading that allows the region to recover economically from the Conquest.
Like many churches in Michoacan, the use of dark wood is a distinguishing feature. This provides the perfect backdrop for copper chandeliers and other elements.
Another church in Michoacan is the Natividad de María parish of Cuanajo. This is a wood working town, specialing in furniture. The traditional furniture from here is colorful with raised images, although more simplistic and modern forms are becoming more popular.
Examples of the traditional style can be seen on a couple of pieces near the main altar. The stand for the Bible is particularly interesting as it contains the old pre-Hispanic symbol for speech, as can be seen in numerous codices. The pews are also made in town, with finely joined parquet style piecing and the inner doors show the fine work the local craftspeople are capable of. One surprise was 10 gigantic banners along the sides of the main nave, all cross-stitched by hand.
San Bartolo Coyotepec is famous for its barro negro (black clay) pottery. The working of this clay goes back to the pre Hispanic period, but what made it famous was a technique developed by local potter Doña Rosa, who found that if the piece was burnished with a smooth stone before firing, the result was a shiny black instead of a dull gray. This pottery ever since has been a favorite with tourists to the central Oaxaca valleys. The San Bartolo parish has pieces of barro negro both inside and outside the church.
Another pottery town, Metepec, State of Mexico, marks the importance of its wares on the Capillo de Calvario, which stands on the hill that overlooks the town center. The exterior wall has large ceramic suns with smiling faces in bright and/or terra cotta. These are one of several notable types of products made here. Part of the hill is covered with a “mural” made of ceramic tiles that tell the story of the town.
The small community of Vizarrón, Querétaro has not one, but two interconnected parish churches. The older one dates to the 18th century, with the newer one built in the 1990s. The older church faces the plaza which is paved with the local marble in white, black and yellow. Inside the older church, marble elements can been seen from the large block of black marble serving as the main altar to plaques indicating the stations of the cross and donors in rose or gray. These are significant because they date back to the beginning of the working of marble here in the 1950s (though mining it is older). These pieces show chisel marks from a time before the use of power tools in the artisan community here.
Marble nearly engulfs the interior of the new church, a modern circular building. The floors are of polished marble and the walls are lined with more roughly-hewed pieces. The main altar is of pink marble, with a high relief of the Last Supper. Even the priests seat on the main dias is of marble as well. The only breaks from marble there are the pews for congregants and the ceiling, formed with curved sections of brickwork. But the cupola at the center top of this ceiling is marble as well.
Sometimes local craftsmen’s talents are used to create images related to the local economic activity. In the case of the parish of Papantla, Veracruz, there are wood panels along the walls of the church dedicated to the vanilla plant. This plant is native to the area, important both culturally and economically for milenia.
Do you know of other churches which reflects the handcraft tradition of the community? Please note in the comments!
All photos by Alejandro Linares Garcia and Leigh Thelmadatter
You know you have arrived to the Vizarron valley due to the white highlights on the landscape…
The eastern and southeastern parts of Queretaro state are generally semi-arid, with Highway 120 running from San Juan del Rio north to the Sierra Gorda biosphere. The area is best known for the weekend getaway of Tequisquiapan, but many of the Otomi that live in this region have relatively undiscovered handcraft tradtions, both old and not-so-old. One town on this route is Vizarron/Pueblo Nuevo, part of the Cadereyta de Montes municipality.
The town is centered in a small valley, where low mountains of rock and low scrub parallel the highway. The prevalence of the rock means that even in the higher elevations there are no trees as there is nowhere for the roots to grow. Where the rock stops outside the valley, forests abruptly begin.
There are 50 some-odd major deposits of white, gray, pink, brown, yellow and black marble in the valley along with some deposits of other minerals such as onyx. The economy of the entire valley is dependent on them, and the deposits are valuable enough that some are owned by prominent state and federal politicians. Local artisans state that mining of the rock extends back as far as the colonial period, but the current mining is attributed to Cirilio Servin Garcia, the town priest, about fifty years ago as a way to help the impoverished population.
The marble is so plentiful that many side streets are paved in its rough form, and many homes have dividers of the same material simply stacked on property lines. The town’s main plaza and two churches are testaments to the importance of both mining and the stone working. The plaza is paved with about 30 tons of white, yellow and black marble pieces, which have been tumbled smooth. The altar of the old church is a solid piece of black marble. It and the various marble plaques show the telltale signs of chiseling with hand tools, attesting the working of the stone before power equipment. The new church, built in the 1990s, has walls, columns, floors and cupola completely covered in marble. Its main altar is made of pink marble with a high relief of the Last Supper on its facade.
Members of the Maxei cooperative working
Local artisans agree that the working of marble and onyx into handcrafts and other consumer products goes about about 50 years or two generations. According to Angeles Martinez, representative of Mármoles Maxei artisan cooperative, it began about two generations ago when several local people, including her grandfather, learned how to work marble as a migrant in Mexico City, bringing that knowledge back home with him. Today, there are over 100 marble/onyx workshops in the Vizarron area, many of which are in the southside barrio of Pueblo Nuevo, an Otomi enclave. Here, every family has at least one member who works in stone and in many cases, all of them do, both men and women doing all facets of the work. These workshops tend to be very small, mostly with limited resources such as hand tools, drills with attachments for various purposes, and sometimes larger equipment. One member of the Maxei cooperative is also a mechanic and devised his own large lathe to make circular marble columns. Raw marble pieces can weigh tons, but for this workshops, transport is mostly by pickup with loading and unloading done with systems of ropes and pulleys, along with manpower. End polishing is generally done by hand.
Finished products range from flooring, wall covering and other home improvement materials, to artistic sculptures to fountains and large flowerpots, to sculptures, to decorative lamps, clocks, chessboards, animal figurines (lighted and unlighted), jewelry boxes, ashtrays, jewelry and more.
Over 70% of the town’s population lives directly off of the mining, working or selling of marble, so when marble prices fall, the town faces economic crises. The last such fall occurred in 2010, with sales off about 80%, forcing many small producers to close.
Working marble is an expensive proposition. Despite power tools, it is time and labor intensive and cutting blades typically are incrusted with industrial diamonds. A small disk for a hand drill costa $1,200 pesos (about 80 USD) and lasts about a week. The Otomi town of Pueblo Nuevo has sought help from state and federal agencies who have worked with them to diversify the products they make and the markets that they sell to in order to mitigate fluctuations in the market.
Compared to the United States, Mexico has very little in the way of lakes. The largest is Lake Chapala on the Michoacan/Jalisco border. But perhaps the most culturally significant is Lake Patzcuaro. It was the center of the Purhepecha Empire and still holds a special place in modern Michoacan.
Mexican lakes tend to be shallow, allowing for the natural growth of reeds and rushes that form the basis of most basket making. The same plants used millenia ago are still gathered and worked into both utilitarian and decorative items.
Most are tradtional but even this humble craft has seen innovation. The Tzumundi workshop is located in the basketry town of Ihuatzio, on the eastern shore of Lake Patzcuaro. It was founded and is run by Mario Lopez Torres, who grew up in Mexico City but found his calling here.
Although from a creative family (his father was a photographer), he does not have artisan lineage. Initially, he studied the fine arts, leaving home as a teen to learn wicker techniques in San Francisco el Tepeji in the state of Puebla. But Lopez is a multifaceted craftsperson, able to work in metal, stone and wood and had the idea of making basketry items with metal frames, an idea he could not explore in the small town.
Friends living in Santa Clara del Cobre, Michoacan invited him to stay a while and work out his idea at their workshop. He arrived there at age 18 over four decades ago, but by the time he was 19, he had decided to move to and live permanently at the Tzimundi site in Ihuatzio. All the rugged stone buildings with wrought iron and wood were made by his hands.
The Lake Patzcuaro area has a milenia-old tradition of basketry, using reeds and rushes that grow along the edges of the shallow lake. The eastern side of the lake in paticular is still noted for the making of basketry items.
But the technique that dominates Lopez’s and many other workshops in this area today is not pre Hispanic. It is particular method that originated in the Philipines, and introduced to the area by a handcrafts dealer from Texas about 40 years ago. Instead of using split stiff stems, the leaves of bullrushes (called “chuspata” locally) are twisted into a kind of cord, than woven like fabric over a frame. This frame can be of various materials, including stiff wicker, but Lopez focuses on the use of frames shaped by bending thick steel wire and soldering joints.
Despite the foreign origin of the technique, the bullrushes used are local, still collected from the lake shore. Lopez himself directly works with the making of the steel frames, employing various people in Ihuatzio and surrounding communities to do the weaving work. This is true from small plates and animal figures to large sofas, with only the thickness of the wire used varying. The cord is woven tightly so that metal frame is not visible, making the piece look a whole lot lighter than it really is. After the chuspata cord is woven, the piece is varnished for preservation and for looks. A large lounge chair takes about 20 days, from start to finish.
The business is still in the family but it has had its ups and downs. Early in its history, Lopez sold principally in Mexico City but over time this became impractical. He began working with exhibiting at various fairs and other events in central Mexico, particually from Guanajuato to Jalisco, and he still exhibits and sells regularly in San Miguel de Allende and the Feria Maestros del Arte in Chapala, Jalisco.
At the business’s height, Lopez was shipping items regularly to small stores and galleries in the U.S. and Europe. However, Michoacan went into economic crisis a couple of decades ago, principally due to the steep drop off of tourism, itself due to drug trafficking and some political violence. Tourism and the overall economy has begun to recover somewhat according to Lopez, but there are far more artisans can he can re-employ.
Lopez’s children have mostly gone into professional occupations, with the workshop benefitting with one’s career in computers, resulting in a website at http://www.tzumindi.com/
All photos by Alejandro Linares Garcia or Leigh Thelmadatter
All that glitters is not gold… sometimes it is silver. William Spratling did not move to Mexico with the intent of becoming a silversmith, but fate eventually led him there, much to the benefit of the small town of Taxco, Guerrero.
Spratling was born in 1900 in Sonyea, New York. He came from an educated family, but his mother died young, and he eventually went to live with other relatives in New York and Alabama. He studied architecture at Auburn, taught there and at the age of 22, became a faculty member at Tulane University in New Orleans. Spatling became immersed in work in architecture, writing and art, becoming a fixture in the artists’ community of Vieux Carré, associated with people such as William Faulkner and Caroline Durieux. His position allowed him to travel in Europe for several summers. but he became interested in traveling in Mexico.
His first opportunity came in 1926, through Frans Blom, who headed the new Middle America Research Department at Tulane. Blom was well-connected in Mexico and gave Spratline introduction letters for a number of important people such as Diego Rivera and Frances Toor. Spratling left for Veracruz with a contract to write articles on colonial Mexican architecture for a magazine, the first of three such summers.
Outgoing and gregarious, he quickly developed a social circle of influential people in Mexico including Rivera, Rufino Tamayo, David Siquiereos, photographer Edward Weston, along with a number of politicians, intellectuals and art dealers.
He had been involved in learning about Mexican handcrafts through his writing and promotion work.
By 1928, Spratling decided to abandon the U.S. for permanent residency in Mexico. His contacts, along with artistic and political interest in the States in the wholesale changes going on in Mexico, offered Spratling writing and art promotion opportunities. In 1929, he negotiated a mural for Rivera in Cuernavaca (sponsored by a wealthy American family) and in turn, Rivera gave Spratling a $2000 dollar commission, with which he bought a modest house in Taxco, Guerrero. Spratling’s work also put him in contact with Mexican handcrafts, which were promoted by Mexico’s artistic class as symbolic of a true Mexican identity.
Spratling’s house purchase became the foundation of a wave of American expats moving to the tiny, impoverished town. From 1929 to 1945, the American invited and entertained people at his home, convincing more than a few to buy or build their own homes there.
However, despite his wide-ranging connections and talents, his financial situation was dicey. In 1930, US ambassador Dwight Morrow made note to Spratling that the town’s economy was based on silver and that he should consider reviving it.
Silver had been mined in the area since the pre Hispanic period. It reached its height in the 18th century under Jose de la Borda, who built the town’s notable Santa Prisca Church. But that silver mining had little benefit to the town and after the silver ran out, things became worse. By the time Spratling had arrived it had fallen into abject poverty. Spratling, like his contemporaries, was looking to create a better Mexico, but his means was a bit more practical than promoting artists’ utopian visions.
Spratling found the idea of reviving silverwork very intriguing. He found one lone old man who still new something about the work that had been done in Taxco to learn what he could. He also made connections with artisans in the Guerrero capital of Iguala, where silver and gold work continue to this day.
The result was the start of a silver workshop in Spratling’s home, hiring some master craftsmen from Iguala and recruiting local young people as apprentices. Design work fell to the drawing abilities of Spratling himself.
This workshop was dubbed “Taller (Workshop) de Las Delicias,” the street on which the house was located. The anniversary of this founding is still noted in Taxco, as the date of Mexico’s National Silver Fair held each November.
At that time, Mexican silverwork had degenerated to copies of European and Mexican colonial designs. Inspired by the work of Rivera and others in reviving an indigenous heritage identity for the country, Spratling began by using images primarily from indigenous sources, which varied from ancient codices, stamps local Nahuas used to decorate their pottery, Aztec seals, etc. The discovery of Tomb 7 in Monte Alban in Oaxaca, yielded gold treasures (very rare as the Spanish did a thorough job of plundering the country), the designs of which made their way into Spratling’s work.
But design work quickly shifted from copies to Spratling’s own interpretations of the old designs, adding contemporary elements and lines. This is what set his work apart from just making curios.
Early work from Las Delicias was relatively crude, starting with half-dome earrings and large, heavy belt buckles. Early techniques were very basic, lacking equipment such as rolling mills, with much of the work done through hand-hammering. Polishing was done with a local leaf with a texture similar to sandpaper. However a number of early elements of the work remained. One was Spratling’s trademark, a joined “WS” (from the brand on his horses) and the making of 980 silver (20 parts copper to 980 parts silver) Sterling is 925, but Spratling preferred the softer color of 980 and that it did not oxidize as quickly.
Initially, the workshop’s sales were purely retail, depending on the stream of visitors now coming to Taxco and Las Delicias. Taxco was becoming fashionable and demands for a number of Mexican crafts was growing, leading Spratling to offer work in tin, leather, wool and wood (especially furniture) from a variety of craftspeople. While other similar businesses were appearing, Las Delicias stood out because buyers could watch pieces being made just before purchase.
Through the 1930s, the workshop grew rapidly, tourism and the US expat community continued to grow. By 1937, Spratling employed about 100 artisans and by 1940, 300. The silverwork expanded to include larger pieces such as silverware, candlesticks, dishes and more. This growth continued into the 1940s, with wholesaling of jewelry starting in 1945, almost entirely to foreign markets. Spratlings main roles continued to be in design (with several new ones each week) and the management of the business. Despite the volume of business it was not making much money. In 1940, Spratling signed a contract with Silco to provide designs for costume jewelry, one of many such collaborations he would do for the rest of his life.
Another problem was competition, and in particular the copying of his designs. He complained that any new design had a shelf life of about a week before they were copied in town. One craftsperson, Serafin Moctezuma, went even as far as to use a “SM” mark… looking much like and upside down “WS.” A number of Spratling’s craftsmen left to form their own workshop, some like those of Hector Aguilar and Antonio Castillo, with Spratling’s blessing with the admonition not to reproduce what they had done for him.
By the mid-1940s, the workshop employed about 400 artisans, but Spratling made a startling move. In 1944, he sold all but 15% of his interest, essentially becoming an employee, sticking to design work and leaving most of the business decisions to others. This would prove to be a disaster for Las Delicias, now renamed Spratling and Artesanos. His importance in the enterprise sharply diminished in within a year had problems with his business partners. Disheartened, he took on employment to work with native peoples of Alaska to try and replicate his success in Taxco. In 1946, Spratling sold the last of his stake in the company which eventually went bankrupt.
Spratling returned to Mexico to live at a ranch he bought on the highway between Taxco and Iguala. He lived off the food the ranch produced as well as various collaorations with Mexican and US enterprises. His role as founder of modern Taxco silver was cemented, with a street there named after him and being named its “favorite son.” But the honors also resulted in scandalous newspaper stories about his personal life and accusation of shipping archeological pieces outside of Mexico. This and failure of the company he founded made Spratling rather reclusive to his ranch. When Warner Bros. came to make a movie about his life, Spratling did not want credit for the Taxco industry.
Spratling died on August 7, 1967 in a car accident while he was on his way to Mexico City. It would be very difficult to overestimate his impact on silverwork, not just in Taxco but in Mexico in general as the indigenous-inspired motifs have since become a staple of Mexican silver. Taxco’s position as one of Guerrero state’s three main tourist attractions (along with Acapulco and Zihuatanejo) traces back to him, the people he brought to Taxco and connecting sales to tourism. Although it may not have ended personally well for this American, his work has had a positive economic effect on just about everyone who works in this tiny town clinging onto a hillside in central Mexico.
Mujeres Alfareros de Tlahuac (Women Potters of Tlahuac) has it origins in the aftermath of the 1985 Mexico City earthquake. At that time many people not only lost their homes but their livelihoods as well. There were efforts by both government and NGO’s to rebuild and replace employment that had been lost, which included encouraging the founding of employee-owned cooperatives.
Then 20-something Rita Resendiz was one of those who had lost her job. She had recently moved to Colonia Roma, near the city center and one of the neighborhoods heavily impacted by the disaster. While still living in a tent shelter, a man by the name of Dr. León Valencia, was looking for people who would be interested in using a ceramic kiln on his property to learn to make pottery and start a business. This appealed to Rita and a few other women. They were all young, with neither any idea of how to create ceramics or run a cooperative, but decided not to let that hold them back. Resendiz says that decision changed her life forever, as she never went back to her studies.
Unfortunately, this first co-op lasted only five years. The original organization made everyone equally owners and workers, and angry disputes eventually led to dissolution.
The group divided up the property, and with her part, Resendiz started over. She was not dissuaded from the co-op model, nor from the idea of an organization dedicated to helping women socially and economically. Resendiz formed a new cooperative, whose ideological purposes are enhancing women’s social and economic positions in Mexican society and even within their own families. The other is to conserve and promote the cultural value of Mexican handcrafts within Mexico. She is frank about why her focus is on women’s issues: her experience with men in various facets of her life has been mostly negative, in part because she feels they do not take her or her opinions seriously.
The second organization is the one that still exists today. It started with only three women, including Resendiz. Instead of staying in expensive Colonia Roma, Resendiz bought land in then-isolated Tlahuac borough in the southwest of what is officially Mexico City. The reality was that it was a world apart in the very early 1990s. It was still rural, with few paved roads, fewer stores and almost non-existant public transportation. People lived by the raising of livestock, and there was no infrastructure to support a ceramics workshop. Very slowly the workshop was established and then began to grow. By 2006, it had reached a dozen or so members. But changes in federal government policies pulled support for artisans in training and marketing. The workshop suffered, lost members and even suspended operations for a time. Since 2012, the situation has improved and today the co-op has 4 women who are dedicated to it full-time.
The workshop’s repertoire today is a far cry from the very simple pieces they produced in the beginning. In the latter 1980s, much of the time was spent learning the basics. Over time they have developed signature products and styles in high-fire ceramics (fired once at 1280C) using clays from several states in Mexico. Various shades of blue are dominant here as this pigment works best with high-fire techniques. Red can be seen and occasionally other colors.
They are still dedicated to experimentation and new ideas. They have worked with Georgina Toussaint, a textile artist and anthropologist. While Mujeres Alfareras had always used traditional design elements, Toussaint taught them their histories and meanings. Many of these have pre Hispanic origins. Resendiz says this gives the women pride as they feel they are doing their part to keep their heritage alive. The use of traditional elements does not mean stagnation. The workshop works to diversify, update and innovate their product lines, working with various clays, glazes and pigments as well.
Their products are classified under three different lines. The first is utilitarian pieces: cups, plates, bowls etc. The second consists of decorative pieces such as flower vases, tiles with images painted on them and decorative masks (hung on walls). The last are those created with an artistic purpose in mind. One example is a set of faces done in 2002 as a protest against the femicides of Ciudad Juarez. Another is a ceramic chair draped in textiles by Georgina Toussaint, which was part of the Arte/Sano exhibit of the Museo de Arte Popular in Mexico City. All of these pieces are made for exhibit competition and may or may not be sold. All members participate in the making of items of all three lines. One reason behind this is that Rita does not yet know who will take over the cooperative after her, but whoever does needs to understand all aspects of production.
Most of Mujeres Alfarera’s sales are through a built-up client base who return time and time again to place orders. Many of these are special orders for items such as personalized plaques, mugs, plates, for individuals and for events. They also travel to various handcraft fairs, but in particular like to work with events related to women’s issues. A small amount is sold in stores, such as the government FONART outlets. They have sold abroad, mostly through the Novica organization. Interestingly enough, the main economic challenge for the workshop right now is not having enough orders but having enough hands. They are looking for new members.
Rita Resendiz is the leader of the cooperative and its main driving force. She is quite unusual. She decided when very young to become independent of her family, moving alone from Mexico City’s northern suburbs into the center of the city proper. She remains a fiercely independent woman, never married or does she have children. She considers the co-op and her shelter dogs to be her children. She even has limited contact with the rest of her relatives, something highly unusual for women (and even men) in Mexico, even in modern Mexico City.
Another of Resendiz’s passions is rescue dogs. The workshop compound also served as a shelter for up to 20 dogs at a time, and even a few cats through in. When Resendiz moved to the area it was still very rural. Dogs could run around freely in relative safety, and even survive pretty well without owners. The rapid urban sprawl into this part of the Valley of Mexico has made life extremely difficult for street dogs, similar to the rest of city. The change has occurred only over 20 years, and people’s attitudes towards animals have not caught up. Dogs are considered similar to livestock, things to be owned and disposed of if not wanted. Spaying and neutering is rare here, in part because of finances and because the idea of dogs (and cats) as part of the family is rare.
The cooperative does what it can to change the situation, using resources they generate themselves through ceramic work (as well as maintain themselves). This includes feeding, spaying/neutering and finding permanent homes for the 20 dogs they can have on their compound at any one time and feeding many more that are on the street. Rita says that when money for the dogs is tight, they offer workshops in making and firing ceramic pieces to the public, charging only a bag of dry dog food.
On a recent visit to the pottery town of Dolores Hidalgo, we inquired at the local tourist office for a recommendation of a producer to visit. Without hesitation, the answer was Talavera Vazquez, only a few blocks from the main plaza on the corner of Puebla and Tamaulipas streets.
Despite the fact that the name “Talavera” refers only to majolica pottery produced in Puebla (according to Mexico’s demoninación de origen law), neither the Vazquez family or the rest of the town accepts that they cannot call their work or their businesses by that name.
The story of how the family came to prominence in this field started in the very early 20th century with Felipe Vazquez, whose parents moved to Dolores Hidalgo from Puebla. Felipe began during the Mexican Revolution by walking the streets of the towns of Dolores Hidalgo and San Miguel de Allende selling the family’s pottery. The business grew enough that he was able to sell as far away as Guadalajara and taught ceramics classes in San Miguel for 30 years. His work became a fixture in San Miguel, eventually bringing it to the attention of U.S. expats who began to arrive to study there after World War II. Today, the workshop is run by 4th generation Roberto Vazquez but the workshop’s current status in the market is due to the work done by his parents who ran it from 1986 to 1996. Prior to the 1980s, the bulk of the ceramic produced was tile. His parents anticipated a change to the making of dishes and other individual pieces, in part due to San Miguel’s growth as a retirement haven for foreigners. This not only resulted in higher local sales, but also articles about the business in English language publications with several speciality stores in the US taking interest in importing their wares by the end of the decade. Foreign markets have been a profitable mainstay of the business ever since.
For better or worse, the majolica “talavera” of Dolores Hidalgo is not as constrained by tradition as are the wares of Puebla in styles, colors or methods. However, most pieces do keep the colonial feel to them. This is very evident in the inventory available for sale at the workshop itself, open to the public. Items include plates bowls, tiles, and large jars called tibors, but also include less traditional items such as coffee mugs, multicolored lizard figures to hang on walls, modern bathroom sinks and small fountains.
The clay used is still mined from areas around Dolores Hidalgo. Vazquez principally uses three kinds; red, black and white, with two or all three mixed depending on what is being made. The most traditional method of forming pieces is by pottery wheel, but the market for Dolores wares has made this impossible. This majolica does not command the prices of that of Puebla, so Vazquez and competitors form the majority of their pieces using molds, which allows for faster creation of multiple items, which most orders require. It also has the benefit of making pieces less prone to defects. Only a few pieces are made by hand at all, which include oval platters and box-like containers.
Glazes and pigments are commercial, but colors are created by the workshop. The most traditional and most popular color scheme remains blue-on-white, but the Vazquez workshop also experiments with various shades of green, black, orange and brown, combining them in various ways.
The molding and initial firing of pieces is done in another location, but the glazing, decoration and final firing is done in the main family workshop. This processes begin by throughly cleaning the piece of all dust before dipping it into a glaze that will become the white or off-white background of the piece.
The piece is set to dry for about 2 hours before it is ready to have the design traced onto it. This is the hardest and perhaps most important job of the workshop as most of the value of the piece depends on the design. All designs are penciled on by hand, no stencils, and no two are exactly alike. While almost all of the designs are based on tradition, the exact interpretations have been developed by the workshop to create its own style. There are some pieces with more modern designs, but these are almost always the result of special orders.
The colors are applied within the various lines, almost always by women. Before, firing the colors are much paler. After the color(s) is/are applied and dried, the piece is ready for final firing between 1,100 and 1,200 C for 6-8 hours. Then the piece is inspected for defects such as cracks or bubbles in the glaze.
Roberto Vazquez is proud that mouth-to-mouth is still their best advertising, and the business has never had to pay for its fairly regular appearances in magazines and other publications.
The business is sophisticated, with its own Internet site, and the ability to ship anywhere in Mexico and the world. As mentioned earlier, the foreign market is the basis of the business, with about 75% of production going to the United States, and between 10-15% more to other foreign countries such as Japan, Germany, France, as well as South America and Asia. Most domestic shipping is to tourist centers. Roberto states that almost all the dishes and other ceramics in San Miguel hotels and restaurants are from them, and they even have clients in the city of Puebla. Despite the store, very little of their wares are sold in Dolores Hidalgo proper. The first reason is that they can get much better prices outside of Mexico. The second is that most of what can be found in Dolores Hidalgo proper is of lesser quality and much cheaper. Roberto claims that much of the pottery sold in the town, even if in traditional style, is fake… made in other parts of Mexico such as Tonalá, Jalisco.
Despite this, the showroom remains important because clients still come to them to get a feel for the pieces, which is not generally possible on the Internet, as well as for some quick purchases.
The major problem that the workshop has is with production. Despite the adoption of some mass-production techniques, most of the work is still done by hand, no machines or conveyor belts to be found. The low prices of Dolores Hidalgo wares have attracted the attention of large chain stores in the U.S. such as Target, but these buyers seek to purchase lots by the thousands, generally equal copies and for very low per-unit prices. Despite being the largest and best-placed producer in Dolores Hidalgo, Roberto has had to turn down such work, has he does not have the capacity or the staff to produce such quantity on deadlines set by such buyers. Large orders do not mean lower per-unit prices for workshops like Vazquez either (mostly due to labor costs), so profit margins on such large orders may not be worth the work. Vazquez has a well-established base of small and medium-sized businesses to work with, giving him the luxury of refusing such orders.
Today, Giovanni Vazquez, Roberto’s son, is the fifth generation to work in the business, but it is not clear if he or any of siblings will be taking over in the future. Roberto was the only one of all his 6 siblings to be interested in the work, stating that part of the reason was that he married and started his family young, without finishing high school. He has strongly encouraged his children to get university educations and to live/study abroad if at all possible. One works for Mercedes Benz in Germany and another will be spending a semester abroad in Europe.
Tequisquiapan, or Tequis for short, is a small, but growing town in southern Querétaro state. It is an easy 2.5 hour drive from either Mexico City or San Miguel Allende. This and its designation as as “Magical Town” (Pueblo Mágico) makes it a popular weekend destination from a number of larger cities in central Mexico.
Although much warmer and much drier, there is a San Miguel Allende feel to the place. The center is filled with very well kept colonial and colonial-style buildings, with cobblestone streets and the blocks immediately surrounding the main plaza are pedestrian-only. Although not as numerous, it also has a variety of upscale hotels, dining places as well as some very prominent real estate offices selling second homes and condos, primarily to Mexico City residents.
L: Street in the historic center (credit:Marrovi) and R: Entering the main plaza from Juarez Poniente)
Tequis’ claim to fame is locally-made wines and cheeses. It is on the eastern edge of the Bajío region, a relatively flat area in Mexico where the raising of dairy cattle and cheese making began early in the colonial period. The centuries of experience has allowed for the development of more gourmet cheeses. These include variations off of Mexican classics such as smoked Oaxaca and herbed panela, along with a number of specialty European cheeses from goats’ and sheep’s milk. Locally made wine is dominated by the Freixnet vineyards in nearby Ezequiel Montes, which makes mostly sparkling whites. But some others made by very small concerns can be found as well.
Like many tourist towns, the main role of handcrafts is souvenirs and curiosities for visitors. The town has two handcrafts markets side-by-side east of the main parish church, several stores facing the main plaza and other stores and stands on the corner of Morelos Norte and Calle Niños Heroes, just off the southwest corner of the plaza. The quality of the crafts varies from relatively cheap curios to a couple of stores that sell very fine wares. Most are not from Tequis or Querétaro at all, but the state government does have a branch of its Casa de Artesanias on Morelos Norte. All of the wares here are from Querétaro, but unfortunately like at the main store in the state capital, nothing is labeled as to who made the piece or even where it is from. Staff is not of help either.
There are three kinds of crafts available here which are most likely to be local, or at least from southern Querétaro. Tequis has a reputation for the making of baskets. There are rivers and other water sources nearby providing the needed environment in otherwise dry semi-desert. There is a basketry workshop next to the Casa de Artesanias, but it was not open during my visit. There was also an impressive wicker church model in the tourist office, but the woman working there did not know who made it, only that it was by a local maestro.
Southern Querétaro is rich in quartz, marble and even opals. Various stands and stalls sell minerals and finished opal and other pieces are are very likely to be local. Tequis offers tours to nearby mines as well, which offers other opportunities to buy.
The last are embroidery pieces and “Maria” rag dolls. The most numerous indigenous people in southern Querétaro are the Otomi. Women can generally be identified as they still wear traditional dress or at least some variation off of it. This is important to note because these handcrafts are generally not in stores or stands, but rather sold by the Otomi women themselves on the street. Purchases from these women pretty much assures that you are getting an authentic piece, whether it was made by them or by another member of the woman’s community.
Tequis is not a craft town in the sense of having a high concentration of artisans or specializing in one kind of handcraft. The main draw is being a weekend away from the noise and bustle of the city (and much less crowded than San Miguel), eating some gourmet meals, with handcraft shopping as an interesting added bonus.
Anyone who has lived in Mexico for a time have come across the concept of the “altar” for Day of the Dead. It is not an altar in the Catholic sense, although its purpose is to direct the onlookers thoughts onto one or more ideas.
This extension of the concept of altar beyond something that is just in church appears in several aspects of Mexican life. Most are related to folk religion, practices that are related to but not officially part of Catholic liturgy. Day of the Dead is the best known of these, where the focus is on loved ones who have passed on. But others revolve around public displays for local patron saints, the Virgin of Sorrows and sometimes are even secular, such as Day of the Dead altars dedicated to Mexican historical figures.
While public altars are not exactly new, they have been evolving in central Mexico, especially in terms of size. Much of this has been due to the popularity of “mega-altars” in Mexico City for Day of the Dead. These altars have extended the time when artisans start planning and working on altar projects back to the summer, in order to be ready by October.
Rodolfo Villena Hernandez is a cartonero (paper mache artist) who specializes in the making of public altars. His interest in Day of the Dead altars began young when he began building them in the family garage in Mexico City. His passion for tradition led him to study history at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. Moving to Puebla a few years after that.
His career as a cartonero began in the early 1990s, around the same time that he became involved in theatre. He has worked as a director and producer and even wrote one play. As the two has their start together, it is not surprising that much of his theatre can appear in his altars, as both have scenes and characters. Although altars do not have movement, placement and position of elements are equally important to both.
While Day of the Dead is still the focal point of his year, he makes monumental altars for other holidays and events such as Holy Week, Lent and Corpus Christi, with the majority commissioned by government and cultural institutions. He has created altars dedicated to Puebla bishop Juan de Palafox y Mendoza for the Puebla city hall, one depicting the Mexican Revolution for the Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla, one dedicated to the China Poblana and another to artist Jose Guadalupe Posada for the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago. While most of his works are meant for display in the state of Puebla, his has also exhibited in several cities in the United States, thanks to patronage from the National Museum of Mexican Art and others.
His work has earned him a number of awards such as being named a “distinguished citizen of Puebla” by the state and a “grand master” of Mexican folk art by the Museo de Arte Popular in Mexico City.
Despite his success, making a living at this work remains a challenge for the nearly 50-year old artisan. Government grants and other support is fickle at best, and he must fight to negotiate decent prices for his work. He lives with his parents and his workshop is in a delapidated building on the old industrial corredor that links the cities of Puebla and Tlaxcala. To supplement his income from monumental altars, he does smaller cartoneria works as well as give classes both at this workshop, Puebla cultural institutions and even once in the United States.
Feature image courtesy of the artisan, all others by Alejandro Linares Garcia unless otherwise noted.