The joy of painting Virgins

San Miguel Allende has become globally famous for its huge expat community… one that began with a private art school started in the town that attracted US soldiers with GI Bill money to spend. What is not well known is that the local population is very traditional, and in fact, the whole state of Guanajuato has the reputation of being “mocho”  (stodgy and religious). In San Miguel, tradition translates into a plethora of local festivals, processions and more. This makes the town even more attractive to foreigners, but that is far from the reason why locals preserve public spectacles.

Chichimeca dancers for the feast of Saint Michael (credit:Nan.P.182)

Over the past months, I have been researching a book on foreign artists in Mexico. Not being an art expert, I have done a ton of reading both general and specific. It seems to me that artists are looking for something meaningful and sometimes get quite convoluted in that search, to say the least.



I may have seen in a small group of housewives what many of these artists are looking for. Tucked in a house just off the beaten path of touristy San Miguel Allende is a group of local women (and one gringo), who for 20 yars have met regularly to paint.

The painting in the back is done by the group. The doll is really a cake.


All of the women are traditional housewives ranging in age from 30 to 70-something. They are also joined by one expat, tour guide operator Joseph Toone, who introduced me to them. The group started getting together to do handcrafts and share time together. Then they met an artist named Esperanza Orvañanos from Jalisco whose work they really liked and she began to teach them how to paint on canvas. Originally their work was purely traditional religious imagery. Today, all but one have a strong preference for religious imagery.  Their religious imagery is heavily focused on the Virgin Mary in various aparitions, but images of Jesus (especially as a child) and those of saints appear as well. However, members of the group branch out into other themes, such as flowers, landscapes and other folkloric imagery. In fact, they have done a number of María doll themed book covers for local resident Joseph Toone’s books on San Miguel Allende.

65027129_340527739918619_1914910224028794880_nThey call the oldest member of the group, Lupita Reyes, “Speedy Gonzalez” for her prolific output of paintings. Of the roughly 500 they have produced in all sizes over the years, they are convinced she has produced about 80%. They primarily work in oil, but work in other media such as pastels and acrylics, even mixed media, The mixed media works typically incorporate textiles, a throwback to their handcrafting days.

They spend about 6 or so hours a week painting together, but do not consider themselves commerical artists.  Their religous work is not for sale, instead most are given away and have gone as far as the United States and Europe because of all the international contacts the women have living in San Miguel Allende. After all this time, they still consider themselves students of art using it as a kind of therapy. They have had only one formal exhibition of their work, but this is not a priority for the group. I noticed looking at the paintings in the workshop that there were a variety of styles and levels of talent, but I did not ask who did what. The main reason for this is that there is a comaraderie among the women which leaves no room for competition, and I did not want to intrude on that. In fact, some of the women did not want to be mentioned in this article at all by name.

Images of Maria and Jose dolls  with the parish of Saint Michael

I came away from my visit with these women impressed by the joy they have for their lives, their faith and their painting. It may be a lot to say, and an overeducated cynic like myself feels awkward saying it, but there really is no other way to express it. These women are a great example of religion at its best… providing happiness and a sense of purpose. They are traditional women, but not “mochas”… they have no sense of superiority and are really happy with their lives. It is something those of us who wander spirtually lack, and I admire them for it.



All photos except one are courtesy of Joseph Toone




Black glass of the gods

Monkey drinking vessel from the Museum of Antropology in Mexico City (credit: Dennis Jarvis)

If you have studied anything about Mesoamerican cultures, you probably know what obsidian is. Simply put, it is volcanic glass formed at the end of an eruption when lava cools suddenly. Most finished pieces made of the substance are an opaque and shiny black, but its chemical composition, purity and how it is handled can produce different colors and finishes. Obsidian can appear in dark brown, gold, violet, certain tones of blue, red and some can even been rainbow-colored, white or translucent. In Mexico, one area is noted for producting a green obsidian.

Obsidian has a long history in Mexico and was instrumental in the development a various civilizations here. It main value stemmed from its ability to be flaked into extremely sharp points and blades. These points and blades were used to make weapons of war, such as daggers and a kind of war club called a macuahuitl – wood impregnated with blades of obsidian. Daggers and knives were also used in ritual sacrifices and the mundane task of preparing food.

Mayan spearheads from Palenque at  the Museum of the Americas in Madrid (credit:Simon Burchell)

In the Mesoamerican period, there were two main sources of obsidian. By far the most important was the region north of Mexico City. Control and trade of obsidian was the economic basis of the Teotihuacan civilization, which worked two sites, One was smaller located what is now Otumba, State of Mexico. The most important site, the Sierra de Navajas, is near the city of Pachuca, Hidalgo, and noted for green obsidian.

Teotihuacan’s trade in obsidian extended as far as Maya territory and made the city wealthy. It was not only important for making cutting implements, but was also used to for jewelry and religious objects, many of which have been found in the graves of rulers and warriors.

Obsidian mirror embedded in the atrium cross in San José parish church in Cd. Hidalgo, Michoacan. it was a symbol of the god Tezcatlipoca

Another area that was important as a source of obsidian is Teuchitlan, in the modern state of Jalisco. Through knowledge of this obsidian’s particular properties, it is known that this obsidian was traded to what are now Sinaloa, Nayarit, Guanajuato, Zacatecas, Colima and Michoacan.

With the introduction of steel and other metals, the use of obsidian fell, as it could not compare in durability. Working the material did not resurge here until about 60 or so years ago, prompted by the opening and popularity of the Teotihuacan archeological site. By far, most obsidian work is done in two of the adjoining municipalities, San Juan Teotihuacan and San Martin de las Piramides. There are almost 1,000 artisans in this valley and about a third work in obsidian. Although San Marcos, Jalisco held an obsidian workshop a few years ago, its working has not resurged in western Mexico.

First and second place pieces at the 2019 Obsidian Fair in Teotihuacan. L: by Humberto Hernandez Nieto and R: by Zenaido Joel Ortega Moreno

Interestingly, the most important source of obsidian in the Mesoamerican period continues to be the most important source today. The Sierra de las Navajas (Mountains of the Knives) is still heavily mined and its importance is such that this mountain chain appears on the state seal of Hidalgo. Nearly everyone in the nearby towns such as El Nopalillo work in mining, producing 20 tons of obsidian each month. However, 3/4 of this is exported raw, mostly to China. The remaining quarter supplies artisans in Hidalgo and Teotihuacan.

Mayan mask by Joel Rufino Oliva Olvera using golden obsidian at the Obsidian Fair in Teotihuacan

In Teotihuacan and other ancient cultures, obsidian was considered magical and sacred. It is still considered to have esoteric qualities, with different energies ascribed to the different variants of color. This has made obsidian popular with spas and new age healing centers, creating a market for hand-sized rounded stones for use in massages. However, the vast majority of the obsidian is destined for the souvenir market in the area around Teotihuacan. While this tourism has created a market where none existed before, obsidian is made into cheap trinkets, mostly imitations of pre-Hispanic artifiacts, animal figures and mini-pyramids. It can even include ashtrays. All these tend to be small, mere centimeters in width or height, with the execption of masks, which are of other materials tiled over in obsidian. In many pieces, the obsidian is paired with other stones and mother-of-pearl, making the objects look even more kitsch. However, the great demand has prompted many in the area to change their occupations as making these trinkets pays better than most other manual labor in the area.

L: Untitled sculpture by Silvia Flores Perez and R: “El Sacrificio” by Manuel Sarabia at the Obsidian Fair in Teotihuacan

The tourist means that obsidian work is spreading, primarily northward back toward the main source of obsidian in Hidalgo state. The first to work it in El Nopalillo was Juan Castlan Mata, who began his workshop 1987 after learning the craft in Teotihuacan. He has since gone on to teach others in Nopalillo, and neighboring Santa Monica and Epazoyucan. Today, about half of El Nopalillo makes finished products of obsidian. In addition, the Otomi in El Pañhe, Hidalgo have begun to work with red and black obsidian, taking advantage of visitors to the local El Pañhu archeological site and 16th century monastery.

K'ima Síihil Gold (Article) (1)
-From K’imā with design by David Mendez Sanchez

Obsidian is not an inexpensive material, difficult to mine and handle. Almost always motorized tools are used, with fingers milimeters from spinning saw blades and polishers. Its strong association with souvenirs and the low prices tourist pay has devalued the material. Added to this is the fact that the modern working of the material only goes back a little more than half-a-century with families having no more experience than two or three generations.  New workshops keep appearing, which also impedes the development of finer crafts that take advantage of the stone’s qualities. For this reason, obsidian handcrafts have not become popular in Mexico in general nor with collectors. The dependence on the souvenir market also means that the craft is vulnerable to imitations. A number of aristans in Teotihuacan have complained to authorities about the existence and sale of fake obsidian objects, made with black commerical glass, which they say come from China. It is difficult to distingush between real obsidian and colored glass, but one way to tell is to see that the pieces for sale are too perfectly made and identical. The most common false pieces are bracelets which sell for only 30 pesos, where the real obsidian ones sell for between 50 and 70. Other pieces commonly faked are small pyramids. Artisans state that about 15% of the pieces sold at the archeological site are fake.

Using ancient knapping technique

Using modern tools

Fortunately, there have been efforts to raise the cultural, artistic and economic status of obsidian. These include a registration of the origin of Mexican obsidian and recognition of the craft by federal authorities. Both Teotihuacan and El Nopalillo have begun annual Obsidian Fairs to promote their products, fine piees from the towns of Tecozaulta and Epazoyuan were exhibited in New York in 2018.

More importantly, there have been artisans and others willing to experiment with obsidian to create innovative and finer pieces. Although the Obsidian Fair in Teotihuacan is still disappointing as to the quality of the general vendors (and most venders were NOT of obsidian), the pieces entered for the annual contest show promise. Daniel Juarez of Artesanias Ra Xedí in Hidalgo has gone from pre-Hispanic imitations to those of minimalist design, focusing on the beauty of the material. David Mendez Sanchez, a UNAM design student, created a company k’imā’ which works to create fine products made with obsidian. The idea is to create products that are both innovative but also reflect Mexico’s identity. One innovation is the creation of pieces of obsidian paired with stainless steel. Mendez Sanchez principally works with design and with a number of artisans in the State of Mexico and Hidalgo to produce the finished pieces.  Instagram (@kimadesign). Students from the industrial design program at the Tec de Monterrey in Queretaro have also worked on projects related to obsidian. The project was prompted by the experience that one student had in Cancun, noticing that obsidian artisan could not sell their wares there. They began with tableware such as napkin holders and bowls as part of the school’s annual event dedicated to innovation.

Perhaps the most interesting use of obsidian and the skills of obisidian artisans was the Vochos (Beetles) de Obsidiana de Ecatepec, two old Volkswagon Beetles which have been tiled over in more than 50,000 obisidan pieces and semi-precious stones.  The two vehicles have been named Teotihuacano and Maya and are the brainchild of Hector Garnelo, from Ecatepec just outside of Mexico City. His initial goals with the cars were to get into the Guiness Book of World Records and to show that the talent of local obsidian craftspeople.  The cars are not simply covered black, but they have also pre Hispanic designs on them including Quetzalcoatl, the Sun and Moon Pyramids of Teotihuacan and a funeral mask. The work was done by six master craftsmen and each took about 3 years to do.  Teotihuacano was exhibited in Germany in 2017, on display at the main Volkswagon plant in Wolfsburg and then in Berlin. More tours for the cars are planned in Mexico and the United States.

Featured image: Plate and pestle by Victor Lopez Pelcastre of Nopalillo, Hidalgo for the “Hidalgo, Rituales, Usos y Creaciones” exhibit at the Museo de Arte Popular, Mexico City

Obsidian “disco” ball at the at the ARTESANO 3.0 event at the Museo de Arte Popular in Mexico City

Paper and cloth in the north

This piece was created using pages from an old book found in the trash

Noted dollmaker Mayra René calls Bertha Garcia the “queen” of cartonería in northeastern Mexico.

Garcia began working with paper in 1989. At that time, she and other women in her family decided to do something with the stacks of old newspaper that her grandmother had in her house. Their first idea was to roll strips of this paper and weave them to make decorative baskets, painting/dying them with a mixture of Elmer’s glue and coffee. For some time, grandma’s house smelled quite strongly of coffee.

Her grandmother also made and sold cookies, so it was natural to put the two together and sell small baskets filled with cookies and other treats. They branched out into making other items, such as tortilla holders, picture frames, and more. Even one of her uncles became involved in the activity, eventually figuring out how to make an image of Christ with the technique.



L:Bride doll that Garcia made for a friend using a piece of her wedding dress. R: Catrina doll viewed from behind

Garcia became intrigued with the possibilities of working with old paper, and despite her young age (and lack of Internet) began looking for other techniques. She discovered cartonería even though this Mexican paper mache had not been traditional in the north of the country. With no one to teach her, she taught herself, starting by making the skeletal figures called Catrinas. Later she went on to making articulated dolls known as Lupitas, but she simply calls them dolls. When she entered college to study psychology, she began selling her creations at school. During her school years, she also studied dramatic arts for a time. In this program, she learned paper mache technique for the making of puppets.

Experimental mask

Since then, Garcia has worked to integrate everything she has learned as she continues to develop and refine her craft. Her repertoire has expanded to include masks, dragons, alebrijes and more to complement her dolls and Catrinas, which continue to become more refined and more adapted to the North’s distinct regional culture. To this end, she has even made contact with Leonardo Linares, of the Pedro Linares family in Mexico City.

Initially, the craft was a part-time vocation for Garcia, working a more mundane job to pay the bills, but eventually Garcia was able to shift to doing what she loves full-time Galería 44 Creaciones , founded in Apodaca (just outside Monterrey) specifically to teach cartonería in the Monterrey area and educate people here about its history, its traditions and the innovations that are possible with this technique. It is important to note here that the only long-term use of paper-and-paste work in the north has been the making of piñatas and there has been some innovation here, such as painting the piñatas in various designs instead of using crepe paper. However, Garcia admits that there is not yet any serious organization of these artisans as it happening in the center and south of the country.

Hipster dolls created as part of a workshop given with doll maker Mayra René

But Garcia’s creativity has not stopped there. Some years ago, Garcia met and allied with dollmaker Mayra René of Reynosa, Tamaulipas and began to work with her. About 3 or 4 years ago, she also began to make cloth dolls. There is some tradition of this in the north of Mexico. Her mother, aunts and grandmother all made dolls in styles called Lúlu and Negrita using crocheted yarn and styrofoam balls to sell. However, she did not participate in this activity. Her (and René’s) work goes way beyond this to much more sophisticated techniques generally using poplin and other commercial fabric. In both media, the aim is to make fantastic creatures or images from traditional Mexican culture such as Catrinas.



L:One of Garcia’s takes on “Lupita” dolls, note the button usually seen on cloth dolls C:doll made in 1990s with craft and newspaper, most of coloring is Nescafe dissolved in Elmer’s glue R: Another Lupita variation

Today, the making of cloth dolls accounts for about a third of the Galería’s activities. The gallery hosts workshops and other events related to cartoneria and cloth both on their own and with René. One such event is this years “summer camp” (using the English expression) to introduce children to the tradition of transforming mound of paper and glue into puppets, dinosaurs and anything else they can imagine. With René, the Galería hosted a workshop dedicated to making art dolls with a hipster theme.

One of Garcia’s first cloth mermaids

I will note here with great embarassment that I did not find out about Garcia’s work until well after the deadline for my book Mexican Cartonería: Paper, Paste and Fiesta. If we are fortunate to have a second edition, she will definitely be included.


All photos and creations by Bertha Garcia, used with permission.







Tenango embroideries as canvases

Since the early 20th century, there has been an exchange between the handcraft and fine arts worlds in Mexico. Although at times there are drawbacks to this exchange, it has mostly been to the benefit of both worlds.

20190621_141155One recent and unusual example of this is an exhibiton that was at the Museo Internacional del Barroco in Puebla called Bordados (Embroideries) by Chilean-born Mexican artist, Carlos Arias. Arias has a long career in Mexico, both an a fine artist and as a art professor at the Universidad de las Américas Puebla. He has worked in traditional media such as sculpture and painting and has done a number of works in textiles as well. However, he is only the second artist I have ever met who has worked with embroidery. He began doing so in the mid 1990s, working with modern embroidery techniques to create images both rustic  and extremely fine. His magnum opus is an ongoing project called Jornadas (Journeys) which is essentially an autobiography from that time to the present.


The show had this piece in it, but its focus was a series of Tenango embroideries that the artist acquired in the tiny town of San Pablito Pahuatlán, Puebla (just across the border from Tenango, Hidalgo), which he subsequently modified. The artist stated during the opening of the show that one of the aims of the work was to “to play with the disjunctives (mutually exclusive possibilities) of putting on cloth the judgements of fine and popular art.” Arias believes that art should be understandable to the region in which it is produced but at the same time needs to be universal.

Pahuatlán: tapado

He calls his Tenango embroideries “mestizo interventions,” with the idea of non-indigenous elements are added to something that is indigenous. It is not his first experience with modifying cultural artifacts. A number of years ago, he participated in a collective project where artists modified the traditional gourd cups that were used for drinking pulque in Puebla.

The interventions that Arias presents in the show vary in type and technique. A few have minimal intervention, and others change the visual effect of the traditional piece almost completely.  In those pieces that work best, neither the traditonal pattern nor the “intervention” dominate the other, but rather work together.

One of the least dramatic of the interventions is Pahuatlán: tapado (Pahuatlán: uncovered) where Arias adds a number of falling leaves in various shades of green. The leaves themselves are not a significantly different addition as leaves appear in Tenango embroideries. Their main change is that they are falling, add movement into what is usually a highly stagnant design. It compliments rather than clashes because there is a link between old and new, using plant matter.

Pahuatlán: Pareja en sombra

Another interesting piece adding movement is Pahuatlán: Pareja en sombra (Pahuatlán: Couple in shadow). Here the canvas is a Tenango that is simply filled with the same flower design placed somewhat randomly on the cloth. In this work, Arias adds the silhouettes of two moving figures in the background, “hiding” behind the flowers. The idea is interesting but it does not seem to work as well as the falling leaves. Something seems to be missing here, but I cannot place my finger on it. But again, the intervention does not clash with the original work, but rather adds to it.

Pahuatlán Boogie Woogie

In several pieces, Arias adds modern visual techniques, usually of a geometric nature. These are interesting because they add a kind of unification to the piece. Elements in Tenango embroideries are, at most, tied together visually either through left-right symmetry, the use of the same color or the elements ever so slighly touch each other. The separateness of the elements is clearest in large embroideries, such as the ones Arias chose for this series. The intervention here is much more striking than in the first two examples. The traditional and modern elements combine to create an entirely new visual experience, rich and vibrant. Perhaps there are even ideas here for artisans to consider to update the tradition.

200 pintores

Arias chose as his canvases, cloths that had already been worked on. In doing so, he purposefully brings in a centuries-old tradition. He is not working with a clean slate. Choosing such a canvas means that there are limitations to his creativity. Many of his interventions succeeded, but not all did. In some cases, the added elements distorted or even obscured the traditional elements, making it seem almost like vandalism. In one piece, he embroidered the names of Western fine artists in the white spaces among the traditional elements. This left me wondering why as there is no connection between these artists and Tenango embroidery. Lastly, he had a couple of pieces in which he added very explicit sexual elements. This seemed to be quite an imposition of a modern cultural obsession into one that is simply trying to survive in said modern world.

One other small critique is that there are no credits to the original embroiderers. To be fair, this is difficult to impossible to do. Large projects are often worked on by various people, but more problematically, there is not yesa culture in Mexico of crediting handcraft pieces. Arias bought the pieces in the markets of Pahuatlán with no way of knowing who did what piece. It is highly unlikely that even the vendors knew this. He does give credit to the town of Pahuatlán in which they were bought. Hopefully, in the future, it will be easier to trace the authorship of individual pieces.

Featured image Pahuatlán: Camuflajeado (Pahuatlán: Camouflaged)

Beyond copying

Souvenir seller in Teotihuacan (Credit Ralf Roletschek)

In the United States, handcrafts are few but those that exist are done by those who are enamoured by the process and/or the product (think quilting). The vast majority of craftspeople in Mexico do not have this luxury. They create in order to sell and pay the bills. That is not to say that other factors do not come into play, but the need to produce something that will sell means that markets have a huge say in what gets made.

Perhaps one of the most glaring examples of this the handcraft work done around the archeological site of Teotihuacan, just north of Mexico City. This huge site is one of Mexico’s major attractions, not only for international tourists but for many day trippers from Mexico City. Most of the local economy is related to the site in one way or another, which includes a huge trade in souvenirs.

This area in the State of Mexico has centuries-old tradition in clay and stone work (especially obsidian), which still exist, but you might never know that with a day visit to the pyramids. After being hounded during the visit by wandering vendors, and perhaps getting ripped off by the eateries outside the main gate, most people never think to visit the neighboring towns such as San Juan Teotihuacan, even though it is designated as a Pueblo Mágico.

So it comes as no surprise that the vast majority of handcrafts that are produced locally skew almost exclusively to the making replicas of pre Hispanic artifacts. Whatever other products were made before Teotihuacan’s current fame have all but died out. In fact, the only things tying what is done now and then are the location/people and the local clay used in manufacture. In one way this is good in that workshops have not disappeared despite Mexico City’s urban sprawl creeping ever nearer. The negative is that most local creativity is stifled by the need to produce souvenirs. Even these souvenirs are mostly limited to those with human and/or animal faces rather than ancient utilitarian pottery.

Clay minatures by Amauri Galicia of San Juan Teotihuacan

However, there are some signs that at least some local artisans are looking beyond making copies. The Galicia brothers are descended from one father whose family has been involved in pottery for many generations in San Juan Teotihuacan. Like other potters, their work shifted to making figures and other pieces for the tourist market. This market is still absolutely dominates their work. What makes their work stand out is a subtle but very notiable shift from exact copies to those which some level of interpretation. All learned their techniques from the family and eventually most opened up their own workshops, with each over time developing slight differences in the appearance of their work.


While the template of most of their pieces are archeologial artifacts, The resulting pieces for sale can vary from a relatively faithful piece to one that is obviously an interpretation. Not all of their designs are from Teotihuacan, but can be from other sites in Mexico. For example, a stand by brother Amauri Galicia has several variations off of the funeral mask of King Pakal from Palenque, Chiapas, adding or taking off ornaments and painting in different color schemes.

Two versions of a King Pakal mask

Santiago and Eziquio Galicia’s work has been recognized by publications such as Mexico Desconocido and others such as Amauri are regularly invited to regional fairs and other events where their wares stand out, even among at the San Juan Teotihuacan Obsidian Fair Amauri and his wife, Francisca Aguilar, have been running their workshop for over 30 years, and have traveled to fairs in the state of Mexico, Mexico City, Hidalgo and Puebla to sell their wares. However, despite the moderate recognition the family has, Galicia’s and Aguilar’s children have no interest in continuing it after them.


This slideshow requires JavaScript.


Whether or not Teotihuacan’s clay crafts can realy get beyond the making of souvenirs will heavily depend on finding and developing markets outside of the around around Teotihuacan. A reinterpretation of ancient designs is not impossible. One needs to see the work of Guillermo Spratling and the silver industry that it sparked in Taxco. Let’s hope that something similar can happen here.

Amauri Galicia and Francisca Aguilar can be contacted at 55 1955 6545 or at

All works by Amauri Galica and Francisca Aguilar. Photographed and published with permission.

Art dolls on the border

Gabrielle – a polymer clay and cloth creation

There may be no more important voice for the promotion of  modern and artistic doll making in Mexico than that of Mayra Lopez Menchaca, better known as Mayra René.

Both Rene and her dolls were born on the Mexico/US border in Reynosa, Tamaulipas. This means that they have a cross-border identity, reflecting the reality of life in northern Mexico. The American and European influence is readily apparent, but this does not mean that her work is a copy of that being done in the United States. The dolls show influence from the creative skills of her grandmother, Elvira Oviedo Gaytan, as well as a woman named Ana Victoria Cardenas, who gave her a number of doll patterns. Even some of her influences have a mixed background, such as the work of artist Remedios Varo, a Spanish artist who found refuge in Mexico.

Rene’s focus is not on handcrafted dolls but rather dolls as art. Art dolls are created to excite an emotion in the onlooker, such as pleasure, surprise and even horror. For this reason, they are not toys. The evolution of her work has focused on facial expressions and body language, with the idea that each doll is a kind of sculpture.

Her interest in dolls-as-art and her proximity to the US led her to research was was being done by US doll artists such as Patty Medaris Culea, Barbara Willis, Elinor Pace Baily and Susanna Oroyan, and Rene’s early work strongly show influence from this. But it also shows experimentation to create her own unique style, which included researching cloth dolls in Mexico, especially a series of finely-made dolls from the late 19th century from Puebla. Rene continues to travel to the United States, both to continue to study but also to teach. She insists that her work is not a copy of what is being done in that country, but rather a means to learn techniques and styles to continue making her own unique creations.

Enter a caption

She developed a line of doll with two-dimensional bodies which she christened Liliana’s, after her middle name. The entire doll is made of two pieces of cloth sewn together with fiberfill. The facial features are only the eyes (two dots), a nose in the shape of a v. The hair is made of felt strips.

Untitled Body of cloth, Face molded from mashed paper

Unlike many artisans (unfortunately), Rene has documented her work, both in patterns and in photography. She considers herself a professional artist specializing in dolls and registered her own trademark in 2005. Mayra René is her professional name, with René taken from the fact that many in her family have had the name, in particular an aunt who was a musician named René Menchaca. She likes how the two sound together.

René believes that the cultural heritage of doll makers do and should reflect in their creations both consciously and unconsciously. This is not limited to one’s ethnic heritage but also to how a creator has grown up and what there other interests are. She has criticized those who publicized pattern books so that people can make dolls that look exactly like the ones that the maker designed. In this case, the copies have no true authorship. She does not understand why people would want to simply copy in such a way. That does not mean she dismisses the work like those who make the María dolls. That is a different tradition with a different purpose.

Rene’s work is not limited to making dolls or even teaching others to make dolls. She has worked to promote the status and visibility of doll making in Mexico as well as handcrafts in the north of the country. The north does not have the same reputation for craft making as the center and south of the country do.  This is mostly due to history. There are no major communities dedicated to a particular craft and most of what is made (with a few notable exceptions) is practical. What does exist suffers from a lack of promotion and knowledge as many of the institutions related to handcrafts and folk art are located in the center of the country.

Her interest in promoting dolls in Mexico led her to finding a number of other doll makers in the country, but there was little-to-no communication among them. Most had no idea what others were doing. Most doll making is classified as a “manualidad” a handcraft not considered to be culturally or artistically important. She has worked to changed that.

downloadOne of her first projects was the book, El Arte de las Muñecas en Tela  (2012, Fundación Asahac) or The Art of Dolls in Cloth. It is the first book of its kind, focusing on doll making in Mexico and for the modern period, art doll making. The book has led to invitations to speak at conferences and to give workshops both in Mexico and the United States. Her workshops have had particular success in the state of Guanajuato with several of her students going on to have careers as doll makers there, exhibiting in museum and selling in cultural venues.

Building on that momentum, Rene and associate Bertha Garcia organized the first Encounter of Creators of Artistic Dolls in Monterrey, Mexico in November 2018. The event attracted about 40 participants, half of whom were foun various other parts of Mexico. The theme of that year was migration and the 89 dolls on display aimed to discuss the issue in an accessible way.

All photos provided by the artist and used with permission

Featured photo: Venado y máscara de Frida (Deer and Frida mask)

Weaving art

One must-see for any lover of Mexican folk art is the town of Teotitlan del Valle near the city of Oaxaca, famous for its weaving of wool rugs. In the past 20 years or so, there has been a movement pairing these weavers with various artists. The goal is to create rugs with modern designs, but made with traditional techniques.

One person to do this work is American artist Mary Stuart. She has lived in Mexico City since arriving to the country in the 1970s to study mural painting at Mexico’s prestigious La Esmeralda School.


During Stuart’s career, she was worked in varous media, traditional and non-traditional. Her interest in designing rugs came about because of artist James Brown, a well-known New York artist. Brown had been enticed by a brother to go to Oaxaca and work with the artisans of Teotitlan del Valle. In turn, Brown has brought in artists from the United States and Europe, sparking a sub-industry in rug making in this area.

Stuart’s first rug project resulted in a pair of rugs with a “musical chairs” theme. Stylized chairs are woven onto a neutral background; the chairs themselves have a background of old sheet music that Stuart had found in the Lagunilla flea market in Mexico City. The resulting rug design was  so long that artist and artisans agreed that it should be cut into two paired rugs. One of these rugs can be found in Stuart’s Mexico City apartment to this day.

EPSON DSC picture

Stuart states the experience of designing the rug and working with artisan Jerónimo Hernández Ruíz was like “being bitten by a bug.” Since then, she has thought of and sketched many ideas for rugs, but to date only a small portion of them have been executed. The main reason for this is that weaving rugs on a pedal loom is extremely time-consuming, so the resulting piece is expensive.

Initially, Stuart would design and execute rugs with the idea of selling them as artworks. She even obtained funding from FONCA, a major source of art project funding in Mexico, for such. While a number sold, too often she would hear that a buyer was interested but the size or color scheme was not quite right. This, and the unfortunate robbery of her former studio in Mexico and the loss of a number of valuable rugs, led her to making and selling the rugs strictly on a commission basis.

EPSON DSC picture

Stuart states almost apologetically that the rug work is more “fun” in the sense that she only has to focus on the design and color, leaving the tedious manufacture to others. But she repects their work, marveling how they need little guidance in the execution of designs and finding ways to create irregular shapes, even if that means undoing portions of the rug they wove.

Currently Stuart is collaborating with Hernández Ruíz on a set of rugs for an upcoming exhibition for the Museo de Arte Popular in Mexico City. This event, Arte/Sano, is a regular biennial which pairs artists and artisans to create innovative products. The Stuart/Hernández Ruíz project is a pair of black and white rugs based off of the concept of Muslim prayer rugs, something Stuart is familiar with as she lived for some time in Tunisia when she was younger. One rug is as black as possible, and the other is in the same design but as white as possible. The black rug is to symbolize the void and the white rug, the light of God. The design is extremely simple, reduced down to a representation of an arrow that Muslim prayer rugs have with the purpose of pointing to Mecca. The project is slated to be finished by August, with the exhibition being held by the end of the year.

Photos courtesy of the artist and republished with her permission.

New muralism in my backyard, part 2

See part 1

One reason I feel at home in Mexico City is that there are similarities to where I am from, the NY metro area. Most Americans who come to Mexico don’t know that there is immigration INTO the country, and have little interest in such. But Mexico’s small immigration groups have had a much larger impact on the country than their numbers would suggest. And believe it or not, one of the most steady streams of immigration into the country has been from Japan.

R: Roberto “Shimi” Yuichi Shimizu (L: your humble writer)

Roberto Yuichi Shimizu is a second-generation Mexican who is fluent in Spanish, Japanese and English. And believe it or not, his family has made their home  and mark in the working-class neighborhood of Colonia Doctores. Roberto’s father, Roberto Sr, is known for founding the Museo de Juguete Antiguo de México (MUJAM, Antique Toy Museum of Mexico), basically as a place to safeguard his tremendous collection of antique commercially-made toys, almost all from the 20th century. Despite having 3+ floors of a building in Dr. Olvera Street stuffed full, Roberto Sr. states that the museum holds only about 5% of the total collection he has amassed over his lifetime.

Not even 1% of what the museum proper holds

Roberto Jr., who prefers to be called Shimi, grew up around this collection and his father’s obsession with scouring flea markets and other places to find more toys. These outings brought him in contact with Mexico City’s street culture, along with growing up in Doctores. It also seemed to instill in him the need to dedicate himself to something, even if it wasn’t toys. Shimi’s father also encouraged his children to read. The children were limited in what they could ask for, except in the purchase of books, of which they were allowed to purchase however many they liked.  One book Shimi bought was on graffiti art in the United States. With this book, he became familiar with the work of famous graffiti artists such as D. White in New York. And he was hooked. Shimi would go on to become an urban artist, painting in various parts of Mexico as well as the United States and Brazil, but he is best known as an organizer and promoter.

Mural in progess in Colonia Doctores as part of Barrio Vivo 2019 (Oceane Isla, LATIR and Raul Aguas)

Shimi studied architecture in college, becoming interested in urban studies and design. After working for a time in Japan, he returned to Mexico to help with the family business and, of course, the museum. Shimi decided to take a vacant warehouse in the same neighborhood and convert it into a kind of museum annex, calling it the Foro Cultural de MUJAM. It was dedicated to experimenting with new ideas in urban art, music and events for collectors of other items such as stickers. During its run, the Foro Cultural was sucessful enough to launch the career of several urban artists and musicians, but it became too big to run without outside support, which unfortunately, did not come.

Graffiti “tattoos” on the rooftop space of MUJAM. (L: AA Monk R:Lina Fresa)

The Foro closed, and Shimi began organizing street events in Colonia Doctores, as well as taking over the top floor and roof of his father’s museum as a kind of headquarters for his activities. The roof area is called the “rooftop” using the English word. Shimi describes as a kind of “speakeasy” (again using English) for urban artists as it is generally not open to the public, but it regulary hold events which are. These and other areas of the museum have urban art interventions, large and small, which Shimi likens to tattoos. Each tells a story of an event and/or people who have gathered there. About 100 works have been painted at the museum, but not all are still in existance.

Urban art murals inside MUJAM (L and C artists unknown, R: Nabs

Since the Foro closed, one of Shimi’s main projects has been the creation of the Doctores Art District, focusing on culture in six colonias (neighborhoods) located just south and southwest of the historic center of Mexico City: Doctores, Obrera, Algarín, Buenos Aires, Roma and Condesa. The first four are poor, working-class areas which are adjacent to Roma and Condesa, which are upper class and already known for culture.

Artist Kiyowa painting at MUJAM

This and his painting has since led to the launch of the Barrio Vivo (Living Neighborhood) Festival in 2018. It was an immediate success, and so far the only fully home-grown urban art event in Mexico City.  The 2019, it had the participation of 90 artists, 70 of whom had to compete with hundreds of other contenders to win space to paint. Half of the winning entries were from abroad, from countries such as Spain, Argentina, Chile, Colombia, the United States, France, Canada and Venezuela. In the end, about 60 murals were painted in the Doctores Art District, and the event was supported by Osel Painting, Tuborg and Golden Kintama as well as borough authorties. Despite the event being only in its second year, the accepted artists paid their own expenses to come and paint, as patronage right now for the event is absolutely basic. These artists believe it is worth paying such costs to have a Mexico City wall in their “book.” It is also important because Shimi selects the participating artists taking care to have both well-known and upcoming artists working side-by-side.

L:aline_apple R:Veneno.Rios

Shimi is called the “curator” of urban art in the Doctores Art District, but he shrugs off that title. While it is true that he selects artists and assigns them space, he says the real curators are the “grafiteros” of the area. If they do not like a work, they will vandalize it. If they do like it, they will leave it alone. He calls it “street curating.” He expects only about 40 or 50 of this year’s murals to survive to next year.

Organizing the Barrio Vivo event takes a full year to do, so work on the 2020 version has already begun. His work with urban art has led to invitations to speak about Mexico’s role in it in the country and in the United States, with his experience and education giving a unique perspective. Shimi believes urban art is important in Mexico because it can rescue, or at least give value to lower-class neighborhoods such as Doctores. If quality murals exist, people from other parts of the city and even tourist will visit, allowing people to see a different side to these neighborhoods. For this reason, one of his main goal is to continuing the development of Barrio Vivo, if not in numbers of artists and murals, in better logistics and cooperation with more organizations.

Both Robertos (father and son) have emphasized that Mexico has been very good to their family and that it is important to give back. Both the museum and the urban art activities allow them to do this. The museum gets quite a few visitors despite its location and even more so now that it is an “embassy” of modern urban art, bringing together artists from all over Mexico and other parts of the world. The benefitting colonias have also responded very favorably, with building owners now approaching the museum to offer space to paint. And not only private buildings, Shimi has gotten wall space on local landmarks such as the Hidalgo Market and the public employee union building.}

Barrio Vivo is part of both Mexico’s muralism tradition as well as the modern global boom in urban art. It has already worked to mitigate Mexico’s reputation for violence and disorganization, but Shimi believes much more needs to be done.

All photos by Alejandro Linares Garcia – featured image of work by CTNFZ


New muralism in my backyard

Part 1 of 2

I live in Colonia Doctores, near the historic center of Mexico City. It is not a neighborhood one associates with foreign expats in this city, although it is next Roma and Condesa, which have large expat numbers. The reason for the lack of gringos and other foreigners is that Doctores has long been a “zona popular,” a lower-class neighborhood.

It is not the most dangerous neighborhood in Mexico City, but it is not the safest and lacks the architecture (old mansions) as well as trendy nightclubs and restaurants that Roma, Condesa and points west have. Despite hearing gunshots and other disturbances (which to be fair, happen in “safe” areas, too), I have lived with zero problems in my modest apartment just off Lazaro Cárdenas.

Shrine to Santa Muerte near my house in Colonia Doctores

Mexico City has participated in the worldwide boom in street and urban art… basically, graffiti which has evolved into art. Most  of this work still uses the signature spray paint, but it is not unusual to see people painting walls with brushes, rollers, stencils and even using other materials such as charcoal.

So far, global attention to artistic graffiti has centered on New York and Europe, with Banksy probably being the best known artist of this kind. But Mexico has a number of advantages culturally that may make it the next major powerhouse in the urban art scene.

Mural depicting Azteca dancers in San Juan Totoltepec, Mexico City

The first is just the sheer amount of creativity the culture fosters. This atmosphere has one one major draw for foreign artists to not only come here, but often to stay the rest of their lives. As street art moves in mural making, Mexico is uniquely qualified to contribute to this endeavor with the tradition founded by Diego Rivera and others just after the Mexican Revolution. The kids with spray cans are now doing murals related to Mexican culture, history, social and political issues as well, but there are some important differences from their predecesors. First, many of these artists have little to no formal artistic training. They did not travel to Europe to study the masters or even go to the major art schools of their home country. They learned from their friends and through experimentation on their own. American artist and art teacher Jason Schell, who founded the Urban Art Show in Mexico, stated that there is a vast pool of “raw talent” that are creating with the bare minimum of supplies and support.

L: Mural covering a side of an apartment building by Jackson R: A stencil on a building, photo by Ezequiel netri

The muralism of the 1920s to 1950s was heavily patronized by the Mexican government, whose main concern was establishing the post-revolutionary regime’s legitimacy. To do this, they glorified the Revolution and created a new concept of what it means to be Mexico, one that included its indigenous past. The works that got commissioned were painting on government buildings, schools and other public places, with intended audienced (in most cases) ordinary people, not the elite.

Work by Maria Luisa Estrada Sanchez
Today’s urban graffiti murals are also aimed at the general public, but such work has only very very recently begun to be patronized by government entities and some community organizations. Until this decade, almost all mural work was self-financed, obtaining permission from property owners to paint. This meant that artists did not have government telling them what to paint; their only constraint was that it had to please the owner of the building. It also meant that their work did not appear on any government buildings, and have mostly been relegated to “zona populares” such as Colonia Doctores, other such neighborhoods in Mexico City and the adjacent cities to the north and east. It is interesting to note that these murals continue the tradition of glorifying Mexico’s mestizaje (mixed race) heritage, established in the 1920s, but does NOT glorify the government in anyway. In fact there has been work, both small and large scale, that is critical of the government and brings to light various social issues. One such issue relates to the still-missing 43 teacher-college students that disappeared in Ayotzingo, Guerrero and are presumed dead.

Portion of a work by estudiohikarimaerz dedicated to Mexican-Japanese friendship at the Museo de Juguete Antiguo.
Mexico’s promise as a street/urban art community is such that the international organization Meeting of Styles established a Mexican branch in the early 2010s and holds a festival every year painting in the southern part of the historic center and into Line 1 of the Metro. In 2018, Mexico’s first fully homegrown urban art festival was started by artist Roberto Shimizu, who paints, promotes and organizes out of his father’s fascinating toy museum (Museo de Juguete Antiguo de Mexico) located in Colonia Doctores (two blocks from my house). This event came onto the scene and exploded by 2019. In Part 2, we will talk more in depth about this event, especially the 2019 edition which just (officially) concluded.


Featured image: Mural by the Axolotl collective as part of the Barrio Vivo event 2019 in Colonia Doctores, Mexico City.

Up onto the bridge and out into the world

95D is the main highway that links Mexico City and the resort of Acapulco. It was built primarily so that chilangos can get to the glitzy resorts with a minimum of time. It passes over some very rugged and isolated terrain with the use of more than a few suspension bridges spanning high over narrow valleys. One of these bridges is called Puente Mezcala Solidaridad. If you look quickly to the side, you will see a river far below but probably not much else.

Credit: Jujutacular CC-by-SA 3.0

DSC_0154But immediately off this bright yellow bridge are 14 Nahua communities straddling the river, the source in this dry, dusty land. The indigenous here are aware that they had migrated at some time in the past because of their language, but no one knows when. It is a tough existance. The two main economic activities have been subsistance farming during the rainy season (no irrigation despite the river) and the preparation of palm fronds to sell to artisans in the State of Mexico who use them to make hats and bags. The poverty of the area forces many of the residences to other areas to find work, either in nearby Chilpancingo (a very small city) or even further afield.

Jose Luis Juarez Baltazar lives in one of these 14 communities, called San Juan Totolcintla. It takes about 1.5 hours to get there from Chilpancingo even though it is only 26 km to the north and visible from the highway. The main reason is that the road down from the shiny yellow bridge is dirt and winds down the steep sides of the valley. Juarez makes the trek between his hometown and Chilpancingo regularly.


For a time the main reason for the commute was to attend university. While a student, he attended a conference for indigenous students. One of the sessions was focused on what participants’ home communities were losing. Most indicated that their main concern was their native language, but this was not really a concern for Juarez. The Nahua language is well-preserved in this region. Most people are bilingual (Nahuatl/Spanish) with code-switching between the two natural. Nahuatl dominates, especially among the older people.

L: doll in everyday traditional dress and R: in festive apparel

While he recognizes that the loss of indigenous languages is a real problem for a number of communties, Juarez’s concern is the loss of traditional clothing, especially that worn by women. In the latter 20th century, women as well as men from these communities had to migrate out to take jobs in Chilpancingo and even farther away, prompting them to wear more modern clothing.

Juarez with his mother at their home

Juarez says this was the case as late as 2014. At that time he thought of how he could reinstill pride in wearing traditional clothing. The family had a sewing machine and he began to learn how to make the aprons and 1950s style dresses that mark the everyday wear of Nahua women of this area. This not only included sewing the items but also embroidery, which is very important on the aprons. It took him a week to make the first article of clothing.

He showed his work to family and local women and some began to ask him to make them things. The orders grew and he continued doing this even though he was still making the trek to Chilpancingo to study.

In 2015, he began to wonder if he could not help local women make some money making the clothing, allowing them to stay home instead of going long distances to work. He found women with more experience in the making of traditional clothing then he. y Together they began making both everyday and festive garments for the Nahua women of the area.

The making and selling of the clothing had an immediate and strong impact. Juarez found that the work both provided some income and gave him pride seeing his friends and neighbors wear clothing he made. Every local woman I saw in the area was wearing some form of the dress/apron combo. Juarez says there is now an effort to get the local public school to change its uniform to girls to this style of dress.

In 2015, Juarez prepared a proposal to CDI to fund a project to found a workshop of local women to make and sell traditional clothing. The project was approved and the group was able to buy some industrial sewing machines and rent two spaces in which to work. They also get funding, marketing advice and support to travel to festivals and fairs in which they can sell their work outside the valley. For a number of the women in the cooperative, these travels to sell their wares was their very first time outside their home villages. I bought one of their early dolls at a CDI event in Mexico City.

The group has had luck selling their traditional clothing, both everyday and festive wear in markets catering to indigenous communities, but these clothing styles do not cross over the way that a number of other indigenous clothing styles can and do. To address this problem, the group has worked on two solutions. One is to make new articles of clothing, not traditional but inspired by tradition. The second, which has had much more success, is the making of dolls in authentic traditional clothing. The doll making has become successful enough that it is now their main product, although clothing for real people is still made.

Because of the success of these initial dolls, other types have been developed and more are on the way. They have one representing the state’s famous Jaguar dance (complete with spotted jumpsuit and mask), and dolls in traditional male clothing. They are working on developing dolls to represent all 8 regions of the state of Guerrero. The dolls bring in significant more income than either the palm fronds and most of the farming. However, to maintain pride in this original craft, all of the dolls’ hats are made from local palm leaves.

The cooperative’s name is Tlanezi, which means “dawn.” They can be reached on their Facebook page at