A handcrafted college campus

The Hacienda Santa Clara is a former maguey producing facility which was in ruins when Pablo and Barbara Marvin found the property over six years ago. They were looking for a suitable site to found a study abroad center, with the aim of presenting the best of Mexican culture and society, not to mention house an important collection of original Mexican art. This facility officially opened in 2015, keeping the original name.

Hand painted door panel with metal pieces called milagros (miracles)

What distinguishes Santa Clara from other projects of this type is the construction of the facility and the symbolism behind it. While the idea was not an exact reconstruction, the ruins did provide a basic blueprint. There is a main house and chapel, but the original corral area is now the main dining hall. The chapel keeps the basic Latin cross layout, but the interior is designed to be used as much for secular functions as for religious ones, noted in part by the substitution of wind chimes in the bell tower.

However, most important “conservation” aspect of the product has been how the ruins have been rebuilt. The chapel and main house, and to a large extant, student dormitories, shun modern construction materials such as cinder block and plywood, never mind plastic or sheet rock. Walls are of rough-hewed local stone, with spaces filled with smaller stone pieces using only a minimum of cement. Roofs are of red ceramic tiles, laid over real solid-wood beams.

The result are handcrafted buildings, made much the way of the original buildings from centuries ago, but rather than feeling old and time-worn, are modern.  There is a solidness and artistry to the structures, which are impossible to obtain with mass-produced construction materials.

Every stone, every roof beam and tile, every window and door frame and every piece of furniture were placed by hand and/or, and in many cases, made from raw materials on site. Don Pablo says that unlike modern hacienda-style constructions, which he called “surreal,” Santa Clara was built with materials on hand, using the knowledge and skills of local people, much the way real working haciendas were built.

View of a stone arch in the chapel

The project has made use of talented craftsmen such as Octavio Muñoz, who gave us an extensive tour of the woodwork which he has spent six years of his life designing and executing, everything from restoring old furniture and some pieces from the original structures, to laying solid wood ceiling beams, to flooring in alder and mahogany, building new furniture, often from scrap from other projects, to participating in creating a large statue of the Archangel Michael, his first and only foray into an artwork.  Much of the wood is like that of the original hacienda, such as the use of mesquite for windows and doors.

Octavio Muñoz inspects a table.

Don Pablo said one reason to so all this work was to showcase the creativity and skill of the Mexican labor force, which often goes to waste as both skilled and unskilled labor is paid too low. He believes Santa Clara demonstrates just what Mexicans are really capable of when they receive the proper support to do quality work.

Hacienda Santa Clara’s purpose is to encourage and support foreign students, especially those from the United States, to spend formative years outside the country. Pablo and Barbara believe this is important not only culturally, but in a very real business sense. It is expensive to send workers abroad, and those without proper introduction to intercultural experience are very unlikely to to make the kinds of connections businesses look for with their overseas personnel. One way to do this is to impress these students with the quality of their surroundings and counter much of the negative seen in the media.

Hacienda Santa Clara is located about 40 minutes outside of the city of San Miguel de Allende in the Mexican state of Guanajuato, part of the economically important Bajio region northwest of Mexico City.

More photos







The precarious position of San Pablito and its amate paper

Sometimes success can be your own worst enemy.


If you have browsed the handcrafts for sale in the tourist areas of Mexico, you may have seen amate paper, quite likely as a brown background to intricate paintings in bright colors as seen the image above.

If you are looking at the genuine article, the painting is done by Nahua people in Guerrero state. The paper is made by Otomi people in the north of the state of Puebla. While it may look old and traditional, its actually a recent marriage brought about by chance and the need to make money from Mexico’s tourist trade. Both the painting style and the paper separately have long tradtions. The painting style is derived from that of Guerrero Nahua pottery (although this has been modified to foreign tastes) and the paper is a kind of bark paper made since the pre Hispanic period.

The marriage of the two came in the 1970s, when Nahua vendors and Otomi vendors began selling their respective products in Mexico City markets. As pottery is heavy and difficult to transport to tourist venues such as Acapulco, the Nahuas began buying Otomi paper and painting it with pottery designs. This was quite sucessful as it is not only easier for the Nahuas, but for tourists to bring home as well.

Amate paper drying in San Pablito (by Luis Fernando Orozco Madero)

As for the Otomi, they are one of very few communities who have made amate paper since the Spanish Conquest, as colonial authorities banned its manufacture because of it ritual uses. Indeed, until the latter 20th century, all amate made in the San Pablito region was for ritual uses, as the area’s extremely rugged terrain made enforcing Mexico City edicts mostly impossible.

San Pablito is a small town located on the side of a steep ravine in a region known as the Sierra Norte de Puebla, about 3 hours northeast of Mexico City. The steepness of the terrain is not just due to the mountains, but also the climate, which is very humid as moisture from the Gulf of Mexico crashes against the mountains and falls as rain. This means that the almost-constantly moist soil has has numerous springs and subject to frequent landslides. Driving in the area can be quite hazardous, as frequent fog can obscure often washed out or fallen roads cut into the sides of the mountains and valleys. It does not matter if said road is paved or not, and often it is not. San Pablito is part of the municipality  headed by the nearby larger town of Pahuatlan, which is relatively easy to get to, but to get from there to San Pablito, one must drive cautiously to the bottom of a large steep ravine, cross the San Marcos River, then wind their way up again halfway up the other side, hope that enough road width remains for the vehicle.

Otomi cutouts at the Museo de Arte Popular in Mexico City

Traditionally, the paper was made here for cut out figures used for pre Hispanic rituals which have survived to the present day. Catholicsm is practiced by the people here, but it is highly mixed with veneration to good and evil entities, conducted by shamans. The cut outs generally are representations of these entities. While there are other places that still make amate for similar purposes, San Pablito is the only community which has shifted to creating the paper commercially. This is necessity for a region where most men have migrated out to Mexico City or the United States to work, leaving women and children behind to depend on these crafts.

Wall hanging at the Gallery Museum in San Pablito

Although the Otomi have work to commercialize the paper themselves, making wall hangings, note books and other items for market, most of the production is still sold wholesale to the Nahuas. However, the success of this venture has taken a significant environmental toll. The money that has come in has gone into building solid and heavy cinderblock homes and other buildings, which are problematic due to the steep terrain and unstable soil. The large scale production of the paper has taken a toll on the surrounding forest, as artisans still depend on bard collected from a kind of fig (genus Ficus) tree in the wild around the town, instead of through cultivation. Those who provide this bark must now venture further to find the material. The demands of the tourist market are for lighter shades of paper and often with bright colors. This means the use of strong industrial bleaches and dyes to obtain these colors, which find their way down into the San Marcus River and beyond.

This is not a sustainable system, and interesting that it still continues as the tree species grows in a number of zones in central Mexico and cultivating the tree is relatively easy, with trees needing only six or seven years to reach sufficient maturity to shed the necessary bark. Of course the problem with this is getting such bark to San Pablito, so it remains to be seen if the town will remain the main amate paper producer in the future.

(All photos by Alejandro Linares Garcia. unless otherwise indicated)



Nativity scenes of Mexico

Although the Christmas tree has made serious inroads into the country, nativity scenes are the traditional centerpieces of the Mexican Christmas season. Here are photos of folk art and other nativity scenes that my husband and I have taken over the years.

Nativity scene in the church of Santo Domingo in the city of Oaxaca
Overview of a mega nativity scene set up in the main plaza of the city of Oaxaca
Child Jesus figure dressed as the Archangel of Paz at a display at the San Francisco Church in Mexico City
Nativity scene from San Agustin Oapan, Guerrero
Nativity with clay figurines from Santa Maria Aztompa, Oaxaca
Seashell nativity scene by Socorro Sanchez of Mexico City
Child Jesus figure in Tzotil (Chiapas) garb by Linda Lavin
Large nativity scene with clay figures from Oaxaca
Part of a nativity scene in the plaza behind the Torre Latino Americana in the historic center of Mexico City


Nativity scene in front of the parish chruch of Santiago Zapotitlan in the Tlahuac borough of Mexico City


When life gives you radishes, make…

Rabanos2014_016The tale of the Night of the Radishes


Each year, the city of Oaxaca has an odd Christmas tradition centered on oversized radishes carved into unusual shapes. These aren’t the small round type often seen in US supermarkets. Though also red on the outside and white on the inside, these are enlonged monsters often in wild shapes.

Carving has a long history in Oaxaca, most traditionally in wood and creativity in this medium is still ongoing with one of the most recent innovations being “alebrijes” (example on right)

This carving tradition was transferred to radishes by the late 19th century, first by merchants to make curiousities to attract passers-by and then by customers to make centerpieces for holiday tables. Night of the Radishes began when there was a bumper crop of radishes, so much so that a field of the vegetable laid unharvested months past when they should have been. Then some monks decided to dig some of them up, they found huge sizes and capricious shapes. They were brought to the Christmas market on December 23 as curiousities. In 1897, then mayor of Oaxaca, Francisco Vasconcelos, decided to have a carving competition during the Christmas market, which has been held every year since.


The event draws huge crowds who come to see the wide variety of entries. Most of which center on traditional aspects of Oaxacan life such as posadas. the Guelaguetza, Day of the Dead and Our Lady of Juquila, but other themes have made their way into the carvings, such as snowmen, alebrijes and goblins. They have also had protest themes, such as demanding the return of the 43 students who disappeared in Guerrero state in 2013.

The radish carving are an ephemeral art, as the vegetables discolor and wilt shortly after they are carved. The entire event, from carving to display is only on the 23, ending at midnight when everything is taken down.

All photographs by Alejandro Linares Garcia





Paper Mache as an urban folk art form

Amuzgo women spinning cotton thread

When most people, even Mexican handcraft/folk art collectors, think of the subject, our visions are mostly of rural Mexico, of places like Oaxaca and Chiapas, wth adobe houses, nature and often indigenous people teaching the craft through generations.  This is not without reason as the Mexican handcraft tradition has been buoyed by the tourism industry, which promotes handcrafts as “authentic” Mexico, reinforcing an idea of rural, pre-industrial Mexico though images and types of products that are promoted.

However, not all Mexican handcrafts and folk art are concentrated in rural and indigenous areas. Fine metals such as gold and especially silver, are almost exclusively worked in towns and cities such as Iguala, Taxco, Mexico City and Guadalajara. Tlaquepaque and Tonala, part of the Guadalajara metro area, are known for their fine pottery, including much of the country’s high-fire wares and industrial ceramic production.

Dancing Colima dogs alebrije style by Gerardo Gomez Manjaras

However, one thing that is similar between this production and that of rural Mexico is that artisans work with materials that are readily available in their locations. Another handcraft/folk art which can be argued as urban is paper mache, or better called by its Mexican Spanish name cartonería, because of its cultural and historic significance.

The best known family in cartonería by far is the Linares, based in Mexico City. It is interesting to note that the family began with the craft part-time with the famous Pedro Linares’ grandfather in the 19th century. The family has always lived east of what is now the historic center of Mexico City. In the 19th century, this area was farmland, and the Linares worked the land. But as it became better connected with, and eventually overrun, by this urban center, the Linares made the shift from rural to urban, mostly over only 3 generations. Cartoneria has been done by the family for five generations, but for half that time, it was part-time seasonal work, making copies of traditional items.

Pedro Linares on rooftop of home with son, circa 1970s (credit Gallina X)

However, this changed during Pedro Linares’ lifetime, which spans the 20th century.  Pedro’s contributions to cartonería and popular culture coincides with the rapid expansion of Mexico City in the mid 20th century.The growth of Mexico City not only gave the Linares more and more diverse markets for their cartoneria, it also provided new ideas and influences. Today, their most important products, skeletal figures doing activities of the living and alebrijes (colorful monsters with parts of various creatures) are connected to modern and more urban influences, and are still evolving to new trends.

Pedro Linares bird alebrije, courtesy of the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis

The Linares’ fortune is tied to having been “discovered” by an anthropologist who saw a group of very early alebrijes (really modified Judas Iscariot figures) which had been taken to a trendy area near Mexico’s Angel of Independence. This began a familial relationship with Mexico’s artist and intellectual community, which has since expanded internationally. The Linares have not been the only “cartoneros” to benefit from this tie. Carmen Caballeros Sevilla’s Judas figures were compared to Salvador Dali’s work by Diego Rivera, and the craft’s growing popularity among the upper classes attracted non-craftsperson people such as Susana Buyo to make their own works and teach others.

Skeletal figure cooking at the Megaofrenda at UNAM (credit Guillerminargp)

In general, Mexican folk art suffers from a dearth of younger people willing to follow prior generations into the various traditions. One reason is certainly the lack of economic opportunities, but we should also consider the relative lack of innovation. In Mexico City, cartoneria has been attracting younger generations, whether it is to work it as a hobby, an art form or as a means of earning income. Classes cartoneria are popular in the various cultural centers and schools teaching trades in the city. The best-known handcrafts event in Mexico City is the Monumental Alebrijes Parade, which poses few limits to participating persons or pieces, which has led to experiments in the the materials used, especially in the decoration.

Dragon head “alma” (lit soul)  of PET plastic and tape. Paper and paste to be applied over.

However, like other handcrafts/folk art, cartonería is based on what is available. Granted, paper can be bought just about anywhere in Mexico, but large quantities of new and recycled paper is more easily obtained in urban areas, along with other supplies such as paints, decorative items and more. Urban areas lack primary materials from nature such as clay, reeds, wood, etc, but paper and wire and materials to make molds are not directly from nature. They are made in urban areas for sale mostly to urban areas. This is the case for those making their creations from recycled materials, as urban areas produce large quantities of waste. In Mexico City, they have began working with PET bottles and other plastics in addition to paper for both shape and decoration. However, those who produced large quantities of cartoneria need urban infrastructure to obtain large quantities of new and more varied paper and other materials.

KISS figure by Daniel Barrera Manriquez

Although cartonería can be found in urban areas such as Celaya, San Miguel de Allende, Patzcuaro and the city of Oaxaca, by far the most  and the most varied is produced in Mexico City. Some folk art enthusiasts criticize the lack of continuity of modern cartoneros with the ideas and practices of the past. Pieces by Linares family members still command higher prices for the continued use of family connections, but the fame of the Linares family came from innovation by Pedro Linares, not by keeping traditional cartonería techniques.

Javier Bautista with marionette of cartonería

Almost all of the cartoneros under age 35 in Mexico City are those who have learned it in a class or informally through others, reflecting urban reality, where knowledge and traditions are not passed down through family or small community but rather through institutions and wider social connections. Their interest is not in copying Linares’ or other works, per se, but to create their own takes on their pieces and even more traditional pieces such as toys and mojigangas. So although lacking in familial bonds, these cartoneros are inheriting the tradition, not just by using paper and paste, but incorporating modern influences of their generation.


Photos by the author unless otherwise specified




Tarahumara through the heart

When I saw this woman in Tarahumara dress selling Tarahumara crafts at the Feria Maestro del Arte in Chapala, I knew there had to be a story here. 

tarahumara me

That woman is Elizabeth Townsend, or Libby, whose connection to the Tarahumara is through the heart. Libby founded the Tarahumara Project, which she began in the United States but now is under the auspices of the Complejo Asistencial Clinica Santa Teresa A.C., which runs an indigenous school, hospital, food program for over 500 children and more… with almost nothing more than donations.

Her work supporting the Tarahumara people has led to her acceptance by them, allowing her to wear their dress and deal with the outside world in their name. At the Feria Maestros del Arte in Chapala, she was there to sell and otherwise promote Tarahumara handcrafts. While somewhat popular in the Southwest United States, they do not have the visibility that other handcraft traditions d0 in Mexico. Part of Libby’s work is to bring this visibility, becoming a regular at the Feria.

Originally, the Tarahumara dominated what is now central and southern Chihuahua. Although officially part of New Spain then Mexico, there was little serious disruption of their way of life until the discovery of gold and silver in Parral in 1631. The arrival the Spanish in numbers and the practice of forced labor in mines pushed most Tarahumara into remote, relatively inhospitable areas, or to missions. European intrusion continued into the forests and other areas, especially from the end of the 19th century. This has forced a split in the community, between those who choose to maintain the old ways, living in the most inhospitable areas of Chihuahua, and those who have migrated to cities and towns.

doll and basket

Handcrafts play an important role for those who wish to maintain traditional ways as much as possible. However, the marketing of these goods is problematic as traditional Tarahumara do not like to be among outsiders.  Libby says  “…they are afraid to getting screwed… and they do.” However, though the Tarahumara Project and similar initiatives, these artisans can get more money for what they  make, and be better appreciated.

One important aspect is that the Tarahumara are ecologically minded.  The traditional Tarahumara use what the Earth gives them but they do not cut down trees, and use only dead fall. Real traditional dolls are made of bark and are dark. These which are not made traditionally are lighter because they are carved from pine wood.


Another important craft is small baskets made with pine needles, and larger baskets of a succulent grass called “sotol.” These can be single or double woven, but are not coiled. Many still use traditional dyes, such as walnut for brown, and cochineal for purple and pink. However, as raw materials become scarce, some artisans are turning to commercial dyes.

The Tarahumara are well-noted for running, with their name for themselves being “Raramuri” which can be translated as “fleet of foot.” Libby says they will literally chase down a deer after shooting it with an arrow, basically to wear it out. However, she also says that they live to dance, as it “keeps the world going for them.” For this reason, the making of musical instruments, especially drums, is quite important. Several varieties of drums were among her collection, including authentic flat ceremonial drums, which can be made of up to a meter in diameter, allowing five to play it at once. They also make violins and flutes, but Libby did not have any of those when I spoke to her.

There are several deposits of good clay in the Tarahumara region. Both men and women do pottery but generally not together. Most pots are made by pressing a base, with the sides built up through coiling. These sides are then smoothed. There are generally not painted or etched, but are often distinguished by the use of rawhide strips which are stretched over the finished pieces, similar to a net. The addition of this rawhide is done while wet, and must be done carefully as its shrinks while drying, and if it is too tight, the pot will break. The original purpose of this is to give the pot added strength.

basket man


First contact with the Tarahumara was when she was traveling in Chihuahua with friends and their Jeep broke down in the middle of nowhere, in a bad thunderstorm. A group of Tarahumara men appeared and between gestures and a few words of Spanish, the men promised to get help. Some time later “the world’s oldest logging truck” appeared to pull the Jeep into the next town, and from there to Creel.  Stuck there for two weeks trying to get needed parts for the Jeep.  Despite not being able to get money from the ATM machines, the townspeople all gave them credit.  After that experience, she told herself if she could do anything for these people she would.

terrain 3

Several years after that, she happened to be watching television at 3am when she saw a report about the Tarahumara and the bad winter they were experiencing. The most traditional of the Tarahumara do not have houses; instead, they live under rock outcroppings, which are blocked with rocks and deadfall.  On the broadcast she said, half crying, that there were two girls about 11 or 12 who were walking barefoot in the snow to go to school. The reporter asked why not stay home for a few days and the girls said that they could not as one wanted to be a teacher and the other a doctor to help their people.

And in her head she heard the voice of her grandfather saying“Be somebody.” This grandfather grew up in Montana during the depression who had to live under a bridge in the winter because it was too far to walk between his family’s ranch and school in the winter. He also had no shoes to wear for his graduation.

So she started asking people to donate stuff, but wasn’t getting very far. A musician came to where she was working and told her to come to her gig and see if she could get something. As his name was Montana, she took that as a sign, went down to the event. She not only received money, but the next day a women who had been very skeptical came with a carload of clothes, food, candles, etc.

Since then it has snowballed. The original idea was to do it once, with two vans filled with items for the Tarahumara. However, while she was gone on the first trip, people kept bringing stuff to her house and by the time she returned, there was enough for another trip. So the next task was to figure out how to raise funds to transport the donations down to northern Mexico, 1000 miles away.

The idea was to do a yard sale, selling donated items that were not needed by the Tarahumara. This sorting of donations has kept going since and has branched out into school supplies for the indigenous school, where children are taught in their native language first.

Her mom helped with the project for about nine or ten years, but died before having a chance to travel to Mexico. The school supplies project is named after her.

She always says that she will not take down another load, but still does, because “I cant not help.”  Her work led to this encounter… in her own words…


On one of the trips we were unloading blankets etc at the hospital, the people who run the hospital were there helping us was my driver. A man approached with a little girl with him and he said something…no one responded to him…I had recognized the word for hello, so I answered him with hello. He spoke to me some more, all I understood was the word for gift, so I repeated it in an affirmative manner. He then took my hands in his, and put his hands on my forhead and then mine on his while talking the whole time in raramuri…he doesn’t speak spanish. I got all tingling. It isn’t common for the traditional Tarahumara to speak to outsiders, much less a man to a woman who isn’t related. Usually they look for a relative and go through them. … He let go of my hands, smiled, took the little girl’s hand and walked away. The people who work at the hospital were dumbfounded,…it turns out that he said I was good for his people, a blessing to them, good medicine. He said he would consider me to be a member of his hearth. (loosely translated). The hospital staff explained that it was like making me a member of his family. I don’t know if that was his intention, but I was floored, and felt very honored. I later found out that he was the head spiritual leader.


Libby can be reached directly through the_tarahumara_project@yahoo.com


All photos courtesy of Libby Townsend and Alejandro Linares Garcia

When Artists Have Trouble Seeing – – Friends of Oaxacan Folk Art Offers Help

by Doris Friedensohn and Amy Mulvihill


In July, 2015 Maestro Carlomagno Pedro Martínez — Director of the Oaxaca State Museum of Folk Art and FOFA‘s long-time collaborator — hosted a meeting of women folk artists of the Central Valleys to address their common concerns. One group emphasized health issues that challenge the wellbeing of women whose crafts are visually challenging. Moved by their stories highlighting the absence of preventive care for what can develop into vexing visual problems, Maestro Carlomagno pledged to provide corrective lenses to 50 women especially in need of care. He asked FOFA to provide support and we gladly did so.


Silvia Xuana Fabián from the woodcarving village of San Martín Tilcajete paints fine designs on wooden sculptures. Day after day, as long as the light holds, she focuses on repeating a delicate, multi-colored design. There’s no room for error in this unforgiving work, as Silvia knows all too well. If the pattern isn’t perfectly maintained, the piece is worthless. She feels the strain in her back and hands. But the real problem is with Silvia’s eyes. The bright colors fight back; her eyes hurt whenever she works. The same is true for her mother, father and brothers who, like Silvia, are all folk artists.
Fortunately, Silvia and her family heard about Project Ita Tachii. Ita Tachii in Nahuatl (one of the many indigenous languages of the state of Oaxaca) means Flower of the Wind and is associated with creativity. The Project, conceived and led by Carlomagno Pedro Martínez provides glasses free of charge to artisan women who suffer from vision problems as a result of their craft. Among those commonly affected are women doing decorative painting, embroidery and woodworking; also those making gold and silver jewelry and working on backstrap looms.
ImageProxy (1)
The Project offers free diagnostic exams by an optometrist at the Museum. Seventy artisans, including Silvia Xuana Fabián, her parents and two brothers have taken advantage of the opportunity. Following an examination, each was given a prescription and directed to the table where glasses of different strengths and styles were available. “We all needed these glasses so much, ” Silvia said. “Our eyes were really hurting. Now that I am used to my glasses,” she added, ” I can see very clearly.”
More testimonials
ImageProxy (3)
Alba Noemí López Zárate (from the ceramic village of Ocotlán de Morelos) appreciates the help offered by FOFA because, from that day forward, the glasses provided to her enable her to tire much less rapidly when decoratively painting the ceramic figures she and her family create. “It is very important work which improves the quality of life of the elderly who wish to continue working.”
ImageProxy (4)
Dulce Andrés Castillo, daughter of Irene Castillo (black ceramic pueblo of San Bartolo Coyotepec): “I really needed glasses. I have used glasses since I was very young. But my mother told me to go and have a new exam. At the appointment I learned I need a much stronger prescription than the one I have had. They took care of me and I feel much better working. It’s much easier for me to work now.”
Reprinted with permission from the Friends of Oaxacan Folk Art newsletter

A slightly darker, Baroque take on folk sculpture

Jose Juan Garcia Aguilar comes from the world-renowned Aguilar family from the small town of Ocotlán de Morelos in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. The family’s feat is no small thing given Oaxaca’s reputation for producing many of the best artisans Mexico has to offer in so many different fields. Ocotlán itself is home to a vibrant pottery tradition, as well as the making of fine knives and other blades.


The family’s fame began with Jose Juan’s grandmother, Isaura Alcantara Diaz. Although she died at the young age of 44, she managed to break from the town’s traditional utilitarian pottery to found her own tradition, the creation of decorative human figures, depicting life in rural Oaxaca with emotion. She was followed by her daughters including Jose Juan’s mother, Josefina Aguilar Alcantara, who reinterpreted these new figures. Josefina became known for creating sets depicting events such as baptisms and large female figures called “muñecas” (lit. dolls). These became famous after Nelson Rockefeller began adding them to his impressive collection of Mexican folk art.

Jose Juan at the Feria Maestros del Arte

The next generation continues to reinterpret the craft, but keeping with the idea of depicting life in and around Ocotlan. However, in this case the sons stand out, principally Demetrio and Jose Juan. Jose Juan is Josefina’s younger son, born in 1974. He began watching his mother as a child, and at age 8, began to work the clay himself. Initially, his work was influenced by Demetrio, but he has since gone on to create his own unique style, and is recognized as a premier folk artist in his own right.

Jose Juan generally works on his own, with only the help of his wife, who generally paints the primary colors. While Jose Juan does make some sets, most of his figures are solitary pieces. Much of his inspiration comes from religion, with images of saints, virgins and angels, but he is also known for creating almost grotesque insects and animals with skull heads. He states that much of his inspirations comes from his area of Oaxaca, but also from Mexican folklore such as naguals (a kind of animal spirit), alebrijes (fantasy creatures of different animals parts, with highly detailed painted designs) and his own imagination. His idea is to reinterpret the culture in his own way.

He works to make his works more fine, and less rustic than that of his mother and grandmother. He also works with watercolors and metallic paints (generally gold and silver) instead of acrylics. He also prefers darker colors and large quantities of details in his figures, giving them a Baroque effect.

Jose Juan’s work has been sold and exhibited widely in Mexico and the United States and can be found in a number of important public and private collections of Mexican folk art.





Perfection not within sight, but within reach

Sergio Alberto Ortega Álvarez is a 33-year-old musician and stringed instrument maker, who is located in the small community of Ajusco, in the far south of the Federal District of Mexico City. Although born and raised here, Sergio’s specialty is the traditional music of the state of Veracruz and the Huasteca region, which extends from the north of this state.


Sergio began playing music when he was a child, and quickly developed a preference for traditional music. He has family roots both in the Hidalgo state portion of the Huasteca on his father’s side and a connection with southern Veracruz through his mother’s father, home of Son Jarocho. He belongs to a Huasteca musical group which plays mostly in Mexico City, with invitations to other parts of Mexico, mostly to Huasteca festivals in the region.


To state that he is a blind musician who plays both the Huasteca and Veracruz jaranas, guitar and requinto (a small guitar) may not be impressive, as there are a number of famous blind musicians. However, it is another thing to state that he also makes and repairs these and other stringed instruments…

Sergio was born blind with music coming into his life early. He became a proficient musician but wanted to learn how the instruments he plays were made. He stated that people thought that it was not possible for a him to learn to make instruments because of the need for precise measurements. However, about eight years ago he found one of several instrument makers who were willing to teach him apprentice-style, adapting crafting methods to being touch-centered, rather than sight-centered. He has since continued to develop his craft, from buying specialized tools such as a tape measure that speaks the measurements to continuing to find new ways to make his works.


Sergio specializes in the same instruments that he plays, jaranas, requintos and guitars, selling most of his work through attendance at traditional music festivals in Mexico. He also uses these festivals to network with others interested in preserving and promoting traditional Mexican folk music to find long-term clients.

The craftsman’s work has been featured in the Mexico City newspaper La Jornada, and on the National Polytechnic Institute’s channel Canal 11.

He can be contacted on Facebook at Super Jaranas Ortega and reached by cell at +52 (55) 10 11 20 19


Photographs courtesy of Sergio Ortega