San Miguel de Allende was once described to me as the “Disneyland” version of Mexico… In the center of the city, everything seems almost perfect, clean, orderly all colonial or colonial style buildings in great condition… not to mention the large castle-like facade of the main parish church.
Gringos are everywhere here, and their presence has changed the city forever. While to a person, these retired expats love San Miguel, their presence in such numbers does take away some from the colonial city… that ironically their money helped to save from becoming a ghost town.
However, if you look beyond the signs for international cuisines and shopkeepers speaking English, “Mexican” San Miguel is still alive, thank you very much.
Perhaps the best representative of this community is artisan 45-year-old Hermes Arroyo Guerrero.
Arroyo is best known for his work with the creation of giant puppet figures called “mojigangas,” along with the preservation of their use in San Miguel’s various festivals and processions, both secular and religious. Although mojigangas had existed in San Miguel for generations, Arroyo’s work has extended their popularity them both in and out of San Miguel proper. They are now part of the city’s identity, especially those related to important celebrations in September (Independence Day and the city’s patron saint) and a unique use for weddings.
Arroyo is not from a crafting family, but was introduced to it through a childhood friend whose father, Genaro Almanza, was a local “santero,” a craftsman dedicated to the making, preservation and restoration of saint images, as well as caring for altars and other interior artifacts in churches. This is an important function in a city that has dozens of churches and even more chapels that date back to the colonial period.
Arroyo became fascinated by Almanza’s work and became one of his apprentices as a young child. Although mischievous by nature and chastised for things like making breasts too large on female icons, he was also Almanza’s favorite, becoming his “godfather” or sponsor for his first communion. In Mexico, this creates familial ties.
By the age of 17, Arroyo had been accepted into San Miguel’s guild of santeros, and able to take on commissions of his own, as well as be appointed caretaker of churches and chapels. However, his famous work with mojigangas did not come directly from his position with Almanza or santeros.
Arroyo was, and still is, a master of working with many materials. He is capable of doing everything from sculpting wood, plastering, painting with oils, acrylics, etc and more. His talents do not stop at those needed for his work with mojigangas and religious items, as Arroyo gave us a short tour of his home that included various improvement projects in brick, wood, glass etc and some pieces in ceramic that he has done simply for the pleasure of it.
His abilities also include working in cartonería, a hard paper mache. In the 1990s a French resident of San Miguel and puppeteer asked Arroyo to make two mojigangas for a festival in the El Valle de Maiz neighborhood of the city, a skeleton and a devil. These are traditional images for religious festivals, along with those of priests and more as the mojigangas representing good and evil in a dance.
Arroyo’s early creations were quite heavy, up to 50 kilos but since then he devised methods to bring the weight down such that they rarely weigh over 20. He also replaced the traditional hemp straps that hold the heavy upper portion onto the dancers’ shoulders with those made of inner tube, as they are not only more comfortable, but make the mojigangas bounce more. Even though many of the materials used to make mojigangas are commercially made, such as cloth and decorative elements, Arroyo emphasizes that the making of these puppets is not simply gluing pieces together. Indeed, the heart of the mojiganga is the cartonería work and painting, which gives each piece its personality.
Most of Arroyo’s fame is in the Guanajuato and Queretaro area, where he works on commissions teaches in various communities. He has made mojigangas, life-sized nativities and more as commissions, both in Mexican and for places like restaurants in the United States. This is the “business” side of his work.
One major aspect of the business side is the making of bride and groom mojigangas for weddings, a tradition that is particular to San Miguel. Wedding festivities include a procession of the bridal party in the streets of the city, including the bride and groom in full gown and tuxedo. Behind the couple dance these mojigangas. During our visit, Arroyo showed us two recently-completed mojigangas, designed to look like the bride and groom that commissioned them (pictured above). Looking at the photos, although cartoon-like, the resemblance was quite striking.
Arroyo is now the head of the family, still living in the family home on the steepest portion of San Francisco Street in the historic center of San Miguel, and this family helps with many of the commissions. But Arroyo sees the business side of what he does as important for the cultural work, economically supporting his continued work as a santero, along with advising communities with their traditions with mojigangas.
(All photos by the author unless otherwise specified.)