The iconic rebozo


If you have read anything about the Mexican Revolution, then you have very likely seen this photograph (above) which depicts unnamed “Adelitas” or women who fought with or otherwise supported Mexican rebel troops. If you look at the women in this photo, each one is wearing one singular Mexican garment in one way or another… the rebozo.


Woman in blue rebozo (1937) by Luis Marquez

For much of Mexico’s history, the rebozo was an indispensible woman’s garment. Today, however, its use has severely declined. Its use today is mostly associated with indigenous women, and while most Mexican women, indigenous or not, have at least one, it might be worn only for Independence Day ceremonies.

Although today associated with indigenous Mexico, the garment is not pre Hispanic. Its origins are from the early colonial period. The name is Spanish, meaning “to cover,” indicating its original use… as a modesty garment. The origin was likely from lower class mestizos, adapting some elements of indigenous clothing to create something with the same function of the upper-class mantilla (shawl).  One indigenous garment that may have had an effect on its development is the tilma, a large apron-like garment used often for carrying.

Illustration in an 1888 book

Among those who regularly use it, the rebozo has two uses, a covering for the head and/or upper body and for the carrying of goods and, very often, small children. Rebozos for carrying may be quite long, due to the need to wrap it around the body one or more times. Historically, rebozos were up to two or more meters long, but this is rare today. The most traditional wearers will use them regularly during their entire life and will generally be buried with one.

For the rest of Mexican women, the garment is used mostly as a symbol of being Mexican on certain occasions, especially Independence Day. Ironically, the reason most middle and upper class women do not use it regularly is because it is associated with the poor and indigenous, despite the existence of finely made rebozos worth thousands of pesos. Even when these women wear the rebozo, it is as an accessory, generally draped over the shoulder(s) and/or arm(s), never on the head.

Margarita Zavala in rebozo con Michelle Obama (credit U.S. government)

There have been influential women who have promoted the rebozo. Fromer first lady Margarita Zavala Gómez del Campo was well known for wearing the garment, especially to state functions, stating “I will not take it off. The rebozo is part of my personality.” in the face of social pressure. Fashion designer Rocio Contreras and others promote the garment, coming up with new ways to wear tie it, wear it and even with new designs such as a smaller version for men to wear similar to a scarf.

Rebozos from Santa Maria Tlahuitoltepec, Oaxaca (credit Alejandro Linares Garcia)

In essence, the rebozo is simply a rectangular piece of cloth. It may be of one color, with little or no design (which is sometimes called a chalina) or have myriad of colors and designs, either woven and/or embroidered. Like other traditional women’s clothing such as the huipil and quezquemitl, the style is often determined by where the garment comes from. Guerrero, Chiapas and Michoacan are noted for heavily embroidered rebozos and Santa Maria del Rio, San Luis Potosi is known for the making of silk rebozos. Rebozos are most commonly made of cotton but in colder climes, those made from wool can be found as well. It is rare to find one made with synthetic fibers as most are still woven on looms in Mexico.

Knotting fringe as a workshop (photo courtesy of the Museo de Arte Popular)

The garment is woven with its intended width, leaving the two ends of the length with fringe. Orginally the knotting was simple to keep the piece from unraveling but in many cases, the knotting have become an important decorative aspect. Fringes can be found knotted in intricate designs, including images and words, and in a number of cases elements such as feathers and beads are added. This knotwork can take far longer than the weaving of the rebozo body.

Fringe heavy with feathers from Parachi, Ahuiran, Michoacan
Rebozo depicted in painting by Jose Julio Gaona Adame called “Invierno en la ciudad” (Winter in the city)
Heavily embroidered rebozo from Acatlán de Osorio, Guerrero (photo:Alejandro Linares Garcia)
Calimaya design rebozo in progress at the workshop of Inocencio Balboa in Tenancingo, State of Mexico (credit Alejandro Linares Garcia)

Mayan trolls/elves

I first saw these at the Doll Museum in Amealco, Querétaro while looking for more information about the María dolls which are a ubiquitous part of Mexican souvenir sales. They grabbed my attention, sidetracking me from the more traditional exhibits in the small halls.

At first glance, they have a very similar appeal as the troll dolls which were popular in the 1970s and again in the 1990s and those of the Smurfs. Not human, but with human qualities such as a mischievous grin…. and undeniably cute.

202047_335825233210836_1829742817_oHowever, instead of mass produced plastic, these “aluxes” (singular alux, Mayan plural aluxin) are individually handmade as cloth dolls. The outer cloth is usually commericially made cotton or mixed-fiber, but there are versions made from hennequin (similar to burlap), a fiber which was the basis of much of the Yucatecan economy in the 19th and into the 20th century.

The dolls are the brainchild of Javier Alba. Originally from Mexico City, when he moved to Cancún he became fascinated by the story of the “aluxes” (pronounced a-LU-sheys) and their link to ecology. According to myth, the aluxes were created with the Mayan god Yum Kaax saw how are men worked in agriculture and wanted to help. He created the aluxes as small guardians of family and fields. They also care for the forests as well as animals. Before a field is sown, a small figure of an alux was made from clay, which is meant to come to life and look over the growing crops. If the farmer repects the aluxes and nature in general, he is rewarded with abundance.

882581_410704565722902_1921368812_oAlba designed the dolls and originally contacted associates back in Mexico City to see about getting them mass-produced. The advice he received was to have them made cheaply in China to avoid labor costs in Mexico, but he and partner Miriam León decided that was not the way they wanted to go. They wanted to use the idea to help underpriviledged people in the Maya zone of Mexico, such as senior citizens and single mothers who need to earn an income. The concept began in 2012 with production beginning in 2013.

903213_426759154117443_366213182_oToday, it is a small business works with 18 artisans in the Cancún area who receive training and materials to make the dolls. Most of the dolls are sold to tourists in the Yucatán peninsula, in various stores as well as hotel in Cancún and Campeche. They can also befound in the Papalote Children’s Museum and the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. There have been some individual sales to the United States and Europe, but no mass export as of yet.


Web site of Aluxin

(Photos courtesy of Aluxin)







Trees of life (Soteno family)

Tree of Life depicting the Conquest of Mexico by Oscar Soteno at the Museo Nacional de las Culturas Populares

Mexico has a unique pottery tradition which is known as the Arból de la Vida or Tree of Life.

It looks something like a candelabra and did indeed develop from such. However, Trees of Life do not contain places for candles and can be better appreciated as a kind of folk sculpture.

Originally, Trees of Life were made to depict the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. With the “tree” as the background, figures of Adam, Eve, the serpent and God at the top usually appear, along with other decorative details, which can be quite dense and elaborate. There are two places in Mexico that make them, but the most elaborate and best known come from the town of Metepec, west of Mexico City and just east of the capital of the State of Mexico, Toluca. Although being overrun as a bedroom community for both Toluca and Mexico City, the center of Metepec still hangs onto its rural handcrafting heritage, filled with pottery workshops, all working with local clays.

Tiburcio Soteno in his workshop

The best-known family  making these Trees of Life is the Soteno family, which has several workshops in Metepec. The family’s prominence began with matriarch Modesta Fernández Mata, who began experimenting with decorative pottery. She has since been followed by four generations, who have specialized in these Trees. These generations continue experimenting, not only with sizes (ranging from miniature to colossal) and colors, but also with themes. The most traditional still focus on Adam and Eve, but many others have since been done, including Day of the Dead, the birth of Christ, courtship and marriage and even the pottery of Metepec.

Oscar Soteno with work that is traditional in theme but not in form.

Today the patriarch of the family is Tiburcio Soteno, whose work has been exhibited all over Mexico, various locations in the United States and even Europe. He is followed by Oscar Soteno for his artistic ability, who created a tree to honor Modesta when she died.  His works have been exhibited to about the same scale as Tiburcio’s.

Although the trees’s forms and decoration have become more sophisticated, their making has changed little. Each is molded by hand from local clays, working in small, often poor lighted workshops in family homes. But the speed in which Tiburcio and Oscar can shape arms, faces, flowers, animals and more is amazing, especially considering how lifelike these touches are.


(All photos by Alejandro Linares Garcia)

(Video in Spanish)

Getting attacked by “small bulls”

(Don’t forget to check out the videos at the end of the article!)

Perhaps one major thing that Americans and Western Europeans have to adjust to living in Mexico is a very different attitude towards public safety and personal responsibility. The rules and restrictions we are used to in our native countries “for our own protection” are considerably less or non existent here in Mexico, and that is not necessarily a bad thing. Ive come to appreciate it, as a matter of fact.

Perhaps one tradition that takes folks back home aback is the fairly lackadaiscal attitude towards fireworks. That’s not to say there are no restrictions, but they are no where near as strict as the U.S.

DSC_0257One major fireworks tradition in the Mexico City metropolitan area is the “torito,” literally “little bull.” This is a handcrafted figure of a bull made of reeds, cane and with larger versions, a cartoneria (paper mache) skin. A cage of sorts is constructed above the bull figure, which is then loaded with various types of fireworks, including those which simply glow,  firecrackers, spinning disks that fly up into the air and one called “buscapies” (feet finder) that is a kind of rocket that shoots along the ground, giving it the name.

DSC_0264Depending on the size of the torito, it will be carried resting on a person’s head, or by a team what will either carry it like it was on a litter or roll it on wheels. The aim of this is to set the fireworks off with torito “running” by and through the crowds.

One major tradition involving these toritos is the Fiestas de Luces y Música (Festival of Lights and Music) held annually in Santiago Zapotitlan, Mexico City. Although part of Mexico City, the community still works to maintain its rural identity, made even harder with the recent opening of Line 12 of the Metro here. The Festival ends with the running of these toritos, first in the daytime, when people can appreciate the work and artistry that individuals and teams put into making their bulls, whether they are small ones for child’s head or monsters over to meters high and four meters long. Even without the fireworks, the large toritos menace the crowd, pushed into them to disperse. Ill admit I liked this as it made getting photos easier.

There were twelve large bulls in the 2016 version, ranging from a white bull covered with harmless looking colorful crepe paper to a behemoth involking Ironman. All the work put into these creatures would soon be destroyed.

DSC_0413Although we had been warned that “everyone gets burned” as this event, nothing prepares you for the first experience. For photography’s sake, we asked a local business owner for access to his roof, which he kindly granted. Turned out to be the safest place, but not entirely safe, as I was hit twice by flying rockets, despite a wall coming up to my chest. Those in the main plaza  and nearby streets, mostly young men, were showered with sparks and pummeled with rockets, smoke and debris.

I have to admit, it was quite the adreneline rush.




All photos and video by Alejandro Linares Garcia and Leigh Thelmadatter

Mexico City’s first and oldest vendor of Mexican folk art

Hidden on Isabel la Catolica Street on the southern edge of the historic center of Mexico City lies a treasure. This treasure lies not only in the merchandise for sale, but the history and the people related to the enterprise.

The only thing that marks the location is a small sign with “Victor’s Artes populares mexicanos” hanging off a balcony on one of many similar colonial buildings in the area. The store has no front windows showing merchandise, instead one must use the large knocker located on a very large wooden door to gain entrance. This can be quite intimidating for just a curious tourist, but the effort is worth it.

“Victor’s” refers to one of the store’s founders, Victor Fosado Contreras. He initially made a living as carpenter as well as by making jewelry. In the 1940s, long, long before the Mexican government ever began its programs to promote Mexico’s folk art traditions, Fosa and American business partner Frederick Davis decided to open a shop on Madero street to sell folk art.

The audacity of such an enterprise is hard to imagine today, but at that time very few people, and none outside Mexico’s artist and intellectual communities gave any credence to utilitarian and decorative items made by Mexico’s poor and indigenous communities. These men were ahead of their time.

A small section of the store’s interior

Fosa began with items he knew about, but as the shop began to have success, he started traveling and learning about more traditions in different places, earning his expertise the hard way. In this environment, son Victor Fosado Vazquez and daughter Pilar Fosado Vazquez grew up. Young Victor followed his father into the business early, becoming a major folk art expert in his own right. His career eventually took him to Cancun, where he worked with the government agency FONART to take advantage of the area’s tourist development for promoting Mexican artesania.

Pilar’s interests in early life revolved around music, and she was a piano teacher for many years. However, in the 1970s her interest in folk art revived, and she decided to take over the Mexico City business, which she continues to run along with a nephew.

Only recently has the store moved to its current location, from its previous one, which despite having been on the much busier Madero Street, was also not very visible from the street. Since its main clientle is not the average tourist, the lack of street visibility has not a major concern. The business deals with fine and authentic artesania, and stock includes pieces by noted names such as the Linares family and important community traditions such as the lacquerware of Olinalá, Guerrero.  Most of the pieces in the store are small, and there is a locked area with antiques for sale as well. The clientele mostly consists of collectors and institutions such as museums, both in Mexico and abroad. The store has been a stop for specialized tours, such as those related to art and Mexican history, and has been mentioned in media such as the New York Times and NBC news, generally as a tip for those looking for something out-of-the-ordinary.

Pilar has worked with supplying artisans for many years, noting the changes in production as older craftspeople die and younger ones take their place (or often, not). While Pilar has done some collaboration with museum publications, unfortunately, she has not given serious consideration to documenting her experience or knowledge.

There is no currently active website or Facebook site for the business as the writing of this post. The address is Isabel la Catolica 97, Col. Centro. Hours are from 11-730pm


National “Encounter” of Traditional Cartonería (paper mache)

11037108_1252691998080198_7863973821002956578_nOver the centuries, the various branches of Mexican handcrafts have seen their ups and downs. Some have disappeared and some struggle to make a comeback.

Cartonería (or hard paper mache) can be classed in the latter category. It reached peaks in the 19th century and again in the mid 20th century, until the banning of fireworks manufacture and the introduction of cheap plastic almost destroyed it completely.

A number of families held onto the craft though the mid and latter 20th century, most famously the Linares, essentially by working to to shift from the production objects to be sold cheaply and used for a short time, to more artistic and collectible items.


DSC_0035However, for the last 20 or thirty years, cartoneria has seen a resurgence, principally in urban areas in central Mexico. Much of this is due to the teaching of the crafts in cultural centers and other institutions, where it is an inexpensive introduction to Mexican handcrafts. In addition, it has become quite popular among a number of youth sub-cultures, especially in poorer areas.

Perhaps unthinkable even 10 years ago, recently there have been efforts to support “cartoneros” (those who work with cartonería) and make the craft more visible.  The first major event of this type was the Mexico City Feria de Cartoneria, shortly followed thereafter by the National Encounter of Traditional Cartonería, which is held each year at the Morelos State Museum of Popular Art in February.

Cartoneros learning to work with reeds to make frames at the Jardin Borda in Cuernavaca

In reality, 4-7 February 2016 marks only the second edition of a national conference, but it was kicked off with a plenary session by Rodolfo Stavenhagen. The focus of the event is the cartoneros themselves. One of the main events is a parade held in the historic center of the colonial city of Cuernavaca, where cartoneros march with their works, many created for this event. Cartoneros also have the opportunity to sell their works at stands set up by the state government offices as well.

Photo credit Héctor Fernández Martínez

DSC_0264.JPGBut perhaps the most interesting aspect of the event is not public. The event sponsors workshops for invited cartoneros only, with the aim of sharing techniques and ideas. This is important because even today, most old-school cartoneros do not share information about what they do with others. Those who learned not from family, but from institutions and networks of friends are more open to sharing ideas and coordinating. Cartoneros I spoke to during this weekend feel this is the future of the craft, especially with the new demand for giant-sized pieces, which individual craftspeople cannot fill on their own and need ways to bring together their colleagues for these special projects.


Huipil, widespread but nearly invisible.

Amuzgo woman in huipil in Xochistlahuaca, Guerrero (credit Alejandro Linares Garcia)

It is the most common and oldest Mexican traditional garment in use, but it is almost unknown to most visitors to the country. Even if tourists see the garment, few know what it is called and almost none know its history or significance.

Mexico has a wide variety of traditional clothing that is still worn, although its use is diminishing. Today, most traditional garments are seen almost exclusively by indigenous women, and even much of this use is relegated to events such as festivals. Some garments are obviously of European origin, developed during the colonial period after the Spanish imposed many of their mores about dress, sometimes with very little change since then.

However, the huipil distinguishes itself as being a purely indigenous garment, with the basic form mostly unchanged. It predates the Conquest by centuries and its use is still common over Mesoamerica, central Mexico into Central America.

Huipil (R) by Julia Ruiz Cruz of Oaxaca (credit Alejandro Linares Garcia)

The basic form is three long rectangular pieces, stitched together to add width. An opening for head is created such that the garment folds in half over the body, such that two long seams that extend down from the shoulders. The reason for this was that the garment was developed to use fabric hand-woven on backstrap looms, which limit how wide fabric can be. However, instead of hiding the seam, it is more often accentuated with decorative stitching. Even huipils made with commercial fabric today will more often than not be sewn to have these seams. The sides are sewn as well, leaving gaps where the garment folds over the sholders for the arms to go through.

Woman in huipil instructing another on weaving (credit Alejandro Linares Garcia)
Design element from a ceremonial huipil of Santiago Atitlan, Guatelmala (credit Hubertl)

From this basic template, the huipil then takes on a myriad of forms…in how it is worn, but especially how it is decorated. Each indigenous group has its own way of weaving and/or embroidering designs onto the garment, and in many cases, this decoration indicates what community the wearer is from. Colors and designs range from the sublime and delicate pieces of the Amuzgos of Guerrero and Oaxaca to pieces almost completely covered in bright embroidered flowers, animals and geometric patterns. However, the decorations have an even deeper significance in many cultures. Anthropologist Martha Turok initiated a groundbreaking study of Mayan garments to find that many of these designs had symbols with specific meanings, but in many cases these meanings have been lost.

Huipil of woman from San Juan Cotzal, Guatemala (credit Hubertl)

Huipil lengths vary from short pieces used as blouses, to floor length gowns. They may be worn alone or with other garments. Some of the short huipils are traditional, such as those worn with skirts in Tehuantepec, Oaxaca, but many others are shortened versions of traditional tunics, which are more popular among tourists as they can be worn easily with jeans. Most huipils are the length of long dresses and depending in the culture and occasion, worn alone, with a skirt, or over a simple dress/tunic. The waist may or may not be tied with a sash or tucked into a skirt.

Sculpture of Tehuana woman with headddress by Miguel Hernandez Urban (photo credit Adam Jones)

One unusual use of a modified huipil is as a headress, which is the hallmark of women from Tehuantepec (Tehuanas). This look was made famous by a self portrait of Frida Kahlo, as a Tehuana.

The use of huipils in the Yucatan peninsula are also distinctive. There are two types: those which are similar to huipils in the rest of Mesoamerica, with three panels, and a garment which is really a fusion of a huipil and a European style dress, with a heavily embroidered free-falling yoke over a dress with a wide band of embroidery near or at the hem.

What tourist may more often see are loose blouses with embroidery similar to those on huipils. These blouses generally have a yoke that allows the garment to be fitted over the chest areas, as well as allow for sleeves or sleeve-like arm coverings. However, these are not huipils.

Huipils from Michoacan at the Tianguis de Domingo de Ramos (credit Alejandro Linares Garcia)
Yucatan huipil (credit StellarD)
Female figure with huipil and skirt, dating from 500-800 AD Veracruz (credit Daderot)


Woman in huipil in Tuxtepec, Oaxaca (credit author)

Huipil from San Andres Duraznal, Chiapas (credit Alejandro Linares Garcia)

(Featured image by Alejandro Linares Garcia)



What are those dolls called?


Hand sewn and hand embroidered doll from Santiago Mexquititlan (credit author)

Just about every tourist who has spent significant time in Mexico has come across these dolls, but what are they?  Oddly enough little has been written about Mexican dolls at all.

The only name I have found for these rag dolls, with ribbon-decked hair with braids and something that looks like indigenous dress is “Marias,” although they are often called simply “rag dolls.” So for the sake of distinguishing them from other rag dolls, we will use the term Marias.

While they appear in most tourist places, it seems that they mostly likely originate from the Mexican state of Querétaro, more specifically the southern  area home to the Otomi.  According to Alonso Alcántara Morales, cultural coordinator for the municipality of Amealco, the making of these particular dolls began with a program founded by Diego Rivera’s daughter, Guadalupe, in the 1970s as a way to provide local Otomi woman an alternative source of income. The popularity of the dolls nationall came about in part because of the popularity of a similarly-dressed comic movie actress by the name of La India Maria (Maria, the Indian) in the same era. It should be noted that La India Maria character is based on the similarly-dressed neighboring ethnicity called the Mazahua, who have also claim to have originated the doll.

The appearance of Marias in various locations in Mexico probably attributed to their being noticed by tourists. Today, varieties of the dolls can be found in most tourist venues, and can be adapted to the indigenous dress of other ethnicities. Sometimes even the skin color varies as well. Whether or not these dolls are truely handmade is questionable as there have been factory made ones, with the aim of selling them as cheaply as possible.

Main church of San Ildefonso Tultepec (credit Alejanddro Linares Garcia)

However, it is possible to obtain ones that are authentically made by the Otomi, especially in Amealco and the city of Queretaro. For the more adventurous, trips to the main production centers of Santiago Mixquititlan and San Ildefonso Tultepec are recommended, but be prepared to ask around for locations and people who made and sell them. Authenticity is not necessarily based in hand-sewing, but gluing should be avoided. The dolls may or may not have movable joints, depending on where they are made. Perhaps the best way to note an authentic piece is through the face and dress. The best dolls have faces that are either sewn on (like the doll above) or painted.  The dress should have elements which have been hand embroidered.

It is also important to note that there are two varieties of dolls made by the Otomi of this region. The ones that are best known are from Santiago Mixquititlan. Another is made in San Ildefonso Tultepec, where the doll’s head and body are formed from rolled fabric, usually a stiff muslin, then bent at the head. The front is indicated with a face that is painted or sewn, and the back roll is made to look like long thick hair, covered in a kerchief.

Genoveva Perez Pascual con muñeca de su comunidad de San Ildefonso Tultepec (credit Alejandro Linares Garcia)

Amealco hosts a museum and an annual national-level contest (in November) for handmade dolls as a means of promoting the dolls and the municipality itself as a center for authentic pieces.

In 2014, the state of Queretaro filed paperwork to have the doll officially recognized as being from here, and only dolls made in the state deemed authentic.  The is the same demonination of origin that tequila and a few other products have A ruling for authenticity would be important for the artisans of the Amealco municipality, as the area is one of the poorest in Querétaro and about 70% of the indigenous population of the municipality is dedicated to making them.

A note on other Mexican dolls

Lupita doll (credit Tomascastelazo)

While the Marias are best known, they are not the only handcrafted ragdoll made in Mexico. Chiapas also makes rag dolls that can be distinguished from Marias, and often are of both men and women. There are various other artisans that made various rag dolls, for example the dolls made by Original Friends, a women’s prison project and those made by Mexico City artisan Ana Karen Allende. However, these do not have the iconic status that the Marias do, and are not instantly recognizable as Mexican.

Perhaps second in importance are those made from hard paper mache or “cartonería.” These are made primarily in Mexico City, where they are called “Lupitas” and in Celaya, Guanajuato where they are nameless. They were originally made as a cheap toy to give girls during certain festivals, and are distinguised by movable arms and legs which are tied onto the main body.

Mixtec corn husk dolls from Oaxaca (courtesy Friends of Oaxacan Folk Art)

Dolls are also made with other materials as well, such as dried corn husks, wood etc. Among the crafts of the Tarahumara are those made with bark. Authentic ones of this type are distinguished by being very dark in color, rather than lighter ones made from wood. The reason for this that that those Tarahumara who still follow the old ways will not cut down trees, but rather use only deadfall.

As with many other handcrafts, Marias and other dolls have been replaced by cheaper, commerically made ones of plastic. The making of these dolls now is primarily for tourists and collectors. In the case of Marias, the market is almost exclusively for tourists. As collectors’ items, dolls are not as popular as some other handcrafts.

Featured image by Inakiherrasti