Over 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.
However, 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.
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.
But 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.