The name quechquemitl has various spelling variations and somewhat different pronuncations. The name originates from Nahuatl (meaning “neck garment”) as its use was originally limted to Nahua communities. In the colonial erea, it was adopted by various indigenous groups such as the Otomis, Tepehuas, Totonacs, Mazahuas.
The garment looks simiilar to and is most often worn like a poncho, but smaller and made a bit differently. It is made from two rectangular pieces of cloth, which traditionally are hand woven on backstrap looms. The ends of one piece are sewn onto a side of the other, making a triangular shaped garment and leaves a hole for the head without cutting.
Lengths and materials vary, depending on the community that makes the garment and its purpose. Wool and heavy cotton versions can be for warmth, while thin, delicate ones are decorative. Its use is concentrated among indigenous communities in central Mexico, such as Puebla, Hidalgo, San Luis Potosi, Hidalgo, State of Mexico and Querétaro, but it can be found as far south and west as Michoacan, Morelos, Guerrero, Chiapas and Oaxaca. It is used to cover the upper body of a women, although some communities use a modified version, which may be of fine gauze, as a head covering.
Its original purpose was for warmth, and at one time could be worn with only a skirt. Today however, it is most often worn over a huipil or blouse, as part of an overall outfit. Its use is fading, with only women of traditional indigenous communities in certain areas wearing them, and even then only older women on regular basis. For younger generations, the wearing of the garment is being relegated to traditional festivals.
One area that is particularly noted for the wearing of this garment is the Sierra Norte of the state of Puebla, a wet, rugged mountain area that separates northern Puebla and Hidalgo from the Veracruz coast. The area’s rugged terrain and weather have kept it relatively isolated, with the Otomi and other indigenous communities able to keep a number of old ways and handcrafts. Here the finest gauze pieces woven, often reserving the most complicated patterns for quechquemitls, rather than for the huipil. In this area, the designs the quechquemitl can indicate the town or village of the wearer as well as the ethnicity.
Featured image-Huasteca quechquemitl from San Luis Potosi
All photos by Alejandro Linares Garcia or Leigh Thelmadatter unless otherwise indicated
Unlike in many part of Mexico, the pottery of Jalisco has mostly shunned the use of glazing, opting instead for burnishing and firing once, very reminiscent of pre Hispanic pottery. There are a number of types, mostly named after decorative styles, including “canelo” which means cinnamon. The name comes from the variations of the color of this spice, and it was particularly valued for its ability to keep water cool, as well as give it a distinctive, but pleasant taste. It is still one of the pottery decorative styles that are found in Jalisco and nowhere else.
Canelo pottery is made by a number of Tonala family, but one in particular, the Pajaritos (literally “little bird”) are noted for their work in this style.
The family has had five generations of working clay in Tonala, but most has been written about the current family patriarch, Nicasio Pajarito (b. 1935) and with good reason. Over a span of fifty years, the maestro reinvented the pottery his father and grandfather made, making it more sophisticated, detailed and innovative without losing a sense of tradition. This work won him numerous awards including the 2002 National Ceramic Prize and being named a Grand Master of Mexican Folk Art by the Fomento Banamex foundation. He is still active today, but younger generations do the heavy work such as mixing clay.
Nicasio’s work developed from an innate artistic sense. As a boy, he learned watching his father Cecilio, thinking that the painting of the pots was “easy.” This was not exactly the case, but he took to it more so than his siblings, continuing to learn under his grandmother Martha Cantero after his father’s untimely death. Nicasio took what he learned and expanded on it, especially after he married wife Maria Fajardo. In particular, he expanded on the possibilities of canelo, which according to family lore was used only to make miniature dish sets for girls.
The color of canelo pieces is achieved through a mix of white, black and red clays from various sources. The mix is important to the family as they believe it to be reflective of Mexico’s mestizo heritage. The same clays, along with some minerals, are used to make the slips used to paint background and designs.
The basic process remains unchanged. Clay is broken up, ground into a powder and impurities removed. After mixing with water, the clay is left to “ferment.” Both molds and freehand techniques are used, even within a single piece, often made in parts. For example, large bottles with narrow necks are usually assembled in three parts: the base, the sides and the neck, with the last done freehand. The pieces are joined together and the seams smoothed over with a stone. The piece is left to dry, then sanded and cleaned before painting a background color with a slip. Most pieces are profusely decorated, generally with large elements first, with smaller details added later. Both paints and paintbrushes are made by the family.
Before firing, the piece is burnished with a stone. This seals the pores and eliminates the need for glaze. Firing takes about three hours. The firing changes the clay color from a grayish to the cinnamon tones, and the burishing leaves a matte finish. The change of color requires a certain amount of imagination while painting to ignore what the eyes sees in favor of the later result.
Maestro Nicasio is over 80 years old now, but there are generations after him who have taken up the tradition. All five children, José, Isabel, Zeno, Jose de Jesua and Pablo, are potters, learning to work the clay at a very young age and learning apprenticeship style. Their workshops continue to produce platters, large covered jars called tibores, jugs, and vessels in the form of bulls and horses. These animal-shaped vessels were developed by Nicasio.
Several of the children have hadsignificant success in their own right, with pieces regularly exhibited at the National Ceramic Museum in Tonala and other venues.For Pablo, the generational aspect of his work is very important because of the history that it provides, and in his opinion elevates that work that he and the family does above that of hobbyists. He is also insistant that the work be called “ceramics” and not “pottery” as a sign of respect.
In addition to making traditional pieces for handcraft competitions, Pablo has experimented with more artistic works, such as participating in the Arte/Sano biennial of the Museo de Arte Popular in Mexico City, which pairs artists and artistans. In this case, Pablo created a life-sized robot figure completely in canelo pottery. Pablo states that it is important to continue innovation as pottery markets change.
However, Pablo states that canelo pottery is in danger of dissappearing because the white and black clays used are found only in certain areas around Tonala, and these areas are in danger from urban sprawl. Another issue is that while his daughter , aged 9, is learning as he did, it is harder to keep her attention in the age of computers and electronics.
Even if you dont speak Spanish or Otomi, Perez’s charisma is hard to miss. She genuninely enjoys the promotional aspect of her work, something very valuable to her misunderstood art. This ability has allowed her to represent Otomi “Maria” dolls, as well as Mexico, in countries such as Turkey, Italy, Venezuela and Chile. The dolls themselves have gone all over the world.
Maria dolls are those small rag dolls that are ubiquitous in tourist markets in Mexico, These are often-poorly made, and quite possibly not handmade to be sold as cheaply as possible. It is also likely they are not make by the people they originated with. This has made the dolls overlooked as a collectible handcraft.
Perez works to change this. Always dressed in traditional Otomi clothing, with ruffles, lace and exquisite embroidery, she was born and raised in the municipality of Amealco, Queretaro, where the dolls originated. For Perez, the dolls are not trinkets, souvenirs or collectibles, they are the gifts lovingly sewn by mothers and grandmothers for their little girls and a part of her own childhood.
Efforts in the 1970s aimed to help families in this very poor area earn money through the dolls, but unfortunately they became highly undervalued, selling for as little as 20 pesos (just over $1USD), made with cheap materials and glued on eyes, hair, etc. Perez shuns this to use high quality muslin and other materials, with hair and all facial features sewn on, and even the embroidery of the clothes is hand done. These dolls are the finest made in the municipality, and her home contains many recognitions for her work, including third place in the National Mexican Folk Toy Competition in 2012.
Case inside the Perez Pascual family shop in San Ildefonso
Perez’s main product is this famous doll, which is from Santiago Mexquititlan in the Amealco Municipality, but it is important to note that she is from San Ildefonso Tultepec in the same municipality. This town has its own variety of doll, which Perez makes and promotes as well. It is quite distinct. Instead of a head and body similar to a stuffed animal, San Ildefono dolls start off with a heavy muslin material which is rolled then bent to form the head, hair and body. Arms are rolled and attached, but are generally inmoble. Legs are missing, but the doll can stand thanks to a very heavy muslin embroidered skirt. The “hair” is the tapering end of the tube, wrapped with yarn to mimic a kerchief. This doll also traditionally carried its own small child.
Starting in 2005, the Perez Pascual famiy is only one of number of families that make a living off dolls, but the thirteen women involved are the first to work assembly-line style. This may devalue their work for some, but it is not all that unusual for tasks to divided in other handcraft traditons, with certain members specializing in certain tasks. They are also the first to sell wholesale because they can make between 150 to 200 dolls in a week. Most of the work is done in a small workshop in Perez’s home, with the exception of embroidery, which is usually done after hours in individual’s homes.
The quality of the dolls allows them to be sold from about 300 pesos ($18USD) to 1000 pesos ($500) depending on size and details. Their clients include FONART, the government agency that promotes Mexican handcrafts, along with department stores, and handcraft stores in Amealco and other locations in Mexico. Most of these dolls find their way into upscale shops in Mexico City and tourist areas. Perez’s and her sisters’ specially-made dolls can also be seen at the municipality’s Doll Museum as well.The family is a regular participant of Amealco’s National Festival of Handcrafted Dolls, which attracts about 8,000 visitors to this small, relatively isolated town in November.
Unfortunately, the Perez family is not online but can be contacted through the Amealco Municipal Museum.
First of all, Sosa was born and raised in the very rural Yucatán town of Yobain in 1955. This region of the country does not have a cartonería tradition, nor does Sosa family have an artistic background. Indeed, they were extremely poor campesinos, a situation which caused Sosa to drop out of school after the third grade in order to work. By age 13, he became politically active, working against the local cacique (strongman) and eventually even trying to form a political party. However, he became disillusioned with politics and corruption, but says he still wanted to do something to make an impact.
In 1974, he had an opportunity to move to Isla Mujeres (Quintana Roo) and work in the tourism industry there as a bartender. Eventually, he opened a small shop to sell handcrafts, which he still owns. In 1986, he took a class in working with paper and paste at a local community center with a teacher from Mexico City. However, he states that he learned only the most basic techniques, as said teacher could not even guide him on how to paint the simple vase he had made.
Sosa’s specialities are masks, imaginary animals and decorative figures with fairly typical Mexican motifs. One thing that does distinguish Sosa’s work from the rest of the country is that nothing he makes has any connection to the festival calendar. All of his pieces have developed in relation to the tourist market. Another distinguishing characteristic is that these works are very finely crafted. Surfaces are either extremely smooth, with no evidence of seams. The painting is exceptional, not only with fine details, but also with very smooth edges of the designs. With their high gloss, the pieces look more like ceramics than paper. He considers his work to be finer than even that of the Linares family, the only cartonería work he is familiar with, an then only from the Internet. His American clientle seems to agree, as his work is featured in a number of U.S. newspapers and in an upcoming book on the “Best of Mexico.”
Despite Sosa’s claim that everything he makes is purely from his imagination, some influences are evident in his work. Imaginary animals are either alebrijes (even using dream stories echoing those of Pedro Linares) or lizards, sea monsters, dragons, etc, and a number reminicent of the work of U.S. paper mache artist Dan (the monster man) Reeder. Another common motif are sun/moon wall hangings, with faces, based off similar items made with clay and other materials in various parts of Mexico. That is not to say that there is no originality in Sosa’s pieces. He definitely has his own style form and painting style is quite distinctive.
Sosa calls his word paper mache and not cartoneria as he uses pure newspaper, about 150 kilos per year, nor does he identify with the cartoneria traditions of the country.. He creates between thirty to forty pieces a year from trinkets to pieces up to two meters long. Despite the base of newspaper and wire, his works are extremely strong. Some pieces are solid paper entirely, and those which are hollow have at least 20 layers of paper. On YouTube, the artisan has a promotional video where he takes a small mask and proceeds to step on it, putting his entire weight on it. For the solid pieces, Sosa states that he makes “wood from paper.”
Sosa’s work is only available at his small handcraft shop in Isla Mujeres as he shuns wholesalers, preferring his clientle of American visitors, who pay anywhere from $50 to $13,000 – that’s US dollars- for a single item. Many are repeat customers, who buy some something new every time they return to the island.
Juan Jimenez Izquierdo lives surrounded by his childhood, being of a generation that knows both traditonal handmade toys and commerical plastic ones. He lives in his childhood home (left to him by his parents), which he has turned into a museum of his collection of toys, comic books and more related to childhood mostly from the 1950s to about the 1980s.
It is a very spacious building for Mexico City with four bedrooms upstairs, two parlours, patio, and garage, all of which are filled with items he has been collecting for over forty years. Fortunately, Jiminez is an organized man, which keeps the collection from completely overwhelming the space and its visitors.
He says he had a wonderful childhood and family growing up. In a nearby market, there was a man who made and sold traditional toys. His production varied with the season. For example in the spring there would be kites to take advantage of the wind. He was fascinated by both the man and products.
As a young adult, he was first a primary school teacher, later moving over to a career in cultural promotion with the National Institute of Fine Arts, focusing on programs for children. During a workshop, he fell back in love with the toys of his youth when they were used as part of a puppet show set up. This led him to the Museo de Artes e Industrias, a museum dedicated to handcrafts which was by the Alameda Central and their gift shop. Here he began buying traditonal toys to collect, which continues to this day.
Two rooms in the front of the house are dedicated to handcrafted tradtional toys, organized by theme, rather than by material. There are sections dedicated to Judas figures (the concept of juguete or toy, extends to items used for festivals), toy soldiers and Indians from the 1950s, animal masks, skeletons and other elements for Day of the Dead, cartoneria soldier helmets and cardboard swords, wood tops and yo yos, animal masks (the most common for children),
Most of the classic images can be found in the collection, from those of Cantinflas, Catrinos, charros etc, with some odd elements such as a human figure with a duck head from the 1970s and more recent figures of the mascots of the Chivas and America Mexican soccer teams. Two exceptional pieces in the collection include two cartoneria horses on carts, meant to be ridden by the child and made to support the weight. These are extremely hard to find as they have ceased to be made for some time.
The collection defintely shows a preference to what Jimenez himself as a child. With the exception of a few dolls, and some miniature dishes, there is nothing for girls. Two of his oldest pieces are small cartoneria figures which he salvaged from the old Museo de Artes y Industrias and closed due to a fire. He found the two by accident in their garbage.
Most objects were bought from tianguis (similar to flea markets) or were given as gifts, and for this reason, most of their authors are unknown. Most of items come from the Mexico City area, but says he also searches in rural markets and has had items given to him from a number of other states. He has two long-standing relationships with two artisans, wood toy maker Gumercinda España and cartoneria artisan Sotero Lemus, as both still make traditional products with traditional techniques. He has great respect for those artisans that dedicate themselves to the craft, rather then hobbyists and works to obtain pieces from “real” artisans.
Although now retired, his collecting of handcrafted toys has blended well during his career and continues. Jimenez has authored a book on cartonería La Cartonería Popular and is currently working on one dedicated to marbles. During his career, he initiated a number of festivals related to Mexico’s traditions and handcrafts, including one for Day of the Dead, with participating vendor/artisans selling traditional items related to the day, as a way to counter the influence of Halloween. In 2013, he inaugurated the first Cartonería Fair in Mexico City, completely on his own. He considers the fourth, held in 2016, to be the first successful one in terms of participation and events. Currently, Jimenez is organizing artisans to create a large scale display of figures related to the Beatles’ 1968 movie Yellow Submarine, scheduled to open in August.
The city of Oaxaca offers the best handcrafts shopping experience, bar none, in Mexico. Not only is just about every handcraft of the state available there, the city itself… food, museums, buildings make for an experience that is hard to beat even without artesanía. Most handcrafts are made in the three valleys where Oaxaca City is located, but very few are made in the city proper. One exception is the making of gold and silver items, especially jewelry.
Filigree (filigrana in Spanish) is a jewelry making technique that takes thin gold or silver threads, to meticulously bend, curve and twist them into fine intricate designs. The technique first became established in Oaxaca state in Juchitan, on the coast, where it is still one of a number of techniques used. The technique migrated to the state capital, where it has become the dominant form in fine jewelry. The technique begins with gold, but far more commonly, silver wire, which usually is somewhat flattened. Small bits of this wire is then shaped into various forms then soldered together. If an antique appearance is desired, the metal is oxidized.
One important filigree item is earrings, which are made with a wide variety of designs, from flowers, geometric patterns, dolls, animals, nets with pearls, leaves and even skeletal figures of Day of the Dead type.
Despite its history, the tradition of filigree work is in danger of disappearing, with production far reduced since the mid 20th century and few living masters of the art.
Delfino García Esperanza (1945) is from the city of Oaxaca, and currently is the head of a prolific silver and gold jewelry making family. Delfino works today with one of his sons, Valentín Julián, producing both tradtional heirloom and new designs. In addition to filigree jewelry, the family makes crowns for religious images and more in both silver and gold. One of these can be seen on the Our Lady of Solitude at teh Parish of San Baartolomé Apostal in the city of Oaxaca. His pieces may also include pearls, semi-precious stones and coral.
Sons and other members of the family have workshops, which cluster near the patriarch’s. One of these is Jose Jorge Garcia Garcia, who specializes in silver filigree jewelry, especially bracelets, both delicate strand and cuff style. He learned from his father and uncles, but established his own workshop at the age of just 25.
Starting at age 10, Juan Manuel Garcia has been working silver for over sixty years in Barrio de la Noria and is one of the best that Oaxaca has to offer in the field. He was not born into a silverworking family, but sought out the opportunity to apprentice when he was still a boy. Over his lifetime, he has name an uncountable number of items, mostly necklaces, bracelets and the classic earrings the area is known for. His creativity has won him various awards at handcraft competitions, including teh Genoveva Medina Award and being named a “grand master” by Fomento Cultural Banamex. He founded his own family workshop, aptly named Taller Familia Garcia and is training one of his granddaugthers in the trade, traditionally men’s work.
Arturo Salgado Vasquez was born in the city of Oaxaca, but his family moved to Zimatlán de Alvarez, a short ways south when he was 11. His older brother taught him how to craft jewelry which he was been working for over four decades.
Salgado’s family workshop was established with is wife, Martha Sara Tellez Gopar, who learned from Salgado. Today the couple adn their three daughters all work in silver, and one granddaughter is learning as well. Tellez won third place at the national Hugo Salinas Prize in 2008 and Salgado’s (along with daughter Ruby) work has been recognized by the state of Oaxaca. One aspect that distinguishes the workshop is the insistence on sticking to old techniques, and to a large degree, traditional designs. Everything is done by hand.
(Featured image: Bracelet with silver filigree and turquoise by Mario Perez Cortes on display at the Manos y Alma de Oaxaca exhibit)
Getting to Izucar de Matamoros (sometimes simply called “Matamoros”) from Mexico City is a long, circuitous trek basically because it requires getting to the other side of the massive Popocatepetl volcano. Swinging around the north though the city of Puebla is longer, but the shorter southern route through Cuautla mean poorer roads.
It is a regional town/small city in southern Puebla state, whose indigenous heritage is Mixtec, although the city is now mestizo. Colonial architecture remains in the historical center and the former monastery some blocks away, but there isn´t the same level of charm as in other colonial towns. In fact, despite the surrounding farmland and the seeming preference by local women for skirts, the city bustles more like larger ones. The city is on what used to be the main highway between Puebla and Oaxaca, but that changed when a newer highway was built to the east.
The town has had a pottery tradition extending back long before the Spanish conquest and while basic utilitarian wares are still made, what draws attention are the decorative pieces, especially those called trees of life. Unlike the better known variety made in Metepec, State of Mexico, the Izucar version have retained their function as candeholders, with each piece have a place for at least one. With images of Adam and Eve, the elaborate pieces were originally made as traditional wedding gifts to wish the couple happiness … and fertility. The intricately designed pieces that are sold today are due to changed that began in the second half of the 20th century.
The origin of modern Izucar trees can be traced back to the family of Aurelio Flores in the mid 20th century, who began experimenting with new designs and decorations. However, after the son’s generation, the family stopped working in this occupation. However, the center of Izucar’s pottery traditions now is that of Catalina Orta Urosa, who revived her parents’ pottery traditions after she married and had her six children. The family made pieces for local markets until the 1960s, when an art collector named Sanmaniego discovered their work and ordered pieces to sell in the city of Puebla. Finding success with the pieces, he ordered more and encouraged them to innovate, especially in decoration.
Like their Metepec cousins, Izucar’s trees have small elements attached to the base, such as people, flowers and other vegetation, insects and more, made of clay and integrated before firing. However, in Metepec, the decoration of the trees is limited to this “pastillaje” with paint applied to provide more-or-less realistic color, if paint is applied at all. In Izucar, three branches and other empty spaces are covered in tiny, finely painted lines, cross-hatching and geometric shapes. The popularity of both the pastillaje and decorative painting can now be seen in a number of other decorative pottery that is now produced.
Four of maestra Catalina’s children became potters: Heriberto, Agustin, Isabel and Alfonso, all with the surnames Castillo Orta (as per Spanish tradition). All make the trees of life, but some have branched out into other areas. Heriberto make female and mermade figures and Isabel makes Catrina and Virgin of Guadalupe figures.The family has introduced new themes to their works such as Day of the Dead, and the decorative motifs have also incorporated influences from other areas of Mexico, as they have been exposed to them from their travels promoting their products.
Of the four, Alfonso became the most recognized, with his works in museums and other collections in Mexico, the US and Europe. Named a master craftsman by the Banamex Foundation, he also won the 1996 National Prize of Arts and Sciences in the folk art category. He died in 2009, but his home and workshop is still operated by his wife Marta and five children. It is possible to visit, with two rooms of the complex set aside to display pieces made by the maestro and the rest of the family. However, it seems that this branch of the family has moved away from making trees of life.
Isabel is still dedicated to them and is best known for her delicate painting. Up until relatively recently traveled in the United States giving workshops and exhibiting her work. Despite being 80 years old, she still actively paints, including the very fine brushstrokes that require good eyes. After winning FONART’s Grand Prize of Folk Art in 1999, she was named a “living legend” in the Galardón Nacional en el Certamen Grandes Obras Maestras, and is recognized nationally, but does not quite have the same status has her younger brother. Most of her work now is in support of the workshop she runs with her children and grandchildren.
According to Isabel, all of the workshops in operation today either have a connection to the family or were otherwise taught by them. Casa Balbuena and Arte Casbel were founded by Heriberto’s ex-wife and their youngest sons respectively.
The opening of the 2015 James Bond film Spectrewas filmed in Mexico City and is meant to depict celebrations of Day of the Dead in the city. While not entirely accurate, the skull masks and giant skeletal figures that parades on the street were made by a local cartoneria (paper mache) cooperative, whose work has become a focal point in making monumental pieces for events.
This group is called the Última Hora (Last Hour) collective. Founded in 2005, it currently has five members Juan Vazquez Morales, Marco Osorio Maldonado, Raul Osorio Maldonado, Ernesto Carbajal Ortiz and Ramon Espinoza Juarez. Two, Juan and Raul are founding members. All are artisans in their own right, and long-term associates of the Arts and Trades Factory East (Fábrica de Artes y Oficios Oriente, FARO), a unique city-supported school for handcrafts and trades on the poor east side of Mexico City.
The collective represents a growing trend among Mexico City cartoneria scene, with the addition of monumental pieces meters tall and tens and even hundreds of kilos in weight. The trend towards larger pieces started with the life-sized skeletal figures made by the Linares family from the 1960s on, but has reached monstrous proportions starting in the early 2000s, with Ultima Hora and FARO in the forefront.
The collective has it origins in a project that was done by Juan, Raul and friends from FARO, who were invited to help make floats for the 2004 Veracruz carnival. While not exactly cartonería, the floats employed many of the same techniques, but at a much larger scale than was was done in cartoneria at the time. The first monumental pieces were made around the same time, in particular the making of a “tzompantli” (Aztec rack for the exhibition of the skulls of the sacrificed) that filled the stage for a concert by the rock group Panteón Rococó. The entire set up with cartoneria skulls meters high, and when it was set up, no one was sure if the stage would support the weight. (It did.)
The success of this piece led to commissions for the group by govenment and civic organizations as well as large businesses. Most of their production is related to Day of the Dead mega altars, which often have themes and/or elements honoring specific persons. The inauguration of the Monumental Alebrije Parade by the Museo de Arte Popular has given the group another well-publicized outlet for their creativity as well. Since then, their talents have been utilized all over Mexico City and into neighboring states such as State of Mexico and Puebla. Their work displayed on the main square of Mexico City caught the attention of set people for the James Bond films, which invited them to compete for the bid to make the skeletal figures for the movie.
The group creates year-round and teaches students various schools in the Mexico City area, along with supporting students at FARO, where they are based. Their work has led to an explosion of interest in cartoneria, and makes the cartonería classes at FARO among the first to fill every term.
Featured image courtesy of Ultima Hora/Juan Vazquez. The rest are by Alejandro Linares Garcia