A child’s dreams and nightmares sculpted in paper

Self portrait of Alvarez

Adalberto Alvarez Marines, born 1952, grew up in a typical rural Michoacan family. Unfortunately, one tradition, especially at that time, was to scare children into behaving with stories of “El Coco” (like the monster in the closet) or “La Llorona,” the weeping woman who might grab those who were naughty.

Being a more sensitive and artistic type, these stories gave the young Adalberto nightmares and terrors, but adults were not sympathetic. Naturally, he turned to artistic pursuits to exorcise his demons, along with engaging in his fantasies. By the time he was in his mid twenties, he had had some sucess selling illustrations for books as well as fantasy stories.

Caroneria furniture inside the museum area by the artisan. Yes, it is quite sturdy!

Alvarez’s family moved to Mexico City when he was about eight years old, with the hope that their children would study and become professionals. This was not Adalberto’s fate. Instead, he worked cleaning and manufacturing jobs for most of his younger years in order to have time for his arts.

His artistic focus changed radically when he discovered cartoneria in 1974. A couple of guys his age were experimenting with paper, paste and wire with the aim of making alebrijes and other objects to sell. Alvarez was fascinated by the possibilities the medium held, and felt he could do much better than making the throwaway decorations cartoneria is mostly used for.

A nearly life-size image of Emperor Nezahualcoyotl

From then to the present, Alvarez has continuously worked to push the envelope of what can be done with paper and paste. At first it was a hobby, done on his free time and even during down times at work at a wood hanger factory with his employer’s blessing. The maestro is completely self taught through constant experimentation. This has brought him to create different kinds of objects with forms and fluidity rarely, if ever, seen in cartoneria.


Alvarez’s main inspirations are still the dreams and nightmares of his youth. For this reason and the need to try new things, the artisan generally shuns the making of traditional items such as Judas Iscariot figures, saying they do not challenge them. Two exceptions to this are alebrijes and skeletal figures imitating the world of the living.  Another nod to his Mexican heritage is the making of items with pre Hispanic themes. But the majority of his best work is reserved for non-traditional imagery, such as demons, dragons, fairies, Greek gods, mermaids and other human figures with fantastic aspects.


Although he protests out of modesty, these figures are truly sculpures. All are one-of-a-kind pieces, with no molds used. Some are life sized. Faces, proportions and musculature are all realistic, with attention to details such as the folds of fabric. The overall effect is that of classical sculpture, even with many of the skeletal figures, rather than handcraft. Only alebrijes are painted in the typically gaudy colors associated with cartoneria. The rest use realistic or metalic coloring, as the pieces are so smooth there is no need for wild colors and designs to hide the seams of the layered paper.


Alvarez has been working full time on his sculpting (also making furniture and household decorative items) since 1994. Despite the amazing quality of his work, and recognition since about 2002, he has had relatively few exhbitions of his work, mostly local cultural institutions, with two important shows: 2004 at the Cultural Institute of Mexico in Washington DC and an exhibition at the Museo de Arte Popular in 2014, when he was named a “grand master” by the museum and the Mexican Secretary of Culture.

The reason for this is that Alvarez feels that exhibiting and promoting his work takes too much time away from his workshop, feeling his remaining time on Earth is best spent creating as much as he can of all the ideas he has in his head.


Perhaps somewhat eccentrically, Alvarez has decided to open his own Cartoneria Museum. Building a second story onto his house in Santa Catarina Ayotzingo, Chalco, State of Mexico, the museum’s purpose is to permanently exhibit over fifty of his best pieces, many life or nearly life-sized. In reality, his work can be seen all over the house, with cartoneria furniture inside and outside, with partially completed work as well. What makes the museum idea somewhat odd is the location. Ayotzingo is just outside of the city limits of Mexico City in the municipality of Chalco; however, it is difficult to get to as traffic in the southeast of the Valley of Mexico is very bad and public transport is minimal. The effort is worth it, not only because of the impressive display, but also because the maestro and his wife are gracious hosts.


Unlike most cartoneros, and likely because of his age, Alvarez has no presence on the Internet, except for a video uploaded by the municipality of Chalco (below) and a Wikipedia page (recently written by this author). However, he can be reached through the Chalco cultural center (55 5975 3253) and the Fábrica de Arte y Oficios Tlahuac, where he teaches classes.


More photos

Table, skeletal figure and mirror frame all made from cartoneria




Stripes and feathers

White rebozo and dress from Paracho, Michoacan

The rebozo is an, if not the, iconic women’s garment of Mexico. Like other traditional garments, the designs indicate where it is from (with the exception of some modern designs).

Michoacan is one of Mexico’s main producers of traditional rebozos and other crafts, although it does not get the attention it deserves. Many communities are known for their manufacture along with certain designs.

The best known varieties of rebozo are the “Michoacan” or “Tarasco” rebozo. These are  tightly woven, indigo/navy blue in color with thin stripes of black, other shades or blue or white running along the length of the garment, and come from the mountain or Purhepecha (Tarasco) areas of the state.

However, there are many other varieties from simple single-color pieces, to other stripe combinations to those with intricate ikat dyed designs to even more modern inventions. Another unusual feature of rebozos here is the use of feathers woven into the fringes.

Embroidered rebozo and dress from Tzintzuntzan, Michoacan


Communities noted for their production include Tarecuato, Tangancícuaro, Angahuan, Turícuaro, Aranza, Tócuaro, Santa Cruz and Ahuiran. These are mostly indigenous rural communities where the use of the rebozo is more than just a fashion accessory, but rather part of a traditional women’s life, used primarily for warmth, carrying children and/or merchandise to and from market. When it is hot, it can be folded and worn on the head as a kind of sombrero.

Artisan Bertha Estrada of Ahiran with traditional Purhepecha rebozos at the Feria Maestros de Arte

Both backstrap and pedal looms are used, with the use of the former usually reserved for (indigenous) women and the latter for men. Although there is some commercialization, those made on backstrap looms are more likely to be used locally. Major commercial production is done on pedal looms, with the fingerweaving of fringes outsourced to women in outlying areas.

Video on the making of rebozos in La Piedad

Rebozo from La Piedad at the 2015 State Handcrafts Competition in Uruapan

The main center for the commercial production of rebozos is/was the small city of La Piedad, in the north of the state, very close to the borders with Jalisco and Guanajuato. Commercial production reached its peak here in the 1930s and 1940s, in particular with the introduction of rayon thread known locally as “artisela” (from Spanish for artificial silk). This thread all but replaced the use of more traditional cotton. These rebozos found their way to various parts of Mexico including Mexico City, Oaxaca and San Luis Potosi and even abroad. At one time, there were about fifty large workshops in the city, but several factors led to the decline of the trade by the latter 20th century. First, was the fall into disfavor of the rebozo in general among Mexican women, who still tend to view it as a sign of backwardness and indigenous. Another was the federal government’s push to enforce labor laws for worker’s entitlements, which many workshops could not afford. The economy shifted to swine production, which made the city dirty and its air fowl, discouraging any tourism that could be had from the rebozo industry, although the activity has abated and the city has cleaned up considerably since the 1990s.

Today there are five or six main rebozo producers in the city, with rebozos for sale not easy to find. The best known of teise is the Sociedad Cooperativa Textil Artesanal,(Emiliano Zapata Street, behind the Hotel Mirage) founded in 1963, with about thirty members, almost all senior citizens.

Woman working on fringe at the La Huatapera Indigenous Museum in Uruapan

Despite the dire situation, there are efforts to conserve the rebozo and its making in the state. Michoacan’s largest handcraft event, the Tianguis de Domingo de Ramos, has a fashion show specific to the rebozo, showcasing traditional garments from around the state and innovations, including smaller versions for men.

The municipal government of La Piedad has recognized the importance of the rebozo and economically and culturally. The local soccer team is called the “Reboceros” (rebozo makers), and it has applied for a trademark under the name of “Rebozo de La Piedad.”


Featured image: Woman weaving a striped rebozo in Uruapan, Michoacan. All photos by Alejandro Linares Garcia


More images

Rebozo by Rosa Pasqual Bautista from Parachi, Ahuiran at the Feria de Rebozo in Tenancingo, State of Mexico
Fine rebozo with “deshilado” design, created by removing threads from simply woven cloth
PasarelaRebozo2015_016 (1)
Rebozo from Angahuan
Rebozo and huipil from Tocuaro, Erongaricuaro




The boxed worlds of Oscar Becerra

Becerra with wrestling themed box in progress.

Oscar Becerra is both  an artisan and anthropologist, who combines the two worlds to create windows on Mexican history and culture. While studying at the National School of Anthropology and History, he discovered working with paper mache (cartoneria), developing it first as a hobby. It quickly became something more than that, and by the time he graduated in 2003, he was already selling traditional items such as alebrijes in the trendy San Angel neighborhood of Mexico City.

Becerra continued selling on his own until 2006, when the opening of the Museo de Arte Popular in the capital offered him not only another venue for sales, but a teaching career as well. The maestro has been teaching children, adults and fellow artisans here ever since. His teaching has expanded international, giving classes, workshops and exhibitions in the United States, Canada and Poland.

Its the attention to detail that makes these exceptional (credit: Oscar Becerra)

One aspecto of Becerra’s work which makes him unique is the creation of miniature scenes and other arrangement in boxesm which strive to depiect aspects of everyday Mexican life, both past and present. These are multimedia pieces, using paper, metal, paste, wood, pottery and more. Most of the materials are recycled, such as metal from cans, wood from shipping containers, but they are all heavily worked so that it is difficult-to-impossible to tell that the materials are not new. Another important aspect to these pieces is that there is great attention to detail, which include real or reproduced pulque menues, boxing and lucha libre posters, furniture styles, glasses and more. Often, miniatures made by other artisans, such as dishes are included as well.

Lucha libre ring with figure in progress

He has created scenes such as traditional barbershops, circuses, bars, sports. Almost all are contained in a wood or other stiff boxes, either made by him or those used to ship goods such as dried cod. This box is finished and painted, with the front covered in glass. The use of wood and glass instead fo cardboard gives the piece a heft and seriousness that it might not otherwise have.

Becerra and Castillo with Las Chicas (credit: Oscar Becerra)

In 2014, the Mexican Cultural Center in Denver commissioned Becerra to make a series of these scenes in relation to Day of the Dead. In 2015, he paired with Ruben Miguel Castillo Navarrete, an artist specializing in vitreus enamel, to create a boxed scene focusing on cartoneria Lupita dolls, representing the Seven Deadly Sins, Mexican style. This piece was exhibited at the Museo de Arte Popular in Mexico City.

All photos by Alejandro Linares Garcia unless otherwise indicated.

One thin line at a time

There are handcrafts that amaze not only for their apparent aesthestics, but on closer look, the patience that they require.  One of these is “popotillo,” which literally means “little straws.”  Essentially it is the coloring and arrangement of very thin “straws” (really a stiff wild grass called zacate) to make designs and image by placing small pieces, one-by-one, over a surface, usually wood.


Two experts in this endeavor are wife and husband Marta Patricia Garcia Aguilar and Roberto Domingo Mejía, from Los Reyes La Paz, State of Mexico. Garcia’s side of the family has done this work for several generations. This area of the State of Mexico is now part of the urban sprawl of Mexico City, but not too long ago it is rural. Garciá’s parents did this part time and in the early 2000’s, her husband learned the trade and began producing as well. However, he noticed that the craft brought in too little money when marketed the traditional way, through middlemen.


He worked to find new markets for the craft, first by cutting out the middlemen and forming a family business and then by looking for specialty markets that paid more. His first success was entering the markets in Xochimilco, an area of Mexico City popular with weekenders because of its canals. Breaking into these special markets meant that products needed to be of better quality and more innovative in order to stand out from other handcrafts. One way that the family does this is by making their images very detailed, often working with “straws” only millimeters long. Another strategy was to enter their best work in handcraft competitions,  and by the end of the decade, they were regularly winning prizes in central Mexico.


In 2015, the family business was invited to participate in the Feria Maestros del Arte, a notable handcrafts market which is held yearly in Chapala, Jalisco.  They are also regulars with the annual Entre Canastas, Tenates y Petates event of the Museo Nacional de Culturas Populares in Mexico City.

Although the family is now urban, the craft keeps them in touch with nature. Their raw material, zacate, grows best at very high altitudes, which prompts the plant to grow very thin stems. The workshop contracts with collectors in small villages high up on the slopes of the nearby volcanos, something Mejia takes pride in as is helps the economy of the marginalized people there.

A rooster in zacate grass (credit Fir0002)

Their markets, however, are urban. The making of framed images and decorated boxes, tradtional items, are the backbone of the business, but Mejia in particular works to create new products, such as keyring holders and an ingenous hook apparatus to keep keys from falling to the bottom of women’s purses. Of course all of these are decorated in popotillo designs and images, sometimes only about 2cm wide.

All images by the author or Alejandro Linares Garcia unless otherwise specified

Created to be destroyed

Mexico has a number of craft items meant purely for use for festivals and other events, and often this paraphenalia is meant to be destroyed during or just after the festivities.

Judas figure exploding at the Linares family home in Mexico City (credit Alejandro Linares)

The best known of these is the piñata. It was originally adapted for the Christmas season, but today no children’s birthday party is complete without one. These are mostly made today of cartonería (paper maché), although the past, they were old ceramic pots which were decorated with paper. Most cartonería items are festival items, inexpensive enough to destroy or simply throw away. These include Judases  (effigies of Judas Iscariot often in the form of a devil or sometimes other hated figure) and toritos (bull figures laden with fireworks then run through crowds).

Firework castillos (castles) are tall structures generally made of wood, which are built to hold various types of fireworks to be set off in sequence. This sequence creates images and/or spins parts of the structure. Related to this, but smaller, are figures whose fireworks are meant to move aspects to imitate something, such as a person riding a bicycle.

Video of castillos at the 2015 National Fireworks Festival in Tultepec

While candles have never mean to be a permanent item, those made for special religious and other celebrations can be quite elaborate, with the body of the candle itself intricately decorated and/or with small wax pieces and wire added to make a kind of sculpture. These are made in a number of areas in Mexico, especially in the states of Morelos and Chiapas.

Candle by Graciela Ramirez Lopez of Mexico City (credit Alejandro Linares)

Perhaps the  most solemn of works to be destroyed are “sawdust carpets,” made as a kind of sacrifice.  These are designs created on the ground using colored sawdust, flower petals and other bits of vegetation. The largest of these can cover up to a kilometer of roadway, marking a path for a procession… which will walk over it. This tradition can be found in a number of areas of Mexico, but the best known are those of Huamantla, Tlaxcala. The night before the feast of Our Lady of Charity (the patron saint) is called the “night no one sleeps,”(August 14) as residents spent that time covering six km of streets with their carpets. The next morning, the image of the Virgin in new dress, moves in procession over the carpets followed by an entourage of people with candles and fireworks. All that is left of the intricate, colorful designs afterwards is a jumbled mess to be swept up.

Carpet ready for procession in Huamantla (credit Rosalba Muñoz)


Featured image – Girl striking piñata in 1961, credit GeorgeLouis

Baskets, boxes and mats at the National Musuem of Popular Culture


Aztec glyp showing baskets with food

One of Mexico’s least-known and least-appreciated handcraft traditions is basketry, which includes the making of other items made from stiff plant material. It is most likely the oldest handcraft in Mexico, predating pottery and textiles. The working of reeds, palm fronds, willow branches, straw and corn husks are all categorized as “fibras vegetales” (vegetable fibers), which is distinct from textiles and used to make a wide variety of items including dolls, colored straw “paintings, etc., not just baskets.

Each year in May, the National Museum of Popular Culture in Mexico holds an exhibition and sale of these items, with artisans selling their wares directly to the public as a means of supporting various traditions from the north and central regions of the country, as well as those from the Mixtec region (Puebla/Oaxaca) and Veracruz. The event is held only for one weekend (12-15 May in 2016) and is called Entre Canastas, Tenates y Petates.

Roberto D. Mejia laying colored straw, one piece at a time, to create images on a board.
Petate mats and some small baskets in Cuitzeo, Michoacan

Reeds, palm fronds and flexible twigs have been used since the pre Hispanic period to make carrying and storage containers, furniture, braces for carrying loads (as the indigenous peoples did not have beasts of burden) and footwear. Most Mexican sources also indicate clothing, but this is mostly due to the inclusion of fiber from maguey and agave species, whose fibers are often rough (similar to burlap) but can be fine enough for elegant pieces of clothing as well. For the purposes of this article, we will leave these fibers (called ixtle) out, as they do not correspond to what we think of as “basketry” in English.

When the Spanish arrived, they added European style baskets to the mix, with indigenous craftsman readily adapting the new styles to native materials.

Seri coiled basket from Punta Chueca, Sonora

Many of the pre Hispanic forms are still being made. Some items s such as mats (petates) readily available in many traditional markets and handcraft shops. Tenates (box-like storage containers) and sandales can sometimes be found as well, especially in markets in communities with a significant indigenous population. Colonial era pieces, especially baskets and woven seats for furniture can be found in these same markets.

Basketry items made from long pine needles from El Oro, State of Mexico

Unlike pottery, textiles and other traditions, fibras vegetales has not developed a collectors’ market, nor has been popular with tourists, in part because items made with time are not durable, or easy to pack. (One exception to this are the coiled baskets of the Seri in the northern state of Sonora.) This means that working with fibras vegetales has remained in a downward spiral through the 20th century into the present, with most items made for local consumption, and unable to command prices to make them worth the effort.

Various basketry items for sale at the Tianguis de Domingo de Ramos in Uruapan, Michoacan
Tarahumara baskets made from a succulent grass called sotol
Corn husk dolls from Oaxaca (courtesy Friends of Oaxacan Folk Art)


Main image- baskets for bread vendors at the La Merced Market in Mexico City

All images by the author and/or Alejandro Linares Garcia unless otherwise indicated

Persian knots in Otomi hands

About an hour or so west of Mexico City lies the small municipality of Temoaya, State of Mexico, where there is a unique meeting of East and West; Persian knotting with Otomi and other Mexican indigenous design. This activity began in 1968, with a commerical project sponsored by the Bank of Mexico with the aim of creating jobs for this area. The business expanded rapidly, employing people from much of the municipality and even other parts of the State of Mexico. However, the company went bankrupt, and the state took over. By the 1990s, most of the rug making activities and sales is coordinated through a cooperative, with an office in San Pedro Abajo, just outside the town of Temoaya, but there are a number of independent workshops as well.

Small squares of knotted rugs on display on the main square of Temoaya
Artisan Cristina Mendoza Medina working on a small piece

The work is highly labor-intensive, with each knot done by hand using 100% virgin wool which may or may not be dyed by the artisan. The work takes place on a wood frame, which is strung which heavy cotton thread, over which the wool is knotted, tying everything together. Sizes of finished products range from 30×30 cm to 1.80×2.70 meters. Each rug is unique based off of 54 basic designs with over 150 variations.

The rugs are luxury items, sold in upscale outlets in Mexico City such as the Liverpool department stores, and the government agency FONART and they are sold abroad as well. However, this does not necessarily translate into significant income for the artisans, some of which will only make rugs to order because of the time needed for their creation. The success of the rugs has spawned inferior-quality knockoffs, which has prompted producers such as the Sociedad Cooperativa de Artesanos Productores de Tapetes Anudados a Mano to tag their wares with serial numbers to prove authenticity.

Larger rug covering a table in the main square of Temoaya

The municipality of Temoaya is only about 22km from the state capital of Toluca, but San Pedro is difficult to get to without a car. There is a cooperative store selling rugs just outside of the town of Temoaya on the highway that connects it with Toluca. Visitors to the store can also visit the nearby Otomi Ceremonial Center which has a museum about the community’s history and traditions.

(Featured image:Large rug in progress at the Flores/Mendoza workshop in Molino Abajo)

Turquoise rug on display in the main square
Felipe Flores with an Otomi design rug





A family tradition saved and then some

Ramos family, Cecilia, Don Isaac, Jose Mancio and one of their children. (Credit: Ramos family)

Camelia Rosas is a fifth generation ikat weaver and rebozo maker of the Tenancingo (State of Mexico) line. But the tradition almost died out with the fourth generation, Camelia’s father Isaac Ramos.

Maestro Isaac grew up dyeing, weaving and making the iconic garment as a child in Tenancingo, but gave up the activity before Camelia was born to work in construction. Then, as now, it was very difficult for weavers to earn enough to make a living, especially in this case, when the maestro eventually had a total of nine children to feed. Decades went by, Camelia was born, and was raised without even knowing about her father’s former trade. By the 1990s, Camelia had grown up, married and moved to the nearby town of Malinalco.


This town is a “Pueblo Mágico,” a tourist designation by the Mexican federal government to distinguish rural communities which have preserved local architecture and cultural traditions. It has long since been a Mecca for hippies/other alternative lifestyles and well-off Mexico City dwellers looking for a weekend getaway. The town offers an archeological site and colonial architecture all nestled in a box canyon.

Overlooking the town (credit PetrohsW)
Jose Mancio demonstrating knotted and dyed cotton for the ikat process

One of the continuing traditions of the town, even as last at the beginning of the millenium, is the use of the rebozo by local women. Camelia noticed this running a small beauty shop in the town and at first began bringing rebozos from Tenancingo to Malinalco. At this time, she also brought her father to live with her as he could no longer do the heavy work that construction required. It was only at this time that Don Isaac told his daughter of his ability to make the most traditional rebozos using the pre Hispanic backstrap loom.

Don Isaac returned to his roots, first by making all the tools needed for the long process of making ikat-dyed fabric, spinning wheels, racks for drying skeins of cotton thread, and of course, the frames and multiple implements used for weaving. The business developed slowly, with most of the sales made in the beauty shop. One reason for this was the difficulty in finding customers that appreciated both the work and the styles of Tenancingo rebozos. Interestingly enough, the break came from a Spanish woman living in Malinalco, who found the rebozos in the beauty shop and started buying much of the stock.

Camelia Ramos spinning cotton fiber (Credit: Ramos family)

During this time, Camelia became more interested in making the rebozos, but her traditional father “gave her the run around” every time she tried to get him to teach her. Weaving rebozos in Tenancingo is man’s work,  even today.  Camelia’s husband, Jose Mancio, had better luck convincing Don Issac, who was nearing 80 years old by the turn of the century. When Jose asked the maestro when he could start learning, the answer was “tomorrow.” Of course, Jose taught what he learned to Camelia, but the two now respect to some extent the maestro’s reluctance to teach his daughter. The process takes a toll on the muscles, both in manipulating heavy, wet bundles of dyed cotton, to hours of moving shuttles across and using back muscles to steady the piece in progress. It is interesting and important to note that while Tenancingo rebozos are also made on pedal looms (introduced by the Spanish), Camelia, Jose, their children still make pieces using the backstrap loom.

Interior of the Rapacejos store

The family business has long since outgrown the beauty shop and has two stores in the historic center of Malinalco. The original store, Xoxopastli,  is located on Calle Guerrero and the larger, newer store, Rapacejos, is on Calle Hidalgo, near the main church. All pieces are made by the family, along with dozens of hired helpers. However, their success is not only because of the high-quality of their rebozos, but their willingness and ability to experiment with making new objects with ikat-dyed fabric. The Rapacejos store also contains, shoes, leather handbags, cushions, napkins, table runners, belts and much more, either completely made with handwoven fabric or have it integrated as decoration. There are also some non-traditional and novel clothing items, such as quechquemitls, dresses, huipils and jacket-like tops. Most of these are made without cutting the precious fabric, but even in cases where there are cuts and scraps, all is used for something, even if it is to cover a button.

Handbag and shoes decocrated with ikat fabric

The couple’s work has led to a number of prizes in Mexico, invitations to visit the United States, France and Peru, and participate in the Feria Maestros de Arte in Jalisoc and Arte/Sano at the Museo de Arte Popular. There is even some export of their wares to the United States and Europe, but Camelia says that they do not plan mass export as it would require expansion from handmade goods to factory-like work.

All photos by Alejandro Linares Garcia unless otherwise specified.

Is cartonería dead in Celaya?

Not quite.

In Crafts of Mexico (1991), Marian  Harvey had little good to say about Celaya of the late 1980s/early 1990s, when she did her research. She describes Celaya as ugly town with no colonial charm, where those in smaller communities visited only to make major purchases. She indicates that cartonería here was on its last legs. In current publications about the craft in Mexico, Celaya does not get much love either. Either it is briefly mentioned as a place where toys are/were made and/or its relevance is talked about only in past tense.

Traditional dolls, called “Lupitas” in Mexico City but often just called “dolls” in Celaya

Working on my book on this craft, the need to go there became obvious. One interesting thing about cartoneros is that most have discovered the Internet as a means to self promote, especially Facebook. Though this and other networking, I have been able to contact those who are still producing cartoneria in the Celaya area, and even innovating.

It is true that Celaya no longer holds the position it once had. From the 19th century to the mid 2oth, it was the major producer, best known for the making of toys. In fact, the area was the main producer  of Mexican toys of all kinds. The end of this industry came in the 1950s, with the introduction of cheaper plastic toys, which over time came to do things that traditional toys never could. The decline was steady as family workshops closed and a number of artisans moving to Mexico City and other areas, hoping to be better able to make a living in the craft. By the 1990s, when Harvey was in Celaya, the market had collapsed with the death of most of the past masters.

Clay doll molds from Celaya, about 100 years old, from the workshop of Sotero Lemus near Mexico City
Woman on horseback figure competing in the “free design” category of the 2015 annual Cartonería Competition in Celaya

However, it may have been premature to declare the death of cartonería in the Celaya area. The city began annual competitions in cartonería and toy making around that time, which are still held at the Centro de Artes today, open to artisans from the city and the region. It attracts  mainly those with no family ties to the craft, producing both traditional and innovative items.

Some families have been able to adjust to the changing economy. Carlos Derramadero is a 4th generation cartonero. He learned the basics from his mother, but left the trade to pursue the fine arts, especially painting. By the 1990s, he had returned to cartoneria, taking advantage of his artistic skills and training. He insists that the future of cartoneria in Celaya hinges on making better-quality pieces for foriegn and collectors’ markets as well as diversifiying outside the realm of toys with traditional designs. Despite the higher prices he charges, the family workshop has done well, and with the participation of the next generation.

Ruelas’ students with their entry at the 2016 competition

Another major player in the reinvention of Celaya cartoneria is Osvaldo Ruelas RamirezOsvaldo Ruelas Ramirez. Also from a traditonal cartoneria family, Ruelas’ main impact as been from teaching, especially through the city cultural center in nearby Salamanca, Guanajuato. In fact, Ruelas and his students took home most of the prizes from the 2016 Cartonería competition. Like Derramadero, Ruelas believes in innovation, but also working to include outsiders in the craft, either for economic gain or as a hobby. Almost none of his students have any background in the craft before working with him.

Featured image: Carlos Derramadero working on a rooster figure at his workshop in Celaya.