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.
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.
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.
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.