Doña Rosa and black clay pottery

It is nearly impossible to understate the effect the tourism industry has had on Mexican handcrafts. Once produced almost entirely for local and utilitarian purposes, the overwhelming majority are now produced as decorative items, and for people who want to bring a piece of Mexico home with them.

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Seated girl figurines at the workshop.

One of the best examples of this is the barro negro (black clay) pottery of San Bartolo Coyotepec, Oaxaca. This is a small Central Valleys town a bit south of the state capital, Oaxaca (city). This town has a milenia-old tradition of making pottery, but until recently, it was all utilitarian.

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Courtyard area of the workshop

The black clay refers to a specific type of clay, which originally was used for making cántaros, a type of usually large container used for storing liquids. Shaping and firing methods for these result in a dull gray finish, but with a piece that is waterproof and heavily resilient. The cantaro is even a traditional musical instrument as it can be hit, making a pleasant sound.

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Doña Rosa in the 1970s

Doña Rosa (real name Rosa Real Mateo de Nieto) began working in clay at a very young age. In the 1950s, she discovered that if she rubbed a piece with a smooth stone or other such object, the piece turned out a shiny black after firing. It also became fragil and unable to hold water, but the color and shine because popular for decorative pieces, at around the time that tourism was reaching central Oaxaca.

Doña Rosa’s work brought notable collectors and others to her workshop, attested to by photos on the walls of her with people such as American president Jimmy Carter.

 

 

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Wall in the workshop paying homage to Doña Rosa and her work.

The maestra died in 1980, but the workshop still exists with family still producing numerous items such as skulls, spheres, figurines, vases, jars, lamps and much more. While open to the public, it is not very well-marked and off the main road. It is not touristy in the sense that you are overwhelmed by the Doña Rosa´s story. You almost have to know what to look for to distingush the workshop from the many others that exist in San Bartolo.

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All photos by Alejandro Linares Garcia with the exception of that of Doña Rosa, courtesy of the Friends of Oaxacan Folk Art

 

 

 

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Three, maybe four, generations of basketmakers

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Apolinar Hernandez

The Hernandez family lives just outside the small town of San Martin Coapaxtongo, in the municipality of Tenancingo, State of Mexico, just southwest of Mexico City. As I do not have a car, Javier Hernandez graciously offered to pick me up from the San Martin bus stop on the highway. Good thing, too… as the stop is up a steep slope from the town, and the family lives on another steep slope a bit south of there.

The family’s recognition stems from the efforts of Apolinar Hernandez. His father’s parents migrated to the Tenancingo area from Ixmiquilpan area, deciding to stay after a pilgrimage to the sanctuary at Chalma. His grandfather learned to make baskets from friends, with the first two generations selling locally to supplement income from agriculture. Succesive generations of craftsmen were all born in the Tenancingo municipality, but only a few have managed to continue the tradition.

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Apolinar’s fine work gained local recognition. In 1997, he won a national level competition in handcrafts in Tlaquepaque, Jalisco, bringing him to the attention of the Fomento Cultural Banamex, which in 2001 named  him a grand masters of Mexican folk art, including him in their important directory. Although mostly retired now, Apolinar’s work has won awards as late as 2010.

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Javier with finished basket at the workshop

Apolinar taught his only son (of seven children), Javier who has since become the master’s protegee. Javier began to learn from his father when he was six years old, and by the time he was eight, could make an entire basket himself. He began competing at age eleven, winning local, then state competitions. In 1996, he participated for the first time at a national level competition with his father in Toluca called Las Manos de México. He continue winning prizes at the national level and by the mid 2000s, has established himself alongside his father. By the 2010, he was established as an artisan in his own right, receiving support from Banamex to participate in events such as the Feria Maestros de Arte, and in 2015, began receiving the support of CONACULTA (now the Secretariat of Culture).

The awards and other recognition have com not only from the fine work on their traditional baskets, which are still the backbone of the business, but also in the development of other merchandise, such as bases for lamps, dining and coffee tables, cradles, decorative figures such as bicycles and even jewelry items. In these endeavers, they have received support from engineering and architecture students at the Autonomous University of the State of Mexico.

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Javier states he has been fortunate and honored for the recognition, as there are very few working in basketry, and even fewer that attain any level of recognition for their work. The competitions have brought the family work from within Mexico and abroad, with individuals, institutions and businesses.

Today, Javier Hernandez is 32 years old, with three children ten and under. He has taught two of them to make baskets, with the oldest having the most interest.

JavierHernandezFlores004Like the generations before him, the materials for the baskets come from the region, although most are now bought from small villages further way from where his father collected materials. Several types of red, white and weeping willow shoots and branches are the most common materials, although other local plants called sasal and romerillo are also used. The former produces a rough rustic basket, while the latter, which can only be harvested about two months out of the year, produced very fine, supple lengths and can be used fo miniatures. Both of these plants, however, are disappearing because of environmental changes.

Baskets made by Javier and his sons are much like what the generations made before him, European style, round, oval or square, but there have been a few changes. Apolinar did/does not like the appearance of colored branches, so Javier was on his own to work out a way to dye willow. Other local artisans were of no help. An acquantaince who is a photographer for the government managed to bring Javier various suggestions based on his experience with artisans in other parts of the country. Today. Javier’s method of dying the willow is a question of boiling water, dye, time and Coca Cola (use for fixing the color). These are generally commerical dyes, with the exception of yellow, obtained from marigold petals.

Like his father before him, Javier works in the family compound, but he makes baskets year round. One baskets typically takes one 10-hour workday, with very large pieces taking a week or more. The business allows Javier to work year-round, although there are months when sales are slow. When there are large order, he and others in the family may be sleeping only a few hours a night.

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Preparing to build the wall of the basket.

Apolinar’s work began a shift from selling locally to more nationally and internationally. Today, the family no longer sells in local markets, but has the occasional local client. Today, these customers buy the baskets for special occasions, generally as gifts for participants in baptisms, quinceanñeras, weddings, etc. Prices run from 150 pesos (9 USD) to 1000 pesos (750 USD) or more, depending on the size, material and complexity of the weave. Most items are now sold by the family directly, often on the Internet, or through major handcraft outlets such as Banamex and FONART. Despite its location, the workshop attracts visitors, including designers from the United States and Venezuela looking to have specialty pieces made. Many of his baskets have been exported outside of Mexico, with clients, in Japan, France, England, the US etc, and has recieved invitations to go abroad but has not yet received financial support for this.

 

Professor Toymaker

20160610_192108An older man dressed in a striped t-shirt, shorts and backwards baseball cap, he reminded me of Chabelo, a character from a very long-running children’s show in Mexico. His real name is Carlos Rojas Bizonero, who gave up traditional academic life to persue his passion – the rescue, creation and promotion of traditional Mexican toys.

At university he studed humanities and philosophy and worked as a professor of philosophy at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. In 1998, he began researching and making toys and by 2001, he had decided to leave the university to pursue his passion full-time. Rojas is not from an artisan family, so there is a strong academic flavor to his work, with his creative efforts informed by research, both documents and fieldwork, which includes studying under Mexican master toymakers  Gumercindo (Chinda) España of Guanajuato and Sotero Lemus of the State of Mexico.

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Most Mexican traditional toys have European origins, and traditionally were made to be sold at festivals in honor of patron saints and Corpus Christi. Today, toys are still sold at these events, but they are cheap plastic imports.

Rojas’s focus is on the rescue and making of toys which have (nearly) disappeared from Mexico, those no longer seen in any market here. For this reason, he generally foregoes the making of tops, yo-yos and ball-in-cups, but has a number of these in his personal toy collection. To show us some examples, Rojas pulled out an old, pre-1970s, suitcase. Most of the pieces he makes are human or animal figures with some kind of mechanism to make them move.

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The first example was an elephant figure made to walk when set on an incline with only gravity providing the needed energy. Rojas stated that the particular piece was from Chiapas, with origins in similar toys in Germany. He showed us several versions of “equilibristas” (balancing) toys. These are figures with extensions, meant to balance seemingly precariously on a pole. The figure is made so that the 2 or 3 elements put the center of gravity on a small point. This allows the figure to remain on the pole and be moved in an acrobatic style. One area known for making this with barro betus ceramic is Santa Cruz de las Huertas, Jalisco, generally for Day of the Dead, but the origins are from Eastern Europe.

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One exception to the European toy is one called a “chintete.” Like the others, it consists of one or more figures which move along a base, in this case, using a unique lever system (as seen in the featured image). The toy originates from the state of Guerrero, particularly the town of Chilapa. The name derives from a rhyme that children used to say when playing with it. According to artist Francisco Toledo of Oaxaca, the name is also used in Zapotec to mean a toy that moves.

Most of the pieces we saw were made of wood, or wood and metal, but he uses other materials such as clay, cartoneria (paper mache), corn husks, other vegetable fibers and fabric. Elements for movement include wood or metal levers, cords and springs.

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When he began, he did not think he would make a living with the toys, but there is real interest, not just from collectors and museums, but schools and other institutions. Rojas believes that the interest stems from people’s memories of the toys as well of childhood in general. For children and adults alike, the colors are inviting and most want to play at least a bit with the items. This included the exhibit and workshop he was invited to give at FAO Swartz in New York.

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Rojas works with his brothers, principally Ricardo, in a group called “Los Chintetes” in workshops in Mexico City and neighboring Ciudad Nezahualcoyotl. They make and sell these toys to collectors, museums and others, but much of Carlos’s income comes related activities. He is registered with the Mexican Secretariat of Education and gives classes and workshops for children on traditional toys in various schools in the Mexico City area. He also teaches adults, especially other artisans. He even works as an artist and musician, playing the accordion and the jarana guitar.

 

Los Chintetes cannot sell the items as toys because of safety regulations. This is especially true in places such as the United States and Europe. But he can sell them as handcrafts, aimed at adults.  Rojas stated he has no desire to make toys that would be compliant with safety regulations because this would make them lose their original character.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A playful mural for a playful artisan in Mexico City

By Laramie Xhico Garcia

As you may well know, I love Mexico City. I can’t get enough of the food, people, art and culture. On my last trip here, I stumbled across a small workshop in Colonia Roma guarded outside by some fiberglass devils. I was with my friend, Leslie, and we decided to explore within. We met the ever so amusing Álvaro (a self-described Ghepetto) and the lovely Jazmín. We had discovered Taller Tlamaxcalli.

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Jazmin at work in the “taller”

After several jokes from Álvaro, we learned that they specialized in traditional Mexican toy making. I immediately was interested. Wood toys, alebrijes, cartonería, where would I begin… Masking making in cartonería of course. I signed up for classes and started going to the workshop weekly. Jazmín, was patient with me and my Spanish as she taught me papier mâché making techniques, know as cartonería. I began making a jaguar mask (which you’ll get to see when I’m actually finished with it).

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Sketch for the mural

One day the white base coat of paint had finished drying on the mask and the task of decorative painting was at hand. As I pulled out my new brushes, Jazmín asked me if I knew how to paint. Do I know how to paint? Canvases, faces, bodies, buildings… I’ve painted it all. I quickly removed my mobile gallery, also known as my phone, out of my pocket to show her some of my murals in Los Angeles.

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Sketch I was working from

She and Álvaro began to swipe thru my photos of my murals and Álvaro asked me when I was going to paint one in front of his shop. Coincidentally, a couple days before while at the coffee shop, I did a doodle of the front of their shop using Jazmín and some of their toys as inspiration. I showed Álvaro and his next question was “When are you going to start?”

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Sketch overlays to fit the design to the shape of the wall on the taller
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Laying in the main sketch

After figuring out schedules and budgets, I had to figure out how my sketch fit the actual space on the wall and how to incorporate several of their pre-existing objects they had displayed outside. I couldn’t take a full photo of the facade of the building, so I had to stitch several together in Photoshop before starting to block in my sketch on paper.

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Laying in all the main color. Photo by Leslie Moody Castro.

Just like my mask, the wall required a base coat of white paint. Day one had begun with Álvaro, Jazmín and me rolling on a fresh coat of white paint. The next morning I arrived and I began freehand drawing from my sketch. I forgot my special pencil, so finding the right tool to draw was a bit difficult. After trying some small pencils, chalk and crayons, Jazmín found this great crayon-pencil hybrid which was prefect for the job.

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Jazmin stenciling skulls on the flower pots.

I spent the full second day drawing out the map of the the mural on the wall. On day three the color blocking began. It’s more than just fill in the shapes, there’s a whole sequence of layering the paint for each object to get the final look with clean edges.

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I finished the left panel first where the sign will hang.
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Atoles and tamales got me going in the mornings.

This was my first mural that wasn’t done with all aerosol. Since I didn’t have any scaffolding or A-frame ladder, I couldn’t get fluidity with my arm using aerosol, so I used mostly house paint with touches of aerosol for sharing and highlights.

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Jazmin becomes the focus of the mural.

After 11 days of working of the mural, dozens of cups of coffee and a few tamales later, the mural was complete. I worked with Álvaro to incorporate his three-dimensional elements, including a bird cage, giant skull and a mirror in the apple that reads “¿Te peinaste?”.

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¿te peinaste?
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This is the box to put your dreams. No nightmares please!
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Alvaro as the devil…

We celebrated with Tepache, Mezcal, popcorn, friends and a wonderful toast by Álvaro.

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Alvaro and Jazmin off to buy tepache!
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Tepache, mezcal and popcorn to celebrate!

 

Thanks to Leslie, Tanya and everyone who stopped by while I was painting. If you’re in Mexico City, stop by Taller Tlamaxcalli and check out my mural and their workshop of traditional, hand-made, Mexican toys. Taller Tlamaxcalli, Colonia Roma, Calle Chihuahua 129, Mexico City.

Originally posted as My first mural in Mexico City. Reblogged here with the permission of the author/artist. 

A struggling museum with treasures inside

Michoacan is one of Mexico’s major producers of handcrafts, a number of which are truely fine works of art, but unfortunately, do not get the attention they deserve.

The main reason Michoacan’s handcraft traditions are unknown is that the state is not a major tourism destination, lacking destinations such as Acapulco in neighboring Guerrero state.

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Credit:VeoKenxiz

It also lacks a coordinated effort by state authorities to promote these traditions, which has been done in other states, notably Oaxaca, through national-level events such as the Guelaguetza and its fine state handcrafts museum, MEAPO, run by reknowned artisan Carlomagno Pedro Martinez.

The state does have a museum, located in the captial Morelia, now called the Michoacan Artisan Institute (Instituto del Artesano Michoacano), but most people know it as the Casa de Artesanias (Handcraft House), its former name.

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San Francisco Church and cloister from the plaza.

It is not easy to find. Located in the former cloister of the San Francisco Church, just east of the cathedral, there are no signs to indicate its presence, not even on the entrance. Even Google steered us wrong, taking us to a site many blocks to the southeast on Lazaro Cardenas Street, adifferent government office. The website is less-than-helpful as well. As of this date, neither the landing site, or anything beyond it has information about the San Francisco facility at all.

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Stand explaining the state’s regions and their handcraft traditions.

Be that as it may, for someone looking for a good overview of Michoacan handcrafts and can understand Spanish, the museum is a worthwhile visit. While small, there is a good representation of the major handcraft products and good information. The state is divided into seven regions, based on climate and ethnic groups, with all regions getting a fair shake in representation, not just Lake Patzcuaro.

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A very finely punteada (dotted) ceramic from Capula in the collection

The examples here are very good, finely made pieces ready to amaze visitors, from the tiny dots of pieces from Capula, to intricately stitched blouses from various parts of the state, to Mazahua silver earrings from the State of Mexico border area.  Even the simple “lisa” pottery of the coast has some really impressive examples. My only complaint was the lack of attribution to individual artisans, espeically important in cases such as the pottery of Angelica Moreles, who had a nice mural/tile represented but with the only indication that it was from Tzintzuntzan. Detailed information about traditions and locations are found on various stands, with notebooks of information, and an virtual, interactive computer console.

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Equipal and wicker furniture from the coastal region.
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A wax figure from Morelia.

The staff was helpful and knowledgeable, especially Mimi (I didnt catch her last name), who truly loves what she does. Originally trained as a dentist, she left that profession to promote the handcrafts of her home state, and her eagerness to share her knowledge and experience attests to the correctness of that decision.

The museum proper is on the upper floor, with the lower floor dedicated to pieces for sale, including furniture and other large pieces. However, when we visited this area was in disarray, with several of the pieces damaged. As the musuem was set to close (at 3pm on a Saturday), we did not inquire further.

 

It is obvious that the staff of the musuem, including curators have dedicated themselves to the institution. With some further poking around in several sources, we learned that museum has its origins in an effort to support Michoacan artisans in 1972. The institution has gone through various reorganizations, with various levels of state support since them. The current change to the “Institute” is just the latest, in progress. However, the current governor is not as dedicated to cultural projects as those in the past.

Here’s to hoping things get better for this valuable museum. It and the artisans it serve deserve nothing  but the best.

All photos by Alejandro Linares Garcia unless otherwise noted.

 

 

Otomi creativity among foggy cliffs

The municipality of Tenango de Doria, Hidalgo is about a 4-5 hour drive from Mexico City, but it is an entire world away. The communities here are wedged among extremely rugged mountains, often covered in mist and fog, looking much like Chinese mountain paintings. It is on the western side of the Sierra Madre Oriental, which captures the moisture from the Gulf of Mexico, making the areas west of it (towards Tulancingo) noticably drier.

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Overlooking the community of Santa Monica in the municipality of Tenango de Doria
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Elvira Clemente Gomez with traditional tenango embroidery piece at her home in Santa Monica

Roads to and in the area are poor, not only because of the poverty and isolation of the region, but also because the rain and moisture leads to erosion, which makes roads hard to maintain. The same processes, however, have sculpted breathtaking scenery, with sheer cliffs and peaks covered trees, ferns and other plants.

The rugged terrain has helped to keep the region traditional. It is dominated by the Otomi (Ñuhu in the language) people, along with some Tepehua. Otomi is the default language among those who live here, with Spanish generally reserved for outsiders. The main economic activity is still agriculture, growing corn, beans, peanuts and tomatoes.

Like other traditional Mexican communities, handcraft production is an important means of providing supplemental income. The most important of these is the making of embroidery items which are now named after the municipality, called “tenangos.”

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Tenango embroidery wall hanging at the Handcrafts of Hidalgo exhibition at the Museo de Art Popular in Mexico City
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Tenango embroidery and amate paper stand at the Feria Maestros de Arte in Chapala, Jalisco (credit: Alejandro Linares Garcia)

The term generally refers to square or rectangular cloth which has been decorated with various figures, filled in with brightly-colored embroidery. No two are exactly alike, but most consist of multiple elements of stripes on a background with fairly large empty spaces, usually white or off-white. Designs are drawn onto muslin or linen cloth, then stitched to fill in with alternating colors such as blue, green, red, yellow and orange, using commerical embroidery thread (hilo vela). The elements are derived from Otomi rural life, myths and worldview, and very often include domesticated animals, deer, daisies and trees.

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Tenango embroidery decorating shirts, pants, skirts and more at the home of Cirenia Tellez Corona in Santa Monica, Tenango de Doria, Hidalgo.

As the vast majority of this embroidery is now produced for commericial purposes, there are women who are experimenting with new designs, materials and techniques. More talented artisans create figures such as people, pre Hispanic images, insects and more. Thread colors such as earth, pastels and metalic tones have been used, along with those of silk blend and very narrow width. Background fabric  may be blue, black or other colors. Others have been adding geometric and other patterns as borders. Very large and/or complicated pieces can sell for up to 300 dollars or more, but represent months of work.

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Embroidered panels in regular embroidery thread (left) and finer, thinner thread by Elvira Clemente Gomez
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Elvira Clemente with special order piece depicting life in the coffee-growing areas of the Sierra Madre Oriental

Right now about 60% of women in this and surrounding municipalities dedicate themselves to this activity at least part time. Most of them live in even smaller communities, some precariously on hillsides, accesible only by one lane dirt roads, such as San Nicolas, San Pablo El Grande and Santa Monica. Almost all of the artisans work solo in their homes, often with daughters, but there are a few cooperatives.

The commercialization of this embroidery most likely began in the 1960s, with a woman named Josefina Jose Tavera of San Nicolas. Her success inspired other women to make and sell similar pieces, with a local evangelist pastor helping to sell them. Most common items are tablecloths, napkins, but can also include curtains, blouses, pants, skirts,  bags chair coverings and even amate paper wall hangings made in San Pablito, Puebla, just over the mountains from Tenango.

The isolation and povery of the artisans means that most rely on intermediaries to sell and transport the goods they make to market, with little to no support from authorities at the municipal or state level. This means the work pays very little, with few of the younger generations taking it up if they have any alternative, and the future of the craft is in doubt.

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Tenango embroider panels over an amate paper wall hanging from San Pablito, Puebla

All photos by the author unless otherwise noted.

 

Humble Apron Elevates to Fashion Statement and Identity in Oaxaca, Mexico

By Norma Schafer

Here in the Tlacolula Valley, and most villages surrounding the city of Oaxaca, the apron is more than a utilitarian article of clothing used to protect the wearer’s garment from getting soiled. It is a statement of identity, style, and social class.

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Tlacolula market scene with aprons as personal and village identity.

Walk around the Tlacolula Market on Sunday, or any day for that matter, and you will see women, old and young, covered in aprons. You can identify their villages by apron style.

For example, women from San Miguel del Valle wear a bib apron with an attached gathered skirt that has a heavily embroidered hem. The aprons worn by women from San Marcos Tlapazola are cotton with pleated skirts often trimmed in commercial lace or bric-a-brac.

Teotitlan del Valle women prefer gingham cotton aprons with scalloped bodices and hems, trimmed in machine embroidered flowers, plants, fruits and sometimes animal figures.

There are fancy aprons, more densely embroidered for Sunday wear and special fiestas, and simple ones for everyday to cook, wash clothing and tend to babies, grandchildren and guajolotes.

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He likes to cook, too. Having fun in the Tlacolula market.

The apron is worn by grandmothers and granddaughters alike. It is a uniform that conveys personal identity, social status and wealth. The heavily embroidered apron cost much more,  as much as 350 pesos compared to the everyday 150 peso variety.

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Rosario wears her apron with a hand-embroidered bodice.

You would want to wear your fanciest apron to the market to bring the oohs and aahs from contemporaries who admire your choice of color and design. Market day, a daily occurrence in Teotitlan del Valle and a regional weekly event in Tlacolula, is the social center for towns and villages. It is the time when women greet and mingle with each other, some even sneaking off together for a morning mezcal.

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Apron as a fashion statement! Who needs a fancy dress?

When you get home, you change to the daily apron for working.

Aprons are handy because they have deep pockets. Perfect for holding the coins of commerce. They are also convenient because you don’t have to wear a bra.

There are about eight different apron vendors in the concrete building of the permanent Tlacolula market. One of my favorites is along the exterior aisle closer to the bread section. They are from San Pablo Villa de Mitla and the machine embroidered aprons are filled with fanciful images of birds, fruit and flowers.

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Rocio, left, demonstrates how this apron looks, She is proud of thei work.
  • Tejidos y Bordados Alondra, Rocio Lopez Mendez, Proprietor, Pipila 9, Mitla, Oaxaca, abel_971@hotmail.com, cel 951-203-8333

Every apron is different. You need to try on at least several to compare size and quality. Make certain there are no stains and that the embroidery around the neck and the pocket placement is even.

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One for her, one for him!

Originally published at http://oaxacaculture.com/2016/06/humble-apron-elevates-to-fashion-statement-and-identity-in-oaxaca-mexico/ under a

Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Grandma’s chair in Tenancingo

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Christ the King overlooking Tenancingo

Tenancingo is a small city wedged in between mountains in the south of the State of Mexico. It is still surrounded by fields and pastures, as the mountains have kept it mostly safe from the fast pace of development of nearby Mexico City and Toluca.

The city is still known for handcrafts, especially rebozos, but other activities still take place here. Perhaps the most important is the making of open seat chairs, which are then filled by weaving twisted palm strands, sometimes in intricate patterns.

The chairs are very traditional for the area, but have evolved from an ordinary to almost a luxury item. They were ubiquitous in houses until the latter 20th century. Today, most grandmothers in Tenancingo still have at least one, but younger generations who buy them do not do so as regular furniture. Instead, most are sold to commercial enterprises such as restaurants or people with a special purpose in mind, such as furnishing a country house. Tenancingo used to be filled with workshops that made the chairs as most did this as a side occupation. However, today, only a few families still make them.

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Photo of a chair made by the family over 60 years ago

One of these is the Vara family, which has been making these chairs and other furniture for over 80 years. I visited the workshops mostly run today by Angel Galicia Vara, who I met at an event at the National Popular Cultures Museum in Mexico City.  Angel is at least a fourth generation craftsman, working with the father of his father-in-law, Gregorio Vara and a grand uncle, Tomas Guadarrama, who has been working the trade for over 60 years.

The workshop is located on the Fernando Montes de Oca street in the San Jose el Cuartel neighborhood, just on the other side of the highway from the center of Tenancingo. It is unassuming, with no signs indicating the workshop’s presence. This is because it is the main production center, consisting of three main spaces, one for wood working, one for storage of semi-complete pieces and a multipurpose open area. The family residence adjoins.

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Gregorio Vara rounding a chair leg

The family mostly dedicates itself to the working of wood. Pine wood, selected by grade as per the project, is cut, lathed, joined and painted. The wood working here is almost same as what was done 2-3 generations ago. Pieces are joined by wooden pegs, which are handmade by the family. The reason for this is that these pegs follow the grain of the wood more faithfully and therefore much stronger, leading to a chair that lasts longer. No nails or other metal pieces are used. The only concession to modernity is the use of wood glue with the pegs and commercial paints.

But what sets the work apart from many other rural furniture makers is that the vast majority of their pieces are chairs and benches, whose seats are made by tightly weaving palm fronds. These chairs and benches range from miniatures (whose seats must be woven with the use of a needle) to meters-tall productions for institutions. The legs and other supports are rounded, and are the first pieces to be made. A machine is used to turn the wood, but the shaping is still done by hand and a trained eye.

The pieces are shaped and joined by the family, with a sealant and base coat applied.

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L to R: Angel Galicia Vara, Tomas Guardarrama and Gregorio Vara

The signature palm weaving is often done by other artisans, who the family hires to do the work. Most of these weavers work in their own homes. However, it is getting harder to find people willing to do this, as it is time-consuming and does not pay well. When they do not have someone else to do it, one or another member of the family does it.

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Demonstration of the twisting of palm to weave

The palm used is a thin-leaved variety, called “palma real” (royal palm), which is bought in nearby Zumpahualcan, but gathered and dried in the region (State of Mexico into neighboring Morelos).   The weaving process takes at least 2 days, one for soaking the dried palm in water and at least one day for weaving simple patterns for a single chair. More complicated patterns and larger pieces, such as benches can take a couple of weeks. Leaves are selected and split into the thickness desired. Generally smaller pieces use thinner strands. Angel states that despite the flimsy appearance of the palm, the joints of the chair usually loosen with age before the palm seat needs replacing, with some weaving lasting as long as 40 years.  Average life span of the chairs is 25-30 years. For 200 pesos (about $15 dollars), the chair can be refurbished and last another 25 years.

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Chairs and table at the El Salto store in the center of Tenancingo

Final painting may be done before or after the seat weaving. If after, they must be careful not to stain the palm. The reason for waiting is so that they can paint the piece to order and not lose a sale because it is in the wrong color. The decorative elements are painted on last. The most traditional are patterns of small flowers and leaves along with gold lines. The workshop has received special orders for various kinds of decoration, including dolls, birds and images from Aztec codices and calendars.

The family depends mostly on word-of-mouth for business, and have families who have been clients for generations. They do not have any advertising, on the Web or otherwise. This branch of the family has a store in Malinalco, at the Restaurante Casona on Morelos Street, but this generally exists to take orders rather than to sell finished products. Another branch of the family, which makes the same pieces with the same methods, has a store in the center of Tenancingo called El Salto on Hidalgo Street. Despite the relative lack of promotion, the family has enough business to work full time. They also state that it is important to not simply depend on the making of traditional chairs and benches. They have worked with making headboards, nightstand and cabinets, often using weaving for decorative elements.

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Headboard with palm woven center

The family’s work has been showcased at various handcrafts events. A giant version of their traditional chair is part of the permanent collection of the Popular Culture Museum in Toluca, State of Mexico.

Handcrafts steal the show

The Expo de los Pueblos Indígenas (Indigenous Peoples Expo) is an annual event sponsored by Mexico’s National Commission for the Development of Indigenous Communities held at the Expo Reforma. While mostly geared towards “chilangos” (Mexico City natives), it is a worthwhile event for all Mexican folk art enthusiasts.

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Artisan from Chilapa de Alvarez, Guerrero embroidering at the event.
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Huichol man in full regalia

Although set up to highlight what indigenous communities have to offer in food, dance, etc. the handcrafts steal the spotlight, with food coming a distant second. Most of Mexico’s major indigenous groups are represented here, as well as all the major handcraft traditions: textiles, pottery, basketry, woodworking, etc. Artisans come from all over Mexico, including a decent showing from the north of the country and the Yucatan, areas often left out of events such as these.  Not all the products are traditional, as they include new twists on old products and even new products, such as, Christmas ornaments, modern fashion accessories and even bonsai plants.

 

 

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Rag dolls by the Mujeres Mixtecas cooperative of Ensenada, Baja California

All booths are manned by the artisans themselves, allowing for a rare opportunity for most city people to meet and buy from artisan themselves. Most are unknown, but the event does attract some artisans who have covered in publications such as the Banamex Foundation’s Great Masters of Mexican Folk Art. Since the Spanish word for “handcrafted,” artesanal, can also apply to foodstuffs, there are also booths selling locally-produced salsas, vanilla bean products, liquors, coffee, candies and of course, chocolate.

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Masks from Huitzuco, Guerrero at  the 2015 Expo

The 2015 version of the event had over 100 booths, concerts, dance exhibitons, a food court (unfortunately entirely too small and too crowded), exhibitions of vacation options in and near indigenous communities and more. This year’s event will feature a version of Oaxaca’s famous Guelaguetza gala and mariachi singer Aida Cuevas. If you speak Spanish, perhaps one of the best features of the event is staff that is willing and able to provide information and ask questions…. a rarity for a government-sponsored event!

The 2016 version will be held from 16-19 June at the Expo Reforma, Colonia Juarez, just off Paseo de la Reforma

More photos (all photos by Alejandro Linares Garcia)

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Tepecoacuilco, Guerrero pottery
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Shell inlaid items from Ixmiquilpan, Hidalgo
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Lacquered plate with gold inlay by Mario Agustin Gaspar at the 2015 event