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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.