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.

Overlooking the community of Santa Monica in the municipality of Tenango de Doria
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.”

Tenango embroidery wall hanging at the Handcrafts of Hidalgo exhibition at the Museo de Art Popular in Mexico City
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.

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.

Embroidered panels in regular embroidery thread (left) and finer, thinner thread by Elvira Clemente Gomez
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.

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

All photos by the author unless otherwise noted.



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