An 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.