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.
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.
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.
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.
Like 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.
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.