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