When entering Capula, a large sculpture of a “Catrina” smiles her tooth grin at you. She represents one of several ceramic traditions of this small, rural town, just 20 minutes drive from the Michoacan state capital of Morelia. The name is derived from “capulines,” itself from the Nahuatl word for (mountain) black cherries (prunus serotina). The original indigenous name for the area was Purhepecha, “Xenguaro.”
Despite is proximity to the state’s largest city, the town is still traditional, with red tiled roofs and an economy tied to agriculture and handcrafts. When we arrived on a Sunday, we found ourselves on market day, passing through streets filled with basic goods and lots of second-hand merchandise. We were first rewarded in the town center by eating the best beef birria I have had so far in Mexico, at a stand that regularly sets up just outside the atrium of the main church.
Capula is known, and should be better-known, for it is pottery traditions; two stemming back generations and one that is quite new.
The older of the two is the making of dishes and cookware from low-fire pottery, which shows both indigenous and Spanish ceramic techiques and designs. Like many other Michoacan communities, the origins of the modern forms are traced back to the efforts of Vasco de Quiroga, who worked to set up a handcrafting and trading system to benefit the indigenous of the region. Today, there are two kinds of utilitarian ceramics, “traditional” with several designs and the better-known “punteada” or “dotted” named after small dots arranged into patterns. These patterns may or may not create images such as flowers. On the finest pieces the dots are extremely tiny, and fill the entire piece. The most common pieces are not nearly so elaborate. Traditional and punteada pottery are two os Capula’s three officially-recognized craft traditions, and the town is the only one in Michoacan to have three.
The third is the making of ceramic “Catrina” figures, which date back only a couple of decades. A Catrina is a female skeletal figure, whose current form is traced back to graphic artist Jose Guadalupe Posada in the late 19th, very early 20th century. Traditionally, this figure is dressed as an upper-class lady of that time period, with large, feathered hat and long gown. She is a traditional image for Day of the Dead (November 2), and appears in many of Mexico’s fine and popular art. Capula’s version is made of clay, generally tall and very thin, with generous hips, given that we are talking about a skeleton. She can be dressed in a number of ways, from a bride to an indigenous women carrying goods to market, to a figure wearing whimsical gowns, such as one filled with monarch butterflies, a symbol of Michoacan. The one we purchased is a vendor carrying cages with birds to sell.
A visit on a typical Sunday market day gives a visitor a good sense of what life in the town is like and the merchandise which is mostly aimed for local consumption. All of the vendors we talked to stated they were artisans (not middlemen) and almost all were from family with generations of experience in the working of clay.
Only two or three vendors were selling Catrinas because these are made for national and foriegn markets, with most artisans having regular clients who buy all or most of their production. The market also attracts artisans/vendors from the Lake Patzcuaro area to sell basket and embroidered items. The two main events of the locale is the patron saint’s day on July 25 and the Feria de Catrina de Capula in October, where a much wider variety of merchandise is offered for sale in anticipation of visitors.