Maybe the word “legend” seems a bit too promotional, but there really is no other to describe 83-year-old Gumercindo España’s position and reputation in the Mexican handcrafts world, especially in Guanajuato.
He is called Sshinda (not a typo) or Chinda, often with the honorific “Don,” by just about everyone, from his great grandchildren to governmental authorities. The name is a riff off his given name and the Otomi word for someone who sell entrails. The difference in spelling indicates the lack of the “sh” sound in Spanish.
Don Sshinda has been making wood toys with moving parts the same way that his grandfather (b. 1872) and father taught him over 75 years ago, when he began apprenticing at the tender age of 6.
He is the third generation of his family to make toys, but he specializes in wood. His grandfather made toys with various materials, including a very old clay style called “negros” (black), called such because they were not painted. Initially the family did not specialize in toy making until the grandfather was patronized by a Spanish owner of a local hacienda who liked his work and helped him move into working with wood, reeds and clay. At that time, there was no glue so his grandfather used beeswax to stick pieces together. His grandfather traveled as far as Michoacan and San Luis Potosi to sell, on foot as there was no motorized transport at the time, and even lived for a time in Tlaquepaque, Jalisco to get better prices for his toys.
During the first half of the 20th century, the family began to specialize in working with wood, in particluar the local copalillo wood in the nearby hills of the small town of Juventino Rosas, Guanajuato. Many of the toys his grandfather made were miniatures of farm animals and the implements of rural farm work such as carts. Over time, Don Sshinda and the family have developed other figures, but nothing more modern than what a child of Don Sshinda’s generation can relate to. He has over 300 designs, each with a story, but the most common ones are castles, horses, carrousels, ferris wheels, bullfighers, carts, puppets and figures of “voladores“. As the concept of toys also include festival items, the workshop also makes masks, decorations for Day of the Dead (e.g. Catrinas and skulls), etc.
The toys Sshinda makes are figures, such as people or animals, often set up with levers or other mechanisims to produce simple movements. For example, one bullfighting toy has both the torero and the bull move with the same flip of the lever.Traditionally, these toys were sold at fairs and at civic celebrations as trinkets for children, much the way Asian-made plastics are sold today.Although the family is best known for toys, they have always made other things such as masks, festival decorations and the like.
Although many of today’s artisans have refined their designs, especially painting, to sell to the collectors’ markets, but Sshinda refuses to do this. Paint is still made using local clays and other natural pigments; and is applied quickly and decorative patterns applied with fingers. He even refuses to apply varnish as he believes that any of this will diminish and handcrafted quality of the pieces, which lie in the rustic nature.
One concession to modernity is the use of commercial glue, as it is cheaper and better (and less smelly) than the traditional glue, which was made by boiling down rancid meat and bones from local butcher shops. Has some electric tools, but much of the work is still done by hand.
His work was promoted by Maria Teresa Pomar, for whom he worked for a year in Colima, which led to his work being sold in the United States and Spain. His work and history have earned him national level awards and recognitions, such as being named a “grand master,” included in Grand Masters of Mexican Folk Art, published by Banamex Foundation. He has trained many other artisans, a number of which who are looking to be able to say that they learned from him.
Don Sshinda says that most of his sales are still made from his shop, with most customers being local, but he does have regular clientes from various parts of Guanajuato, Guadalajara and Mexico City. We came to visit unannounced to his workshop located on Adolfo Lopez Mateos Street just behind the San Antonio Church, and were warmly welcomed. Don Sshinda truly enjoys his work, as well as talking about the toys as well as his wealth of stories about the Juventino Rosas area, of which he was the local historian for 3o years.
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