Which market is best?

The state of Michoacan has not only one but two important state-level handcrafts fair each year. Both consist of outdoor markets called “tianguis” and competitions for artisans to show the best wares they are able to produce. Both offer the opportunity to see the best handcrafts of the state and purchase directly from artisans, but each experience is different because of the settings.

Street in Patzcuaro (credit:Jenaro Parra)

Patzcuaro is Michoacan’s biggest tourist draw. Located near a lake of the same name, it the head of a number of handcrafts-producing communities that rink this body of water. The various communities specialize in different handcrafts, such as pottery, mask making, wood furniture, etc, thanks to a guild system created by Friar Vasco de Quiroga in the early colonial period to support the indigenous population.


Originally Patzcuaro was the capital of Michoacan, but later in the colonial period, political struggles moved it to Morelia, where it remains. Despite the fact that physically it is still a small town, Patzcuaro remains crucial to the Purhepecha indigenous identity of Michoacan, which includes dance, dress and a very famous ritual related to Day of the Dead, called Noche de Animas or “Night of the Souls.”

Skeleton figure at the Tianguis

The Tianguis and Competition all reflect this. The biggest difference between Patzcuaro’s and Uruapan’s event is that Patzcuaro’s is part of the larger Noche de Animas and Uruapan’s is stand-alone, where the focus is only on the handcrafts and the Michoacan cultures that produce them. Each event has a different feel because of this. In Patzcuaro, the handcrafts are important, but they are not center stage. With some exceptions, the market and competition here is more attractive to Lake region artisans, and more tourist-type general attendees.

The Competition of both places is very similar, and attract very similar quality pieces. The best pieces are here, and at both, for sale. One difference, however, is how sales are handled. In Uruapan, sales are made but pieces stay on general display through the week of the event, with judging coming during that week. I arrived to Patzcuaro the day after the general market opened and found that judging in the competition had not only taken place, pieces were already disappearing. This means that those looking to see the best of Michoacan handcrafts at this event had better come to the Antiguo Colegio Jesuita Cultural Center early, because by the the main events of the 1st and 2nd come around, much will be gone.

Buyers looking through the textiles at the Cultural Center

The market is officially called the Tianguis Artesanal de Noche de Muertos (Night of the Dead Handcrafts Market) and takes place on the important Vasco de Quiroga Plaza. Uruapan bills itself as the largest event of its type, which is probably true, but in number of vendors, Patzcuaro is not far behind. In both, only artisans can sell, but in Patzcuaro the selection is a bit different.  There are few vendors from outside the lake area, with many from Patzcuaro proper, but what struck me was that trinket-type items dominated the wares for sale here.  That is not to say they are not real handcrafts, but rather smaller pieces, with few breakable details, best-suited for a tourist market, as they can be bought on a whim and easily carried home. There were exceptions to this, to be sure, mostly of artisans from Patzcuaro proper.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Which market is better really depends on the reason for being in Michoacan. If handcrafts, especially fine handcrafts, are your main purpose, I recommend Uruapan, whose event starts just before Palm Sunday. The selection is finer, larger and aimed more towards collectors and those interested in the cultures that produce the items.

If your purpose is to attend Noche de Animas… which is a once-in-a-lifetime experience… along with the food and handcrafts of the Purhepecha people, then Patzcuaro is the best choice. This is particularly true if you have only one chance to be in Michoacan.

 All photos by the author unless otherwise noted.

Day of the Dead altars for novice spirits

The most important element of Day of the Dead in Mexico is the setting up of an altar (literally “offering” (ofrenda)) to honor the dead. In homes all over Mexico, these altars are of a personal nature, featuring loved ones who have passed on. Common elements include marigold flowers (which bloom at this time of the year), religious images, food offerings and very often, photographs.

credit JaaGuuAr

The purpose of the altars is to make a connection with the departed loved ones, as Day of the Dead has roots in pre Hispanic beliefs, which included the return of the dead once a year to visit the living. Hence Day of the Dead is not a somber or frightening occasion, but almost a happy one, a chance to relive memories.

Day of the Dead altar dedicated to various Mexican authors (credit Gomez, A01335017,CCM)

I personally have found it psychologically rewarding, thousands of miles away from my own mother’s grave. Unable to visit it as I would like, Day of the Dead gives me a ritual to make up for it. Day of the Dead altars can vary, based on local flora, foodstuffs and arrangements based on local traditions. In my house, the altar is a mix of Mexican and American, with the traditional tamales, tequila and moles that my husband always leaves for his relatives, happily sharing space with the spaghetti, fried chicken, Pepsi and Milky Way bars favored by my side of the family.


One unique regional tradition is the “cabo del año” (end of the year) altars made by residents of the small town of Huaquechula, Puebla. Here, depending on circumstances, there may be two Day of the Dead altars. All will have the typical altar, where the dead share space. However, if someone has died in the past year, they receive one very special altar to commemorate their first Day of the Dead as an ancestral spirit.

These altars are as monumental as space and money allow, generally three to five tiers, dominating the room such that often all the furntiture is removed. Three tiers are most traditions, with the upper tier representing the Divine, often with images of Jesus, alone or as part of the Trinity. The middle tier represents intercession, with images of angels, the Virgin Mary and saints. The bottom tier is dedicated to the deceased, with foods and other items, s/he enjoyed in life and often a photograph. In Huaquechula, there is a tradition of arranging the photograph such that it must been seen reflected in a mirror rather than directly. There are several stories to explain this, one being that the mirror represents passing onto another world. The entire altar is heavily decorated, primarily with yards and yards of white crepe paper and/or white, generally satin, fabric. These may represent clouds or may indicate an origin with similar altars set up for Maundy Thursday. Other decorations include traditional candles (or more commonly, electric lights), statues, flowers, vases, sugar skulls, and more, all bought and/or created new.  The cost of these altars can run from thousands to tens-of-thousands of pesos (100s to 1000s of USD). For this reason, if the deceased departs too close to Day of the Dead, generally a less than an month or two before, their cabo del año altar is deferred to the following year, allowing the family time to put the resources together.

Cabo de año altar in the local parish church

One other significant difference with cabo del año altar is that they are not really a private, nor somber affair. It is tradition to open the house to visitors during the time the altar is erected, which means that anyone can come in to admire the beauty of the altars, chat with the family and partake of food such as atole and tamales made for this purpose. Most visitors today are tourists, who truly are welcome to come in, eat, chat with the family and even take photographs.It is not an intrusion; in fact, families appreciate the interest in the works and the municipality supplies visitors with maps showing the houses which have cabo de año altars that year.

The altars were declare part of the Cultural Heritage of Puebla in 1977. The altars are open to the public on the 1st and 2nd of November each year.

All cabo de año altar photographs were taken by the author in 2013


The Grand Dame of Day of the Dead

Few images in Mexico are as ubiquitous or have the depth of meaning as the female grinning skeleton with a large overly-adorned hat and a gown from the late 19th century.

She is known as La Calavera Catrina (The Catrina Skull) or simply La Catrina. Her image, and those since derived from it, can not only be seen in Mexican handcrafts,  but also in Mexico graphic and fine art. In fact, it is the latter two which brought this particular figure to life.

Print sheet with skeletal imagry dedicated to Oaxaca by Posada (1903)

Catrina began as one of a number of skeletal figures created by José Guadalupe Posada, a graphic artist publishing in Mexico City newspapers in the late 19th and very early 20th centuries. His importance to the development of post Mexican Revolution culture cannot be overstated, deserving of its own article.


Originally La Catrina was only a head with the large ornate hats popular among the upper classes of late 19th century (as in the main image), when the fashion and politics were heavily influenced by European trends, so much so that many indigenous and dark-skinned women abandoned traditional clothes and even wore makeup to make their skin look lighter (something still seen today). Posada’s original name for the figure was La Calavera Garbancera, which referred to such women in those times.

Diego Rivera took this image and added a body and dress to complete the look in the mural Sueño de una tarde dominical en la Alameda Central (Dream of a Sunday afternoon in the Alameda Central).

Catrina with Diego Rivera as a boy (left). Frida Kahlo is behind Rivera.

To say that Posada invented La Catrina is not to say that he dreamt her up out of nothing. Images of skulls and skeletons for both religious and secular commentary dates back centuries in the Mexican psyche, long before the Spanish conquest. Posada and Rivera simply made a more modern version, adapted to the social and political issues of the time. One of these in particular is Mexico’s fairly rigid class structure, with La Catrina as a reminder that death equalizes all of us in the end. The reason alone may be enough to explain the figure’s continuing popularity in all Mexican arts including handcrafts and folk art.

From the Codex Tovar. Page dedicated to the god Huitzilopochlti with skull rack called a tzompantli.

Figures of La Catrina can be found in all kinds of materials, from clay, to wood, to paper mache (cartoneria) and more. Her image (with or without the full body) can be part of the decoration of any number of items including utensils, bowls, furniture, papel picado, clothing and more. She is also a quite popular image for makeup and costumes.

There are no images that approach her popularity, perhaps because no matter where she appears, even on a t-shirt, there is no danger of the image devolving into kitsch because Death’s semi-venerated status in Mexico.

There are several handcraft traditions which are strongly linked to this image. She is a major figure in Day of the Dead decorations, featured on altars and has since inspired innumerable variations of skeletons imitating the living, especially in cartoneria. While most often made and seen in October/November, La Catrina remains one of (if not the) most popular figure made in paper mache, as well as papel picado. The small town of Capula, Michoacan is famous in part for the making of Catrina figure, often with fine details from local clay. She can be accompanied by a gentlemen in dapper clothes from the same period, called El Catrino. In October, the town hosts an even exclusively dedicated to these figures.

Catrinas from Capula, Michoacán
Catrina and Catrino of cartonería at the Museo de Arte Popular in Mexico City

Skeletal images imitating the living are popular in general, and can be found in quite modern dress and settings, but none of these as of yet are close to dethoning La Catrina.


Image credits:

José Guadalupe Posada, José Guadalupe Posada,  Diego Rivera, author known, Cristina Zapata Pérez, Leigh Thelmadatter, Friends of Oaxacan Folk Art, Friends of Oaxacan Folk Art, Mah9426, Kar Rajme, Norma Ps, Tonc ec, Guillerminargp, Veltresnas, Alejandro Linares Garcia, El Comandante, Merystef

Eye candy

Alfeñique is a sugar confection of Arab and Spanish origin which was introduced into Mexico to replace the Aztec tradition of molding offerings with amaranth (a kind of pseudo grain).

800px-alfenique_argentinaThe pieces are made from a paste which consists of powdered sugar, a vegetable adhesive, lemon and stiffly beaten egg white. The damp paste is similar to clay in consistency, allowing the creation of decorative figures either by hand or in molds. Interestingly enough, while the pieces are perfectly edible, they are quite hard and don’t melt easily in the mouth… so they are rarely eaten.

The best-known of these are the sugar skulls for Day of the Dead, which are decorated, often highly so, and traditionally feature the name of someone living, including children, for whom the piece is intended.  These skulls are nearly indispensible on Day of the Dead altars in many parts (but not all) of the country.

credit:Carlos Adampol Galindo


Most of those skulls are mass-produced, but in Toluca, there is still a tradition of making these skulls, and even a number of innovative figures, in the traditional way.


Each October, the city sponsors the Feria del Alfeñique from mid-October to just after Day of the Dead. Its centerpiece is a market for artisans to set up stalls and sell their creations. Skulls dominate (including a newer version made of chocolate), but there are also caskets, crosses, miniature of other altar offerings such as pots of mole sauce, animals, skeletal figures, including those imitating various occupations, and more.

Credit Tomas Castelazo

The artisans also make special pieces for the annual competition.


More recent years have seen the addition of various cultural events on the days of the Feria from its inauguration to its closing. These include dance and musical performances, plays, workshops and conferences. The 2016 version began on Octo 15 and runs through Nov 2.

Program can be found here.


Feature image credited to Lake Mead NRA Public Affairs


The “Spectre” parade in real life

In Spectre, the opening scenes have James Bond chasing a bad guy through the streets of Mexico City, during a supposed parade of skeletal figures for Day of the Dead.

007 SPECTRE 2015
Photo courtesy of La Última Hora

Until this year, there was no such parade in Mexico City, with authorties starting one in 2016 in response to the movie . But the small colonial city of Aguascalientes, in a small state of the same name is way ahead of the game…*

Despite being almost completely unknown outside Mexico, it is home to one of Mexico’s largest Day of the Dead festivals. It was begun in 1995 by the city to pay tribute to the state’s Day of the Dead traditions as well as graphic artist and native son José Guadalupe Posada, who is credited with creating “La Catrina,” now a cultural icon of Mexico.

Image by Jose Guadalupe Posada

The Festival de Calaveras (Skull Festival) is a 10-day affair with events in almost all of the city’s cultural venues with music and dance (modern and traditional), fireworks, rides, costumes, food and more. But the centerpiece of the event is a parade of skull and skeletal figures, made each year and presented on the first day with a parade called the Jolgorio de Calaveras.

Pieces in process for the 2016 event at the Casa de Artesanias of Aguascalientes.

The skeletons are made by local artisans, often sponsored by public and private organizations. They are made from all kinds of materials, from fabric to paper mache to the more modern styrofoam and plastic. Like many public celebrations in Mexico, the fiigures get larger each year, such that it is not unusual to have skeletal figures of 4 and even 5 meters in height.

Credit: Guillerminargp

The 2016 version begins on Friday, October 28, with the parade starting on that day at 8pm. After the parade, the floats and skeletal figures are on display on Calle Nieto in the city center.

Main image credit LuizaIvaz.  All photos are in CC-by-SA 3.0/4.0 license

* This article has been corrected to indicate that there is now a Day of the Dead parade in Mexico City… the first on 29 October 2016.

Monsters through the streets of Mexico City

Tokyo has Godzilla, New York has King Kong… but since only one monster isn´t enough, Mexico City has monumental alebrijes!

Alebrije named Michen Roja with sign thanking Pedro Linares for alebrijes

While there is some debate about their origin, it is certain that current form of these colorful creatures were developed and popularized by paper mache artisan Pedro Linares in the mid 20th century. They evolved from Judas figures, adding elements such as various body  parts from creatures, both real and fantastic in many many different combinations and painted them in fantastic colors and often designs.

It is one form of paper mache which has grown tremendously in recent years, both in popularity and size.

In 2006, the Museo de Arte Popular decided to sponsor a parade, exhibition and contest for paper mache artisans called “Night of the Alebrijes.” This remains the official name of the event, but it is far better known as the “Desfile de Alebrijes” or Alebrije Parade, as this is the most popular aspect of the event, drawing crowds of thousands with line the streets of the city from the Zocalo (main square) to the Angel of Independence on Reforma.

They come to see the creations made each year for the event ranging in height from a meter to up to six meters tall. According to Emilio Ortiz of the Museo de Arte Popular, the works would be even taller, but overhead wires form a barrier.

While large alebrijes were not uncommon before the advent of the parade, they rarely reached over a meter and never over two. They generally remain light enough such that the traditional frame of split reeds sufficed for support.

These monumental works and the competition among the participating artisans has meant significant innovation both in technique and aesthetics. Alebrijes of 2 or more meters in height and/or length generally require stronger support than reeds can give, so most entries have wire frames (called “almas” (souls)) with really large pieces using light construction rebar, which requires welding skills. Some entries have also experimented with adding movement to pieces, from mechantical devices, electronics and some clever wire joining and pulley systems.

Glass and mirror pieces covering the body of this work

The vast majority of the works still use cartoneria (a hard paper maché) as the skin for thier creations, but are not limited to paper by any means. There have been alebrijes with details and even sections of glass, fabric, plastic (especially that recycled from bottles), yarn, sequins, beads and more. Designs are left to creators’ wild imaginations with few restrictions, apart from prohibitions against entries with political and social themes to keep the event light-hearted.


And there are human participants, too!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The event has been a major boon for caroneros in the Mexico City area and an influence both in Mexico City and beyond. The popularity of monumental pieces has promoted the creation of monumental altars for Day of the Dead in the Zocalo and the campus of the National Autonomous University of Mexico. Monumental alebrijes now appear at the annual Mojiganga in Zacualpan, Morelos and the city of Querétaro now has its own version of the parade. But the main event for these works remains this parades, and attracts entries from various parts of central Mexico.

The next Monumental Alebrije parade is October 22, 2016 (12pm) and will feature around 200 of these monumental creature. They are best seen on parade, but if this is not possible they are left on display on Avenida Reforma for about two weeks afterwards.

All photos by Leigh Thelmadatter and Alejandro Linares Garcia



Get me to the market on time…

2015 Feria with pottery from Michoacan

One of the most important venues for Mexican artisans is the Feria Maestros del Arte, which is held each  year in Chapala, Jalisco in November.

It is held by a volunteer organization of the same name and is supported by both expats and Mexicans in the area dedicated to promoting Mexican handcrafts and helping artisans obtain fair prices for their work.

Participating artisans are vetted to be sure that they are producers and not just resellers, and selected artisans are supported with transportation, lodging in members’ homes and food. This activity is important to participating artisans because the Feria attracts many buyers, and most, if not all, of the participants are from some of the most economically marginalized areas of Mexico. Earnings from the event have allowed artisans and their families to make home improvements and invest in equipment for their work.

All of this, of course takes money, more than the members of group can pay on their own. There are sponsors, local businesses and other handcraft organizations such as Los Amigos de Arte Popular. However, there are ways for other interested parties to support the cause.


Much of the transportation, especially from major handcraft producing areas is done by collective bus. The state of Michoacan is one of Mexico’s major producers. It is not as well known for this activity as other areas, such as Oaxaca and Chiapas. This year, however, it is perhaps even more important to support these artisans as political unrest in the state has seen an increase… sufficient such that many commercial passenger bus lines have suspended operations in parts of the state.

The Feria Maestros de Arte have started a Go Fund Me page at https://www.gofundme.com/michoacanbus to help raise the money needed to transport Michoacan artisans and their wares to Chapala for this November. Or you can contact the Feria Maestros del Arte through their webpage at http://www.mexicoartshow.com/

Colorful, but in a more subtle way

Mexico is generally associated with deep, often bright colors and designs, but not all of its cultures favor such.

One notable exception are the textiles of the Amuzgos, an indigenous people whose territory straddles the border between the states of Guerrero and Oaxaca. It is near the coastline and used to extend to it, until a migration of escaped African slaves displaced them into the higher mountain areas.

Rebozo in coyuche cotton at the Feria de Rebozo in Tenancingo, State of Mexico

The largest Amuzgo population by far is in the municipality of Xochislahuaca, but it is not a city by any means. The main road leading to it varied between dirt and crumbling pavement, taking over an hour by car from the regional economic center of Ometepec. Interestingly enough, the town receives enough visitors to warrant one small hotel.

Good Friday procession in Xochislahuaca.

The attraction here are the Amuzgos themselves, their traditional lifestyle and their textiles. Almost all speak Amuzgo and a number of older women do not speak Spanish. The Amuzgos call themeselves Tzjon Non, which means “people of the textiles.” Just about all the women here are involved in spinning, weaving, etc., as well as a number of men.

Amuzgo textiles are based on cotton, a fiber known since the pre Hispanic period. Two kinds are used. The more traditional is called “coyuche,” which is native to the area and produces a tan or light brown fiber. The other is commercial white cotton. The backgrounds of Amuzgo textiles are one of these two, with colored fibers woven and sometimes embroidered in to form traditional designs.

Woman in a cheyno teaching basic backstrap techniques at a Guerrero music festival in Mexico City
Brocade tablecloth woven on a backstrap loom at the Museo de Culturas Populares in Mexico City

The weaving is done on backstrap looms, principally because the area’s remoteness keep the Spanish and the pedal loom for the most part, out. Amuzgo textile designs are based on small elements, sometimes crowded together, sometimes spaced farther apart. While still colorful, this focus on small detailed designs gives Amuzgo huipils (locally called the “cheyno”), rebozos, etc. a subtlety that are in contrast to the traditional clothing of many other peoples in southern Mexico.

This does not mean that Amuzgo weaving is not sophisticated. For special cheynos, decoration can nearly cover the entire garment, and various weaving techniques can be used including brocade, gauze and a special gauze called “concha de armadillos” which forms a diamond pattern over the entirety of the cloth.

Jacket and skirt with Amuzgo designs at the Museo de Culturas Populares

Amuzgo weavers face many of the same challenges that other Mexican artisans do, and most have formed cooperatives to work to sell their merchandise more directly to buyers and get better prices for their work. These include  Liaa’ Ljaa’, formed in 1996. Amuzgo women have worked with government authorities and others to create new items from their weavings, include skirts, blouses etc, as well as tablecloths, napkins and other linen items. However, Amuzgos, especially women, conserve traditional dress, even if not always made with handwoven fabric. Their efforts have paid off with Amuzgo textiles favored by many upper class Mexican women, who usually buy rebozos to wear on holidays such as Independence Day.




All photos by Alejandro Linares Garcia.

Plants and paper

To be certain, Mexico has many hidden gems that the average visitor cannot even begin to find. For those of us fortunate to live here, discovering them is like a treasure hunt.


With most foreign interest in Mexican beaches (not without reason) many of these gems lie in the center “altiplano” or highlands of the country.

One of these little gems is the Jardines de México. Hidden in the south of the small state of Morelos, it is one of the world’s largest flower garden parks in the world with 51 hectares of space and exhibiting over 193 millions flowers per year.

Mexico is no stranger to growing and using flowers, which are far cheaper and far fresher than just about anything you can find in the United States. The reasons for this is that much of the country is suitable for ornamental flowers, almost year-round, and the culture uses them far more, often in elaborate arrangements.

Truckload of marigolds used for Day of the Dead (credit Rodsj29)
Good Friday in Xochislahuaca, Guerrero (credit Alejandro Linares Garcia)

The park is far more than just gardens to stroll through, although there are many of these. It is also home to the country’s only school of gardening and hosts a variety of cultural events, for which it has its own art gallery, open-air theater, restaurant and cabins.


October in Mexico is generally dedicated to preparations for Day of the Dead, which takes place on November 2. Many cultural institutions hold events during this month dedicated to local traditions. Flowers are a major elements of altars for this date, and the Jardines is located in the municipality of Jojutla, which is also home to one of Morelos’ most important artisans, cartonero Alfonso Morales.

Morales has almost single-handedly revived the making of traditional cartoneria items related to festivals such as Judases for Holy Week and the making of Catrinas and other skeletal figures for Day of the Dead.

Partnering with Enrique Rodriguez, director of the Museo Morelense de Arte Popular in Cuernavaa, there is a Magna Exposición of Cartoneria at the Jardines through Day of the Dead, featuring items from 17 states of the Mexican republic. Many of the pieces are monumental in size, up to 9 meters tall.

All photos credited to Ariadne Delgado and Germán Torreblanca unless otherwise specified.