In a way, the story of Carmen Caballero Sevilla represents that of many of Mexican’s artisans, past and present… who toil away in anonymity, often making products that are of high quality and/or unique, but never (quite) getting the recognition they deserve.
For a brief shining moment, Caballero’s work did get recognition, by non other Diego Rivera, before falling back into obscurity.
Caballero was born in Celaya, Guanajuato, the daughter of a lieutenant colonel in the Mexican Revolution. He died when she was only five, and she worked with her mother selling fruit in the market.
When she was 18, a cartonero by the name of Gregorio Piedrasanta taught her the basics of the craft, but she went on to develop her own style, by dramatically simplifying the forms. Caballero eventually moved to Mexico City, where she made a living selling fruit and making seasonal cartoneria items in the Abelardo Rodriguez market. Carmen was exceptionally poor. According to art critic Raquel Tibol, she was mistreated by her spouse, but, despite this sad existence, her Judas figures had a element of happiness to them.
It was in the market that none other than Diego Rivera discovered her work in 1955, buying the first of many Judas figures, 2.5 meters high, with a frame of over 150 strips of cane.
Rivera invited her to his studio in San Angel, becoming her patron, and she his “official Judas maker” until the artist’s death only two years later. Here she created Judas and skeletal figures (including one called “Diego at Death”), all one-of-a-kind pieces. Depictions include those of charros, bicyclists, lovers, workers in overalls, Cantinflas and goats. All these pieces were kept by the artist, covering ceilings and walls, as well as taking space on floors and shelves. By the time Caballero died at the age of 58, she left behind one of the largest collections of cartonería objects in the world at the time. Although she likely made thousands of Judas figures, only dozens survive. She never signed her work, as this was not custom for artisans.
Rivera appreciated Carmen’s use of color and compared her work with that of Picasso. The shapes of her pieces are simplified, with the angles created by the frame not only not hidden, they were actually emphasized. Her work appears in several paintings by the artist, including El estudio del pintor and El niño Efrén José Antonio del Pozo a los 12 años (1955). The fame from this work brought in new admirers such as English sculptor Henry Moore, and Mexican photographer Nacho Lopez documented her work.
Unfortunately, this interest did not continue after Rivera’s death. Her fate after that is not known dying sometime in the 1970s. There are stories that claim she died on the street, but this is not verified.
Caballero bore twenty children, but only four reached adulthood. One reason why her work has not survived in the history of cartonería is that the family has died out, according to Pilar Fosado Vazquez, whose family has own Mexico City’s oldest store dedicated to folk art (Victor’s), operating since the 1940s. Carmen’s son José Miranda Caballero also made Judas figures, along with devils and skeletons, selling primarily to the Fosado family until his death in 2006. Although his son, Raymundo Miranda (who also used his grandmother’s surname of Caballero) also followed the tradition, he died tragically young only two years after his father, leaving no one to carry on.
The best monument to Caballero’s work are the large judases that still dominate Rivera’s studio in the San Angel neighborhood of Mexico City, and are emblematic of the space. Here authorities recognize their importance with a looping video which talks about the judases and their creator, among other topics. Others works by Caballero are on display at the Frida Kahlo (Blue) House and the Anahuacalli Museum, both in Coyoacan. Cultural authorities have done some work to preserve her memory, such as the publishing of the book Los Judas de Diego Rivera, created in conjunction with the 2009 exhibition of her work at the National Museum of Popular Culture.
Images of Maestra Carmen by Nacho López, used under fair use