Many foreigners think Mexico is nothing more than beaches and deserts, perhaps a little jungle thrown in.
However, large areas of central Mexico are in the mountains, making for more temperate, even colder climates, and forests of pine and oaks that rival anything its northern neighbor has.
Tlalpujahua is on the far eastern edge of the state of Michoacan, in high mountains which served as a border between the old Aztec and Purhepecha empires, and today still form the boundary between the states of Michoacan and the State of Mexico. It is a former mining town, today is designated a “Pueblo Mágico” (Magical Town) for its original architecture and nearby monarch butterfly sanctuaries.
The town is surrounded by rugged slopes filled with pine trees, making for an apt setting for what distinguishes economically it from other mining towns in the region, the making of blown glass Christmas ornaments and and other decorations for the holiday.
Tlalpujahua’s mining days are long past, and it was severely depressed for decades. In the 1950s, resident Joaquin Muñoz Orta migrated to the United States, where he worked at an artificial Christmas tree making operation in Chicago. He returned to his hometown in the early 1960s, but there was still no work, so he moved his family to Mexico City where he made and sold these Christmas trees. They sold well enough, but when he added blown glass ornaments to the business, it took off.
By the end of the decade, the family decided to move the business to Tlalpujahua, and today is it the town’s largest ornament producer, Adornos Navideños S.A. de C.V., employing about 1000 people.
The story does not stop there. The success of Adornos Navideños has spurred an entire industry in Tlalpujahua, from families working at home as well as small and large workshops. Production may be small and completely handmade, to larger operations which are semi-industrialized. However, just about all decoration on the glass ornaments is hand-painted, usually by women.
The vast majority of the production is still glass ornaments. Those with no or simple, repetitive designs are usually sold by the dozen, with larger and more artistic pieces sold individually. There are about 300 standard designs with elements such as poinsettias, comets, stars, hearts, diamond patterns stripes and more, but there are also a number of innovative designs, including sports teams’ logos, small figures and scenes inside small clear ornaments, and those make to look like hot air balloons.
Each year, the town holds its annual Feria de la Esfera (lit. Sphere Fair). Unlike most handcraft fairs in Mexico, this one lasts more than a few days, starting in early October and running through December. It is the town’s major economic event and draws crowds, especially on weekends. Tlalpujahua is a day trip by car from Mexico City, Morelia, most of Guanajuato and Querétaro, but it’s worth a weekend, so as to see the town, the butterflies (which begin arriving in October) and of course the stalls that fill various streets and the town’s municipal auditorium.
It is a good opportunity to see the range of ornaments, as well as some surprises. There are a number of stands that sell handcrafts from other parts of Michoacan, local bread specialties and other Christmas decorations, including Christmas tree and reindeer figures made from reeds, wood, pine needles and even pine cones. They also a unique type of Christmas wreath with glass ornaments, ribbon and vegetation over a reed frame that curves in on itself. The town’s craftsmen have also been working on creating new products and promoting ornaments as collectors’ items, with ornament display racks in the shape of Christmas trees, bunches of grapes, piñatas and even ferris wheels, with ornaments are hung and/or bunched up inside the wire frames. They also have some success with other blown glass figures, in particular fruit and flowers.