“My little brown one”

One apparant trend among those who make dolls is to make a series of them. Each doll is individually-made but there is a common element among them to create a brand identity. These are usually commercial ventures such as with the Yucatan enterprise “Aluxin” and “Original Friends” out of Jalisco. Morenita Mia is a little different as it began as a community service project and in its two years, is still non-profit.

Courtesy of Morenita Mia

The unifying elements of the dolls is dark skin, chubby cheeks and authentically made garments that represents various indigenous communities in Mexico.

The story begins at the Santo Domingo Market in San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas. This state is one of Mexico’s handcraft powerhouses and this market is a particularly popular destination to buy and sell local handcrafts.

Local resident Marua Hugues was in this market one day when she spotted rag dolls made by artisan Marta León. What made this dolls stand out was not only their unusual faces with large cheeks, but more importantly, that the dolls were all of darker skin color. A rarity in Mexico, where dolls are almost always more representative of Europeans.

Marta León with dolls (courtesy of Morenita Mia)

León’s dolls were called “morenitas” (little dark girls) and were originally dressed very simply. Marua came up with the idea of dressing the dolls in traditional women’s clothing of the various ethnicities of Mexico. As part of a community service project for school, Hugues partnered with León to make the dolls, and then with other (female) artisans to make the outfits the dolls wear. Respecting the people and their culture, Morenita Mia contracts artisans to sew the traditional clothing of their community.

The project first reached out to communities in Chiapas and most of the dolls still have clothes made in and representing communities such as San Juan Cancuc, San Juan Chamula, Aldama, Zancantan and various villages in the Lacandon rainforest. They have since reached out to artisans in Oaxaca (Yalala, San Dionicio Ocotepec and Santa María Zacatepec) as well as in Nuria, Michoacán and the Tarahumara area of Chiahuahua. The long-term goal is to work with as many indigenous communities as possible all over Mexico.Currently they work with 15 groups of artisans (about 70 individuals in total), as usually 4 artisans are involved in the making of each outfit.

Doll named Chatuta (Sacred Flowers) in dress from Santa Maria Zacatepec, Oaxaca

For the Hugues, the skin color of the dolls is extremely important because the dolls represent the “reality” of Mexico’s indigenous heritage. They hope to represent as many indigenous clothing styles as possible but this is difficult as they can change notably between communities that are only a couple of kilometers apart.

Courtesy of Morenita Mia

The dolls themselves are all equal and take about two weeks. The time needed to make the outfits varies widely, depending on complexity. The simplest is the outfit of those representing the Lacandon area of Chiapas, and take about a week to make. The most complication, usually because of heavy embroidery, take about a month and a half. This results in prices ranging from 700 to 3000 pesos per doll.

All artisans are paid up front for their pieces, rather than relying on consignment. The program also teaches the artisans to calculate the value of the work put into the dolls and their outfits. This is important because these women come from areas of extreme poverty and often sell their work for very little money.

Alejandra Hugues with dolls

Selling and promotion of the dolls is the work of Marua and her cousin Alejandra. To date, all income after paying the artisans has gone into promotion of dolls and graphics such as tags with the doll’s name, where it comes from the the community is represents. One of the main marketing channels is online, through Facebook and their own website, along with invitations to participate in various fairs and festivals. The vast majority of sales are to Mexicans, despite the fact that Marua now lives in New York, but the cousins are working to find ways to sell internationally.


A little context to the Tultepec fireworks disaster

Last week a disaster in Tultepec, State of Mexico made international headlines. On December 20, 2016, during the busy Christmas season, fire and explosions ripped through the San Pablito fireworks market, just north of Mexico City. Latest news reports indicate at least 35 dead and about 60 injured.

This is not the first time there has been a major mishap related to fireworks in Mexico. In fact, Tultepec’s status as “Mexico’s fireworks capital” and the existance of the San Pablito market is due to previous disasters related to the important role fireworks play in Mexican culture.

427px-fireworksvirgindoc2Although they are use for secular celebrations such as Independence Day and New Year’s, the majority are set off for religious reasons. It would be nearly unthinkable to celebrate a patron saint’s day, no matter how local, without them, and large celebrations (such as the day of the Virgin of Guadalupe)  can mean rockets and more going off all night. One use of fireworks, the “burning” of Judas Iscariot effigies on Holy Saturday, is strongly controlled by local governments, but this is the one exception to the fact that fireworks use is widely diffused among the general populace… and often set off with little to no regard as to who is nearby. This is a testament to Mexico’s resistance to the nanny-state mentality so pervasive in the Western world.

Upper left: a “castillo” (castle) frame, Lower left: sign for the 2012 Fireworks Festival and Right: “bulls” laden with fireworks set off in a crowd

This does not mean that the government has a completely hands-off approach. While Tultepec has been making fireworks for 200 years or so, the industry burgeoned in the mid-20th century. In 1957, there was a major explosion at the La Merced Market in Mexico City, which at the time was a major distribution center for fireworks. Officially, the fireworks were blamed for the disaster but there are those who still believe that military munitions were also there. The explosions leveled much of the market and inflicted severe damage to the surrounding area. Shortly after, city authorities forbade the manufacture and wholesaling of fireworks in Mexico City proper. To this day, sales of fireworks in the city is minimal.

There are two areas in Tultepec dedicated to fireworks, with production concentrated in the La Saucera area and the marketing in San Pablito. Fireworks manufacture remains almost exclusively done by small family-owned businesses, with generations learning the craft through apprenticeship rather than formal training. While there are regulations in the production and selling processes, there is lax enforcement and many families in Tultepec and beyond conduct their business irregularly. Another issue is that Mexican fireworks tend to be more powerful than Chinese-made ones and most do not meet the safety standards for export to the United States.

Previously, the same San Pablito market had a major explosion in 2006. This most recent incident is embarrassing to authorities as only a few years ago the State of Mexico declared the market to be the safest in Latin America. This accident leveled the entire market. Cause of the disaster is not yet known and a number of bodies have yet to be identified. There is no doubt that new regulations will be introduced in the coming months and years, but it would be very surprising if this will lead to any wholesale changes in how the business is conducted.

Update: Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto has promised to rebuild the market.

Featured image is from the Publimetro newspaper. All other photos by Leigh Thelmadatter or Alejandro Linares Garcia

Rural embroidery in an industrial state

Most foreigners who have some some idea of Mexico’s indigenous peoples are still  unlikely to know who the Mazahua are. One reason for this is that their communities are not located in areas such as Chiapas and Oaxaca, which use images from their indigenous communities to attract tourists, but rather in a state also called Mexico (generally called “State of Mexico”) which nearly surrounds the country’s capital.

Overview of part of the community of San Felipe Santiago in the State of Mexico

Mazahua communities are found east and northeast of Mexico City, in the State of Mexico and extending a bit into neighboring Michoacan. This region of the country is only at best semi-rural and has been industrializing rapidly for over 30 years. This puts very different pressures on Mazahua communities who wish to preserve traditional ways of life. Rather than extreme poverty, pressure comes from other, more lucrative, means of making a living.

Mazahua vendors in the tourist town of Valle de Bravo, State of Mexico

Be that as it may, there are Mazahua who preserve traditional agrarian ways as much as possible, with smaller and more rural communities having the most success.

One of these communities is San Felipe Santiago, part of the township of Villa de Allende, off the highway that links Toluca with Zitácuaro, Michoacan. Villa de Allende one of the main producer of Mazahua textiles, along with Villa Victora and San Felipe del Progreso.

Parish church of San Felipe Santiago

Traditional Mazahua embroidery generally has a series of various elements, which are tied together using fretwork or other running patterns, commonly found on the borders of the piece and/or delineating sections of larger pieces. Elements include images of flora and fauna, as well as symbols from traditional and sometimes Catholic cosmology. Images are not highly realistic, but rather simplified and often with a geometric look. Generally pieces are multicolored, with combinations ranging from earthy tones to strong, but not overly bright, colors.

The most common techniques are cross stitch, and “dos agujas” (a series of long and short stitches couched in a tight “v” pattern). Depending on the piece and the skill of the embroiderer, these stitches may be large or extremely tiny. Large stitching is most commonly found on woolen items such as rebozos, quechquemitls and more modern jackets and vests, using wool yarn. Smaller stitching with cotton or synthetic thread is found on blouses, light rebozos, napkins, tablecloths, blankets, bed covers and tablecloths.

La Estrella Mazahua member Enith Martinez Fonseca with tablecloth stitched with “Mazahua Stars” the group’s namesake


Pepenado on the cuff of a small women’s blouse

One other embroidery style that should be mentioned is called “pepenado,” which refers to extremely intricate work using stitches so tiny and thread so thin, the result looks to  be woven into the fabric. This style is rare and becoming much rarer because of the months it takes to make a single blouse, even if decorated only at the yoke and perhaps the cuffs.

Until about the 1980s, Mazahua women made embroidered garments and household items for domestic use, as well as to sell to earn money. Now, almost all embroidered pieces are made for sale, generally in the cities such as Toluca, Mexico City and Atlacomulco, as well as the nearby popular weekend getaway of Valle de Bravo. This has prompted some changes in work, primarily having the work appear on more modern garments such as shirts, fashionable blouses, etc

 Artisan Enith Martinez at a stall to sell pieces made by the La Estrella Mazahua Workshop of San Felipe Santiago

All images by Leigh Thelmadatter

The whackable icon

Hitting a piñata during a posada (credit:N. Saum)

Few things identify Mexico like the piñata does. Believe it or not, the traditional piñata is a  a syncretism between the Orient (via Europe) and indigenous traditions.

The modern Mexican piñata has its origins in the early colonial period, but there are a number of cultures which have similar traditions. Before the arrival of the Spanish, both the Mayans and the Aztecs had rituals in which an old, decorated, pot filled with offerings would be broken for a diety. The Mayan tradition even had those breaking the pot blindfolded.

The European tradition came to the continent from China, and was there associated with Lent, not Christmas. In the very early colonial period, the Spanish would co-opt certain native traditions and give them Christian meanings. The pot offering among the Aztecs was for the god Huitzilopochtli, whose birthday was celebrated in December. It was not difficult to make the shift from an offering for an infant god to an offering for the coming Baby Jesus.

Statue of monk hitting a piñata at the Acolman monastery

The first record of the now-familiar Mexican tradition is from 1586 at the monastery of Acolman, State of Mexico, an hour or so north of Mexico City. For this reason, this small town, with a wonderfully preserved 16th century structure, is considered the birthplace of the Mexican piñata.

The first piñatas were decorated clay pots, with cardboard cones and crepe paper covering them. The original tradition put seven cones/points on the pot to represent the Seven Deadly Sins and used as an evangelization tool. The person hitting with a stick represents the struggle against evil, the blindfold represented faith and the breaking and falling of the goodies represented the rewards of heaven for defeating evil.

Now with between five and nine points, the traditional piñata has lost its evangelical aspect, and is most commonly seen in December during the Posadas, small neighborhood plays which reenact the search of Mary and Joseph to find lodging in Bethlehem before the birth of Jesus. Piñatas can still be made with pots (with a particular oblong type favored for the purpose), but almost all piñatas are now made using paper mache (cartonería), which is lighter, cheaper and safer upon breaking. The making and breaking of piñatas is found all other Mexico and in parts of the United States, especially in areas with large Mexican populations.

(credit: Jürgen)

Piñatas have also become popular for birthdays, in part because the use of paper mache allows for the making of a wide variety of shapes, with cartoon figures being particularly popular among children. But the nine-pointed piñatas of the Posadas, remain the most traditional and the most meaningful.

Piñatas from a workshop at the Museo de Arte Popular in Mexico City

All photos by Leigh Thelmadatter or Alejandro Linares Garcia unless otherwise noted

Paper “banners”

If you spend any real time in Mexico, especially around certain holidays and celebrations, you will eventually see small, and even large crepe paper, “flags” or “banners” on which an often intricate design is cut.


If they are large, they usually hang alone, but if small, they often are found in a series of ten or more on a string meaning to be hung over an area where a crowd is to gather.

The making of these banners is called “papel picado,” literally “punched paper,” related to how it is made.

Papel picado in progress at Artesanias de Papel Picado Mexicano in Mexico City

The craft is a relatively recent one, dating back only 200 years or so, to the introducion of crepe paper to Mexico. Here it is called “papel chino” (Chinese paper) referring to the fact that it was introduced as a wrapping for expensive items imported from Asia.

Waste not, want not, techniques from wood working were adapted to making decorative items from this delicate paper.

Papel picado for sale at Mercado Jamaica, Mexico City (credit:Rodsj29)

Although similar to cut out paper in China and the making of paper snowflakes by children in northern areas, papel picado techniques were autonomously developed in Mexico. Instead of using scissors or knives, it is traditionally made with chisels and hammers.

Forty or 50 sheets are layered on top of each other with a stencil made of heavier paper or light cardboard used to trace the design onto the top sheet. Then the paper is cut to make repeating designs.

Papel picado workshop at the Museo de Arte Popular in Mexico City (credit:MAP)
Papel picado strung up (credit:Papelpicado2000)

The use of paper picado has been waning in Mexico. It used to be used for many public and private celebrations but today it is most commonly seen on Day of the Dead, Independence Day (16 Sept) and other festivals which intend to promote traditional Mexican identity.

The use of the paper for artistic purposes originally was reserved for those with the money to spend on such things. Today, however, crepe paper is cheap, and there is an abundance of cheaply made alternatives for decorating. This means that the vast majority of papel picado sold in the country is made industrially, but a few exceptions remain.

Mini papel picado (credit:Christian Cariño)


One town known for making traditional papel picado is San Salvador Huixcolotla in Puebla and there are a number of workshops still even in Mexico City.

Working on papel picado in Xochimilco, Mexico City

Workshops like these do make pieces with traditional designs, but they survive due to orders for custom work, such as papel picado banners with the name of a girl celebrating her quinceañera or a neighborhood wanting to celebrate a particular local image. The largest papel picado workshop in Mexico City is in the semi-rural borough of Xochimilco, known for having more local celebrations than days of the year. Oddly enough, this workshop, Artesanías de Papel Picado Mexicano, sells far more outside of Xochimilco, to other parts of Mexico City and a number of other areas in Mexico.


They also experiment with other materials and uses for the work, such as other kinds of paper, and various kinds of plastics, which have the advantage of holding up better especially in inclement weather. They make other decorative items such as decorative tablecloths as well.

Old and new traditions in Jalisco

Display at the Regional Museum of Ceramics in Tlaquepaque

Mexico has a myriad of local pottery styles, with a number regions having national and internationally-known varieties.

One of these is the state of Jalisco, mostly concentrated in an area just southeast of Guadalajara proper. Most Jalisco pottery is of two types, “traditional” and the more modern high-fire.

Although there was pottery here in the pre Hispanic period, it was overwhelmed by the introduction of European pottery in the early colonial period. Interestingly enough, this introduction did not mean the domination of glazed wares, common in other parts of colonial Mexico, but rather burnished pieces, where the shine comes from the use of a clay slip, and rubbing the dry surface with a hard, smooth stone or similar tool.

There are several varieties of this kind of pottery, mostly distingushed by painting styles. The best-known of these is called “bruñido,” which means burnished. Most pieces of this type are jugs and lamp bases, often decorated with animals with somewhat distorted features and a surreal look. Dominant colores include various shades of rose, gray-blue and white over a light coffee-colored background, but sometimes backgrounds can be light gray, green or blue.

Bruñido plate by Angel Ortiz Arana of Tonala at the Museo de Arte Popular in Mexico City
Decorative pot by Arnulfo Vazquez Carmona of Tonala

Canelo ( from cinnamon) pottery is so-called for its color palate, focusing on tan and ochre tones. It is also distinguished by the clay used to make it, which has a reputation for keeping water cool, and even giving it a pleasant taste.

L:Flask by Jose Isabel Pajarito Fajardo of El Rosario and $. small tub by Juan Gerardo Ramirez Mateos of El Rosario

Bandera (flag) is so named for the red, white and green motifs of the pottery, based off the Mexican flag. Generally, the background is red ochre, with white and green designs painted with slips with kaolin and copper respectively. This pottery has become rare, but what can be found is generally of very high quality.

L: Decorative piece and R: Jar with quetzal birds, both by Jose Rosario Alvarez Ramirez of Tonala

Petate or petatillo pottery is distinguished by having the background of the piece filled in with finely-painted cross-hatched lines, generally done in a light yellow. This style got its start in the mid 19th century and was popularized by the Bernabé family of Tonalá. The paining and firing processes involved in this pottery is highly skilled and time-consuming, making petatillo one of the most expensive ceramics in Mexico.

L: Close up of cross-hatching on piece by Jose Bernabe Campechano of Tonala and R. view of full piece called a “tibor” by Francisco Javier Ramos Lucano of Tonala.

One other noted pottery style of the state is called betus, but its production is limited to the Santa Cruz de las Huertas neighborhood of Tonalá. This is a rustic type of work, distinguished by its very bright colors, as well as the fact that it focuses on the making of toys and whimsical items rather than containers and cookware.

Top left:masked tastuan (demon) on rooster (author unknown), Top right:bull figure by Serapio Medrano Hernandez and Bottom: toy train by unknown author

These traditional pottery styles are still highly representative of Jalisco handcrafts. However, in the mid 20th century, the area attracted two modern ceramicists, Mexican Jorge Wilmot and American Ken Edwards. Both had been trained in modern high-fire and stoneware techniques, not only setting up their own shops in Tonalá, but also teaching new firing, glazing and decorating methods to the traditional ceramic community. In both cases, Mexican and other influences are mixed in the work produced by these artisans and their apprentices, but Wilmot keeps more of the feel of local pottery. Wilmot died in 2012, but Edwards is still somewhat active, directing the workshop where the work is done by in-house apprentices.

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This introduction of high-fire work has not stayed with the artisan community, but has also spurred a ceramics industry here, making bathroom fixtures, tiles and the like.

All photos by Alejandro Linares Garcia or Leigh Thelmadatter. Featured image is of Pablo Pajarito in his workshop.




Most of the artisans I have met are relatively shy, happy to talk about their work but are not usually known for their personalities or charisma…. but there are always exceptions.

In the developing national community of paper maché (cartonería) artisans in central Mexico, if you mention one artisan’s nickname “Torito” (literally “little bull”), you are sure to get a smile. At events such as the National Encounter of Cartoneros or the Cartonería Fair of Mexico City, he is hard to miss… a tall, skinny kid bouncing around and whose hands never seem to stop working on one project or another.

Torito demonstrating the tying of reed frames at the Encuentro de Cartoneria in Cuernavaca, Morelos

Torito’s real name is Carlos Arredondo, but few call him that. He lives in the southern Mexico City borough of Xochimilco. To say he lives in Mexico City would not really be correct. Although politically part of Mexico City, Xochimilco is a different world, an amalgam of small barrios and former villages which struggle to maintain their rural traditions. Tourists best known it for its canals, which make up much of that is left of a former vast system of interconnected lakes that covered the floor of the Valley of Mexico. Torito’s community is called Santiago Tepalcatlalpan.

House on canal in Xochimilco (credit Emmanuel Eslava)

Xochimilco has been described as having over 400 festival days a year, (despite there only being 365 days), meaning that only any day of the year, somewhere in the borough, there is some kind of festival going on. In fact, the interview with Torito was punctuated during the entire hour with the sounds of large fireworks. Most festivals are for local patron saints for the various communities and churches, but ther are also religious and secular holidays that are common to the borough, such as veneration to a local image of the Baby Jesus called the Niñopa, along with national observances such as the day of the Virgin of Guadalupe and national holidays. Add to this that many celebrations can last up to eight days.

Dancers called Chinelos during a process for the Niñopa
Torito and other cartonero setting up a Judas figure for the Feria de Cartoneria

All these festivals means that a lot of money goes towards preparations, which includes paraphenalia items made from paper mache/cartonería.

Most cartoneros in Mexico City do a mixed business of items for festivals and some for collectors. Most are also only part-time/seasonal, working only for holidays such as Day of the Dead. However, Xochimilco’s rural character and relative prosperity allows Torito to work full time as a cartonero year-round… focused almost entirely on festival items.

His most important item is the torito, followed by piñatas and Judas figures, although he can and has made a wide variety of objects. A torito is a bull figure, and despite its name, can range from a small figure “worn” on the head or around the waist to monumental pieces that require teams of men to carry or push it through the streets. These figures are then loaded with fireworks, including rockets which explode into the crowd. The importance of this item has given Carlos his nickname.

Both the toritos and piñatas are made year-round, as the former are popular on saints’ days and the latter both for Christmas and birthday parties. Devil figures named after Judas Iscariot are still restricted for the most part to Holy Saturday. Other items he has made include masks (especially for Carnival), mojigangas (called here “muñecas”) and even Catrinas for Day of the Dead. However, the bulk of his work is one or more meters in height and often laden with fireworks which destroy it in the course of the festival.

Torito with Judas in front of the Palacio de Bellas Artes (credit: Carlos Arredondo)

Torito is a highly respected cartonero with over a dozen years of experience, despite the fact that he is only in his mid-twenties. He has a pride in his borough’s history, traditions and religions that one would expect in an older man.

Born and raised in Santiago as the youngest of 14 children, Torito’s family has roots in states such as Querétaro, Hidalgo, Guanajuato and San Luis Potosí, mostly rural areas. By the mid 2oth century, the family had a farm in the borough. They have only a small part of that now, where Torito works. True to his heritage, Torito has a shed/barn for a small horse and a number of chickens running round. His “workshop” is really just a large awning, set up to protect large pieces from the weather.

While the making and use of cartonería items is very traditional in Xochimilco, this does not mean that its crafting is limited to certain families. Xochimilco clients do tend to prefer local craftsmen, but new generations learn through classes and/or connections with others. In Torito’s case, he took a class in making piñatas when he was eight. and at age 12, a cousin attending art school taught him to make a kind of monster figure called an alebrije.

Two of Torito’s students with “mojiganga” masks they made (credit:Carlos Arredondo)

The road to becoming a professional came when he decided to make a large alebrije and use it like a torito for the local festival dedicated to Saint Joseph. His client base is mainly through his social circles and word of mouth, though he has sent pieces as far as Guadalajara and has a Facebook page here. He gives classes, mostly in Xochimilco and the neighborhing state of Morelos, but also as far Salamanca, Guanajuato. The state of Morelos has been sponsoring much of his teaching work in their efforts to preserve and expand local traditions.

Torito has a fairly priviledged position as far as a traditional cartonero goes. Xochimilco’s (and Morelos’) dedication to traditional festivals supports artsans like him, and Torito is one of the few with an unhesitant positive outlook for the future of cartonería. This does not mean he is complacent, making the same bulls year after year. He has become a fixture other events in Mexico City, such as the Cartonería Fair held in different parts of the city and the annual Monumental Alebrije Parade.









The copper town of Michoacan

Walking around the narrow, winding, rural streets of Santa Clara del Cobre, it is not to hard to find workshops with the sounds of hammers working….


As its name (Saint Clair of Copper) suggests, the making of hand hammered copper items is the town’s claim to fame. Copper work date back in the Michoacan region to the pre Hispanic period, when the Tarascan (Purhepecha) Empire had discovered how to mine and smelt the material. While there may have been some copper working in other areas, such as Mexico City, evidence for systematic work is strongest here.

Copper and bronze pieces at the Tzintzuntzan archeological site

After the Conquest, the Spanish brought European smithing techniques, which were adopted, with one exception. Native bellows were more efficient, and to this day those seen in Santa Clara are different than those in Europe. Vasco de Quiroga, in charge of evangelization efforts in the area, also worked to provide the indigenous population with economic incentives to remain in the area and participate in the new order. In the Lake Patzcuaro region, he assigned the making of different crafts to different towns. Santa Clara (originally called Xacuaro) was tasked with the making of copper items, in particular large cooking vats called “cazos.”


The most traditional production of the town is based on utilitarian items, cookware, utensils, cups, plates, clocks, vases, some furniture and even bathtubs. Since the 1970s, there has been a move towards more decorative items have been added, such as jewelry and miniatures. Originally, the copper was mined locally, but these resources have long since disappeared. Today, most smiths buy copper from scrap dealers.

Copper products from Santa Clara at the Tianguis of Domingo de Ramos

Over 80% of the town’s population makes a living in some way from copper, mostly working in the various home-based workshops with children learning from their elders. One family of this type is the Punzos. Decended from Carlos Punzo Cordoba, there are two main Punzo workshops headed by Abdon Punzo Angel and his brother Ignacio respectively, each with three generations of working the metal. Many of the family have won local, state and national level awards for both copper and silver work.

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Copper chandelier inside the main church

The importance of this metal is obvious to anyone visiting this charming little town. The main plaza has faux copper benches and lamps, but far more impressive is the copper work that adorns the interior of the parish church, especially in how it complements the wood work.



The town is also home to the National Copper Museum on the Apatzingan-Patzcuaro road, corner of Pino Suarez, located in an old traditional home. It also hosts an annual Copper Fair held each year in July.


View inside the Museum

A sugar cane hacienda and UNICEF greeting cards

Street in Comala

It’s interesting when you come upon something in Mexico that you had no idea was from Mexico.

In the small state of Colima on Mexico’s west coast, there is a small “Pueblo Mágico” called Comala, near the state capital. It is a small agricultural town, known for its white buildings, many of which have been recently restored to their former glory, and streets paved with river stones.


One of the main attractions of Comala is the Nogueras Hacienda, which was the home of artist and artisan Alejandro Rangel Hidalgo and founded as a sugar can plantation by Rangel’s grandfather.


I did not recognize the name when I visited the hacienda, nor the furniture style that bears his name (more on that below), but when I saw his illustrations, I was instantly transported back to the Christmases of my childhood in the 1960s and early 1970s.

Those my age and older may remember the rather famous UNICEF Christmas card series which began in 1963. UNICEF has sold greeting cards before and since the distinctive images made by Rangel, but his designs have been by far the most successful for the organization. The two most popular themes were “Christmas through the Ages” featuring images from Europe and North America from the 15th century onward and “Angels of this World” featuring images of children in various ethnic dress and objects associated with various countries.


The success of the cards was financially rewarding for Rangel, who was working to save the family home from foreclosure as sugar was no longer a viable source of income. However, the fame of the cards did not make Rangel’s a household name and for this reason many/most of us who fondly remember the cards have no idea that there is a Mexico connection.

Rangel was a multitalented man and his work was not limited to greeting cards. He was an interior designer working on projects from Colima northward to San Francisco. He founded a school in Comala to teach design and handcrafts as well as schools of architecure in the cities of Colima and Guadalajara.

Double seater Rangelino chair

He also designed and produced a line of furniture called “Rangelino, ” principally one and two-person chairs, a type of butaca chairs. These have wood frames and armrests with leather draped over for a hammock effect. The wood is a natural color with minimal decoration, while the leather may  be natural or dyed. These chairs were quite popular for a time especially in Mexican embassies around the world.


Rangel’s work came in spurts with periods of intense activity interspersed with those of seclusion. The productive times each produced their own styles, but one thing that ties most of Rangel’s work, from greeting cards to furniture is a combination simple modern lines with a folk art feeling, tying both the 20th century to the past.

Upon his death in 2000, Rangel left the family hacienda to the University of Colima which now manages it as Centro Cultural Nogueras, open to the public. Various rooms of the hacienda contain collections of regional archeological pieces, the furniture an other items of the hacienda, along with a hall dedicated to the greeting card work of the 1960s. The center has a gift shop which sells high-quality prints of Rangel’s work for those of us wanting to bring a little of that nostalgia home.