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.
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.
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.
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.