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’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.
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.
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 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.
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.