Gorky Gonzalez

On 13 January 2017, Mexico lost a ceramic legend.

15965224_10155094042008738_3332752567317040115_nBorn in 1939 in Morelia, Gonzalez was the son of sculptor Rodolfo Gonzalez. His interest in art appeared early, and he learned his father’s work, including sculpting clay, metal casting and lost wax techniques. However, Gorky’s lifelong passion would be the rescue and promotion of the traditional majolica glazed pottery of neighboring Guanajuato.

In the early 1960s, he moved to San Miguel Allende to set up a metal casting workshop. Later, he added a ceramics workshop to reproduce the designs of Canadian artist Gene Byron in terracotta. At this time, he also met Japanese ceramicist Hisato Murayama, who was in the city to study Spanish and Mexican culture.

The men shared what they knew, and this inspired Gonzalez to pursue and receive a two-year scholarship to study ceramics in Japan, first studying with Tsuji Seimai then with nationally-known master Kei Fijiwara among others. The trip not only resulted in learning some very ancient techniques and designs, but also marriage to his wife Toshiko Ono. This marriage produced two sons, with the younger, Gorky Gonzalez Ono taking over day-to-day operations of the workshop some years ago.


Returning to Mexico, Gonzalez opened an antique shop, where he came into contact with colonial-era majolica. Intrigued, he began to investigate the ware, eventually dedicating himself to saving Guanajuato majolica full-time. He established a workshop dedicated to the purpose next to his house. This workshop has maintained traditional materials and techniques, mostly with traditional designs, but with some experimentation with more modern ones. Color schemes also remain traditional and with glazes made from traditional minerals.


The workshop has a client base that extends throughout Mexico and various parts of Mexico. During his lifetime, Gonzalez’s work was exhibited extensively in Mexico and the United States from the 1960s into the 2000s. He also had several exhibitions in Japan. Gonzalez won numerous awards for his work over his lifetime including the 1992 Mexican National Prize in the Sciences and Arts (Popular Arts and Traditions category) specifically for his work in reviving the pottery.


Seashell art in a high interior valley

Seashell handcrafts, often kitchy, are a staple of visiting popular beach destinations in Mexico. But a decidedly non-kitch use of them is found in the small indigenous communty of El Nith in the state of Hidalgo a few hours north of Mexico City.

Parish of El Nith, Ixmiquilpan, Hidalgo

El Nith is not much more than a few blocks surrounding a church on a small road that extends east of the nearby large town of Ixmiquilpan. This area has a strong Otomi indigenous heritage. The church of former Archangel Michael monastery is noted for fragments of murals painted in the very early colonial period, most depicting indigenous images. The language is still commonly used, heard on the streets and markets, and more than a few people speak Spanish and a second language.

Image of indigenous warrior in the Archangel Michael Church in Ixmiquipan.
Carefully laying shell pieces on a round covered box at the Jaguey worshop in El Nith

The crafting of inlaid wood has its origins here in the making of guitars, most likly in the 19th entury, but originally the inlay was bone, especially those from sheep, both for frets and for decorative elements. Shells are not found anywhere in the Mezquital Valley, high up on Mexico’s Central Plateau. They are brought to the region from Baja California, generally in bulk to Mexico City. According to master craftsman Mario Gerardo Jaguey, a leader among the 10 or so families dedicated to this craft in El Nith, shell was introduced when craftsmen from this town discovered the material at the Sonora Market in Mexico City. Nacre or mother of pearl, was first used but now the most commonly used shell is haliotis or abalone shell, as it holds up better when cut. However, most artisan still refer to the shell as “nácar,” the Spanish word for mother of pearl.

Polished shell at the Arte Joya store on the main road through El Nith

Decorative motifs are principally birds and foliage, the most traditional of which are inspired by those native to the surrounding semi-arid Mezquital Valley. The most common bird by far is the dove, but other birds such as the peacock can also appear.  The figures are highly simplified as a consequence of working the material, but the main attraction is how it shimmers, with many tiny pieces of shell laid against a lacquered background, most often black to provide the most contrast.

Back of hand mirror with dove and foliage by Celerino Vazquez of El Nith

The craft has been the subject of various books and academic articles as well as documentaries. But it is relatively unknown outside of its region and when found in other parts of Mexico, few have any idea of where it is from. The main reason for this the the lack of promotion. The Mezquital Valley is extremely poor and efforts to promote tourism to this culturally-rich area are very, very recent. There have been some efforts to get Ixmiquilpan listed as one of Mexico’s “Magic Towns,” but these efforts have not yet been successful

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All photos by Alejandro Linares Garcia or Leigh Thelmadatter

From royal seats to Mexican restaurants

Most Americans who go regularly to Mexican restaurants have very likely seen these, but may not know what they are called other than “Mexican chairs.” The name “equipal” derives from the Nahuatl word for chair, but not just any chair, but those fit for persons of status. Legend says that Montezuma had his own equipal, brought from this area, but the truth of this story is in doubt as the Aztec Empire never extended this far west.

Portion of Rayon Street in the equipal making neighborhood.

The center of equipal chair production is the town of Zacoalco de Torres, about an hour south of Guadalajara. Its a world away from the sprawling city, still in touch with its rural roots. The traditional materials used in its production are from this area, although deforestation has meant bringing wood from farther away and the introduction of others. There are two traditional woods for the chair. “Palo dulce” (kidneywood tree) is used to make the base of the chair as well as frame for the seat, both in an elongated “D.”

Craftsman in the Reyes Laguna workshop

The criss-crossed slats which define the chair (and related furnishings) are made from a wood “posa panal” (cant find a translation for this one). This wood is distinguished with two tones: a light beige with a streak of reddish cedar-like color, although some slats can be all red.  These are traditionally carved with machetes to have notches on both ends, so that they can be tied with the other slats and onto the two D frames. They are somewhat weight-bearing, but more decorative then functional. Traditionally, the slats were tied with ixtle, a strong fiber derived from maguey leaves, but almost all chairs today are tied with synthetic cord, with artisans assure is equal in strength. The resulting knots are covered in one of two ways; they are either covered in a black resin or long thin twigs or wood are placed over them.

At the Jesus Osorio family workshop in Zacoalco, with the maestro.

Leather is used for the seat and back and usually has at least some padding. The leather on the seat does not bear the entire weight of the person, rather there is also a web of cordwork extending from the seat frame as well.

Equipal manufacture was originally limited to the making of one style of chair, with a back that curved around to create short armrests. Over the past decades, the market has expanded what these craftsmen make, from various styles of chairs, to sofas, to tables and even desks, bookcases and more. It is important to note that the use of criss-crossed slats remain identifying, still forming the base of seats and tables and as decorative elements for other kinds of furniture.

Various types of equipal furniture at the Reyes Laguna home/workshop in Zacoalco

About 300 families are involved in the craft in some way, with most workshops located on or around Rayon Street, just west of the town center. Zacoalco has not make this industry a tourist attraction. We had to ask around a bit as the tourist office in the municipal hall was closed on a Saturday, but people were happy to help us and to point us in the right direction. Its a little bit of a walk before arriving, but the artisans’ area is a pleasant neighborhood, still lacking in the pretentiousness. Here you can peek into workshops as doors are generally open and see real people doing real work with little regard to who might be passing by. However, those who politely knock and ask to chat are quite welcome.

A well-built chair generally last about 20+ years. Usually the leather gives out before this, which is replaceable although older craftsmen in town complain that they cannot get leather of the same quality or thickness anymore. This reflects one problem with the chair’s popularity, pressure on raw materials. Newer artisans are experimenting with other kinds of hard woods, but the less-scrupulous are substituting cheaper and less-durable materials. Like all other handcrafts, it pays to know what you are looking for and to ask questions. Good craftspeople have no problem showing you their workshops and processes.

Saving Baby Jesus

(see also “Baby Jesus dresses up” from 16 January)

Despite their outward appearance, vast majority the infant Jesus images common in Mexican homes are not mass-produced in a factory. They are still made in workshops and small family business, especially in the Mexico City area.

One reason they look mass-produced is that there is very little variation in how the Christ child is depicted. Almost all have a serene, with the right hand posed the way priests give blessings. Even the hair style varies very little, with soft curls on the top and sides. Far less common is a version of the image laying on is side asleep. This is very likely a homage to the Niño de los Sueños (Child of the Dreams) a venerated image of the Christ Child in Mexico City.


The reality is that the vast majority of these are caste from plaster, with a smaller number of resin. Even fewer are made of ceramic or even still carved from wood. The main factor here is cost, with those made from plaster costing only about 150-200 pesos for a life-sized image, with glass eyes.

That does not mean that they are not valuable to families. Many of these images have been passed down generations. The image of the Christ Child is the most important element in Mexican nativity scenes and it is often much larger than any other piece. Other pieces, when broken, can be simply thrown away and replaced, but not so with the image of the Child.


This makes the repair of these images an important economic activity, especially in January as families prepare for Candlemas (Día de Candelaria), when this image is taken to church for an annual blessing. The making and repair of these image is the main source of income for artisan families such as that of Antonio Zarate Martinez of Mexico City. He is the third generation in the occupation, learning from his father and grandfather since he was young. Today the workshop employs a dozen or so friends and family who work year round in the making of the images and spend much of January in the large open-air market (tianguis) in downtown Mexico City repairing.


The repair business flourishes despite the fact that it is often cheaper to replace a stucco image than have it repaired, especially if it has been broken into pieces. Despite most Mexicans’ love for getting something cheaper, in this case the extra cost is worth it even if the image is not a family heirloom. After all, these images are called “Niños Dios” literally “Child God.”

Zarate’s stand in the market has everything his workshop has, from paints, brushes, plaster, glass eyes and even pre-fabricated arms, legs etc. (This is possible as these plaster images come in standard sizes). Customers can drop off images and pick them up later.

Reparing a broken plaster image requires a number of steps. The broken pieces are “glued” back together using new plaster, which leaves white lines where the pieces join. This must be sanded smooth and the entire section or even the entire doll needs to be repainted.


It is interesting to note that while the Christ Child images are Zarate’s bread-and-butter, in his heart is is a man of letters. He worked as a journalist for a number of years, often working on articles related to culture. He was quite eager to practice his rusty English with me, happy to show off a little to his family.


Alejandro Zarate Martinez

Cel 55 66375855

House/workshop 55 5113 0773

Baby Jesus dresses up

Niño Dios as an angel

The holiday season in Mexico is known as Lupe-Reyes, referring to a nearly month-long period that begins on the feast day of the Virgin of Guadalupe, patron saint of Mexico, on December 12 and Three King’s Day (Epiphany) on January 6.

But there is one other date related to the time period, February 2. This is called Candlemas in English, although its observance has waned in the Anglo world. It commemorates the taking of the infant Jesus to temple 40 days after his birth, a Jewish practice at the time.

Images of the infant Jesus are very important in Mexican Catholicism. It is lain in the nativity scene on 25 December, and very can often be much bigger than all the other figures. It can be on family altars throughout the year and there are even a number of famous “Niño Dios” (literally Child God) images which have numerous miracles attributed to them.

Float with images of the Child Jesus in various outfits in a procession in July in Colonia Doctores, Mexico City
The “Niñopa” image in procession in Xochimilco, Mexico City

Candlemas (Día de Candelaría in Spanish) centers on taking these family infant Jesus images to churches to be blessed, mimicing the ancient rite. While it may be the same physical image making the trip each year, the event is like a coming out party. And not just any old garb will do!

Mazahua women embroidering a garment for a Niño Dios in San Felipe Santiago, State of Mexico

Tradition requires that the image have a completely new outfit each year, and while these can be simple, they can be as creative and elaborate as family budgets will allow, especially in Mexico City and the surrounding region. Many of outfits here have themes, such as dresses worn by infants to be christened, costume to depict the Holy Child of Antocha (a popular image of the Christ Child in Latin America), outfits depicting saints, popes, angels, various Mexican indigenous groups and even Aztec warriors.

In the old days, Christ child images were hand carved and passed down as family or community heirlooms. The Niñopa image so special to Xochimilco (Mexico City) dates back to the very early colonial period. Most images bought today are produced by family workshops, with most made of plasters formed by molds.


The new outfits may be made by a family member for their specific image, but most often they are bought in local markets in January. Most are made by small workshops or families, often as a seasonal occupation. Most are sewn, but outfits resembling those to keep babies warm are also knitted.  The majority of thes outfits are sold in temporary street markets called “tianguis.”  In Mexico City, the best known market of this kind is between the Zocalo (main plaza) and the La Merced market, on Manzanares Street (near Jesus Maria), which the city has named a “Religous Cultural Corredor.” Most stands sell outfits, offerings and other supplies but more than a few are also stands dedicated to repair of the images, from a minor paint chip to restoring one broken into pieces. Although not in a typical tourist area, it is not far off and definitely worth a visit if you are in the city during the season.

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Various images from the market.

All images by Alejandro Linares Garcia or Leigh Thelmadatter

The Lemus family, molds and paper

Main image: 100-year-old molds from Celaya at the workshop of Sotero Lemus Gervasio

According to local expert Virginia Hernandez Crisanto, the Lemus family has a special place in the history of cartoneria (paper mache) of Celaya, Guanajuato. They are the best-known family of this type and perhaps the most representative of the history of the craft in this town.

Bernardino Lemus

Lupita dolls by Rosa Maria Lemus, daughter of Bernardino, part of the collection of the Casa de Arte in Celaya

Today, there are various branches of the family, but all can trace their heritage back to Bernardino Lemus Valencia. According to family lore, Bernardino was taught how to do cartoneria in the 1920s by a brother-in-law, Gregorio Luna, with whom he also ran a bakery business. The family lived (and many still do) in the Tierras Negras neighborhood, where cartoneria has been done at least since the 1800s. Several family members in different branches claim family inheritance back this far. This is not really contradictory as Bernardino and various of his male descendents married women from other cartonería families.

The family maks mostly Lupita dolls, which in Celaya are called by several names (Pepona, monas, etc.) but never Lupitas. However, the name Lupita seems to be better known in Mexico in general, so it will be used here. The family could and did do all the steps related to the making of these dolls and other cartoneria items (Judases, masks, animal figures, etc), but Bernardino was particularly known for his fine painting, especially of the decoration that traditionally adorns the chests.

Sotero Lemus Flores branch

Head and chests with elaborate decoration by Guillermo Lemus, son of Sotero Lemus Flores

Bernardino was married twice and taught all of his children how to work with paper and paste. However, only a few of them continued with the craft. His first wife was Ildefonsa Flores. Their workshop, and the center of all Lemus family cartoneria activity was the family compound on Santos Degollado 142 in Tierra Negras.  All members of the family worked in the trade, but upon growing up, only one of Bernardino and Ildefonsa’s sons, Sotero Lemus Flores, took it up full time.

Sotero eventually took over the family workshop, preferring to call himself a monero (dollmaker) rather than a cartonero, because of his specialization. He continued his father’s tradition of finely painting these dolls, but he did not work at it full time, working as well in a factory which made rugs and carpets. The main creative force behind the workshop at this time was his wife, María Remedio Muñiz Cruz. While she learned the craft from her husband’s family, she was the innovator, adding new forms to the family repertoire such as Judas figures, masks, skeletons etc. The variety made the workshop more economically successful, allowing them to sell more and to sell to toy wholesalers as well as through their own stand in town.

The family also began competing in local handcraft competitions successfully, raising their profile, enough to gain customers on the national and international level. Japanese customers came to see Sotero once and wanted to see the “machines” and “factory” where the pieces are made, to be shocked to see only a old wooden table and some molds.

During this time, many of the changes in cartoneria making noted today took place especially the use of commercial paints replacing those that used to be made by the family using local materials. Clay molds are still used, but those of plaster and cement are also now made.

Sotero had two sons who took up the craft, Martín Lemus Muñíz and Guillermo Lemus Muñiz. Both worked for some time at the family compound, but later, to accommodate his growing family, Guillermo moved to a new residence one block west on Mariano Abasolo Street, where he still lives and works today. This generation saw the decline of most of Celaya’s cartoneria in the latter 20th century, mostly due to the introduction of cheaper, mass-produced toys.

Martin is long retired, but Guillermo still works at the craft part time.He is rather philosophical about the work. While cartoneria in Celaya generally has a mass-produced aspect about it, due to the use of molds, Guillermo does not particularly like this, preferring to make one of a kind creating focusing on the painting of designs. He still makes and uses molds and states that he is the only artisan left in town who still follows the old rituals to thank the Earth when he takes clay to make new molds.

Partially finished skull with intricate painting by Guillermo Lemus

Martin and Guillermo taught their children, but because of economics, none are dedicated to the craft full time. The only one who is trying to keep the tradition alive today is 32-year-old Miguel Angel Lemus Lopez, son of Martín. His work is based on that established by his grandparents, but he has added his own innovations, such as static dolls dressed in the various regional and ethnic garb of Mexico. He is also an important competitor in local cartoneria competitions. Unlike the vast majority of Celaya artisans, he does have a web presence. However, he has a business entirely separate from handcrafts, with which he makes his living, and can dedicate only enough time to making about 10 or 15 pieces a week. Although trained as a child in all aspects of the craft, he focuses today only on dolls, mamertos (charro figures) and masks because of the market and his limited time.

Dolls in various regional/ethnic outfits by Miguel Angel Lemus

Sotero Lemus Gervasio

Sotero Lemus with mask mold at the workshop in Ciudad Nezahualcoyotl

One of Bernardino’s children, Leobardo Lemus Flores, left cartonería and even Celaya for Mexico City, but the craft returned to this branch of the family later. Leobardo migrated when many others did in the 1960s to work construction in the capital. He had married Leonor Gervasio Mendeza, who is also from a Celaya cartoneria family.

By the 1970s, the family needed another source of income, so the couple drew upon their heritage, obtained molds from Celaya and began making dolls and other figures to sell, teaching their children in the process. This business took off when Leonor began selling pieces in front of the former National Museum of Folk Arts and Industries in downtown Mexico City, attracting the attention of authorities there.

Their son, Sotero, has earned a reputation in the craft since starting to work with his family in 1978. Although the basis of his work is the mold-dependent work of Celeya, it has evolved through the influence of the Mexico City cartoneria scene, in particular with the addition of pieces with frames made of reeds and sometimes wire. He even took classes at the Academy of San Carlos (art school) to help develop his work. He has created innovation such as toys with bobbing heads and even made a 12-meter-tall image of Don Quixote on his horse which toured parts of Mexico, appearing at the National Palace and the Guanajuato Cervantine Festival.

Today, Sotero still works with his mother and sister, with the home and workshop moved to Ciudad Nezahualcoyotl, just outside Mexico City proper. But neither he or his sister have any children to carry on the tradition.

Alicia Mendez Juarez family

Alicia Mendez Juarez with Catrina at the Casa de Diezmo in Celaya

Bernardino’s second wife was Alicia Mendez Juarez, who is also from a multi-generational family of Celaya cartoneros. Bernardino worked with this family until his death in 2010. Today, this branch of Lemus’ include daughters Rosa Maria Lemus and Alba Lemus along with Alicia’s daughter Alma Luisa Zarate Mendez. Some of their children are also working as well. 

Mendez’s family history in the craft goes back so far that no one is sure when it began, and she has a collection of family molds that go back to the 19th century. She is also from Tierras Negras, with the older daughters born there, but the family moved in the 1980s to a small town called Tenorio de Santuario, just north of Celaya proper.

Unlike the other branches of the family, cartoneria remains the main source of income. They have maintained the same apprenticeship system, with everyone, learning to work from a young age. What is different is that there has been more innovation, in particular with dolls. While the traditional dolls (which they prefer to call Peponas) are still in their inventory, they have had more success with more innovative figures. Dolls with butterfly wings, tutus, even curly hair, painstakingly applied by looping embroidery thread over the head.

Alma Luisa Zarate Mendez with miniature dolls at the annual cartonería competition in Celaya

They are more focused on marketing than perhaps the other branches, competing in handcrafts competitions and appearing at various fairs in central and western Mexico dressed in the old traditional garb of Celaya women to attract attention. They understand the role tourism has for handcrafts and increasingly cater to the tastes of foreign clientele.

It is important to note that Alicia Mendez has a reputation as an artisan in her own right. Her career began before she met Bernardino and extends over 50 years, 20 of which has been dedicated to teaching cartoneria, in schools, private classes and with the city. These classes have spread appreciation of the craft among Celaya’s teens and professionals, who take classes out of interest, but more than a few have gone on to work paper and paste more seriously. The classes have also prompted Mendez to expand her cartoneria abilities, in particular the making of Catrina figures, almost unheard of in Celaya. She was learned to make the wire frames common to these figures, but true to her roots, faces, hands and sometimes other parts are formed using molds.

The Lemus Mendez branch of the family is far more optimistic about the future of cartoneria than perhaps the other branches, but they are still aware of the difficulties it still faces.

Weitlaner Johnson: Pioneer, ethnographic textiles studies of Mexico

Featured photo: Irmgard in Huautla de Jimenez, Mazateca Alta, Photo: Irmgard Weitlaner Johnson, Collection, Biblioteca Juan de Córdova


By Stephanie Schneiderman

Born in Philadelphia in 1914 to Austrian parents, Irmgard arrived to Mexico in 1922 at the age of eight. Her father Robert, a metallurgist, had a keen personal interest in studying native languages and cultures of the Americas. He moved the family to Mexico, where he began his ethnographic and linguistic studies of Mexico’s indigenous people. From an early age, Irmgard accompanied her father on weekends and holidays into the Nahua, Otomi communities surrounding Mexico City. Her longer expeditions began in 1934/1935, taking her to Mexico’s Chinantec region of Oaxaca. Led by anthropologist / linguist Bernard Bevan, and with her father, she ventured into remote regions of “La Chinantla” on expeditions that would shape her life.

Photo by Guy StresserPéan, Irmgard W. Johnson Collection, Biblioteca Juan de Córdova

Chinantla region of Oaxaca in Turquoise

Aided by a local guide from the Chinantec community of Chiltepec, the team bushwhacked through dense rain forests, cloud enshrowded mountains, green valleys, travelling by foot, horseback and mule. Arriving in villages, they would meet with local authorities to explain their intentions to study the Chinantec culture and language and to seek assistance obtaining food and shelter.  “In the villages and ranches it was difficult to find food, because the people had little to offer. For this reason, the team took provisions, namely corn, they had ground to make tortillas.” Kirsten Johnson Saberes Enlazados

“Chalupa” canoe on the Rio Usila

Woman spinning cotton in Valle Nacional, Photo: Irmgard W. Johnson, Biblioteca Juan de Córdova

According to Kirsten, Irmgard’s daughter, her mother witnessed a massive shift during the period from 1935 to 1975, where indigenous methods, use of materials and processes for internal consumption and local trade gave way to industrial materials, processes for an external market for textiles. Commercial threads (cottons and synthetics), dyes, and the tourist market became significant factors resulting in major shifts in the material culture and economy of indigenous communities throughout Mexico. Clothing was no longer solely a cultural expression, but also became a commercial commodity. Irmgard observed these changes and in some cases extinction, for over 40 years.

This radical transformation, compelled Irmgard to meticulously document and collect what she saw, in an effort to preserve. Upon completion of her studies in cultural anthropology and ethnographic textiles at UC Berkeley, she began her systematic work in 1951. With the support of various cultural institutions, including the National Museum of Anthropology, where she later was curator of textiles, she amassed a collection of Mexico’s ethnographic textiles. She also studied and documented weaving structures, took extensive field notes, photos, sketches from Zapotec, Chinantec, Mazatec, Cuicatec, Triqui, Mixtec, Mixe communities in Oaxaca; Tzotzil, Tzeltal, Zoque in Chiapas; Nahua and Otomie in Hidalgo; Totonac, Tepehua, Otomie, Nahua in Puebla; Maya of Yucatan, Raramuri of Chihuahua, Otomie and Mazahua of the State of Mexico. Kirsten Johnson, Saberes Enlazados

Changes she observed

Perhaps the biggest change she observed was the use and processing of fibers, such as plant fibers from agave, yucca, others, and hand spun cotton and native silk, giving way to commercial cottons and synthetic fibers. And, natural dye sources such as cochineal, indigo and others, began to be replaced with synthetic dyes.

Shifts were also seen from brocade woven designs (supplementary weft) to embroidered designs, as well as the use of commercial white cloth, such as muslin, versus hand-woven white cloth in plain and gauze weave. It was observed by Johnson that the weave structure of plain gauze provided a perfect template for embroidery, particularly cross stitch. Today, this white gauze weave base cloth is often replaced with a commercial substitute called “quadrille”, a store bought fabric that mimics a gauze weave layout for ease of use when counting / laying out cross stitch embroidered patterns.

La Chinantla

No place fascinated Irmgard more than La Chinantla, a remote region of Oaxaca between the eastern slopes of the Sierra Juarez mountains and Veracruz on the Gulf of Mexico. Here, she took copious notes on weaving techniques and design motifs. “For the rest of her life, the handwoven dress of la Chinantla became Irmgard’s source of inspiration and happiness for Irmgard, a place she would return to on numerous occasions to document”, Kirsten Johnson, Saberes Enlazados

Irmgard wearing huipil “diario” from San Lucas Ojitlan. Photo in Collection at Biblioteca Juan de Córdova

Couple in San Felipe Usila, 2012, courtesy Kirsten Johnson

Irmgard observed and documented changes in La Chinantla. Returning in 1952, she reported that access to the region had improved, making it less isolated; some elderly women were still wearing traditional huipiles, yet few knew how to weave them. She observed more embroidery and less brocade weave for the web panels of the huipiles, and commercial cotton was predominantly used. She did find that the deeper she traveled into more remote regions of La Chinantla, weavers were still hand spinning cotton, but were combining it with the industrial variant. And, as she was there during Holy Week, she observed that many of the finest “fiesta” huipiles were worn for the occasion; these being the lovely hand spun gauze weave with supplementary weft / brocade designs she had seen on earlier trips. She observed great fusions of materials, designs, embellishments and communities wearing each other’s huipil designs.

Her daughter Kirsten reports going to La Chinantla in 2012, returning to a place she had not been to since she was twelve! Kirsten says this visit was a shock to her, as so much had changed and the loss of dress was so apparent in communities such as San Felipe Usila, Valle Nacional, Chiltepec.

Change and evolution are inevitable. Some change is externally induced and some is internal, coming from the communities themselves. Tastes in style, fashion, expression change and evolve everywhere. Today, the Usileñas for example, love to embellish their huipiles with satin ribbons, lace and rickrack. On this huipil, more is more, including density of weave and color!

Photo taken by Irmgard W. Johnson, Easter, 1952. Photo courtesy of Kirsten Johnson

Woman in San Felipe Usila, 2013, Photo: Stephanie Schneiderman

I had the great honor of meeting Irmgard in 2009 in Mexico City. It was a brief meeting, but one I wont forget. There are people you meet in your life, who leave an impression and have an impact on you; Irmgard was one of them. She said, “You’ll know your passion, and follow it”. This was a woman of clarity and conviction. It is no wonder she left such a mark on the world of ethnographic textile studies in Mexico and on the people who knew her.

We invite you to join us in June during the WARP Annual Meeting in Oaxaca, where we will offer a Pre-Tour of La Chinantla, to continue observations of the region begun by Irmgard W. Johnson. One community, Rancho Grande, Valle Nacional has embarked on a revival initiative to include the teaching of plain and gauze weave and most recently, brocade weave (supplementary weft). Two of the elderly women of the community taught the next generation, who are teaching the next. We’ll visit them! Arriving in Oaxaca City, we’ll meet with Kirsten, Irmgard’s daughter, to learn more about her pioneering mother.  We’ll travel again to the region in April 2017 on an extended Textile Journey to Veracruz, La Chinantla and Tlaxcala.  We hope you can join us. We invite you to read further: Saberes Enlazados, by Kirsten Johnson, source for this post.

Brocade woven center panel, embroidered side panels over woven cloth, huipil from Rancho Grande, Valle Nacional, 2013

Saberes Enlazados, The Work of Irmgard Weitlaner Johnson, by Kirsten Johnson

This post is reblogged with permission from the Tia Stephanie Tours website. Original post can be seen here.

Tonalá vs Tlaquepaque

For those shopping for handcrafts in Guadalajara, there are two neighboring “towns,” Tonalá and Tlaquepaque, which both are touted for handcrafts. Which you prefer depends on the kind of experience you are looking for.

Both were small rural towns to the southwest of Guadalajara, but today there is little to immediately distinguish them from the ever-growing metropolis.

For those looking for a more upscale experience, Tlaquepaque is the destination. The center extending from Jardín Hidalgo has been upgraded over the years specifically to cater to visitors, with wide streets, pedestrians paths and many,  many places to eat and shop. There are also galleries dedicated to both art and handcrafts. Not all of these handcrafts are necessarily from Jalisco. Por example, glazed “pineapple” ceramics (with or without cups) are popular, but are from neighboring Michoacan.

Upper left: Mariachi at El Parian (credit:Esteban Tucci), Upper right: Jardín Hidalgo, Bottom: Calle Independencia

However, the town does have two good museums for exploring the traditional ceramics of the area. The first is Museo Premio Nacional de la Cerámica Pantaleón Panduro, dedicated to showcasing winners of an annual ceramics contest and hosts temporary exhibits, conferences and more. The other is the Museo Regional de la Cerámica de Tlaquepaque. Visits to either or both of these museums are recommended in order to learn about traditional pottery and names of artisans who are still making these fine wares.

For those who prefer a more treasure-hunt kind of shopping experience, the place to head is Tonalá. It’s bit further out from the center of Guadalajara, but shops cluster along Avenida Tonaltecas, especially the side of the old town center. On Thursdays and Saturdays, this 2-3 km stretch also hosts a “tianguis” (open air market), crowding the sidewalks with makeshift stalls.

Known to be or likely to be locally made. We chatted with the vendor of the loose-knit tops as she worked on making another.

However, this does not making the finding of authentic handcrafts that much easier; in fact, it’s a bit harder. The most traditional handcrafts of this area are various burnished potteries, but there is precious little of this to be found in either the stores or the tianguis. The main reason for this is that the area mostly caters far more to locals, who are more likely to be concerned about price than authenticity or collectability. For this reason, most of the shopping here consists of decorative items of various types.

Kitsch highly unlikely to be handcrafted in the traditional sense of the term, though interesting in its own right.

The street food here is first-rate!

That is not to say that nothing handcrafted can be found. They are more likely to be found in the fixed stores, but they do not seem to include much of local pottery. Indeed, there are novel items to be found, along with grandmothers knitting and embroidering while waiting for customer. There is even a blown glass producer which has a very clever marketing gimmick for the cell phone age. Their workshop has a side open to the public from which you can watch pieces being made and take photos from a safe distance from the furnaces… and all the employees wear tshirts with the name and contact info of the business.



I should also mention that because it is generally cheaper to live here, most of the pottery workshops of the Guadalajara area are in Tonalá, rather than Tlaquepaque. Like all Mexican handcrafts, getting price and quality means doing your homework and knowing what you want before you head out to buy. However, if handcrafts is only part of a day of “turisteando” or part of shopping for things that have a Mexican feel to them, there is nothing wrong with a few implusive buys in either location.

Photos by Alejandro Linares Garcia and Leigh Thelmadatter unless otherwise noted.

Discovering a small state’s handcrafts

Wood carved items from various parts of the state

In 2014, the small state of Aguascalientes joined the ever-growing number of Mexican states that have (or have added to) one or more culural centers dedicated to the preservation and promotion of local handcraft traditions.

It’s not so much that handcrafts in and of themselves yield a great economic boon for state coffers, but rather the tourism which it can attract. Tourism in states such as Oaxaca and Chiapas heavily depend on their indigenous cultures. These cultures’ handcrafts not only dominate the souvenir  markets but fine pieces are sent abroad as well as other parts of Mexico to promote the states.  It is logical that other states with handcraft traditions would want a piece of this action.



Top left: traditional toy showcase, Top right: Display of various textiles, Bottom: tradiitonal and innovative designs on ceramics.


Ivan Puga demonstrating a piece at the Museum.

The Casa de Artesanias (Handcrafts House) in Aguascalientes has quite a challenge in front of them. In Mexico, the state is known pretty much only for the annual Feria of San Marcos and indeed the Casa is located just off the main square of the San Marcos neighborhood to take advantage of the crowds this event attracts. Another issue is that many traditional handcrafts are struggling to survive. For example, pottery making in the state was dead for about 30 years until local artist and artisan Ivan Puga Gonzalez began reviving and reinventing traditional designs in 2010.

The Casa is divided in seven halls, each dedicated to a branch of handcrafts such as ceramics, textiles, basketry (and work with other stiff fibers), traditional toys, wood items, stonework and one dedicated to “souvenirs, “neo-handcrafts” and “hybrid works,” basically for innovations that do not fit any of the other six categories. There is also an area with foodstuffs such as candies, preserves and baked goods.

Left: clock made with layered cardboard, Right: portion of the ceramics hall

Unlike a traditional museum, all of the items on display at the Casa are for sale. The plus for this is sales for local artisans, but the minus is that there is no permanent collection to study. This decision was made because the location is small– a former private residence and space is needed for activities such as workshops, classes, temporary exhibits and the like.

While I have been critical of some handcrafts museums/centers in the past, they are a valuable asset for collectors, especially those learning about any of the myriad of traditions that exist in this country. Without them, traditions would be dying off much faster than they already are.

All photos taken by Leigh Thelmadatter