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

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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

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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.

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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.

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Dolls in various regional/ethnic outfits by Miguel Angel Lemus

Sotero Lemus Gervasio

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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

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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.

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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.

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