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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Alejandro Zarate Martinez

Cel 55 66375855

House/workshop 55 5113 0773

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