Carnival costume in Mexico

Mexico does not come immediately to mind when thinking about Carnival/Mardi Gras, but it does has a number of important events and unique traditions. According to Mexico Desconocido, there are ten important Carnivals in the country: those in Mazatlan, Veracruz, Campeche, in various small towns in Morelos, Mérida, Huejotzingo, Puebla, Pinotepa de Don Luis, Oaxaca, Chamula and Huistan, Chiapas, Tlaxcala and Ensenada, California. However, there are quite a few more.

Carnival parade in Veracruz (credit:Saulo ren)

Those in major cities such as Mazatlan, Veracruz, Campeche and Ensenada are very similar to those held in the famous locations of Rio de Janeiro and New Orleans, though Mexican themes show up in parades, especially floats. Giant colorful monsters called alebrijes, based on a handcraft of the same name, have also begun to be seen regularly in these events.

Though not common, costumes mocking authority still appear

Perhaps more interesting and more “authentic” are the carnivals held in small towns in certain areas of the country. Carnival has a complicated history in Mexico, alternately supported and banned (mostly for making fun of authorities and upper classes) during the country’s history. For this reason, the small-town carnivals have developed mostly independent from one another, often integrating local dress, music and other customs. Most importantly, the traditional dress, masks and other paraphenalia are almost always made by either the participants themselves or by local craftspeople.


The largest of these “small” Carnivals is in Huejotzingo. Most of the 4-day event is very loosely based on the Battle of Puebla, focusing on four “armies” distinguished by dress style, wearing masks meant to depict Europeans and stage rifles which use real gunpowder. The vast majority of the participants are divided into four groups, depending on what section of the old town the participant lives or is otherwise connected to. Two  of the group represent the invaders: Zuavos and Turcos and the other two the Mexican defenders: Zacapoaxtlas and Indio Serranos. Each has a specific style of dress to wear and all carry handmade wooden prop muskets/rifles, which blast real gunpowder (but no bullets). These costumes are not cheap, costing participants up to 30,000 pesos or more depending on materials and complexity. Almost all participants, wear bearded wax masks which originally designed for dances where Europeans were depicted.


Carnival celebrations in Morelos almost always center on dancing figures called Chinelos, men in heavy embroidered dress-like garment, tall hat and mask. The masks and dress of Chinelos originally developed as a means to make fun of Spanish colonial overlords and their fancy dress by the indigenous, but over time Chinelos has evolved to their own particular style. Chinelos appear in other celebrations year-round (particularly popular at weddings and certain processions) but are essential to Morelos carnivals.


In Tlaxcala, dress varies. Masks are often of Europeans but what distingushes them is use of indigenous-style headdresses and other elements.

At the Tlaxcala Carnival (credit:Fernando Tlx)
Traditional charro costumes, man in tradtional mask in Acatitlán, Mexico City

In Mexico City, there are no city-wide celebrations (again because of past prohibitions), but a number of communities which were at one time rural and disconnected from the capital, have preserved carnival to varying degrees. These include Santa Maria Acatitlan (on east end of town) and Peñon de los Baños (now bordering the city airport). Since these communities have become part of the city, many  of their carnivals have lost some or much of their traditional character, with carnival costumes mimicing those in other major cities and/or using pre-fabricated ones related to pop culture. The traditional costume for Acatitlan is based on the charro. Those in Peñon de los Baños are similar to those of Huejotzingo, especially the use of Renaissance-style garb, wax masks and prop guns. The reason for this is that this neighborhood experienced a large influx of migrants from Huejotzingo in the 20th century, which had a great impact on its development. While based on the Puebla tradition, costumes here vary much more, as they are not constrained by four, well-defined groups of participants with very specific roles to play.

More traditional costumes of Peñon de los Baños with variations, including some very non-traditional elements.

Carnival 2017 ends 28 February, with most of the main events happening on that day. Carnival 2018 will be from 10 to 13 February.

All photos by Leigh Thelmadatter or Alejandro Linares Garcia unless otherwise noted.


A plate for your bread?

Acambaro is a large town in the far south of the state of Guanajuato. Like many places here, its  name is from the Purhepecha language (“place of magueyes”) as it was part of the Purhepecha (or Tarasco) Empire, centered in what is now Michoacan. A line of mountains separates it from its neighbor and the area has gone its own way, most notably losing much of its indigenous character.

The town is best known in central Mexico for its traditional bread. The region favors the growing of wheat, and the specialty is the slightly sweet “pan grande” or “big bread.”

Varieties of pan grande (Credit:Union Guanajuato)

The pre Hispanic identity of the region lies more with the local archeological site of Chupícuaro, which had a distinctive pottery style, and was particularly noted for its figurines.

Chupicuaro figues and bowl (Credits: Daderot and Sailko) 

After the Conquest, the highly resiliant clay of the area was still used, but its working devolved over the centuries to the making of simple utilitarian items, mostly pots and cazuelas for cooking. Even this died out before the end of the 20th century as local wares could not compete with cheaper cookware from other places.

This region of Mexico is poor, still dependent mostly on agriculture and bread making with many families here having one or more members working in the United States. For this reason, a priest by the name of Salvador Rangel, with the support of the federal government, helped to established a high-fire ceramics cooperative in 1985. He selected the site in the barrio of La Soledad, which was the center of the former ceramics activity in Acambaro, called it the La Soledad Cooperative.

La Soledad Cooperative on Calle La Soledad in the neighborhood of the same name.


For the first six years of its existance, it was a large operation with 800 members, almost all women. But cooperative organizations are difficult to maintain, with problems in making major decisions, and managing finances. In 1991, membership began to drop, in part due to retirements and over the next decade or so a number of members became frustrated and quit. By 2000, there were only 10 members. By 2007, only three sisters remained, Margarita, Clara and Isabel Ramos Lopez.

For a decade, they have kept the workshop and legal organization alive, often working for only minimum wage in Mexico… about $4 USD a day, with a bit more during certain times when they can do more selling. One problem is that since their work is high-fire, it is a bit more expensive to produce (particularly gas for the kiln), making it difficult to compete with other pottery..

However, things have been looking up for the business over the past couple of years. In 2014, they were invited to exhibit and sell their work at an event in the nearby city of Celaya, Guanajuato. Here, one of their pieces won a prize, and just as importantly, attracted the attention of Virginia Hernandez of the Celaya Arts Center, who has since worked to promote the cooperative. This has since led to invitations to sell at various fairs in the state, including the Feria de León (Guanajuato), getting sponsorship from federal and state authorities.  The exposure has even been bringing visitors to the workshop in La Soledad.

L:Margarita Ramos Lopez with kiln, R: Batch of newly-fired pieces (credit: La Soledad)

Authorities have also been supporting the workshop through grants for materials, equipment and training. For decades, the cooperative fired their pieces in a brick kiln, but were able to replace it with a special fiberglass one in 2014, receiving training from the Arts Center of Salamanca, Guanajuato. It is smaller, but uses much less gas and fires in about half the time. The federal government sent them to train with experimental ceramicist Alberto Diaz de Cosio in Mexico City. These and more local classes have allowed them to start experimenting in both form and decoration, from making small changes to their stand-by wares to developing new products.

lasoledadcooperative050The base of the cooperative’s production is still utilitarian wares such as plates, cups, mugs, teapots shotglasses, etc., still using the same local clay sources exploited by the ancient potters of Chupicaro. Many of the designs have remained with only some evolution, in particular, the dot and stripe patterns which are created by spinning a piece while holding a paintbrush steady or using a small circular sponge on a short stick. The most common colors are blue, reddish-orange and back on a white or off-white background, but other colors can be added for special orders. These pigments are from commericial sources, but they make their own glaze.

However, the last few years have seen new forms and new decoration. Decorative pieces are making their way into the inventory, from small dove napkin holders, to skulls for Day of the Dead and egg and seashell shapes purely for decoration. Some of these new forms come from other handcrafts, such as wood carving. One of the newest and most innovative is the making of decorative mask pieces, started only about 6 months ago. Decorative influences here include pre Hispanic motifs, especially lines and geometric patterns, to drip to minimalist, Japanese-inspired pieces. It’s important to note that none of the pieces are meant to be recreations of Chupicuaro or any other pre-Hispanic pottery.

Despite the struggles and low pay, the three sisters are dedicated to keeping the cooperative and the making of ceramics alive in Acambaro. They love the work, and do not want to leave the area or their families. Margarita states simply that she wants to die doing this. And despite problems in the past, they still believe the cooperative model is best for the business and for Mexico, and their main hope for the future is to rebuild La Soledad. To this end, they will continue to expand on their work and look for new opportunities, including the recruiting of new members.

(L: Margarita glazing a small teacup, UR:Clara decorating a sugar bowl and LR:Clara molding a decorative mask)

You can contact the cooperative by telephone at 417-172-3696

All photos by the author unless otherwise noted.








The French, a small Mixe community and blouses

In January 2015, a controversy erupted when singer Susana Harp uploaded two photographs onto her social networks: one of a blouse by designer Isabel Marant, and the other with traditional blouses worn by the Mixe women of the small mountain community of Santa María Tlahuitoltepec. This was followed by a charge of plaguarism.



The post remained viral until May 2015, and in following month the president of the municipality, Erasmo Hernandez Gonzalez, held a press conference at the Oaxaca Textile Museum, condeming the “cultural appropriation” of the blouse design for financial gain.

Interestingly enough, by the time that the controversy erupted, Marant was in a legal dispute with another Frence fashion house, Antik Batik, who claimed that Marant stole the design from them. While the uproar in Mexico was a public relations problem for Marant, it provided some legal cover by allowing them to state that their blouses were inspired by the Tlahuitoltepec dress and to then state that they laid no claim on the design.

Traditional Tlahui blouses and skirts at the stand/workshop of Delfina Gomez Martinez in Tlahuitoltepec.

The issue resurged in the fall when rumors surfaced (including a petition on claiming that the designer had a patent issued to her by French courts, which would require the native artisans of the town to pay royalty fees in order to create the blouses. This rumor proved false, but it reinforced the sense of urgency among activists and Mexican cultural officials to take steps to protect traditional designs.

One issue is that many of traditional designs have no single author and/or date back so far in time that legal copyright protections are very limited or non-existent. A Guardian article from June 17th of that year claims the designs are 600 years old, which would be well beyond the limit for putting designs in to the public domain.


Santa Maria Tlahuitoltepec (or Tlahui for short) is located the rugged terrain of the Sierra Mixe mountains. It is only about 80km due east of the city of Oaxaca, but it is a world away in both climate and way of life. While the city is warm and dry most of the year, Tlahuitoltepec is higher, significantly colder and receives more moisture from the Gulf of Mexico, generating light rain and fog. The only way to reach the town from the capital is by a winding road from Mitla, making the town about 2.5+hours away by car.


There is precious little flat land here and Tlahui, along with other Mixe communities, are settled precariously on ledges on the mountains. The ruggedness of the terrain has allowed the Mixe to keep much of their traditional way of life. Most speak Mixe along with Spanish and many signs are in both languages, or just in Mixe. Isolation also means that individual Mixe communities are distinct from one another. Traditional dress varies quite a bit from community to community, even between those only a few km apart. For this reason the the blouse in question is claimed only by the women of Tlahui, as it is original only to this community, not Mixe women in general.

Agriculture is still a basis of the economy as the area does not see much or any tourism. Almost all of the women, such as Delfina Gomez Martinez, work at making these traditional blouses, along with long, flowing calico skirts and wraparound belts. Some are made for local consumption, but most are made for sale and most of these go to resellers in the city of Oaxaca.

Woman selling vegetables in the market.

The construction of the blouses are interesting the base material is a light to medium-weight cotton muslin, usually white or off white, but other colors such as navy blue or black may be used. Although the originally embroidered by hand, modern Tlahui blouses are almost always embroidered using sewing machines. The one at the Gomez workshop is an old 1930s Singer straight stitch only. In a way, this makes the embroidery more impressive as most machine embroidery either looks commercial, such as that on polo shirts, or tacky. One reason Tlahui blouses keep their handcraft appearance is that the designs adapt well to the use of sewing machines. Elements such as flowers and maguey plants are developed working with how home sewing machines stitch, rather than trying to force them to imitate hand-stitching. For example, elements are interlinked using one or more strands of stitching, eliminating the need to finish an element, tie it off and move onto another section. Elements are small and repetitive, eliminating the need to fill in large areas of empty space. Few elements need to have perfectly straight lines, so small deviations are not a distraction.


tlahuitoltepec053Elements are mostly found on yokes, collars and sleeves, parts of a blouse or shirt which can have the embroidery done before assembling the rest of the garment or can be done easily on a machine after the garment is assembled. One important aspect of the stitching is that it looks the same both on the inside and outside of the garment. According to Gomez’s husband, some in the town had experimented using commerical embroidery machines, but the long, loose threads on the inside (wrong) side of the garment made the work unacceptable to the community.

Whether or not the French blouses were indeed plaguarism, the controversy does underline the need to document and even popularize traditional designs. Where the law cannot protect from imitation, education can help, allowing consumers to know where designs come from and empower them to find authentic pieces, made by true artisans. Hopefully, the controversy can work in the favor of the women of Tlahuitoltepec, raising the demand for their work.



Women banding together

San Felipe Santiago is a small community just off the highway that connects Toluca and Zitácuaro in the State of Mexico. It is still rural, on rolling hills mostly covered by fields. The area used to be forested, with remnants still stubbornly clinging in the higher elevations.

View of part of the town from the atrium of the parish church.

It is a Mazahua community which struggles to maintain a traditional way of life, but it is not easy. It is more rural than other Mazahua communities which are near large cities and industrial corridors, but the lures of modern life are still tantalizingly close for the town’s young people. Most of the community has lost the Mazahua language and most young girls would rather study in school than learn the traditional skills of their mothers and grandmothers.

Working on a gown for a “Niño Dios” image, underneath is an embroidered piece in loose-weave wool

For these reasons, and the need to find new and better markets for their goods, a group of about 15 women from the community banded together about two years ago to form the La Estrella Mazahua Workshop. It is named after the Mazahua Star, a very traditional element in Mazahua embroidery. Prior to this organization, the individual craftswomen were completely reliant on middlemen to sell their goods, with the very low prices that usually go along with this kind of marketing.

Martinez Fonseca selling at an event in Toluca

One of the organizers and leaders of this group is Enith Martinez Fonseca. She is young, only in her thirties, but has been embroidering with her mother since she was eight. Her mother, now 81, still works with the group, both embroidering and going to markets to sell. Because the town is more traditional, most women still do not work outside the some, making embroidery a main means for women to supplement the income of their husbands, who generally work in construction and in local fields. While embroidery originally was for making items for household as well as to sell, since about the 1980s, almost all is now done on items to be sold. One notable exception seems to be the underskirt that traditional Mazahua women wear. It is embroidered on the hem, which is the only part that shows.

Originally the group concentrated on embroidery only. Any clothing items they bought pre-made from other craftswomen, but soon they received help from National Commission for the Development of Indigenous Peoples (CDI) to purchase industrial sewing machines. Now they make clothing items exclusively of traditional fabrics (loose weave wool and a heavy muslin called “manta,”) but they do not make only traditional clothing items. In fact, very few of the clothing items made to sell are completely traditional. The closest are the “peasant” blouses, but even these are modified to make them more acceptable in the market.

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However, the most important, the stitching, the images and various decoration techniques, remain 100% authentic Mazahua.

The Workshop has broken the women’s dependence on middlemen. Now they depend on various state and national agencies which work to promote Mexico’s traditional crafts. Most of their sales are now at various fairs and festivals, mostly in the State of Mexico, but FONART does sponsor their participation in their ongoing fairs in tourist areas all over Mexico.

Sewing machines purchased with a grant from the Mexican government

I asked Enith if they had thought about an online presence and selling outside of Mexico, but she sheepishly dismissed the idea, stating that there is limited Internet access in the area (I can attest to poor cell phone coverage) and that most of women felt that working online was out of their reach because of poor education levels. However, maestra Enith does not dismiss technology and foreign contact completely as she does have an email address (, and can read and write some very basic English.

One of the groups major hopes in the long run is to preserve Mazahua embroidery. To do that, they say it is extremely important to develop markets for their work and earn an acceptable amount for it. Only then, maybe, they can convince enough of the next generation to keep it alive.

Magical handcraft route in Oaxaca

While every area of Mexico has its charms, one of the few places I never tire of returning is the Central Valleys area of Oaxaca, in the center of the state. With a dry, comfortable to warm climate, it is home to the state capital (also called Oaxaca).

Credit: Diecos1000

Oaxaca is known for its prominent indigenous cultures. Even in the city proper it is not too difficult to find people in traditional dress. The city has been a popular tourist destination for a long time for its food, architecture and culture, but fortunately this tourism does not seem to have overwhelmed the local ambiance of the place, at least not to the extent as other destinations such as Acapulco, Tulum and even San Cristobal de las Casas.


Oaxaca is one of Mexico’s main producers of handcrafts, one of the main attractions to the Central Valleys. These handcrafts are important to the state economy, providing employment to many in poor, rural towns, but perhaps more importantly, providing a draw for tourists.


Relatively few tourists venture outside the city of Oaxaca, with the exceptions of excursions to archeological sites and the Hierve el Agua “petrified” waterfall. Most who buy handcrafts, do so on the streets or in one of various galleries in the city center or if they are a little more adventurous, a handcrafts market just southwest of the city center. But the vast majority are bought from resellers, not from the artisans themselves. This is a problem because profit margins on handcrafts are thin and too often, artisans sell at very low prices to middlemen.

Dolores Porras in her workshop in Santa Maria Atzompa (credit:Friends of Oaxacan Folk Art)

To bring more tourists out into more areas where handcrafts are actually produced in the Central Valleys, the state government has established a “Magical Route of Handcrafts” (Ruta Mágica de las Artessanías) connecting the largest of the towns associated with various crafts, generally located to the west and south of the city. The towns on this list include Santa Maria Atzompa, San Bartolo Coyotepec, San Martín Tilcajete, Santo Tomás Jalieza, San Antonino Castillo Velasco and Ocotlán de Morelos. It is not an exhaustive list (notably absent is Teotitlán del Valle), to be sure, but visits to these towns do give some sense of what is made here and the environment of their creators.

Vase with pastillaje decoration.

Three of the towns are noted for their pottery: Santa Maria Atzompa, San Bartolo Coyotepec and Ocotlán de Morelos, each with a distintive style. Originally, Atzompa was known only for utilitarian pottery with a forest-green glaze, which can be still easily found. In the mid 2oth century, some potters such as Dolores Porras and Teodora Blanco began to experiment with the making of decorative figures, both natural clay and painted in multiple colors. There are several families involved in this kind of work now is distinguished by the use of a technique called pastillaje, (where very small pieces of clay are rolled and balled to apply to a figure’s surface for a raised decorative effect. Other attractions of the town include a recently-discovered Mesoamerican ball court, a pottery market and a community museum.

L: Etched barro negro vase at the Doña Rosa workshop, R: Hall inside MEAPO

San Bartolo Coyotepec is home to the very well-known pottery style called “barro negro” (lit. black clay). The shiny black color is due both to the properties of the local clay and how it is worked. Originally, fired pieces were gray until potter Doña Rosa discovered that by burnishing the surface of pieces before firing led to the shiny black. Her work became famous enough that several famous people visited her workshop during her lifetime, including former president Jimmy Carter. Today, the most notable artisan here is Carlomagno Pedro Martinez, who is also the director of the state handcrafts museum (MEAPO), located just off the town square.

Figure by Guillerminia Aguilar at MEAPO

The last pottery town is Ocotlán de Morelos, one of the largest communities south of the city of Oaxaca, about 35 km south. It is on the route principally due to the work of the Aguilar family. The family is named after four sisters who are responsible for popularizing the work started by their mother Isaura Alcantara Diaz, who began making human figurines of various sizes depicting life in their area of rural Oaxaca. Each sister and the generations after them have modified the work to create their own styles, but they are still focused on depicting the popular culture of the region. They are the main handcraft draw of the town, with workshop on or near Morelos Street, near the Hotel Real. Another reason to visit the town is its market, just off the main square. It has an area dedicated to prepared food, every bit as good (if not better) than that of the 20 de noviembre market in Oaxaca City, minus all the vendors selling tourist trinkets.

Woman working on backstrap loom at the market on the main plaza of Santo Tomás Jalieza

Santo Tomás Jalieza and San Antonino Castillo Velasco are dedicated to textiles. Both are on the highway that leads to Ocotlán de Morelos and worth a stop along the way. Jalieza specializes in the weaving of cotton on backstrap looms, making everything from belts, to rebozos to tablecloths and curtains. The town is not touristy but there is a handcrafts market on the main plaza along with a number of shops in the buildings just off of it.  San Antonino is noted for its embroidered blouses and dresses. The best known is a very complicated stitch appropriately called “hazme si puedes” (Make me if you can). The town has a colonial-era church and a local dish called empanadas amarillas, but unfortunately, it has not yet set up a market or an easy way for the casual visitor to see or buy local work. However, since it is right next to Ocotlán de Morelos, it’s worth a look-see in case you get lucky.

Alebrije in progress at the Angeles workshop in San Martin Tilcajete.

San Martin Tilcajete is noted for a very unusual handcraft. The valleys here used to be forested and the carving of animals and toys was a longtime tradition. A recent twist on carving has evolved with the making of alebrijes. Here the term refers to recognizable animals painted in bright colors and with intricate designs. The name and the designs are based off of a similar craft done in Mexico City, credited to Pedro Linares. The creatures are carved from copal, a soft wood and are usually small, from thumbnail to about that of a hand. However a number of artisans in Tilcajete also make very large pieces, and sometimes from other types of wood. Unfortuately, the demand for the figures has meant a depletion of copal trees, with cutting and use now strictly regulated. There have also been reforestation efforts. Tilcajete is a small town with a small church, but the plaza usually has several or more artisans selling their wares.  A number of notable artisans, such as Zeny Fuentes have shops here as well. The Angeles family workshop is an exception, but worth the trek not only because of the quality of the work, but they welcome tourists with demonstrations in Spanish and English.






Unique pottery in Puerto Vallarta

img_4182By Leslie Rutlege

Froylan Hernandez spends his days in his home studio in the Centro area of Puerto Vallarta, using his vivid imagination to create casserole dishes that might look like a pig, have a frog for a handle, or whose lid has been decorated with an octopus. He makes plates & platters in the shapes of a whale or a fish, and much of his repertoire reflects his love for mythological creatures and the supernatural.


While Froylan is now a well-established artist here in Puerto Vallarta; he can trace his roots back to a poor boy that learned to use his hands to make small animals he could sell for two pesos each. They were very simple but you could easily identify what each animal was.


He was born in the village of Irapuato, outside of Guanajuato in 1960, and from the time he was eight years old he knew he was destined to work with his hands. Lying on his belly, he would watch the first budding seedlings from the seeds he planted, and was preoccupied with everything that involved nature and animals. It was near the river by his village, where Froylan would discover the clay-laden rocks he refers to as “barro mystic”. Barros is Mexican clay with a unique consistency and to his surprise; many of the utensils in his mother’s kitchen were made from this clay. As he learned to form small animals and make his own toys from this clay, he started to get images in his head of what he could make with this clay, and it was at that minute he decided to become an artist.


Very young, only 17, he left his village for Mexico City after an older brother talked to him about attending school. Froylan wanted to attend the Escuela Diseño y Artesanías de Bellas Artes, but he soon found out that he did not have the correct documents to be a regular student. The school hired him to do odd jobs around the school, and became impressed with his ability to work with clay, and as luck would have it, he was given a scholarship as an exceptional student. The coordinator of the studio gave him his first real job in clay, making 150 plates for a Japanese wedding. For the next two years, Froylan received his first formal training in the arts, classes in history and drawing, and with various teachers, learning the techniques of ceramics that he would build his career on. He got a job at a ceramics factory to support himself, where they allowed him to sleep in a large unused kiln after realizing his potential. In exchange for a place to stay and terrible wages, he made animals for them, and beer steins, but his first love was the time he would spend at school. There the revolutionary spirit and the feelings of solidarity with the other students made him hate vacations and holidays because he could not be in school learning.


After school he worked briefly in his brother’s studio in Irapuato where he got his first experience working a high temperature kiln. Soon he moved to Guanajuato where there were neighborhoods made up of potters and their families. That is where he started making crazy things, Don Quixotes on horses and others on dragons. He always had to improvise; He used an ancient kick wheel to throw on and the conditions were horrendous. From there the trail led to the Gustavo Bernal School workshop in Michoacán and Monterrey, where he worked in the Cultural Center, supporting himself with odd jobs and singing in public.


When he finally managed to move to the United States he was able to find work at the Clay House Studio, keeping the studio running. It was there, after watching Froylan working on the wheel, that the studio owner introduced him to the internationally famous ceramic artist Michael Frimkee, who asked if Froylan would like to work on a project with him. That gave him the opportunity to “walk through the gates of famous people” as he puts it. Michael Frimkee is a famous ceramics artist who throws pots without using water. He was a musician who turned artist after a vision during a peyote trip and his pots are a mix of Greek-styles & humorous art. He taught Froylan to throw without using water, using the humidity of the clay, which is difficult to do.


After leaving Michael Frimkee’s studio he set out for Puerto Vallarta where he worked for five years at Mundo de Azulejos making models & molds. He also worked in the Graphic and Ceramic workshop of the artistic community of Puerto Vallarta, “The Pulpo Rojo”, where he was in charge of the ceramic workshop. Following his wife Nancy back to Canada, he worked for a government school, Cultural Center of Montreal de Ville Mont-Royal, where he became the Instructor de Torno (wheel instructor), based on his work with Michael Frimkee and his ability to throw without water. Froylan continued to miss Mexico however, and eventually he and his wife, made their way back here to Puerto Vallarta, to stay. If you would like to meet  Froylan, you can drop in to say hello and visit his studio at Calle Abasolo 238, Centro, just off Juarez or call 322 121 0476 to arrange a time to speak with him. Special pieces can be done on a commission basis.

Text and photo printed with the permission of the author. To use in other publications, please contact her through her Facebook page

Metepec, local pottery hidden among suburbia

Featured image-Calvario Church in Metepec with ceramic mural (Credit:Ismamq)

When I first moved to Mexico in 2003, I landed in Toluca, a fast-growing city just west of Mexico City. Not so long ago the area was rural, with an economy based on agriculture, handcrafts and trades.

That all changed in the second half of the 20th century, when Mexico City began zoning out factories and other industries to try and get a handle on its infamous pollution problems. Industrial parks sprang up in and around Toluca proper to accomodate the shift, changing the economy and lifestyle of the people there.

Area close to the local parish vs. panoramic from the same location

However there are areas which struggle to hold on to the old ways. The areas south and west of the city still have farms, with an area noted for its production of flowers and ornamental plants.

Metepec is just southeast of Toluca and came under developmental pressure early, with the building of housing developments for those who commute to Mexico City. However, hidden among the tracts of cookie-cutter houses is Metepec center, whose streets still recall the days when this was a small village.

Blue corn quesadillas, gorditas and tlayudas at a local open air market (tianguis)

It remains a favorite day trip for many in the Toluca Valley, who wander its streets and eat traditional homemade foods. But the main attraction here is to browse the many shops and markets which sell local (and sometimes not-so-local) handcrafts.


Metepec is best-known for its pottery, from very utilitarian cookware to sun (and moon) decorations, to mermaid statues to pottery pieces called “trees of life.”

The cookware is the simplist and most original of the three. It is terra cotta in color usually with glaze only on the surface on which food will touch. The largest are called cazuelas, sort of a cross between a pot and a frying pan, with short handles on both sides. This are most often used in the preparation of rice and mole dishes, and can be large and heavy enough to need two people to lift/place.


The decorative pottery developed later as the Spanish forbade the making of figures and other images during the evangelization process. When it finally returned, the imagery was distinctly European rather than indigenous. The most commonly seen of these to the casual visitor are flat representations of the sun and sometimes sun and moon, with smiling faces, very commonly seen handing on house facades here, as well as the wall around the atrium of the parish church. Interestingly enough, the moon by itself is rarely, if ever seen.

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(Credits:Thelmadatter; Baezadany)

Although nowhere near the sea, there is a style of mermaid figure that is popular here, called the “tlachana.” Although hard to believe now, this area was marshy, with areas covered in springs and shallow water. The name tlachana is of Nahuatl origin and refers to a spirit that lived in these waters. Unable to eradicate it, the evangelists modified the image, eventually turning it into a mermaid. The modern figures are made of clay, usually topless and positioned as if they are reclining, often playing a guitar. These can be made in rather large sizes, as they are three-dimensional, meant to stand alone.

Tlachana clay sculpture in a plaza in Metepec (credit:Octavio Alonso Maya)


The last of the traditionals decorative pieces is called the Tree of Life, in reference to the tree in the Garden of Eden. These have their origin in the early colonial period and were originally used to teach and reinforce the Biblical story of Adam and Eve. The sculpture is based of a candelabra although the Metepec version no longer has space for candles. The finished pieces may be left in the clay’s natural color or painted in bright tones.  Until relatively recently, most were made for self or local consumption, often as wedding gifts. However, interest in the traditional pieces has spread and artisans are now making them for collectors and institutions as well. This has led to Trees with other themes such as those depicting moments in Mexican history and aspects of Mexican culture. Artisans dedicated to this craft have attained more fame than the others, with pieces sold and display both national and internationally. One such family is the Sotenos.

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(credits:Cornemuz, Thelmadatter)

All images by Leigh Thelmadatter unless otherwise noted.

Toys and stories- Taller Tlamaxcalli

Santillan presenting at the Tec de Monterrey, Mexico City

Alvaro Santillán may be as notable for his character as he is for his work. He has a presence, a kind of charisma, which is very useful because his basis as an artisan is with his other work, that of storyteller and local historian.

Now in his 60s, he has led a life with many twists and turns. As a boy, he worked at the Tlamaxcalli workshop of the (now) La Esmeralda National Art School. At that time, it was dedicated to handcrafts/folk art and trades. He worked with one of Mexico’s last master lithographers, Manuel Serrano, as well as artist Leopoldo Flores, best-known for his stained glass work. During this time he was exposed to various types of handcrafts and developed an appreciation for them.

This did not directly lead him to his current profession. He studied anthropology for a few years, then worked in various professions including painting, photography, carpintry and even clothes designer.

Eventually, his personality and interests led him to storytelling and about eleven years ago, he began working with the Secretary of Culture and other organizations, performing for various institutions and schools. Making his own props for this work, Santillan rediscovered that the making of traditional toys in the Mexico City area had died out. Unhappy with this situation, he began to research the subject and study under masters of the craft in other places in Mexico, most notably  maestro Sshinda (Gumercindo España).

Paper mache (cartonería) items from the workshop at the Feria de Cartoneria
Surfer toy by Santillan

Eventually Santillan tired of the demands of his employment with government agencies and decided (along with wife and and business partner Jazmin Juarez) to establish the Tlaxmacalli Workshop located in the Colonia Roma neighborhood of Mexico City. Much of the work and clients are the same, but instead of representing the government, they represent themselves. This allows the more creative freedom, both in the projects they choose to do and how they are done. They also receive more credit and respect for their work than before. Today, the couple give classes, workshops, do storytelling and also presentations on the history of Colonia Roma, especially its legends.

Colonia Roma is not a poor neighborhood, but rather upper class. The workshop is the last of its kind in the neighborhood. It exists because Santillan was able to buy the building some decades ago, just after the 1985 earthquake, when many of the area’s wealthier residents moved to western suburbs on more solid ground. It is on Avenida Chihuahua and while not an exceptionally busy street, the workshop is easily distinguished by a mural painted on its facade by American artist Laramie Xhico Garcia (see featured image).


The workshop is dedicated to the making of traditional toys, almost exclusively in wood. One exception is the making of paraphernalia  for festivals such as masks and Judas figures for Holy Saturday, as these are also classified as “toys” in Mexican Spanish. These are made of paper mache (cartonería) by Santillan’s wife Jazmin, but is not the bulk of the business. Most of the toys in the workshop are of traditional designs, but not all. Some have been made special for storytelling or school projects (e.g. gorillas), and then become part of the workshop’s repertoire

Inside the Tlamaxcalli Workshop.

Although Santillan insists he and his wife are equal partners, Santillan has the bigger presence due to his showmanship. The work of the taller is divided between them, a distinct division of labor. Most people assume that he is in charge and is the “maestro,” with Jazmin as assistant. Instead the couple insists that the workshop depends equally on the efforts of both. For example, which he does much of the outreach work but she maintains relationships with clients.


Most of the products are traditional but not always. Santillan’s wood toys are very similar to those produced by maestro Sshinda, but they tend to be more finely made and painted. Most of the cartoneria products are masks and Judas figures, mostly done to order. The wood toys can be found displayed and for sale in the workshop year-round.

Jazmin Juarez and Alvaro Santillan at the workshop.

This article would not be complete without some discussion of Santillan’s personality. He is a man who has always done things his own way, with no apologies. He is of strong opinions as well, with little patience for bureaucracy and authority; however, this does not keep him from asserting his own authority on things he knows well.

As a storyteller, he is distrustful of writers, believing that writing stories down ruins them, by stripping them of the impact provided by the performance. Even with writing about handcrafts, he can be stand-offish. One reason he states that that most (Mexican) writers do not give artisans enough credit, either in crediting individual pieces to individual artisans, nor respect to artisans in general and the work that goes into the pieces.