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).
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.
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.