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.
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.
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.
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.
All images by Leigh Thelmadatter unless otherwise noted.