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.”
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.
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.
The 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.