Ojo Seco is a typical rural community in southern Guanajuato. With only around 2,000 people it is built around an old hacienda and its economic identity still centers around the raising of cattle and goats, with one of the main landmarks in the center of town being the communal watering trough. The town holds no surprises as to a location for traditional textile handcrafts.
With one possible exception.
Jorge Herrera is her legal name, but she prefers to be called La Guina (“gee-nah”), a pet name given in childhood. She greeting me wearing the full traditional garb for women of the Celaya region, white blouse, large silver earrings, black patterned rebozo, fringed underskirt and red wool overskirt with black embroidery. However, this is not everyday wear, but rather worn on this day for promotional effect. This garb is rarely worn nowadays, only very occasionally for certain festivals. As a young child, she began to do handcrafts with the women in her family, starting with embroidery.
Indeed, embroidery is the mainstay of handcrafts in this area of Celaya, with just about any other textile tradition having died out, replaced by cheaper manufactured goods. Women in Ojo Seco and other communities in this area embroider napkins, tablecloths, curtains, and clothing items, especially rebozos. Originally, this was done for family with the occasional sale but today, most items are made to earn a little extra money. One notable embroidery style consists of a series of densely-packed stitches of high loops on one side. When elements are filled in, these loops are trimmed so that the height above the cloth is even, with an effect similar to that of hooked rugs. Well done pieces of this type do not have a true “wrong” side, it’s simply a question of how much loft the user wants to be shown.
While most women in Ojo Seco and nearby communities make embroidered items to occasionally sell, it is the Herrera family that has turned it into a business. Guina, her mother and sister work in various parts of the family compound, a series of interconnected living spaces that has been in the family for generations and still houses multiple generations. The decision to take the craft more seriously about 6 years ago was Guina’s, inspired in part by support for the family’s work from the Celaya Casa de Artes. This support comes through their sponsorship to attend various handcraft and cultural events, mostly in the Celaya areas, but they have also traveled as far as Patzcuaro and Mexico City. Through this, they have begun to build both domestic and some international clientele, occasionally shipping items to the United States and Europe.
But Guina’s passion for textiles does not stop with embroidery. When she was 12, she found someone to teach her to art of weaving rebozos on a backstrap loom, which had died out in southern Guanjuato decades earlier. Today, the family weaves both on backstrap and wooden pedal looms, mostly to make rebozos, but also some morrals (a kind of carrying bag) and fajas (a wrap belt). Weaving is done in cotton, follow by wool and acrylics.
(Left: two knotted throw rugs and Right: Guina with a woven and embroidered rebozo)
About 25 years ago, Guina read about the making of Oriental style knotted rugs in Temoaya, State of Mexico and learned this craft as well, mostly through reading and trial-and-error.
Recent contact with tourist markets have prompted the family to create new merchandise, most notably the creation of rag dolls dressed in the traditional garb of the region.
La Guina is not only a craftsperson and innovador, but also an unofficial historian for Ojo Seco. She is full of historical knowledge of the area, its traditions and legends, including very interesting ones related to local people fighting off marauding bandits and tales of treasures buried in the surrounding low mountains.
(Left:Guina at pedal loom, Center: pottery and arrowheads from nearby hills and Right: Guina demonstrating the common watering trough fed by the main local spring)
The family’s economy is traditional, based on some livestock, the making of cheese and other dairy products along with the handcrafts. (I highly recommend queso fresco made with goat’s milk, much better than the cow’s milk version.) But there are signs that Ojo Seco’s days as an agricultural village are numbered. First, it lies just off a major highway, and second, several industrial parks have been established here, whose employment the younger generations much prefer. One thing that keeps Guina going despite the low pay is the desire to preserve local crafts and traditions, with the hope that some of the next generation will keep these techniques alive.