Artistic “dolls”

Josefina Aguilar in 2016

Despite being called dolls, the muñecas of Josefina Aguilar and her family are anything but playthings.

To the casual visitor to Ocotlan de Morelos, Oaxaca, there is nothing readily visible to indicate that the town is important to the world of Mexican handcrafts and folk art. It is larger than the surrounding communities, with a pleasant square, an interesting museum in the former Santo Domingo monastery, and some really good food to be had in its municipal market (especially the mole coloradito).

But ask anyone about Josefina Aguilar, and you will readily get directions to the family compound on the highway through town, near the Hotel Real de Ocotlan, where she serves as family matriarch. Josefina is the eldest of four sisters (along with Guillermia, Irene and Concepcion) who are known for the making of “muñecas” (lit. dolls), ceramic figures which have become important collectors’ items.

The muñecas trace their lineage to the work of Josefina’s mother, Isaura Alcantara Dia. The family had worked in clay for many generations, making utilitarian items and some religious paraphernalia such angels and candleholders for festivals such as Holy Week. It was Isaura’s idea to start making purely decorative human figures which depict rural life and sensibilities of the Central Valleys south of the city of Oaxaca. Josefina described her mother as “humble, thin, not fastidious (because she did not like that).“ She worked with her husband Jesus Aguilar Revilla, who sketched and painted, often coming up with new designs, which Isaura executed in clay. Unfortunately, Isaura did not have much time to develop her craft as she died in 1969, at the young age of 44.  Isaura and Jesus’s work is still the basis for the work of subsequent generations although each has evolved their own styles, from slight adjustments to somewhat radical departures.

Figures by various members of the Aguilar family

At the age of eight, Josefina began working with her mother. She worked on utilitarian items as per the family business, but she loved her mother’s work with the muñecas. She started by making parts of the figures, such as arms and heads, but her talent showed early and soon began making her own complete muñecas in all sizes. She worked with her mother until the latter’s death and on her own until she married, garnering national and some international media attention by the time she was in her twenties. She married Jesus Aguilar Revilla, who like his father-in-law, supported and involved himself in his wife’s efforts.

Josefina’s skills and long trajectory have expanded the cultural influence of her work far beyond Ocotlan de Morelos, becoming a grand dame of Mexican folk art. Examples of her work can be seen in various museums in Mexico along with the International Folk Art Museum in Santa Fe, the Rockefeller wing of the San Antonio Art Museum and the Mexican Museums located in San Francisco and Chicago.

Work in various stages of completion at the J. Aguilar compound

The Aguilar compound today is not where Josefina grew up, although she is from Ocotlan. She and her husband built the first house here, in what was a field outside of the town. (Guillermina has a house next door.) It was here that noted Mexican handcraft and folk art collector Nelson Rockefeller came to visit her and discover her work for himself in the 1970s. Josefina remembers the visit as quite a commotion, with Rockefeller “surrounded by motorcycles, police and everything.”  Impressed, he bought much of her work and exhibited it in the United States, which cemented her reputation in the international Mexican folk art market.

Calaca (skeletal) figure by Josefina Aguilar (credit:FOFA)

It is important to note that Josefina’s and her family’s work is more than handcraft, it truly is folk art. Not only are the “muñecas” non-utlitarian (a radical departure from traditional Ocotlan pottery), but they are more than just decorative. One idea behind the muñecas is to capture the essence of life in this rural area.. Most of the figures depict life in Ocotlan, often with women in indigenous garb and doing traditional work and other activities such as selling in the market, tending babies, getting married, attending funerals, spooning with boyfriends and participating in all kinds of festivals. She makes individual figures as well as elaborate sets depicting local weddings, funerals, religious processions and traditional festivals.

However, Josefina has not limited herself to only these themes. Others include images of prostitutes (which she always calls “women of the night”) and figures from Mexican history as well as those which make statements against abortion (recently legalized in Mexico). Another relatively recent addition is depiction of Mexican artist and cultural icon Frida Kahlo. These portraits are based on Kahlo’s self-portraits, but she does not do exact copies, rather she makes small reinterpretations, adding peripheral elements such as monkeys, flowers and other animals and/or by changing her dress, usually by making it even more colorful and grandiose. While she makes both male and female figures, it is obvious that the feminine has the more dominant role.

“Ladies of the night” (granted in broad daylight)
“El aborto” by the Aguilar family at the workshop

The craft element of the figures remains in the clay itself. It is still mined from the same local pits that previous generations exploited, and preparation work such as purification, grinding, and kneading the wet clay is still done the same way. From here, the process is more artistic. All figures are made completely by hand, no molds are used even though Josefina admits they could make more pieces if they did, even partially. Each piece is unique, Josefina does not limit herself to one body type.  Figures vary both is height and width, depicting fat and thin, tall and short, young and old. Hairstyles on women vary from short to long, from traditional braids to modern cuts.  Sometimes she is asked what kind of piece is her favorite to make, but that is difficult to answer as each piece is original. She does not think of her work in a serial way.  She advises her children “…put a bit of your own life and heart into your pieces that you are making so that you give them a bit of life; if they do not have life, it is a thing, nothing more.” For this reason, all Aguilar pieces have a wide variety of facial expressions, from anger to happiness.

Josefina has not thought much about why her work has been so successful, only that people like her pieces.  Only with the Frida does she offer an opinion about why they are success, stating that she believes, that her depictions are different that most that are available.

Intertwined trees at the workshop

The craft is now firmly situated as a family tradition, with children and grandchildren involved. Her children also began working young, but not quite as young as her as they went to school. Most which became involved did so because they saw what their mother was doing and became interested. Each has developed their own style, especially in painting and the creation of faces. She says she encouraged this somewhat in part because she continues to experiment with new designs and themes. Most members of the family who have taken up the craft are collected around the world.

Of her nine children, the ones involved in the craft include Demetrio, Rodrigo, José Juan, Fernando, Sergio, Roberto and Leticia. Each of of these and sign their own names to their own work. Sergio works with his wife Alba Noemi, who learned from both her husband and mother-in-law, and whose work rivals anyone else in the family. Not all of the children (and grandchildren) work in the family compound, but their all of their work can be found for sale there. Even some of Josefina’s young grandchildren are involved, and have even won recognition in Oaxaca.

Alba Noemi at the workshop
Frida image by Josefina (credit:FOFA)

Today, Josefina Aguilar is well into her eighties. She has suffered diabetes for some time now, which has led to the loss of much of her hair, one reason why she became attracted to images of Frida Kahlo, which have the long, thick braids she used to have. More recently, the condition took her sight as well. Despite this, the artist continues to work as best she can. She is still able to create the basic forms of the muñecas using touch only and still using the same processes she has always used. However, she now relies on her husband and the younger generations to do the tasks she cannot. The creation of the facial expressions, though eyes, nose and mouth are done by others, under her direction, along with fingers. Painting is also done in the same way. Although she could retire, she refuses, saying she needs to work, to keep herself active and also to continue supporting the work of her children and grandchildren.

Featured image is of Josefina in the 2000s (credit:FOFA), all other images by Alejandro Linares Garcia unless otherwise noted.


Oaxacan wood carving, reinvented and reinvented again

The word “alebrije” refers to two separate traditions of making colorful creatures of varying sizes. In central Mexico and some other places, it refers to the making of creatures which are an amalgam of parts from real and imaginary animals, and even sometimes people. It is part of a larger craft tradition of paper mache objects (cartonería).

In the state of Oaxaca, the word refers to a style of wood carving and is essentially a stand-alone craft, rather than part of something larger.  Most depict recognized animals although amalgamations and even human figures can be found.

Alebrije by Pepe Santiago workshop (credit:FOFA)
Eleazar Morales Ramirez carving a piece (credit: FOFA)

Oaxacan tour books, guides and even alebrije makers will swear that their alebrijes have a direct link to the inventor of alebrijes, Mexico City pioneer Pedro Linares, usually by stating that he has roots in San Antonio Arrazola, where the Oaxacan version originated. The real linage of these wood carving is a mix of native Oaxaca Central Valleys native woodcarving traditions and influence from Linares’s work.


The native aspect is in the carving and in the depictions of animals real and imagined. Carving real animal and spirit animal/monsters called nahuals (sometimes spelled nagual) goes back to the pre Hispanic period at least among the Zapotecs that dominated much of this area. The more realistic animals were related to hunting and the nahuals were related to native religious beliefs. By the 20th century, the tradition was waning, generally to create toys for children.

However, Arrazola is the “cradle” of Oaxaca alebrije making, and the credit belongs to a man named Manuel Jimenez. The maestro began carving as a boy in the 1920s as a side activity, often while doing other chores such as tending sheep. His carving was traditional and by the 1950s, his work was well enough known to be sold in the city of Oaxaca. It was even noticed by an early notable collector of Mexican folk art, Nelson Rockefeller.

Manuel Jimenez holding a nahual figure at his home. (credit FOFA)

The shift came when Jimenez was invited, along with Pedro Linares and others  by filmmaker Judith Bronowski to demonstrate their work in the US. Jimenez was impressed by Linares’s alebrijes and set about making a version using a local soft wood from a scrub tree called copal. The new, colorful creatures took off, and by the late 1960s, he was exhibiting his work in Mexico City and the United States. By the late 1970s, tourists found their way to his workshop in Arrazola. This popularlty permitted him to become the first full-time carver in Oaxaca.

Jimenez guarded his methods, teaching only those in his family. For this reason, even as late as 1985, when the alebrije business began to boom, there were only six families in Arrazola making alebrijes. This is probably the reason why another town, San Martin Tilcajete, has been able to build a bigger name in the craft than Arrazola.Jimenez died in 2005, and today, those lucky enough to buy even a small piece of his need to pay in the hundreds of USD. The Jimenez family still makes alebrijes, but interestingly enough have shifted to carving a tropical cedar imported from Guatemala.

Display of alebrijes and some other items at the Pepe Santiago workshop.
Lizard figure taking advantage of curves in the wood to create the tail.

Neither the old or new carving traditions had names and since the Linares influence was obvious, the name “alebrijes” stuck. It is important to note that most carvers are not Zapotec and the figures are considered to be novelty ítems, not expressions of cultural heritage. Despite this, the craft is one of the most recognized from Oaxaca, and there are a number of well-known and highly respected artisans in the field each with his/her own style. In Arrazola alone there are several including the Antonio and Sergio Aragon and Martin Sandiego, whose works command prices of hundreds of dollars and often comes in sets.

Claudio Ojeda Morales and family (credit FOFA)

But Arrazola, as Jimenez’s hometown, is the undisputed origin of this colorful figure. It not only produced them first, but its proximity to the state’s political and tourist capital means that the town popularized them as well. Today, the city has nearly overrun the small town and it’s accesible by local city bus. Despite this and the annual “Cradle of Alebrijes” fair it holds each year, Tilcajete is better known for its alebrijes.


Initially, alebrijes were more crudely carved, today called a “rustic” style, and generally carved in pieces which would assemble and disassemble only by pressing the tabs of an extremity into the corresponding hole in the body. This is not easy as the pieces are dried after carving, which changes the sizes of both tabs and holes.

Moose figure by Armando Jimenez Aragon (credit: FOFA)

Today, some small details are still carved separately, such as thin tails, wings and spines, but rarely legs. Originally local animals were the base, those known to the rural carvers making them. Over time, these carvers gained contacts with dealers and with markets that wanted other animals as well such as lions, dragons, elephants, etc. The start of carving competions in the 1970s also prompted artisans to experiment with new forms as a way to winning prizes and getting museums to buy their work. Perhaps the last change is that the rustic gave way to smooth, flowing forms which are often surreal. Two things have stayed the same, which distinguish Oaxaca alebrijes from their paper cousins. Oaxaca alebrijes are almost always of a single animal. The most common are dragons, dogs, armadillos, iguanas, giraffes, cats, elephants, deer, dolphins and fish. Arrazola specializes in the making of alebrijes with complicated bodies, especially iguanas with curled tails, often from a single piece of wood.The second is the use of bright colors, almost always a single background colors with intrícate lines, geometric shapes and/or dots covering the piece. These can be so fine that some artisans have taken to using medical needles to paint dots.

Copal carved soon after it is harvested, meaning it is still wet. This allows it to be carved easily and quickly, using hand tools such as machetes, chisels and knives. The tree is kind of scraggly, so these capricious turns are taken advantage of in the final carving. After carving the figure is left to dry for up to ten months. The soft wood cracks during these stage, so they are then filled in with paste made from copal sawdust and resin and sanded before painting. Every piece of copal is used. Paints were originally made from local plants and minerals but today the vast majority are commercial acrylics. The old paints give a rustic look that some customers prefer.


It would be difficult to underestimate the economic impact that the craft has had the rural familes of these towns. At least 150 families in Oaxaca make a living from it, and the income even for modest carvers is enough to allow families to add onto their houses and send children to secondary school. By 1990s most households in Arrazola were making at least part of thier income through carving, shifing local economies away from farming.  But it has not eliminated the need to farm or send family members to Mexico City or further to work.

Using a syringe to paint tiny dots on an alebrije.

The main reason for its success is likely that these alebrijes are far less “scary” or “intimidating” than their central Mexican cousins, making them more appealing to the tourist for whom they have been sold from the start. Alebrije making has a two-tiered market. The high-end features high-quality, unique and labor-intensive peices, with pieces from those with excellent reputations commanding prices into the hundreds to thousands of dollars. The lower-end market is mostly for the casual tourist and tend to have pieces which are small and repetitive.

But there has been a price for all this success. Copal was almost a “waste wood,” with little economic value, growing all over uncultivated lands. The success of alebrijes created a high demand for the wood, and now wild stocks of copal trees in many parts of the Central Valleys have become seriously depleted, with nearly all the trees around Arrazola and some other location disappeared. The situation is similar to the ficus trees which are the base of amate paper making in northern Puebla. Like the ficus, copal trees need at least 5 to 7 years growth before harvesting, either whole or just taking branches. There have been efforts to reforest and even farm the trees, but the demand outpaces these activities significantly.

View of street in Arrazola, with barren hills in the background

This issue has led to an interesting development, seen only in Arrazola so far in any significant way. While there are carving styles to be sure, one way to distinguish work is through painting, especially in very fine designs over the piece. In fact, the fineness of this work can add significantly to the piece. With copal wood scarce, artisans here have been transferring painting techniques to objects which are not alebrijes and not from copal wood. These include wood cases, picture frames, crosses and even bottles and other commercially made items. This may wind up being the future of the craft.


Picture frames and doll chairs in the Alejandra Ibañez Martinez workshop

Special thanks to the Friends of Oaxacan Folk Art for various photos (in CC-by-SA 4.0 license). All other photos by Alejandro Linares Garcia.

“Realistic” devils

EncuentroNacionalMascareros2017_03845-year-old Alejandro Vera Guzman has dedicated his life to the local Mixtec culture of his hometown of Santiago Juxtlahuaca, principally through the making of masks.

He is a recognized “grand master” of his craft (really art), although he does not come from an artisan family.

His interest in making masks began with his interest in local folk dances when he was only a small boy. Traditional masks are carved from wood by local craftsmen, too expensive for a small boy to purchase, so initially he and his friends participated wearing lucha libre masks. When he was 12, he decided to start making his own masks, teaching himself using paper mache (cartonería). These masks were primarily for his own use but in a couple of years people began asking him to make masks for them. Little by little his reputation for mask making grew.

Dance of the Devils being performed at the First Mask Makers Gathering in Mexico City (2017)

Although his father was a vendor and other siblings went onto professional studies, the family saw and supported Vera’s talent, allowing him to go to Mexico City to study wood sculpting for five years. While he did learn all the basics of wood sculpture, he heart was in mask-making and applied almost all of his effort here, develooping his own style.

The result is the making of traditional masks, but in an artistic way.

Some of Vera’s masks on display at the First Mask Makers Gathering in Mexico City
Two of Vera’s masks (L) on display at the Popular Culture Museum in Mexico City

Vera has made over 5,000 masks over his lifetime so far. He uses principally Montezuma cypress and sometimes juniper,  with the finished masks weighing between 1 to 1.5 kilos each. Vera is best known for the making of masks depicting the devil for a dance called Dance of the Devils performed in Juxtlahuaca each July, but also makes them for other traditional dances such as Los Rubios, Los Chilolos and El Macho. But his masks are quite distinct from those made by other artisans in the area, principally because of his artistic training. Most of his works do not have exagerated features (except for horns, which are those of real animals). The menance of the masks comes far more from facial expressions, how the image stares, smiles, etc then the depiction of blood or garish colors which are otherwise more common.

The Dance of the Devils is the most important traditional dance of Juxtlahuaca. It is derived from the Moors and Christians Dance (indeed a number of masks are meant to depict Mohammed), which is in honor of Saint James, the patron saint of the town. The Dance of the Devils has developed its own style and musical accompaniment. Traditionally the dance is only performed for this event, but today it is also performed when dancers of the town are invited to cultural events in Mexico, and has been performed all over Mexico.

Vera’s attitude about his craft is that of an artist, not someone trying to make a living. Several times during the interview, he returned to the idea that craftsmen should make only unique items: no two masks of his are ever exactly alike. To make items serially, he believes, takes away from the value of the work, as does making something simply because it will sell. He registers and names every piece he makes, and believes each work is a personal and cultural expression.

Vera working on mask (photo courtesy of artisan)

Since 1990, Vera’s work has been regularly recognized with national, state and local level awards and other recognitions. His work has been exhibited in museums such as ARIPO (Oaxaca Institute of Handcrafts), MEAPO (Oaxaca Museum of Popular Art), the Oaxacan state government palace museum, and in 2016 at the Popular Culture Museum in Mexico City. He has been honored for his work several times at the annual Guelaguetza Festival, and in 2012, he was included in the book Great Masters of Oaxacan Folk Art.


Vera’s work does not stop at masks. He sculpting talents produce other objects, most notably the making of religious images. In 2014, he and his family made a nearly life-size nativity scene (Oaxacan style of course) in wood as part of a gift from the state to the Vatican. Later that year, he and his family accompanied the work to Saint Peter’s Square to see it placed and even meet Pope Francis. Vera says he was so nervious that he forgot to kiss the pope’s hand.

Vera with Pope Francias (courtesy of the artisan)

Although he began by making masks for local dance particiption, today the vast majority of his works are sold to individual collectors and cultural institutions rather than in a general marketplace. He sells both “danced” and “undanced” masks, depending on buyers’ preference. A “danced” mask means that the mask had been used as part of a traditional festival, the mask’s original purpose. Some collectors prefer these believing that having had such a use gives them a kind of life. Undanced masks are generally a novel design specifically requested by a buyer.

Vera and son (photo courtesy of the artisan)

One other thing that should be mentioned is that Vera is not only a craftsmen but a musician as well. He is a violinist with a local traditional musical group called Fandango Mixteca. This fits well with his passion for preserving and promoting traditional popular culture and the making of masks for dances. He has not only released albums of traditional local music, but also teaches local children to play the music as well.

All photos by Alejandro Linares Garcia unless otherwise noted.



Sliding a rebozo through a wedding ring

The rebozo is one of, if not the most, visible element of traditional Mexican women’s dress. Despite the fact that it has almost disappeared in daily use, Mexican women own at least one, and these are almost always pulled out to celebrate Independence Day, if nothing else.

The rebozo is made in various localities in the center and south of the country, but perhaps the finest rebozos are made in the northeast.

Santa María del Río is a small town close to city of San Luis Potosí in the state of the same name. Despite colonial era buildings reminicent of towns and cities further south, the natural geography is definitely “norte” with mezquite, cactus and a dry riverbed. The town was established in 1589 by the Franciscans as the Spanish sought to push their control north, out of Mesoamerica and into areas where hunter-gatherer tribes still dominated. To do this, towns like Santa Maria were established and often populated with “more civilized” indigenous people from former Aztec Empire lands. In this case, the migrating people were Otomis. The town was established with a parish, a Franciscan monastery and two neighborhoods, one for the Otomis and one for the native Guachichils. The town is still unofficially divided into “upper” and “lower” based on this division, but the population is now mestizo.

Perhaps the most lasting cultural element from the past is the introduction of weaving rebozos on backstrap looms using ikat dyeing techniques. These are still made much the same way as those made in the center of Mexico but with one important difference, the use of silk (and today, imitation silk).

This development came later in when haciendas began to experiment with the raising of silkworms. The material makes for a much finer and delicate piece than those made of cotton. Silk weaving requires a more precise and delicate touch, so these rebozos became a favorite of wealthing women of the city of San Luis Potosi.


Today, silk rebozos are still made and can still be bought, with prices starting at about $7,500 pesos (roughly $350 USD). It is said that the finest of Santa María’s silk rebozos can slip through a wedding ring,and was used as a way to test that the garment was of 100% silk.

There are essentially two types of rebozos made and sold here. Single color ones (also called “chalinas”) have no pattern and come in a wide array of traditional and modern colors, including a shocking pink. The other consists of rebozos with patterns, still made by dying the threads before weaving.. ikat. These patterns have changed very little since they were introduced to Santa Maria. There are seven basic designs that can still be had. All had names but today all are numbered with a few retaining their names. Number 1 is the bolita, the most famous of the Santa María rebozos as it is seen and referenced in a number of songs and movies. It has two colors, generally small black lines/dots on a white background. Number 2 is called “caramelo” (candy) and is noted for having seven distinct colors. Number 3 refers to those with S-shaped fretwork,. Number 4 is also called pinto abierto (also a black and white design). Number 5 refers to a style with a sword or arrow pattern; number 6refers to a design with birds and number 7 to one with wide fretwork. One that seems to missed being numbered is “barbilla,” but this term refers more to a brown coloring that used to be obtained using local plants.

The ikat designs here are comparable to the rebozo work still done in Tenancingo, State of Mexico, but there are some differences. Tenancingo’s designs are more varied and are still evolving, but are still made of cotton. The knotting of the fringes on those from Santa María is finer.

Silk is no longer produced in San Luis Potosi. Weavers today use silk imported from China as is affords the best quality for the price. The main innovation to Santa María’s work has been the introduction of rayon thread, an artificial silk to make a version that is more affordable. Dyes used to be natural, using local resources, but today this is no longer possible. Many of the plants are extinct or endangered, and rayon cannot take natural dyes anyway.

White and black bolita rebozos in rayon (above) and real silk (below)

The rebozos typically made today are a bit shorter than those of the past, again because of affordability. Most are about two meters long and about 60cm wide, although some can be as long as three meters with widths of up to a meter. Rayon rebozos have a thread count of 3,000, with the silk ones coming in at 3,800.

The fringes are tyed of using complicated knotting techniques, similar to macramé, but much finer. These numerous knots create patterns which are complicated and creative. Traditional ones have names such as duck tail, pine arch and even “make me if you can.” But talented fringe weavers (exclusively women) can made just about any kind of personalized image. These fringes when finished vary from 7 to over 30 cm long.


It should be noted that the most traditional and best of Santa María’s rebozos are still made on backstrap looms, but cheaper versions are made on pedal looms and even some with more modern technology. But the local weavers’ association demonstrates that the results of these are inferior to those of the backstrap loom, mostly because the ikat method requires precise placement of the threads. A single rebozo can take between one and two months but generally not longer as a rebozo left on the loom too long can warp.

Like other notable handcraft towns in Mexico, Santa Maria attracts tourism with visitors coming to buy rebozos here. While it receives visitors from all over the world, the biggest time for the town is the traditional Easter week vacation period (Semana Santa). The negative to this is that many stores have opened in the town offering rebozos, which are not authentic and not even made in Santa Maria. In some cases it is not difficult to spot the fakes, ridiculously cheap prices being a big clue, but in others it is not as clear cut.

Escuela de Rebozo (left) and the Cooperativa (right)

For those who are not expert but still want to buy an authentically made piece (rayon or real silk), there are two reliable places to go: the Rebozo School (Escuela de Rebozo) off the main plaza and the Taller Escuela de Rebocería (often called the “Cooperativa”) on Ocampo Street, one block from the main plaza. The first is better known. Established in 1953 by state and federal agencies, its purpose is to preserve the craft, promote it and assist both students and established artisans with commercialization. It has a store, but there isn’t a hugely wide selection. Most rebozos are sold through government agencies such as FONART. The store also carries other handcrafts from the state, most notably inlay pine and cedar boxes in which many keep the rebozos. The Cooperative dates from the 1980s and has the same mission as the Escuela. In fact, it owes its existance to a split among Santa María artisans at that time. It also sells rebozos, located at a counter inside the building just off the courtyard. Both places offer visitors the opportunity to see what is going on at that moment. The Escuela has more fixed exhibits, but if your Spanish is good, the cooperative can give an explanation of the processes.

Store inside the Escuela de Rebozo
Threads being tied in preparation for dyeing

To shop for a rebozo, it is recommended to check both shops to see what is available. Both take special orders as well. The best time to visit is just before the Easter vacation as they stock up for this vacation period. Another possibility is the annual Rebozo Fair during the first two weeks of August.

While the craft receives support from government agencies, press, intellectuals and more, its survival is not assured. Weaving the garment is a time-consuming process and while weavers can spend 10 hour days for weeks on a rebozo, a single garment may earn the artisan only $1,000 pesos. Since Santa Maria is near a major city with industry nearby, there are other options for work.

Ceramics, history and a little ice cream for dessert

388px-Miguel_Hidalgo_con_estandarteFor most Mexicans, the town of Dolores Hidalgo, Guanajuato is best known as the “cradle” of the Mexican War of Independence (1810-1821), when Father Miguel Hidalgo rang the church bell at 11pm on the 15 of September to call people to arms against Spanish rule. At that time, it  was a rural town dependent on agriculture. Today, it is also a popular place to visit for both expats living in San Miguel de Allende and Mexicans spending a weekend away from central Mexico’s major cities, including Mexico City.

In addition, Dolores Hidalgo is one of the largest ceramic producers in the country, producing a style of multi-colored glazed pottery in intricate, bright, sometimes capricious designs. Examples of these ware can be found in homes, offices, handcraft and tourist shops all over Mexico. Most foreigners recognize it as “Mexican pottery.”

DSC_0066 (681x1024)

The pottery and its designs are very similar to other glazed wares found in central Mexico, most notably Puebla. from which the craft was brought by the Spanish and established here in the colonial period. (Some sources credit Miguel Hidalgo for its introduction.) Locally, the ware is often called “talavera,” but legally that is not possible. That label/trademark is reserved for the Puebla glazed pottery.

All other traditional glazed pottery, no matter how similar, is called majolica. Dolores Hidalgo claims the differences in production are minor, but this is not exactly true. The clay used is different and sometimes unglazed pieces are brought to the town to be decorated/glazed. The brighter colors (including bright white backgrounds) of this pottery indicates the use of more modern glazes and pigments, whereas the most authentic Puebla pottery still strictly requires the use of mineral pigments. Both of these elements bring the price of Dolores Hidalgo wares to levels far below those of Puebla Talavera.

blog post 3 (1024x681)
Tracing lines on a piece at the Talavera Vazquez workshop


blog post 7 (584x1024)Like its Puebla cousin, the majolica here began in blue and white, but today the color varieties are much greater than those of Puebla (which is restricted to the use of  six colors). The wider color palette means that artisans like those of the Talavera Vazquez workshop can experiment with new color combinations to see what works in marketplace.  However, there are some important similarities. Dolores Hidalgo wares are also made of a local mix of black, white and red clays from abundant local deposits; many designs have been passed down for generations, both go through the same firing processes and both are hand-painted.

The making of the pottery is the major industry here, accounting for 90% of the municipality’s income, with sales reaching about 1.5 million dollars. It employs about 70,000 people in an estimated 2,300 workshops. Two-thirds of the pottery is sold domestically, with another third exported abroad, primarily to the United States. There is a wide range of products here from dishes of all kinds, to water dispensors, to table tops, to tiles, bathroom sinks, large covered jars called “tibors,” to animal and human face decoration, picture/mirror frames and more.

DSC_0064 (1024x681)
Stores on Jose Alfredo Jimenez Street

Several years ago, México Desconocido magazine stated that the town was filled with street stalls and shops selling the wares. In 2017, this no longer seems to be the case. The  historic town center is curiously clear of the local majolica, with the exception of the Mercado of Artesanias on one side of the Dolores parish church and a small passageway with various kinds of handcrafts and souvenirs on the other. Even the few stalls selling tourist stuff on the main plaza lack the pottery.  Most of the tourist-type stores are clustered on Jose Alfredo Jimenez (one of the highway roads surrounding the town), but the quality of these wares are generally poor and mixed in with novelty items and other handcrafts of unknown origin.

There are, however, a number of workshops worth the effort to find. Two of these are Talavera Vazquez and Talavera Cortés, two of the oldest, still-operating workshops in the town. A partial list of workshops and producer sellers appears at the end of this article.

blog post 6 (1024x681)
Part of the selection of Talavera Vazquez

It is important to note that the quality of the wares varies immensely, and like most other handcrafts, what is easy to find is not the best to be had. Like most other Mexican handcrafts, producers are under pressure to sell cheaply and have difficulty finding and keeping qualified craftsmen simply because there are other and easier ways to make a living. Roberto Vazquez of the Vazquez workshop states that there are only 4 true potters left in the town, all old men, forcing producers to switch to molding pieces.

blog post 1 (1024x646)

Although not as picturesque overall like San Miguel Allende or the city of Guanajuato, it is still a pleasant place to visit and offers more to see than pottery. It is a “Pueblo Mágico,” mostly due to history (along with the ceramics). The area was originally a Chichimeca zone, known as Cocomacán, or place where they hunt doves. It was not part of the Aztec empire, so the Spanish founded the town in the 1560s starting with the Nuestra Señora de los Dolores Church.  One can still visit the former home of Father Hidalgo, which is now a museum exhibiting items from the War of Independence era. More history of that time can be seen at the Independence Museum (which ironically used to be a jail). The church from which Hidalgo rang the bell is still there, but alas the bell is not. Some decades earlier, the federal government decided to move it and today it hangs and is rung at the National Palace in Mexico City. A replica is in its place. But that does not stop Dolores Hidalgo from being a popular place to be at on “Noche de Grito” when Hidalgo’s call is reenacted all over Mexico.

Despite its tourism, restaurants are not easily found in the town center, but Dolores is noted for its production of ice cream, from common flavors like vanilla and chocolate to those made from Mexican fruit favorites such as mango and tamarind to exotic flavors including avocado and shrimp. Ice cream stands are easily found on the main square, starting in the afternoon.

Credit: Cristina Zapata Perez


Talavera Vazquez (Puebla and Tamaulipas Streets)

Talavera Cortés (Distrito Federal 8, specializes in tiles and bathroom sinks)

Méndez Torres Mayolica (highway to San Felipe, just outside of town)



All photos by Alejandro Linares Garcia

Rough hands, delicate pieces

Jaguey working on in his workshop

Although situated in a landlocked valley a few hours north of Mexico City, the small Otomi community is El Nith (in the municipality of Ixmiquilpan, Hidalgo) is known for work in mother-of-pearl inlay of wood items.

Mario Gerardo Jaguey is one of the best-known of these artisans, and while many families in El Nith have been doing this for at least six generations, Jaguey earned his position through his own hard work.

Hard work is nothing new to both adults and children here, as the basis of much of the economy is still agriculture. Children still begin working as soon as they are able to help with family expenses. At age six he was already working in the fields, planting or harvesting tomatoes, chili peppers, etc.  At age 11, he started going to Mexico City during summer vacations to work as well.

Field in El Nith

One of the various odd jobs included working for a local landowner and artisan named Nicolas Pedrasta. At first Jaguey worked in the fields, but since this is only seasonal, asked for more work and was permitted to help in the señor’s workshop dedicated to the mother-of-pearl craft.

Like all apprenticeships, Jaguey started with the simple jobs, with his first production work being the cutting of simple leaf outlines from the abalone shell. Jaguey found the work easy and intuitive, and after a long time cutting these repetitive pointed ovals, he was bored and wanted to do more. But convincing the maestro to let him was not easy. One problem is that cutting more complicated shapes can put pressure on the thin, delicate blades, which break easily in inexperienced hands. Jaguey’s frustration almost led him to quit, but he stuck it out. One day, he decided to take a chipped leaf piece and cut the vein pattern into it, then show the maestro that he was capable of doing more. That broke the impasse, and Jaguey was permitted to learn just about all aspects of the craft.

Cutting a vein pattern into a small leaf
Applying mother-of-pearl into a box in progress

By high school, Jaguey began working the craft on his own, having learned everything the workshop could teach him. His idea was to start with the making of miniature musical instruments, but it was rough going at first. While he had mastered the inlay techniques, he had not learning woodworking to the same degree. The making of miniatures/instruments requires precision and his first pieces were less-than-optimal. Criticism from both customers and his former maestro prompted Jaguey to put more effort to improving this area.

This did not stop him from production and even experimentation. While still in high school, he decided use the technique to create earrings, basically small, flat pieces of wood with inlay. He had some success selling these to classmates. Such small items, which have grown to include keychains and souvenirs are still part of Jaguey’s production. Another innovation came after he finished high school. He met an artisan who works in nickel silver and together they worked out a way to apply mother-of-pearl inlay onto objects of this metal to create jewelry, belt buckles and more.

Miniature instruments in the shop in El Nith

After finishing high school, Jaguey began to work full time, but the workshop as it is today dates to 1990, when he married his wife. At that time, the couple had no workshop, not even a work table. But Jaguey wanted to build his business and do it differently from his maestro. In El Nith at that time, the craft was a side occupation and even somewhat degraded as not “real work” for a man as it is not strongly physical. Workshops before that time only made pieces to order, meaning that there was no way to sell to the casual visitor. Jaguey decided to dedicate himself to it full time, working 15-hour days with his wife to build stock and a customer base. In 1991, the family used a building on the highway through town to open a store to take advantage of traffic between Ixmiquipan and Cardonal. Initially, the store did very little business as the road is not a true highway and most traffic was (and is) local. Even those potential customers that did pass the store were already on their way to see the old maestro, who still dominated the trade. However, this has since changed in the store’s favor for various reasons, and it can still be found in the same location, carrying up to 100 types of items on display, from miniatures to large pieces 30 cm, sometimes more.

Shop on the main road in El Nith

The main change to the business was building the reputation of the Jaguey workshop. Much of this has come through the participation of craft and other fairs. The first was the Ixmiquilpan Fair held annually in August, then other small town fairs in the Mezquital Valley and then to the state capital in Pachuca. At these fairs, small items such as earrings and keychains sold best, but more importantly they made his work known. The first fairs outside of Hidalgo were in Toluca, which Maestro Jaguey remembers fondly although the city’s cold climate made him ill.


Intertwined with fairs are handcraft competitions. Jaguey’s first was in 1999 in Ixmiquilpan, winning first place. The win brought his work to the attention of Mexico’s FONART, which gave him a grant to go to Spain along with a number of other Mexican artisans to sell their wares. While he did not sell much here, he learned the importance of a number of business practices such as having a telephone number (still not that common at the time) and business cards. The experienced allowed him to be more prepared for a second opportunity in Florida the following year. Since then, Jaguey regularly exhibits and sells his work in various parts of Mexico through FONART and also with the Expo de los Pueblos Indígenas in Mexico City. He and the workshop continue to participate and win in handcraft competitions.


Fair sales and other sales to end buyers constitutes the bulk of business. There are some exceptions such as sales to certain museums, galleries and government agencies, but Jaguey is very cautious about these. Too many resellers attempt to bargain down prices to levels which are not sustainable for the artisan. With direct sales, Jaguey says, both the artisan and the buyer get better prices.

The business has grown both in size and reputation since the late 1990s. It took its current name, “Arte Joya” in 2000, named after the section of El Nith where workshop is. The business continues to be more sophisticated than the vast majority of handcraft enterprises, with a trademark, Facebook page and business cards. The workshop is open to visitors, from those from local elementary classes to groups of foreigners on tours.  Jaguey believes the tours are important as they demonstrate the craft’s complexity, along with aesthetic and cultural value.

JagueyWorkshop045It is also important as the Ixmiquilpan works to promote itself to tourism in general. The town and surrounding valley is an important Otomi cultural and linguistic enclave. Jaguey, an ethnic Otomi who learned Spanish as a second language, believes that the craft is representative not only of the people of this valley, but of Hidalgo state as a whole. He teaches local children and let them work for him, not only to let them earn some money but also to help preserve the craft in the town.

Most of Jaguey’s time is now spent in running the business, with almost all production done by various family members employed and supervised by him and his wife.  The workshop is attached to the family home, both built and expanded since the couple were married. Items that have a wood base are 100% produced by the workshop. In the case of metal objects, only the inlay work is a product of La Joya.

Originally, all inlay work in El Nith was done on woods such as willow and mesquite, and the inlay material was sheep bone, all local materials. Arte Joya still uses some of these. However, wood today is mostly juniper from the highlands of the state because of costs, and mother-of-pearl dominates the inlay because the market prefers its colors. The workshop makes all of the traditional items, jewelry boxes, picture/mirror frames, miniatures, etc and most of the decorative schemes are traditional as well, flowers, other foliage and doves native to the Mezquital. However, other designs are made, especially in pieces made-to-order, which can include letters for personalization, all manner of animals and pre Hispanic designs.

Processions, commemorations and wax

One of Mexico’s overlooked handcrafts is the working with wax. While it is used for a number of items including masks and even nativity scene figures (in Salamanca, Guanajuato), it is mostly used for the making of candles.

Virgin of Sorrows carried on a litter with decorated candles during the Procession of Silence in San Luis Potosí (credit:Italiaugalde)

The making of candles is overlooked, their use is not. Candles play a very large part in many of the country’s religious and folk-religious practices. Few processions, especially those at night, lack them. Participants carry them during the Posadas, small processions in December which reenact Mary and Joseph’s search for lodging shortly before the birth of Jesus. Candles burn by the thousands on graves and family altars all over Mexico for Day of the Dead, often accompanying families’ all-night vigils in the cemeteries. Famous events of this type include those in Mixquic (Mexico City) and Janitzio, Michoacan. These candles are often decorated with paper, figures of various materials and even paint. The decorations vary from observance to observance and from place to place.

Candles on graves of the main churchyard in Mixquic, Mexico City

The reason why wax work is overlooked is that the vast majority of candles used in Mexico are commercially-made, with the decoration often done by the participants themselves. But handcrafted candles are still made in a number of places.

Such candles are based on the candle-making introduced by the Spanish in the early colonial period. The basis of much of this production is still beeswax, although other waxes such as parrafin and carauba are used. Most are a combination of two or more waxes and each artisan has their own recipe. Simple candles are still made like those of the past, with melted wax poured over hanging cords again and again until the desired thickness is reached. As beeswax is naturally yellow, white is acheived by bleaching the wax in the sun. Other colors are obtained through dyes.

Artisan from Morelos shaping adding decorative wax elements onto a candle
Example of cera escamada technique on a candle by Graciela Ramirez Lopez of Mexico City

The most impressive candlemaking in Mexico is that which uses a technique called “cera escamada.” These candles tend to be profusely decorated, often with nothing more than the same wax the base candle is made of. The word “escamada” derives from a word related to fish scales and refers to thin layers of wax which are then pressed into molds to form the various elements, which are then attached to the base candle using melted wax. This decoration can be limited to those that attach directly onto the candle proper to arrays that extend far beyond the base, requiring a supporting wire structure.  These structures can be a single color, multi-colored and/or with more decoration in paper, gold leaf (real or imitation) and more.



Molds for shaping wax

Artisans still practicing this craft can still be found in Mexico, especially in the center and south of the country including Amecameca and Tenango del Valle (State of Mexico), Tlayacapan (Morelos), Tlacolula and Teotitlán del Valle (Oaxaca), the Patzcuaro Lake area (Michoacan), Cuetzatlan (Puebla), Tlaxcala and Ixtlan del Río, Nayarit. The state of Guanajuato holds an annual competition in the craft (and other kinds of wax sculpting), with most participants coming from the towns of Salamanca and Cortazar.





Wax filigree decoration in Santa Maria del Rió, San Luis Potosi (credit:Pulso Diario de San Luis)

The escamada of San Luis Potosí is notable as the candles have either become an afterthought or have disappeared all together. Here a filigree-type technique is used with wood molds similiar to those used for printmaking. In Río Verde the panels are used to make small constructions such as models of churches or altars In Santa María del Río, screen-like objects are made with flower designs, which can be further decorated with crepe paper.


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









Blowing up Judas

Mexican folk-Catholic traditions are based on those of Spain, and are often reinterpreted (and reinterpreted again) based on the country’s culture, history and current social concerns.

One of these relates to the creation of an effigy of Judas Iscariot for Holy Saturday. In many southern European countries, there has been a centuries long tradition of creating some kind of crude effigy to represent the disciple who betrayed Jesus Christ, in order to abuse and destroy it as a way to destroy evil and commemorate Iscariot’s suicide.

Hanging and execution of Judas in Santorini, Greece  (credit:Klearchos Kapoutsis)

The Spanish brought the tradition over from Europe and since then it has developed a life of its own. In many places which burn Judas on Holy Saturday, the figure is still usually cloth and/or sawdust, paper, wood, etc and made with little to no artistic thought in the matter. Not so in Mexico.

Paper mache (cartonería) was introduced in Mexico in the late colonial period and became a popular material for creating cheap props for Mexico’s many festivals. In central Mexico, it became the essential material for the creation of Judas effigies.

But instead of a crude human-like figure, the technique allowed for more creativity,  Eventually, the “traditional” paper mache Judas figure became a devil, often naked with (sometimes distorted) limbs, horns and menacing face. Paper mache allows for painting, so bright colors, especially red, became commonly used.  The rigidity of the figure allows for something their cloth counterparts do not… the attachment of fireworks.

Traditional devil “Judas” figures, part of the folk art collection of Juan Jimenez in Mexico City

Judas figures in Mexico are not burnt…. they are exploded, although the event is still called the “quema (burning) de Judas.”  The event is loud and somewhat dangerous.

In Zacatecas, the figures are not only have fireworks, they are also roped and dragged in the streets by men on horseback.

Making of a large Judas figure at the National Cartoneria Gathering in Cuernavaca

This brings me to something of a controversy regarding these figures. In the 19th and halfway through the 20th century, these figures were exceedingly popular in central Mexico, especially Mexico City. For many paper craftspeople (cartoneros), the sale of Judases was one of the largest sources of income.

But that changed in 1957, when fire and explosions at the La Merced market in downtown Mexico devastated the buildings and the surrounding area. Soon after the federal government (who ran the city at the time) banned the making, warehousing and most selling of fireworks in the city limits. “Burnings” of Judases were almost entirely banned as well.

Without the fireworks, Mexican saw little reason to continue buying the Judas figures and many cartoneros needed to leave the trade.

For this reason, it is hard to find Burnings of Judas in Mexico City and even in other places as other states and municipalities adopted the precedent set by the capital. Today it is limited only to those who obtain special permits to hold the event such as the Linares family on Oriente 30 (near Metro Fray Servando), the Annual Feria de Cartoneria of Mexico City, along with those held in Tultepec and Toluca in the neighboring State of Mexico. Celaya, Guanajuato also has the event, but they have since reverted to the literal and older meaning of “burning” where the figure is doused in gasoline and set on fire.

Member of the Linares family setting a firework onto a Judas in front on 30 Oriente Street in Mexioc City

As for the exploding Judases, the official reason given for the many restrictions relate to public safety. And indeed the explosives used on the figures are significantly more powerful than your average firecracker. All traditionally published materials on the subject repeat this claim. However, there are more than a few cartoneros in Mexico City who do not believe that this is the true reason behind the near-ban. There is some evidence to back them up. First, toritos do not have nearly the same restrictions and as their fireworks are going off, and they are plowing through crowds of onlookers.

The second relates to the evolution of Judas figures which are NOT figures of devils. Mexico has a long tradition of higher classes oppressing the lower, with the lower classes finding ways to mock and jeer their “betters.” Since paper mache allows for fairly realistic representations, early in their development appeared versions that would depict politicians any anyone else who might have sparked the ire of a community during that time, taking the place of Judas/the Devil as a symbol of evil. The idea is that the Merced fire created an excuse to clamp down on this form of protest

Judas figures depictiting (L to R) Mexican president Peña Nieto, Donald Trump and Barack Obama

While it succeded in dampening the popularity of the event in general, it did not eliminate the making of Judas figures as a form of protest or effigy of a real person (always male for some reason). The Linares family burns a series of figures during their event, Mexican and even foreign figures appear in the lineup.

And never ones to miss an opportunity for the ironic, Mexican can even make Judas figures of popular characters usually from pop culture such as comedians, actors and singers as a kind of a homage… but these all get “burned” too.

Judas figures waiting to be burned. The middle figure (with baseball cap) is from the popular children’s series El Chavo de Ocho


Other areas where Burnings of Judas still occur

San Miguel Allende (but on Easter Sunday)

Patzcuaro, Michoacan

Cuernavaca, Morelos (Centro Cultural Jardin de Borda)

Colotlan, Jalisco

Obrerista, Treviño and Sarabia neighborhoods in Monterrey

Cuitláhuac, Veracruz

Gomez Palacio, Durango


All photos by Alejandro Linares Garcia or Leigh Thelmadatter, unless otherwise specified