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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.