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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Credit: Cristina Zapata Perez

Workshops/producers

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

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