The “Tree of Life” (Spanish Arbol de la Vida) is a unique clay folk sculpture which arose in central Mexico sometime during the colonial period. Soon after the Conquest, the Spanish destroyed indigenous religious figures made of clay (and other materials) and set about replacing them with Christian iconography. The original purpose of the trees was evangelical, particularly related to the story of Adam and Eve and a reminder of original sin.
Although today Metepec, State of Mexico is best-known for their production of elaborate trees, the sculpture most likely originated in Puebla. Today, the two main producers in Puebla are Izucar de Matamoros and Acatlan de Osorio. In both locations it has a history of at least 250 years. It became a traditional gift for weddings as it was not only related to the first human couple, but it was also considered to be a talisman for fertility. By the early 20th century, this custom and the making of the trees had just about died out, but in the mid 20th century, the craft was revived due to a highway connecting Mexico City and Oaxaca which runs through both towns. The highway provided a new market for the craft, Mexican tourists traveling between the two cities. The boon lasted a few decades, enough time for the craft to be reestablished and even develop in new directions.
In Puebla, as in the State of Mexico, traditional trees of life still are based on the story of Adam and Eve, and these still dominate the market. These traditional ones always have images of the couple (usually naked except for fig leaves) at the base of the tree, and often a snake can be seen as well. This is true in the State of Mexico as well, but the form the trees take are distinct. Metepec trees seem to branch out like real trees, but the Puebla version is more stylized with “branches” bending inward onto the body of the tree.. However, the main giveaway that a tree is from Puebla is that it will have at least one place to insert a candle (even those these are almost never used), showing the craft’s relationship to the making of candelabras. Some artisans have developed trees with other themes such as the four seasons, death, chocolate, local dances and food; however, purists do not consider these to be true Trees of Life but just very ornamental candle holders.
Despite sharing the ability to hold candles, the trees made in Izucar de Matamoros (generally simply called Matamoros) and Acatlán de Osorio are quite distinct from each other. This is likely due to the very different environments of the two towns, despite being only about an hour or so drive apart.
Matamoros is southwest of the city of Puebla. Its climate is significantly warmer than Mexico City or the city of Puebla, but its climate and identity is not radicaly different from that of the state capital. Mass agriculture is still practiced here, especially the growing of sugar cane, along with the production of sugar products such as piloncillo and aguardiente (a kind of rum). Its relative proximity to Puebla and Cuautla and better highway infrastructure makes is a fairly large town/small city.
This makes Matamoros a colorful places, especially in comparison to Acatlán. This propensity for color, even if somewhat paler than in other parts of Mexico, shows up in its trees, which are painted in various bright colors and very often with tiny lines and geometric patterns and even sometimes figurative patterns as well. Clay elements such as flowers, leaves and other plants can show up as profusely as on their cousins in Metepec, but this is not as common.
The current incarnation of the craft in Matamoros is credited to the Castillo Orta family, beginning with Catalina Orta, who taught her children (who carry the last nams of Castillo Orta as per Spanish tradition). The two best known are Alfonso, who was named a “grand master of Mexican folk art” by the Fidecomiso Banamex before his death, and his sister Isabela, who despite being in her eighties still works, including doing some of the finest detail painting in the town. Isabel states that her mother revived the craft after it had died out, and therefore, all the artisans working in Matamoros are of the family or have been taught by the them. Major workshops in Matamoros include Taller Isabel Castillo (Herculano Sánchez 8), Taller Joaquin Balbuena (Calle del Bosque 5, Barrio de Santa Catarina), Taller Alfonso Castillo (Callejon del Partior 3, Barrio San Martín, Huaquechula), Arte Casbal (Carratera Mexico-Oaxaca, Barrio de Santa Catarina) and Taer Tomas Hernandez (Mariano Matamoros 18, Barrio de Santa Catarina).
The Trees of Life of Acatlán de Osorio are even less known that that of Matamoros, primarily because the town is more isolated. Only the highway to Oaxaca connects it to the outside world, and in this area, the road is winding and narrow (though in the process of modernization) and the incline down from Matamoros is noticeable. The significant change in elevation changes the landscape and identity of the area. It is hot, dry desert/semi-desert with organ pipe cactus dominating the surrounding landscape. There is no mass agriculture here, although it does produce a fruit locally called “pitaya seca” from the same cactus that surrounds the town.
On Puebla’s southern border with Oaxaca, it is the “cradle” or entrance to the lands of the Mixtec people, which means the area has more in common culturally with Oaxaca than with the rest of Puebla. Athough the population is mostly mestizo, the Mixtec identity is still important with a locally prominent archeological site (Yucundoxi) and replicas of pre Hispanic artifacts sold in craft stores.
Although native languages may no longer be spoken here, the indigenous heritage is still evident, with local archeological sites (esp Yucundoxi) and replicas of pre Hispanic pieces offered for sale.
Acatlán de Osorio’s work is even less known than that of Matamoros. Unfortunately, because of their isolation, the artisans here have an even harder time selling and getting their work recognized. Despite this, a number of its artisans have exhibited their work in museums in Mexico and abroad. There is an Acatlan tree in the Rockefeller collection.
Acatlan is a handcrafts town, making items in stone and metal, but especially in clay. Most wares are decorative and include sun and moon wall hangings, pots, jars and figures of animals. The distinction for all of Acatlán’s wares is the burnishing technique and the use of earth tone pigments from the various subsoils of the region. In knowledgeable hands, these pigments produce gray, various shades of brown, a near-white, red, black, orange and even pink.
The history of the trees here is similar to that of Matamores, but in this case, credit for its revival goes to Heron Martinez Mendoza, who worked with his wife Olivia and his family. Much of his inspiration comes from his dreams along with the forms and colors of his hometown. His work was mostly in two colors, a white/gray background ( with darker brown/black depending on pigment purity) for designs and other decorative touches.
It is important to note that, unlike in Matamoros, the making of Trees of Life does not dominate here, but is rather a relatively small part of the volume produced. The stalls off the main square and on the highway proper rarely carry them. It does, however, represent the best the town has to offer. To find these, visitors must find the artisans and their workshops/homes themselves, like that of Pedro Martinez Lopez and his wife Irma Luz Flores Velazquez.
Pieces from Puebla can be found in both public and private collections in Mexico, the United States and Europe. Those who make the finest wares generally sell abroad as they can get much better prices for their work, but one can buy from their stock in their workshops or make special orders. Sizes can range from a few centimeters to several meters in height, but most are between 250 and 500 cm. The extremely large pieces are almost exclusively made for cultural and governmental institutions.
In both Matamoros and Acatlan, here are artisan who experiment with making more innovation designs and even artistic pieces. Jorge and Ulises Casbal (Arte Casbal) have experimented with other forms such as human ones decorated with the elements and painting style of the trees. Pedro Martinez creates realistic and stylized pieces, a number of which are more for his own pleasure than for sale.
However, the boom decades that the highway afforded both these towns came to an end with the construction of a newer, more modern and much faster highway connecting the two cities, routing to the east. Matamoros has fared the downturn better than Acatlán due to the aforementioned proximily and highway connections. But both have suffered declines in sales, not just to passing motorists but also to wholesalers as the world seems to forget that the towns even exist.