It would be difficult to underestimate the importance of woodworking in central Michoacan. Just walking around the tourist town of Patzcuaro reveals the prevalence of wood ceiling beams and wood columns in front of many buildings. Such things can be found in other parts of Mexico as well, but they are almost always because they are originals from buildings constructed 100+ years ago. Woodworking shops here still produce wood columns carved in traditional styles.
Wood furniture is made in a number of communities here including Capacuaro, Comachuén, Arantepacua, Turícuaro and Tocuaro. But by far the best known furniture producer is the community of Cuanajo, close to Patzcuaro. It is only about 15 minutes by car, deviating from the highway to Morelia onto a small, winding road that is the only access. Surrounded by low but steep hills, it is a small community of under 5,000, with just about everyone here ethnic Purhepecha and speaking this indigenous language.
Like all colonial towns, the center is the parish church. It is definitely worth a visit not only for its history and architecture, but because it also showcases two of the town’s handcrafts, woodworking and embroidery. The pews are new and obviously made here. The pulpit and other elements are painted in the signature bright colors and the lecturn even shows the Mesoamerican symbols for speech. Above, huge hand-embroidered banners hang from the ceiling.
The church faces a plaza which was recently renovated, but most of the woodworking shops/outlets are not on this plaza, but rather on the street that leads up to it. While past write ups of Cuanajo have encouraged visitors to see all the colorful furniture all over town, this has changed over the past 10 years according to local craftspeople. During our visit, it was necessary to do some looking to find the highly colorful carved pieces that made the town’s name. Instead, most of the furniture on display in front of workshops was unpainted and of a rustic style that had little to distinguish it from such furniture made in other parts of Mexico.
The reason for this is that much of the business is still for people of the region, whose tastes in furniture have changed. The unpainted condition allows craftspeople to paint or stain the furniture to order (generally in a single color) as to not lose a sale over the finish. Traditional furniture now is generally made only by special order, for handcraft competitions or for sale to customers in the United States. This does not mean that visitors cannot see and talk to authentic craftspeople and see the old furniture. It is just necessary to step past the plain to find the good stuff.
The most common furniture items are tables, chairs, headboards and trunks. Although furniture is iconic, smaller wood items are also made such as spoons/spoon racks, picture frames and even decorative items based on the motifs found on traditional furniture. Most items are made from pine, with some from harder woods such as cedar and “parrota,” which of course costs more.
The best carpinters here regularly win awards for their work in the traditional styles, both at the state and national levels, and can be found at major handcraft outlets such as the Casa de las Artesanias in Morelia and the federal government FONART stores in various major cities in the country. One of these carpinters is Mario Gasimiro Tellez, who has done this work for over 25 years. Like most others in the town, making furniture is a family affair with all members working on one aspect of the trade or another, carving, sanding, painting, etc.
Despite the recognition of the work, Cuanajo is poor with a high level of socioeconomic marginalization. Deforestation is a major problem for the area and a threat to the craft. The environmental problems are not only due to overexploitation (a problem all over Mexico), but also because of the incredible success of avocado farming in the states. Areas which used to have pines are being replanted with avocado trees instead. While there have been federal and state efforts in reforestation in the area, success is far from assured.
The town celebrates both its religious and economic heritage in the first half of September with the celebration of the Birth of the Virgin of Cuanajo and the Furniture Fair. The festival has furniture of all types on display along with traditional dances, local dishes and bands playing pirekuas and Purhepecha son, styles of traditonal music.
Featured image: Painted wooden chest from Cuanajo at the state handcrafts competition of the Tianguis de Domingo de Ramos in Uruapan.
All photos by Alejandro Linares Garcia.