Planting alebrijes

Since Manuel Jimenez developed the first Oaxacan alebrijes in the 20th century, the carving of these colorful figures has become an economic lifeline for the poor, rural people of the Central Valleys of Oaxaca. In towns such as San Martin Tilcajete, almost everyone makes a living, in whole or in part, by carving and painting figures destined for the collectors’ and tourist markets.

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Jacobo Angeles with alebrije in progress (1)

But there has been a downside. One reason for its success was that it took advantage of a tree/shrub called copal, which had always been a kind of weed in the semi-arid valleys here. The wood it produces is very soft, and trunks and branches grow in capricious shapes. Until Jimenez’s invention, there was simply no use for the plant that grew all over the hillsides.

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The very traits that makes copal undesirable for any other use makes it perfect for the carving of these fantastic figures. Its softness means that carving can be done relatively quickly, and the twists and turns are taken advantage of to partially form the figure and its pose.

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Planting a copal tree

It certainly seemed that not only did copal provide a new source of income, the supply seemed endless. Alas, this is never the case with natural resources.

The hills around towns like Tilcajete (and Arrazola, etc) are now mostly barren. Much of the year only dry grass can be seen. Artisans must buy their raw wood from vendors who themselves must go further and further afield, often cutting illegally. This has not only made copal wood more costly, it has brought the attention of state and federal environmental authorities, who have been getting ever stricter about illegal harvesting.

 

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Food for the volunteers

The first efforts at reforestation were with the Rodolfo Morales Foundation, which has been running an annual reforestation event for about 20 years. About seven years ago, the Jacobo and Maria Angeles workshop, one of the biggest (and biggest employers) began their own efforts, even starting their own copal plant nursery. But this is not just a tree-hugging exercise, but rather a matter of enlightened self-interest. The long-term aim is to have a system of sustainable planting and harvesting to assure supply for generations to come.

 

The 2016 , the Foundation and the Angeles workshop together planted about 5000 trees. This year, the Angeles Workshop plans to plant 2,500 trees itself, with will include 1000 of other native species along with the copal.

Video of the 2016 event

The 2017 Festival del Copal is on 13 August and volunteers will meet at the Angeles workshop at 8am on that day. It is a family-oriented event, with children especially welcome so they can learn to appreciate the fragility of nature. Local cuisine will be provided to volunteers. It is recommended to bring a shovel or pick, wear comfortable clothes and shoes as well as a sombrero or cap for sun protection. Sunscreen is a very good idea as well. You can register for the event at https://goo.gl/oPs1gK, and if you have questions, you can contact the taller on Facebook. Their son Ricardo speaks English.

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Angeles nursery for reforestation

 

Credits

All photos courtesy of the Angeles Workshop with the exception of (1) which is courtesy of Friends of Oaxacan Folk Art (CC-by-SA 4.0)

 

 

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Weaving in San Juan Cancuc, Chiapas

By Laramie Xico Garcia

Nestled in a highland valley about an hour outside San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico, lies the small community of San Juan Cancuc. The inhabitants are indigenous Maya and speak their indigenous language, mostly Tseltal. In the tradition of weaving and embroidery unique to each community, the people of San Juan Cancuc have their distinctive fashion emblazoned with bold, geometric patterns.

Juana of San Juan Cancuc, Chiapas proudly shows us one of her complex designs
JUANA OF SAN JUAN CANCUC, CHIAPAS PROUDLY SHOWS US ONE OF HER COMPLEX DESIGNS

Many people in the community proudly wear their ancestral clothing. Styles that have been passed down for generations can be seen being worn while passing through the small town center. However, these labor-intensive fashions take a lot of time to produce and are a high cost for locals. Because of this, locals opt to purchase more affordable clothes like jeans and t-shirts. You see this change especially in the dress of the men.

Larimie (back) in traditional men's garment of San Juan Cancuc handmade by Juana (front)
LARIMIE (BACK) IN TRADITIONAL MEN’S GARMENT OF SAN JUAN CANCUC HANDMADE BY JUANA (FRONT)

The men of San Juan Cancuc wear long white tunics accented by incredible embroidery in fantastical colors. The bold designs cover the cuffs of the long sleeves and the chest area up to around the neck. A thin vertical line extends from the bottom edge of the design to the bottom edge of the garment. The best thing about this garment is that there are large holes under the sleeves that cut down the side slightly. These serve two purposes; when it’s cold you can fold your arms in the sleeves up inside across your chest and when it’s hot, you can remove your arms from the long sleeves and let them hang decoratively.

Juana demonstrates the backstop loom as her kids play nearby
JUANA DEMONSTRATES THE BACKSTOP LOOM AS HER KIDS PLAY NEARBY
Little Juana with a huipil folded on her head.
LITTLE JUANA WITH A HUIPIL FOLDED ON HER HEAD.

The women on the other hand wear short sleeve huipils, that have the chest and back blocked with a field of embroidered designs. At the bottom of the embroidery block, there is one broad vertical line of design on each side of the block that continues down the length of the dress.

Little Juana shows us one of the recently completed designs by her mother.
LITTLE JUANA SHOWS US ONE OF THE RECENTLY COMPLETED DESIGNS BY HER MOTHER.

Spending an afternoon seeing how these garments are made is always an unforgettable trip. We headed to San Juan Cancuc with a lovely woman I know from San Cristóbal, Marta. We headed to Marta’s sister-in-law’s home. Welcomed by Juana, who is a skilled weaver, and her lovely family, we get to pass the afternoon at their humble home located up a small path through the brush and trees. Here she demonstrates the unique style of weaving to San Juan Cancuc that incorporates embroidered geometric patterns. Everything is made by hand on the Mayan backstrap loom. This ancient technique has been passed down for generations. In the simplest explanation, it involves a series of sticks that the thread is attached to. One end of the threads are secured on the stick and then to a pole. The other end is attached to a piece of leather that wraps around the artisan’s waist at her lower back. The loom extends and hangs about six feet between the pole to her waist. Once the strap is attached, the base layer of the textile is started. White thread is carefully woven between each thread from one side to the other. Once the thread is through, it is then pulled taut with a long piece of a wooden wedge that is placed through the threads and pulled toward the maker. This process is repeated and you can see the textile begin to form.

Juana happily details her garment with embroidery
JUANA HAPPILY DETAILS HER GARMENT WITH EMBROIDERY

As the main cloth is made, there comes a time to add the embellishments. This is where the embroidery technique begins. Juana carefully lays in rows of brightly colored thread. As she weaves each small section, she counts the threads as this is how she knows her design. She actually can’t see her design as she is making it because it is on the reverse side as she weaves. The rows of color begin to take shape as a grid of brightly colored blocks. Her eleven year old daughter, Juana, carefully watches her mother as she too is learning this art form.

Eleven year old Juana shows us what she can do with the backstrap loom
ELEVEN YEAR OLD JUANA SHOWS US WHAT SHE CAN DO WITH THE BACKSTRAP LOOM

The pattern design on the garments of San Juan Cancuc are easily recognizable. Intense hues with brilliant pinks and darker tones like deep purples and blacks are arranged in columns of color. The younger generation can be seen experimenting with patterns including zig zag and floral motifs. One of these woven pieces takes about three months to complete working on them partially throughout the day.

Family portrait in San Juan Cancuc, Chiapas, Mexico
FAMILY PORTRAIT IN SAN JUAN CANCUC, CHIAPAS, MEXICO

The weaving demonstration is punctuated by everyday life. The kids, shy at first, quickly warm up to me and Manuel de Jesus can’t get enough of the camera. They play around the yard and want to show us parts of their wonderful life. Around the house, we discovered chicken coops, a rabbit pen, a small nursery where they are growing coffee plants, a beautiful little vegetable garden abundant with cabbage and plenty of wild edibles growing in the surrounding nature. Little Juana climbed one of the mango trees to pick us some delicious mangoes.

Little Juana climbs the mango tree to pick us some fruit.
LITTLE JUANA CLIMBS THE MANGO TREE TO PICK US SOME FRUIT.
Mid-air mango! Manuel de Jesus cowers as his sister tosses a mango to him.
MID-AIR MANGO! MANUEL DE JESUS COWERS AS HIS SISTER TOSSES A MANGO TO HIM.
Mango time!
MANGO TIME!

After spending time on the porch weaving with Juana, she prepared a local staple, pozol. This isn’t the soup some of you might be thinking of. This is a traditional drink made with water and fermented masa (corn dough) – sometimes cacao is added for a different flavor. This drink is what the men drink before and after going out to work for the day instead of eating a regular meal. It is said to provide potent energy for the day’s work.

Juana mixes a regional drink of fermented masa (corn dough) and water known as "Pozol"
JUANA MIXES A REGIONAL DRINK OF FERMENTED MASA (CORN DOUGH) AND WATER KNOWN AS “POZOL”
Marta picks wild epazote on the hillside
MARTA PICKS WILD EPAZOTE ON THE HILLSIDE
Cabbage patch in the garden
CABBAGE PATCH IN THE GARDEN
Juana cuts us some cabbage from her garden to take home
JUANA CUTS US SOME CABBAGE FROM HER GARDEN TO TAKE HOME
Manuel de Jesus has coffee growing at several stages in his nursery
MANUEL DE JESUS HAS COFFEE GROWING AT SEVERAL STAGES IN HIS NURSERY
Kids having fun with the pet rabbits
KIDS HAVING FUN WITH THE PET RABBITS
Fresh honey collected from their bees being bottled to go.
FRESH HONEY COLLECTED FROM THEIR BEES BEING BOTTLED TO GO.

When Juana’s husband, Manuel de Jesus (not the junior mentioned earlier), returned from worked he greeted us and then the first thing he did was sit down for a large bowl of pozol. We then went to a small shed where he shared some of their honey that they’ve collected from their bees. It was delicious and I took a small bottle home.

As it was time to end the day, Marta, her daughter and I headed back to San Cristóbal with some extra goodies besides woven goods. We left with honey, a branch of bananas, epazote, cabbage, a rabbit and an great appreciation for this amazing culture.

Little Juana carries a branch of bananas with a head-strap down the trail to the car.
LITTLE JUANA CARRIES A BRANCH OF BANANAS WITH A HEAD-STRAP DOWN THE TRAIL TO THE CAR.

Special thanks to Mi Milpa Blog for allowing Creative Hands to reblog this post. It is an area of Mexico that is difficult for us to get to because of distance. Laramie has better photography skills than I!

Guelaguetza and handcrafts

The best laid plans of mice and men…

Last week I had a chance to take family to Oaxaca to encourage them to see more of Mexico than just the typical tourist resorts. In this respect the trip was very successful. I also had every intention of squeezing in at least one or two artisan interviews. In that I failed miserably. Time flies by on vacation and there was so much for the family to see just to get the absolute basics, center of Oaxaca city, food, drink, visting some little towns in the valleys, more food and drink, archeological sites, more food and drink…. I think you get the picture.

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Dancers from San Antonino Castilla Velasco at Guelaguetza main stage (1)

We went during Guelaguetza week. I had hoped to attend the main events on Monday on the hill, but I was unable to get decent tickets and I refuse to see it any other way. Fortunately, there are many other smaller events and the people watching is great.

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Woman selling rebozos on the Zocalo (2)

Handcrafts are always on sale in Oaxaca city, from upscale stores to street vendors with quality ranging from what are really fine works of art to cheap trinkets. But little compares with the sheer numbers of street vendors on the main square (Zocalo) and into some adjoining streets during Guelaguetza.

By far, these stalls are dominated by resellers with indigenous-style blouses for women. The main shows of Guelaguetza feature dancers and others in authentic regional dress, and the women’s clothing is far more varied and colorful than those of the men. Many visitors buy and wear these items during the time they are in town.

I have mixed feelings about this. I do not worry about “cultural appropriation” as the makers of regional dress generally do not and a blouse paired with a pair of jeans is not trying to pass oneself off as a member of an indigenous group. Whether they conscientiously realize it or not. visitors are acknowledging that it is its indigenous heritage that makes Oaxaca so special. Perhaps what I do not like is that the buying of these shirts (authentic or not) is that of a “throwaway” item… something to be used during the festival then relegated to the back of a closet for a time until it is finally gotten rid of.

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Better made machine  embroidered blouse made and sold in Mitla, Oaxaca

The “party favor” aspect of these clothes is noted by the extreme poor quality of most, with the aim of selling as cheaply as possible. There wasnt a single shirt I could comfortably say was close to authentic (either in design or manufacture)… and many would not stand more than a wash or two before seams frays to the point of making the garment useless.

Sales of authentic garb could be found, but making the situation worse, these opportunities were hidden beyond the Zocalo where most of the tourists roamed. Other than the usual galleries that specialize in these, there were stand set up for artisans from various regions of the state, these stalls were set up at the far north end of the Andador Macedonia Alcala. While there was a respectable crowd there when we visited, it was nothing like the areas closer to the Zocalo.

All in all, I heartily recommend going to Oaxaca for the Guelaguetza (and getting tickets for the main show if at all possible) and seeing the items for sale. While most is not for collectors, they do show some interesting innovation in design and colors, especially those which are a combination of traditional and modern dress. Better and better made examples of these can be found in Oaxaca and other areas such as Mitla and who knows, may be cherished as “traditional” garb some point in the future.

Photo credits:

Featured – Cristina Zapata Perez

(1) Armando Ambrocio

(2) Alejandro Linares Garcia

 

Tin man of Tonalá

Jose Luis Arzola Tovar lives in the famed pottery town of Tonalá, Jalisco, on the edge of the Guadalajara metro area. He is well-known among the artisan community here and has a following of collectors. But he does not work in clay but in tin.

The working of sheet tin is not traditional in Tonalá, but rather in San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, a few hours to the east. Four generations ago, Arzola’s great grandfather worked in the 1880s by soldering metal items in the streets of San Miguel and neighboring Dolores Hidalgo along with making items such as toys from sheet tin. His grandfather and father followed suit. The Guanajuato handcraft tradition extends into his mother’s lineage as well, with the making of beeswax figurines and highly decorated candles popular in the southern part of the state.

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Upon entering don José’s modest home on Madero Street, one notices immediately the collections that give historic weight to the work that the maestro does. One side of the living room contains tables filled with tradtional tin toys, from the 20th century up to 1980s, some of which have been made by Arzola and predecessors.

The main bedroom wall is filled with old tin folk retablos, naif paintings dedicated to a certain saint or other Catholic figure either as a petition or in gratitude for a favor received.

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But the main surprise awaits lucky visitors in the back of the property. Here there is a very small two-room structure that used to be Arzola’s parents’ home. When his father died, the family turned the space into a museum for a multi-generational interest in collecting cultural objects, especially tin handcrafts. The collection was started by Arzola’s grandfather. It includes pieces made by the family over 100 years such as tin frames, toys, and lanterns as well as soldered glass enclosures. From the mother’s side there are candles and beeswax figures and even one piece that is a mix of wax and tin.

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JoseArzola019The museum does not limit  itself to work done by the family. Most of the pieces are tin frames surrounding religious icons which come from various parts of Mexico. There are also various wood pieces from all over Mexico, some pre Hispanic ceramics from Jalisco and some other areas and more. The two oldest pieces in the collection are both folk retablos on tin, one definitively dated to 1800 and the other likely from the same time, but too badly eroded to be certain. There is also an interesting collection of retablos depicting scenes from Mexico’s history, in particular the Mexican Revolution, noting suffering and escapes from death/injury by famous and not-so-famous participants in these events.

Arzola has been invited to exhibit the collection in museums in various parts of Jalisco and has even had one international exhibition in Buenos Aires. He says much of the interest in the collection is from foreigners, with most visitors to his home from the U.S. and Canada.

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Image thanks to Cathy Merrill of Mainly Mexican

Don José’s work is based on the tradition demonstrated in the home and museum. He was born in Guanajuato, but when he was only three, the family moved to Monterrey and shortly thereafter to Tonala to the same block where he and various members of his family can still be found. He began working metal with his father at age ten, starting with the soldering of glass enclosures then moving on to working in sheet tin. When he married, he specialized in tin work, with one brother specializing in the glass structures.

Although he still makes tin toys, Arzola is better known for making the intricate frames for religous imagery. In the past, sometimes the family painted the images of the Virgin Mary and saints, but today Arzola focuses on the tin work to enclose commercially-produced images. (This is common for artisans of this type in Guanajuato as well.) His frames are replicas or near-replicas of the pieces found in his museum, using the same materials and techniques for the most part. Exceptions include commerically made elements such as military buttons, but these are sparingly used. The tin is worked only with hand tools on a simple table in the living room.

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Image thanks to Cathey Merrill of Mainly Mexican

Keeping the tradition alive here is proving difficult and it is very likely that don José will the last in his family to continue the tin work. While the family is interested on conserving and promoting the musuem/collection, none of his children have decided to dedicate themselves to craft. He has received support from government agencies and some academics, but the frames and toys have gone out of fashion in Mexican culture. However, the support has translated into the teaching of classes in Tonalá and Tlaquepaque, and the maestro has hopes that one or more of the young students will continue on after him.

Interestingly enough, the most eye-catching thing in the maestro’s living room is not the toy collection but the colorful marionettes that cover nearly an entire wall. These figures represent an interest of don José that began in 2012, after meeting marionette makers in Buenos Aires. He researched the tradition of marionettes in Mexico, and especially in western Mexico, finding people to teach him to to make and handle the figures.

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Arzola took what he learned and decided to form a small marionette company that specializing in stories from and about Mexican indigenous people. Arzola’s family is Otomi (a dominant ethnicity in Guanajuato) and has been involved in indigenous groups in Jalisco for some time, leading him to speak a bit of other languages such Nahuatl, Tecuece and Coca, which are important in the history of Jalisco.

Arzola’s home, workshop and museum are on Madero #295 in Tonalá

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All photos unless otherwise indicated by Leigh Thelmadatter

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Handcrafts, identity and religion

The center of just about any community, large or small, in Mexico is its local Catholic church. I cannot tell you how many times I oriented myself in car, public transport or walking by looking for bell towers. These churches replaced pre Hispanic temples as the center of Mexican life, legitimizing the new social and political situation.

While religion does not play the all-consuming function that it did up to the late 19th century, the parish church still has a function in the identity of a place. It not only marks the geographic and political center (as the main government building is almost always on the same plaza), but it also reflects the cultural and economic bases of the people who live here.

Mexico has quite a few towns whose main economic focus is the sale of handcrafts, the tourism it attracts or both. Some are quite famous, such as Mata Ortiz, Chihuahua and many others obscure. Although not all do, a number of the parish churches have elements related to this economic activity, and in some cases rather dominate the place of worship.

529px-ChandelierSagrarioCobreOne of the first churches of this type that we discovered is the Nuestra Señora del Sagrario Church in the center of Santa Clara del Cobre, Michoacan. Santa Clara is famous for its copper working, and may be the only town left in Mexico dedicated to it. The Purhepecha had just developed techniques for working this metal when the Spanish arrived, but the emotional attachment to the office is related to the work of Vasco de Quiroga, who set up a system of trades and trading that allows the region to recover economically from the Conquest.

Like many churches in Michoacan, the use of dark wood is a distinguishing feature. This provides the perfect backdrop for copper chandeliers and other elements.

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Cuanajo014Another church in Michoacan is the Natividad de María parish of Cuanajo. This is a wood working town, specialing in furniture. The traditional furniture from here is colorful with raised images, although more simplistic and modern forms are becoming more popular.

Examples of the traditional style can be seen on a couple of pieces near the main altar. The stand for the Bible is particularly interesting as it contains the old pre-Hispanic symbol for speech, as can be seen in numerous codices. The pews are also made in town, with finely joined parquet style piecing and the inner doors show the fine work the local craftspeople are capable of. One surprise was 10 gigantic banners along the sides of the main nave, all cross-stitched by hand.

 

San Bartolo Coyotepec is famous for its barro negro (black clay) pottery. The working of this clay goes back to the pre Hispanic period, but what made it famous was a technique developed by local potter Doña Rosa, who found that if the piece was burnished with a smooth stone before firing, the result was a shiny black instead of a dull gray. This pottery ever since has been a favorite with tourists to the central Oaxaca valleys. The San Bartolo parish has pieces of barro negro both inside and outside the church.

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Barro negro pots can be seen on the arch entering the atrium

Another pottery town, Metepec, State of Mexico, marks the importance of its wares on the Capillo de Calvario, which stands on the hill that overlooks the town center. The exterior wall has large ceramic suns with smiling faces in bright and/or terra cotta. These are one of several notable types of products made here. Part of the hill is covered with a “mural” made of ceramic tiles that tell the story of the town.

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The small community of Vizarrón, Querétaro has not one, but two interconnected parish churches. The older one dates to the 18th century, with the newer one built in the 1990s. The older church faces the plaza which is paved with the local marble in white, black and yellow. Inside the older church, marble elements can been seen from the large block of black marble serving as the main altar to plaques indicating the stations of the cross and donors in rose or gray. These are significant because they date back to the beginning of the working of marble here in the 1950s (though mining it is older). These pieces show chisel marks from a time before the use of power tools in the artisan community here.

Marble nearly engulfs the interior of the new church, a modern circular building. The floors are of polished marble and the walls are lined with more roughly-hewed pieces. The main altar is of pink marble, with a high relief of the Last Supper. Even the priests seat on the main dias is of marble as well. The only breaks from marble there are the pews for congregants and the ceiling, formed with curved sections of brickwork. But the cupola at the center top of this ceiling is marble as well.

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Sometimes local craftsmen’s talents are used to create images related to the local economic activity. In the case of the parish of Papantla, Veracruz, there are wood panels along the walls of the church dedicated to the vanilla plant. This plant is native to the area, important both culturally and economically for milenia.

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Do you know of other churches which reflects the handcraft tradition of the community? Please note in the comments!

All photos by Alejandro Linares Garcia and Leigh Thelmadatter

The marbled valley

You know you have arrived to the Vizarron valley due to the white highlights on the landscape…

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Hillside with mining operation

The eastern and southeastern parts of Queretaro state are generally semi-arid, with Highway 120 running from San Juan del Rio north to the Sierra Gorda biosphere. The area is best known for the weekend getaway of Tequisquiapan, but many of the Otomi that live in this region have relatively undiscovered handcraft tradtions, both old and not-so-old. One town on this route is Vizarron/Pueblo Nuevo, part of the Cadereyta de Montes municipality.

The town is centered in a small valley, where low mountains of rock and low scrub parallel the highway. The prevalence of the rock means that even in the higher elevations there are no trees as there is nowhere for the roots to grow. Where the rock stops outside the valley, forests abruptly begin.

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Marble fence, along marble paved road.

There are 50 some-odd major deposits of white, gray, pink, brown, yellow and black marble in the valley along with some deposits of other minerals such as onyx. The economy of the entire valley is dependent on them, and the deposits are valuable enough that some are owned by prominent state and federal politicians. Local artisans state that mining of the rock extends back as far as the colonial period, but the current mining is attributed to Cirilio Servin Garcia, the town priest, about fifty years ago as a way to help the impoverished population.

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The marble is so plentiful that many side streets are paved in its rough form, and many homes have dividers of the same material simply stacked on property lines. The town’s main plaza and two churches are testaments to the importance of both mining and the stone working. The plaza is paved with about 30 tons of white, yellow and black marble pieces, which have been tumbled smooth. The altar of the old church is a solid piece of black marble. It and the various marble plaques show the telltale signs of chiseling with hand tools, attesting the working of the stone before power equipment. The new church, built in the 1990s, has walls, columns, floors and cupola completely covered in marble. Its main altar is made of pink marble with a high relief of the Last Supper on its facade.

Members of the Maxei cooperative working 

 

DSC_0203Local artisans agree that the working of marble and onyx into handcrafts and other consumer products goes about about 50 years or two generations. According to Angeles Martinez, representative of Mármoles Maxei artisan cooperative, it began about two generations ago when several local people, including her grandfather, learned how to work marble as a migrant in Mexico City, bringing that knowledge back home with him. Today, there are over 100 marble/onyx workshops in the Vizarron area, many of which are in the southside barrio of Pueblo Nuevo, an Otomi enclave. Here, every family has at least one member who works in stone and in many cases, all of them do, both men and women doing all facets of the work. These workshops tend to be very small, mostly with limited resources such as hand tools, drills with attachments for various purposes, and sometimes larger equipment. One member of the Maxei cooperative is also a mechanic and devised his own large lathe to make circular marble columns. Raw marble pieces can weigh tons, but for this workshops, transport is mostly by pickup with loading and unloading done with systems of ropes and pulleys, along with manpower. End polishing is generally done by hand.

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Inside one of the shops along the main street in Vizarron

Finished products range from flooring, wall covering and other home improvement materials, to artistic sculptures to fountains and large flowerpots, to sculptures, to decorative lamps, clocks, chessboards, animal figurines (lighted and unlighted), jewelry boxes, ashtrays, jewelry and more.

Over 70% of the town’s population lives directly off of the mining, working or selling of marble, so when marble prices fall, the town faces economic crises. The last such fall occurred in 2010, with sales off about 80%, forcing many small producers to close.

Working marble is an expensive proposition. Despite power tools, it is time and labor intensive and cutting blades typically are incrusted with industrial diamonds. A small disk for a hand drill costa $1,200 pesos (about 80 USD) and lasts about a week. The Otomi town of Pueblo Nuevo has sought help from state and federal agencies who have worked with them to diversify the products they make and the markets that they sell to in order to mitigate fluctuations in the market.

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Living room in an exhibit house of the Maxei cooperative

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Weaving home decor

Compared to the United States, Mexico has very little in the way of lakes. The largest is Lake Chapala on the Michoacan/Jalisco border. But perhaps the most culturally significant is Lake Patzcuaro. It was the center of the Purhepecha Empire and still holds a special place in modern Michoacan.

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View of Lake Patzcuaro from the eastern shore

Mexican lakes tend to be shallow, allowing for the natural growth of reeds and rushes that form the basis of most basket making. The same plants used millenia ago are still gathered and worked into both utilitarian and decorative items.

Most are tradtional but even this humble craft has seen innovation. The Tzumundi workshop is located in the basketry town of Ihuatzio, on the eastern shore of Lake Patzcuaro. It was founded and is run by Mario Lopez Torres, who grew up in Mexico City but found his calling here.

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Lopez with a large “cradle” piece crafted in collaboration with an artist

Although from a creative family (his father was a photographer), he does not have artisan lineage. Initially, he studied the fine arts, leaving home as a teen to learn wicker techniques in San Francisco el Tepeji in the state of Puebla. But Lopez is a multifaceted craftsperson, able to work in metal, stone and wood and had the idea of making basketry items with metal frames, an idea he could not explore in the small town.

Friends living in Santa Clara del Cobre, Michoacan invited him to stay a while and work out his idea at their workshop. He arrived there at age 18 over four decades ago, but by the time he was 19, he had decided to move to and live permanently at the Tzimundi site in Ihuatzio. All the rugged stone buildings with wrought iron and wood were made by his hands.

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The Lake Patzcuaro area has a milenia-old tradition of basketry, using reeds and rushes that grow along the edges of the shallow lake. The eastern side of the lake in paticular is still noted for the making of basketry items.

Tzumindi015But the technique that dominates Lopez’s and many other workshops in this area today is not pre Hispanic. It is particular method that originated in the Philipines, and introduced to the area by a handcrafts dealer from Texas about 40 years ago. Instead of using split stiff stems, the leaves of bullrushes (called “chuspata” locally) are twisted into a kind of cord, than woven like fabric over a frame. This frame can be of various materials, including stiff wicker, but Lopez focuses on the use of frames shaped by bending thick steel wire and soldering joints.

Despite the foreign origin of the technique, the bullrushes used are local, still collected from the lake shore.  Lopez himself directly works with the making of the steel frames, employing various people in Ihuatzio and surrounding communities to do the weaving work. This is true from small plates and animal figures to large sofas, with only the thickness of the wire used varying. The cord is woven tightly so that metal frame is not visible, making the piece look a whole lot lighter than it really is. After the chuspata cord is woven, the piece is varnished for preservation and for looks. A large lounge chair takes about 20 days, from start to finish.

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Wire frames before adding the bullrush cord

The business is still in the family but it has had its ups and downs. Early in its history, Lopez sold principally in Mexico City but over time this became impractical. He began working with exhibiting at various fairs and other events in central Mexico, particually from Guanajuato to Jalisco, and he still exhibits and sells regularly in San Miguel de Allende and the Feria Maestros del Arte in Chapala, Jalisco.

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Lopez’s work at the Feria de Maestros at the Chapala Yacht Club

At the business’s height, Lopez was shipping items regularly to small stores and galleries in the U.S. and Europe. However, Michoacan went into economic crisis a couple of decades ago, principally due to the steep drop off of tourism, itself due to drug trafficking and some political violence. Tourism and the overall economy has begun to recover somewhat according to Lopez, but there are far more artisans can he can re-employ.

Lopez’s children have mostly gone into professional occupations, with the workshop benefitting with one’s career in computers, resulting in a website at http://www.tzumindi.com/

All photos by Alejandro Linares Garcia or Leigh Thelmadatter