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