Tourism both saves and often changes handcraft traditions in Mexico, sometimes profundly. Tourism is one of Mexico’s main sources of income and its reach continues to grow. The center of Querétaro state is pretty much unknown to many foreigners, but that is slowly changing because of its proximity to Mexico City and San Miguel Allende.
Central and southern Querétaro is Otomi territory with many small communities whose life has only very recently begun to change. A good example of the change in local handcrafts in particular is the pottery of Damián Trejo Resendiz and his wife Angelica Gonzalez Luna.
Festival for Christ the King
Both live in the tiny, rural, Otomi community of Boxasni (pronounced Bosh AHS ni). The community is traditional with patron saint days still being the most important social and cultural events especially that honoring the patron of the parish church, Christ the King. There are two main sources of employment here, the making of pottery and fireworks. The first is the oldest occupation of the town by far, as there are local clay pits. The latter provides fireworks for these same traditional festivals here and neighboring towns. But Boxasni is changing. In the past 20 years, the town has received basic services such as water and electricity, and is connected by paved roads to larger towns such as Cadereyta. This has raised the economic situation, but the local Otomi language is starting to disappear.
Both Trejo and Gonzalez come from Otomi pottery families. In the case of Trejo, he does not even know how many generations this activity stretches back. But until his generation, the family made the same utilitarian items that the area is known for, pots, pitchers, large flat pans called cazuelas and dishes. Unfortunately, these are primarily made for local consumption and do not sell for much, even if well-made. Seeing that it was too hard to make a living with this pottery, Trejo decided to break with tradition and design entirely new products. Using his love of drawing, he began to design more decorative items. While he worked on these for some years, he launched his new business in earnest about four years ago.
Trejo’s basic idea is the creation of small tiles with raised images, primarily as souvenirs for the tourist market. The area is wedged between the weekend getaway of Tequisquiapan and the Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve, on the highway that connects the two. About 20 years or so ago, efforts were begun to tap into this traffic to visit local sites. These were bolstered in the past five years with the nearby towns of Bernal and Cadereyta being named Pueblos Mágicos (Magical Towns) by Mexico’s federal tourism authorities. This presented an opportunity to Trejo and his family, who began designing images related to regional landmarks and other icons.
Almost all of the tiles are small, about 5 or 6 cm square and are meant to be set into small wooden frames or boxes. Many have the names of a locality popular with tourists, such as Bernal (with the image of the Peña de Bernal), Sierra Gorda and Querétaro (which can refer to either the state or its capital). As most of his business is done in the state, and by far the most popular image for these tiles is that of another handcraft, Maria dolls, made by the Otomi in Amealco, but have become symbolic for the entire state. Other images include parish churches, haciendas and natural landmarks. He sells mostly to gift shops and other outlets popular with tourists and has become successful enough to start lines related to Mexico City and even as far as the state of San Luis Potosí (with a Maria doll in the indigenous dress of Tamazunchale). Local tourism has picked up enough that the family now has a stand with their tiles in the center of the town of Cadereyta. He continues to experiment with new designs related to these and other tourist attractions.
At first glance, the tiles may look like they are mass-produced. And they are, in a rustic, handcrafted way. The main workshop is a large warehouse-type building. A section of it is filled with plaster molds, which Trejo makes himself, using metal casts which he designed. The molds are filled with the clay mixture and pressed using a lever machine (no motors, just muscle). It is important that the clay be of the right consistency and pressed hard into the plaster mold to produce the raised images with no cracks or chips. This means that the plaster molds wear out relatively quickly, necessitating their making on a regular basis. These pieces are fired only once in a large, modern kiln outside (with a traditional one as backup). The fired tiles are transferred to a smaller workshop where they are all hand-painted (usually by young people the family hires) and set into their frames and boxes, bought from a local area artisan. Ever aware of the importance of tourism to his business, Trejo is working to decorate the painting and boxing area, to make it ready to receive visitors interested in his work.
While most are sold through third parties, the family also travels to sell at fairs and other cultural events, often by invitation. Mostly this is still in Querétaro, but he has since been receiving support from the National Committee for Indigenous Peoples (CDI), a driving force in helping Mexico’s native people develop businesses and achieving economic autonomy. Like other artisans who work with CDI, Trejo and Gonzalez have nothing but great things to say about the agency.
Trejo has a strong work ethic, believing that with enough drive, dedication and patience, anything is possible. The family’s living standard is significantly better than the situation of the average resident and much better that what they describe of their parents’ and grandparents’ generation. While the family lives on land given to him by his parents, all the buildings, equipment and other improvements were done by Trejo. The success of the business also means that their children (son, 20, and two younger daughters) can study to a much higher level than they did. All work with their parents part time, in both production and sales, and they hope that one eventually takes over.
One last thing I have to mention about Trejo and his son. Both are very good mechanics. Trejo still owns his first pickup truck, which is still in pristine condition despite the decades. Being a city person, it always amazes me how generous country people are. Two blocks after leaving the family home, our car broke down, needed a part not locally available. They found what we need among the collection of parts they have and fixed it for us, refusing to take any kind of compensation whatsoever. God bless country people.
The family’s business is called Boxarte. Email is email@example.com
All photos by Alejandro Linares Garcia unless otherwise specified