From cookware to souvenirs

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.

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Credit: State of Querétaro

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.

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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.

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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.

TrejoResendiz018At 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.

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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.

TrejoResendiz043Trejo 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 boxart_100@hotmail.com

 

All photos by Alejandro Linares Garcia unless otherwise specified

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Verabrijes

In an article about popotillo I talked about the division of handcrafts in Mexico as “artesanía” and “manualidad” with the former having a higher cultural status. The work done by Josué Samuel Hernandez and his wife Elidee Arellano Dominguez might just straddle the divide between the two.

They work a technique called “crystalized tissue paper.” When thinking about classic Mexican handcrafts, a commercial product such as tissue paper does not come to mind. Most of our experience with it is its use as wrapping or maybe to make flowers in primary school arts and crafts classes.

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Hernandez and his wife live in the small town of Nogales, just outside the state capital of Veracruz. Crafting with tissue paper and the like does have some history in Mexico and in Veracruz as there was a time when it was associated with expensive imports. Papel picado was born as a way to reuse the paper. It is also used in a number of areas to make sky lanterns (called globos de cantoya in Mexico), with one Veracruz town, Zozocolco, particularly known for the making of elaborate lanterns for Day of the Dead.

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Bird figure before varnishing

The paper is also used to make a number of figures such as animals and flowers by folding, crumpling and twisting it into desired shapes. Such figures are set by applying multiple layers of varnish, hence “crystalizing” the paper.

Both Hernandez and Arellano come from families who have done this technique for 3 generations, and between the two of them have over thirty years of experience. While a number of other artisans do this in Veracruz, this family has experimented with new designs and ideas. The main distinction is the creation of alebrijes. Hernandez is from a small town in Oaxaca but also spent years living in the northern suburbs of Mexico City. Both areas have distinct crafts called “alebrijes.” In both areas, it is the making of fantastic creatures, but from different materials and in different styles.

Hernandez’s alebrijes are strongly reminiscent of the Mexico City version, which is made from cartoneria, a hard paper mache. Not only does he also use a paper base, he also follows the example of making creatures with body parts from several real and imaginary animals. All but the smallest figures start with a wire frame, but instead of layering the tissue paper over the frame (which would be terribly time consuming and wasteful) he uses crumpling and twisting create all but the very outer “skin” which is a layer or more of tissue paper. It still requires a lot of paper, with an alebrije of only 20cm long or so using at least 50 large sheets. According to Hernandez, they did experiment with more traditional paper mache, but found it did not work well in their humid environment, not to mention that the area’s insects liked to eat the paper/paste mixture.

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Thought not as strong, there is influence from the Oaxaca alebrije tradition as well. Tissue paper comes in an almost infinite variety of colors, but the family seems to be inclined to strong bright colors, very similar to the colors used in Oaxaca. While the tissue paper provides the basic color(s) of the piece, tiny, repetitive, decorative details are painted on alebrijes, but not to the extent seen in the Oaxacan variety.

The workshop’s alebrijes and other pieces also have unique elements. First, Hernandez is very fond of iguanas and many of his alebrijes are based on these animals. Second is the use of local natural elements such as seeds, seed pods, seashells and even local pottery in their works.  Details such as teeth, horns figures etc, maybe be made purely with tissue paper and/or with these local resources. This is very distinct from Mexico City artisans, for whom the use of anything other than paper and paste for the creation of items is controversial.

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Hernandez calls his fantastic creatures “Verabrijes” (Veracruz+alebrijes), which is accurate. There are ties in form and technique, but the end result is distinct. The color that the tissue paper provides along with the high shine of the layers of varnish make the figures more “kitsch” than those in either Mexico City or Oaxaca. But this does not keep the family from selling their work, especially to vendors in tourist areas as far as Cancun. Hernandez says he has had the chance to meet David Linares, grandson of the inventor of alebrijes (Pedro Linares), who has approved of his family’s innovation.

 

 

Photos courtesy of the artisans and Alejandro Linares Garcia

 

 

 

 

South of the border quilting

Mexico is not the first place you think of when you think of patchwork quilts, but it’s fairly popular despite its short history.

It is big enough such that many Mexican cities have one or more quilt shops, a number have quilt “guilds,” social groups of quilters, as well as two major expositions in Mexico City alone.

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One of these, the Expo Quilt México Internacional, enters its fifth edition this year, running from 31 July to 2 August 2017 at Casino Campo Marte, Avenida Reforma, San Miguel Chapultepec in the western part of Mexico City. It was founded and is run by Silva Barba Alhadro, the propietor of the Quilting Studio, a quilting supply shop/studio/school in the upscale San Angel neighborhood.

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Barba’s story is fairly typical of those who have become attracted to the craft here. She discovered it quite by accident, working as a kindergarten teacher at a local British/American school. A illustrated alphabet had images of quilts for the letter “Q” and one of her students told her that her mother makes them. Curious, Barba got in touch with this mother and soon after took her first quilting class. She has been quilting ever since.

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Quilt hanging in the Quilting Studio in San Angel
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Silvia Barba (R) with fellow teacher Teresita Gurria

She did not get involved with the aim of starting a business. She had her afternoons free and was looking “for a way to entertain herself for a few hours each day.” But within a couple of years, she found herself teaching a couple of other women. Word of mouth brought more students over the next 5 or 6 years, she was regularly teaching and quilting in her home. Finally, it got so big that she decided to move it into the current location, where it has been for about 7 years. She estimates that she and others at the shop have taught over 60 women in Mexico City. They also import and distribute supplies and equipment for various parts of Mexico… everything from cloth, to tools and even industrial sewing machines designed to sew the three layers that make a quilt a quilt.

Quilt making most likely came to Mexico via American expats who came to retire here since the mid 20th century. There are well-organized groups of such quilters in expat havens such as San Miguel Allende and Ajijic. But the establishment and spread of quilting in Mexico has not been documented. Barba states that quilting in Mexico “is still in diapers,” but has been growing rapidly, in Mexico City and other areas, especially in the past 6-7 years.

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There are quilters in a number of Mexican cities such as Veracruz, Guadalajara, Merida and Monterrey. Most are in metropolitain areas, but there are some in more rural areas as well. Unlike traditional Mexican craft tradition, quilting is dominated by hobbyists. While Barba’s students have ranged in age from 15 to 75+, she says by far most are women around 40-45 years of age, upper class, whose children are now older, either in school full time or are grown. Most of these women have domestic help and time on their hands. Quilting and quilting classes provide both entertainment and a social outlet. For more than a few, they find the work and the comaraderie therapeutic.

Very few sell the quilts they make, although such artisans can be found communicating with quilting circles.

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Those who make money from the craft do so by teaching. The giving of quilting classes has grown into a cottage industry, with most giving classes in their homes and a few, like Barba, in quilting studios. The Expo Quilt is dedicated to such teachers, providing them an opportunity to demonstrate their quilting skills and ability to teach aspiring hobbyists.

The 2017 version with have not only expositors from Mexico City, but also from Morelia, Guadalajara, Toluca and Querétaro. Last year’s exposition attracted about 1,000 visitors.

Another important part of the Expo is the Quilt Competition, with this year’s theme being stars. Prizes are awarded in various categories, such as those for beginners to advanced quilters as well as one for children. One prize is reserved for the crowd favorite. There are also displays of quilts that are not part of the competition.

Special thanks to Silvia Barba for the photos of the 2016 Expo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Texture and color or The Drive Part 2

See The Drive, Part 1 here

Although best known for the beaches of Acapulco, most of the state of Guerrero is a world away from nightclubs and Spring Breakers. Poor, mountainous and with bad infrastructure, most of the state’s rural (and indigenous) populations still rely on the land and its gifts to survive. Such conditions allow many traditions to survive as well.

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Overlooking Temalacatzingo, Olinalá

Although modern production is heavily influenced by European and even Asian influences, the lacquerware of Olinalá is one of the remaining pockets of an economic activity with pre-Hispanic origins, and used to exist in much of what was Mesoamerica.

The lacquerware of this are comes from two towns, Olinalá proper and the smaller communityof Temalacatzingo, which belongs to the Olinalá municipality (like a township). The style is similar in both, though the production of Temalacatzingo is not quite as sophisticated and its more limited in variety, especializing much in the lacquering of gourds and gourd pieces.

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Pieces from Olinalá on display at the Museo de Arte Popular in Mexico City

The history of the craft here is well-documented in oral tradition as well as records dating back to the first centuries of the colonial period. Like other handcrafts, it was developed to create wares for local use, generally utilitarian. One local variation was the creation of decorated gourds for holding liquids, carried by indigenouswomen on their heads. Another traditional use was the making of a large chest in which a bride brought a collection of goods meant for the new household. Some of these antique chests can still be found. The making of very fine lacquerware, including pieces with gold leaf, can be traced to the San Francisco de Asís convent in the 17th century.

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Lacquer and gold leaf chest for the Host at the parish church of Olinalá

In the 1920s, the making of lacquered items here was documentedby Rene d’Harmoncourt, but it nearly disappeared by mid century. By the 1960s, only 20 or so master craftsmen were left. Interventions by writers such as Carlos Espejel and Mexican government agencies in the 1970s worked to promote the work to the outside world and preserve techniques and designs. One artisan to greatly benefit from these efforts was Francisco Coronel, who worked to revive a sub-type of Olinalá lacquer called “dorado.” For years, he was the only one producing this type and just about all artisans who do this work today studied under him. His work was gifted by the Mexican government to Queen Elizabeth II during a state visit in the 1970s and later to Pope John Paul II. Coronel won the National Folk Art Prize in 1978 and the National Prize in Sciences and Arts in 2007.

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Punteado style box

The crafts comeback did not make significant impact on the town’s economy until the late 1980s into the 1990s. Today, Olinalá is Mexico’s largest producer of lacquered items, with the majority of the people involved in the craft in some way. Lacquer faces many of the same challenges that other traditional handcrafts do: principally competition from cheaper imitations and younger generations who look for easier ways to make a better living. But Javier Jimenez of Artesanías Olinalá states that the craft transformed the town from a village with maybe a couple of trucks in the early 1990s to a area economic center; the town center filled with businesses selling furniture, appliances and more to people of the town and the surrounding communities. It is the only community in many miles with a gas station. The craft means that the community is far better off than many of its neighbors who have no other economic options but for agriculture during the rainy season.

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Mural in progress celebrating Olinalá lacquer and its artisans at the Instituto de Capacitación para el Trabajo in Olinalá

The items that are lacquered vary greatly here. Gourd cups such as those made for Aztec nobility for drinking chocolate can still be found, but they are overwhelmed by European-inspired wood items fashioned into utensils, boxes, chests, screens, masks, toys (cars, helicopters, etc.), musical instruments and even entire bedroom or dining room furniture (made to order).

While there has been some concessions to the modern age in both materials and techniques, most artisans still honor the basic techniques and materials of past centuries.  Individual pieces can take from weeks to months to make, but much of the reason for that is the drying times needed between stages. Wood pieces are made by local carpinters who cater to lacquer artisans. The best pieces are made with a local tree called olinalué (Lignum aloes), valued for its agreeable scent. However, overharvesting has made this wood expensive and most pieces are now pine, which might be treated with the scented oil.

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Chest made of linaloe wood

Lower quality pieces may use commericial oil paints, but traditional wares are treated and colored with lacquers made by the artisans themselves. The best of these are produced from crushed chia seeds but sometimes commercial linseed oil is mixed in as well. The coloring comes from earth pigments which are obtained locally. No matter how the piece is ultimately decorated, all pieces get a base lacquer coat with defines the background color. Unlike other parts of Mexico, these background colors can vary more including white, red, dark blue and black. In traditional workshops even brushes and other tools are made by artisans. It is a marvel the fine work that can be done with simple tools mades from turkey quills, thorns and cat hair.

Olinalá lacquer subdivides three styles. The oldest and more technical is called “rayado” (lit. scratched). The name comes from the use of a agave thorn or quill to etch designs. After the base coat is completely dried, a second coat in a different color is applied and while still somewhat wet, it is removed in places to created figures and abstract designs. The vast majority of pieces done this way are two-toned such as black on red or blue on white. In the hands of skilled artisans, the scratched designs can be so fine as to look like lace, and three or even more colors can be applied in this way. The finished product is not completely smooth. The overcoat created a slightly raised surface. Design elements often include rabbits, birds, flowers and geometric designs.

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Javier Jimenez demonstrating the rayado technique at his family’s workshop in Olinalá

The other major style is called “dorado” (sometimes “aplicado”), possibly introduced by Franciscans in the 17th century. The name “dorado” (gilded) does not mean that the piece has gold leaf, but it is a nod to a time when pieces of this type could have it. The obvious difference is how the decorative elements appear on the piece and how they are applied. Essentially, they are painted on and are reminiscent of oil paintings. Images include a wide variety of animals and plants (particularly flowers) and even scenes from history. These pieces may have images related to Mexico and even patriotic symbols, but they are not really Mexican. They are closer to designs found in Europe and to some extent, Asia.

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Finely painted dorado platter

The last style is called “punteado” or dotted. This combines main elements applied through the rayado technique. But rather than leave the exposed background color plain, it is filled in by painting tiny dots in the space. This is a 20th century innovation which became popular starting in the 1970s. Like other rayado pieces, animals, flowes and geometric designs prevail, and just about all available space is filled.

When the decoration of the piece is complete, it is covered in a commercial varished to protect it.

Although most pieces are still traditional in form and decoration, but there is innovation in a number of directions. New colors such as pastels have been introducted as well as new and modern design elements such as tigers. Artisans have also experimented with painting designs onto new items for markets such as bottles, handbacks and jewelry. This shows the very strong influence that modern collector’s and tourist markets have on the craft’s evolution.

Just about everyone in Olinalá is involved in the craft in some way, but most labor anonymously in their homes for relatively little money. Pieces are rarely signed and if they are, it is by the person who made the decorative design. This work is usually reserved for adult males in the family. Most artisans learn as children, apprenticeship style, but in the past few years, state and federal agencies have worked to provide training and other help to artisans in more formal settings.

As noted extensively in Part 1, getting to Olinala is not easy. One can buy directly from artisans there and get discounts from between 10% and 50%. But the real benefit is not financial but rather getting a sense of where the lacquerware comes from, the culture and people behind it and how it is made. For this reason, Olinalá does get visitors, even as far away as Europe because of its lacquer. (The town has several basic and inexpensive hotels.) But most people buy Olinala wares through retailers in Mexico and abroad. One notable place is a long-time stand at the gourmet San Juan Market in Mexico City.

My husband and I did consider returning to Mexico City by first driving to Chilpacingo, as the highway between there and home is a first class toll road, but several artisans and other residents dissuaded us, stating emphatically that road to Chilpancingo was far worse than the one we used to arrive. Deciding that we preferred the devil we knew, we took their advice. There had been rain the night before and, believe it or not, make the road worse with new rockslides. Total travel time, without stopping to take photos…. 6.5 hours….

 

 

 

 

 

The Drive, Part 1

It is impossible to go straight into a talk about the beautiful lacquer ware of Olinalá without talking about just how isolated this community is.

Olinalá is a small community in the Mexican state of Guerrero. While I have met a couple of their artisans, I had also been told that not many travel to sell their merchandise because of the area’s roads. So a decision had to be made….

  1. Really really really rural area? – check
  2. Tiny, singular “highway” for much of the ride? – check
  3. 5hr 20min to travel 260km (according to Google)? – check
  4. 1999 Ford Escort with rebuilt motor and transmisson? – check
  5. Only $2800 pesos between my husband and I until payday? – check
  6. A couple in their mid-fifties that really ought to know better? – check

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We have driven slow roads before. The culprits have been either really rugged terrain with a LOT of sharp curves, (e.g. mountains of Oaxaca), or a ridiculous number of topes ( highway between Toluca and Zihuatanejo). Yes, poor road conditions have cause some headaches in the past, but they were NOT kidding about the road into Olinalá.

The first leg of the drive, from Mexico City to Cuautla, is no problem. Heading east and south from Cuautla to Axochiapan is pretty straightforward, too. Our first issue was the area around Chiautla. Google tried to direct us twice to two short cuts to avoid the big bend of highway to the town, but our car was not cut out for either of them. To be fair to Google, the highway heading south from Chiautla was really bad for a stretch.

Continuing on Highway 23 and crossing into the state of Puebla, we were soon rewarded by much better road and by some of the nicest scenery we have passed in Mexico, as the photos below show.

 

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We even got treated to views of eagles and buzzards.

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Most of the drive on Highway 23 (from Chiautla) is in the state of Puebla proper, ending in the municipality of Ixcamilpa. Road quality did go down noticably as we traveled south, but the views and the feeling of having the road to ourselves more than made up for swerving around the bad ones.  While definitely mountainous, the curves were gentle. Its not super highway, but we did not see the reason why the drive should take so long.

Until we crossed into Guerrero…

Our first warning was that immediately upon exiting the town of Ixcamilpa, the road turned to dirt/mud for a few hundred meters, then we entered a modern bridge to cross the river. There was no traffic, and we felt quite safe stopping in the middle of the bridge to take photos.

The mountains do get a bit more rugged here, forcing significantly more cuts into them. But this is not really the problem. The problems is that … well to say it is poor maintenance would be the understatment of the year. The rock is this area is particularly crumbly and the cuts all pretty much vertical. Not a good combination. Where the Puebla issues were easily overlooked, the road conditions degraded to dangerous as we approached Olinalá. Average speed… about 30kph…. 60 felt like flying. Rock falls everywhere, in places closing a lane and lots of evidence of where very large rock had fallen previously.

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The scenery was still beautiful but unfortuately the road took almost all of our attention. We made a short stop in the other lacquer town of Temazcalcingo, but time and the need to meet contacts, pushed us onto Olinalá proper.

Then the trip was worth it again.

Our first reward was the town church. Average colonial style rural church, but the inside is covered in evidence of the town’s creative hands. Walls, columns and more are covered in the designs of the lacquerware, using the same techniques and materials. We also discovered a second traditional handcraft here, the making of items with fine wood inlay.

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The people inside were busy preparing the image of the patron for her Day of Assumption on Aug 15, but several were happy to talk to us about her, the lacquer and the woodwork, giving us a couple of contacts.

To be continued….

Photos by Alejandro Linares Garcia (the other 50-something that ought to know better)

 

Earth, bright colors and shape-shifters

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Maestro Arnulfo with large jar

The Vazquez family is one of Tonalá best-known families of traditional potters, specializing in barro brunido, but that does not mean that they shun innovation.

The best-known family member now is award-winning potter, Arnulfo Vazquez, but the story begins with his paternal grandmother, Encarnación Carmon. She began making traditional barro brunido, focusing on traditional utilitarian pieces, but she did put significant effort in the making and decoration of her pieces, making them and the family name stand out in the market. Vazquez’s father, Salvador Vazquez, continued his mother’s work. But it has been Arnulfo who has made the pottery nationally and internationally known.

Vazquez’s began working with his father when he was about seven year old, learning all aspects of the craft, including even the digging of clay and determining its quality. To date, the maestro has accumulated around 40 years of experience.

Vazquez pottery is mostly traditional but does have several unique features. Tradition mostly resides in the clay and how it is worked. Like the generations before him, all clay is mind locally, and Vazquez knows very well which mines produce the clay he looks for. There are two main types “barro blando,” which is a whitish color and “barro tieso” which is black. The two are mixed in certain proportions to take advantage of the properties each has. The shaping  and firing of the clay has not changed much since his grandmother’s time, which the process still very individual.

But modern times have made a difference. Unlike his father, maestro Arnulfo no longer has to go to the mines himself and load a donkey with the raw material. He can either use a truck or even pay someone else to mine, clean and deliver the clays he needs. He also has some machinery to make the grinding, and sorting of the clay, along with wetting it, much easier. However, the shaping of pieces is done has it was two generations ago.

The Vazquez family specializes in barro brunido, one of the state of Jalisco’s traditional pottery styles. Its matte shine is not from glaze, but rather from burnishing, much the way indigenous pottery was made. Although other potters take imagery from Jalisco’s myths and legends, none give it such prominence as this workshop.

The hallmark of Vazquez pottery is the appearance of a nagual somewhere on the piece. Naguals are Mesoamerican shape-shifting animals who can do good or harm depending on their personalities and have various incarnations both in pre Hispanic lore as well as a number of Mexican handcrafts. In more than a few pieces, a nagual appears as a main element, but even when it does not, one is on the piece somewhere, acting as a kind of family signature. The focus on the stories and culture of the Tonala area is important to the Vazquez family, which believe it gives the pieces meaning for buyers and promotes the region’s culture. The importance of the nagual for Arnulfo is such that he has now taken to painting images of naguals on canvas, based on the images he puts on pottery.

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Example of nagual painting

While tradition remains important in both technique and design, this does not mean that the pottery is stagnant. In fact, there are nods to both tradition and innovation in the production and often times in a single piece. Purely traditional pieces are made, still using traditional earth pigments… which produce colors such as black, red, white, terracotta and sometimes pink.

But the use of commercial pigments has introduced brighter and new colors, especially blue and green. The main drive in the use of these new colors comes from the markets, particularly from younger buyers who prefer the brighter, stronger look. Vazquez considers it part of the natural evolution of the craft comparing it with new models of cars. The newer color schemes seem to be taking over the Vazquez production, but Arnulfo states that there is still a strong market for traditional pieces, especially from older and more conservative buyers.

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Fully traditional vase (left) and mostly traditional pot (with exception of blue highlights) before firing.

Many of the basic forms are traditional, with plates and bowls dominating along with large covered jars called tibores. None of the pieces in the home/workshop were utilitarian, all were decorative. Almost all were medium to large-sized but the maestro says he creates pieces of all sizes. Arnulfo has done many custom pieces up to tibors 2.2 meters tall. He has also done tile murals, including a 4 meter x 3 meter mural which is now located in Ajijic, Jalisco.

401px-ArnulfoVazquez034As a business, the workshop has had its ups and downs as demand fluxuates. On the plus side, the workshop is well enough known that many of the clients come to him either visiting or through the Internet. Many are from the United States and some from Europe. Currently another advantage is the very strong dollar, which make his pieces more affordable to foreign markets.  But price is not the basis of his market; quality of desigan and execution are. As upper-end handcrafts are a niche market, Vazquez depends much on his and the family’s reputation, one that is mostly spread through word-of-mouth and other forms of recommendation.

To this end, Vazquez family work can be seen in various museums and other important collections in Mexico and the United States such as the Museo de Arte Popular in Mexico City, various museums in Guadalajara, the Banamex folk art collections and several museums in the United States. Arnulfo personally has over 60 prizes and other recognitions including the Galardon Nacional of Folk Art in 2015 and the National Prize of Arts and Sciences, Folk Art Category awarded by then President Vicente Fox.

Arnulfo’s son Jaime Eduardo is the fourth generation to take up the craft, following family tradition, but developing his own mark as well. This is significant in an age when it is becoming harder to pass on handcraft tradittion to younger generations, especially in this rapidly urbanizing town outside of Guadalajara proper. Despite this maestro Arnulfo remains fairly optimistic of barro brunido’s future, being highly active in local efforts to promote traditional Jalisco pottery, especially in schools to give students pride in their heritage. Despite his own training being so family-oriented, stating several times that pottery “is in his blood,” he is also active in training young people from Tonala, whether or not they are from families involved in pottery or any other kind of handcraft.

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Maestro Arnulfo with newer verstion (left) and more traditional coloring (right)

 

 

 

 

 

The night no one sleeps

Many foreigners living in Mexico may have never heard of the country’s smallest state, Tlaxcala. The area’s history, from pre-Hispanic kingdom to the present, seems to revolve around maintaining its independence and identity, first from the Aztecs, then the Spanish and in more modern times, the state of Puebla, which surrounds it on three sides.

It is home to one of Mexico’s most important festivals, the Feria de Huamantla, this year taking place from 4-20 August. It is an extension of the feast day of the city’s patron saint, the Virgin of Charity, but has since evolved into a major celebration of the area’s culture, religion and gastronomy, not to mention a running of the bulls.

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The most important night of this festival is called La Noche que Nadie Duerme or The Night No One Sleeps which extends from the night of the 14th and into the early morning hours of the 15th. This is not hyperbole. During the 14th,  townspeople work on preparing the procession route for the one day a year that the image comes out to bless the faithful.

Its not just cleaning; the way needs to be meticulously prepared with over 11 kilometers of finely made “sawdust carpets.”  These are images and patterns covering the streets made with colored sawdust, flower petals and other vegetative matter. Huamantla is not the only location that makes these, but it is probably the best known example of the ephemeral craft.

Preparing a section of the carpet

Why ephemeral? Because the hours spend arranging the colors and images that cover the entire street will be destroyed as the image and its procession passes over starting exactly at midnight on the 15th of August, the Virgin’s saint day. Indeed this is part of the point, to show that life on earth is transient and only the divine is truly real.

2012 procession over a section of the carpet

The Feria has a number of other important events includign the Flower Parade (Desfile de las flores) , a day dedicated to the famous seasonal dish chile en nogada and Mockery Night (Noche de burladeros). But the most famous event of the Feria after the sleepless night occurs on the last day, the Huamantlada, when dozens of bulls run on the streets, Pamplona-style.

Special thanks to Antareth Reyna for the still photos of last year’s carpets.

Straws drawing

One of the most amazing things about finely-worked handcrafts is both the talent and patience needed to create them. Unfortunately, that talent and patience is not always rewarded with respect.

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Popotillo (lit. little straw) is the craft of creating colorful images using the thin stalks of various grasses. The art is not well known in Mexico and virtually unknown among ethnic Mexicans living in the United States, even though there are some people living in California and other places who do it.

Mexican handcrafts experts make a distinction among handcrafted items which does not exist in English. “Artesanía” refers to a “higher caste” of decorative or utilitarian items created using pre-industrial methods but are not fine art. “Manualidad” also refers to handcrafted items, but of a less-respected sort. The distinction is loosely based on whether or not the making of the item has a history and/or a significance in the culture of the place(s) where it is made. All indigenous pottery traditions which can trace their origins unbroken from the pre Hispanic period are unquestionably artesanía, and party favors made with foam rubber bought at crafts store following pre-printed instructions would be manualidades.

But the line isn’t always so clear. Mata Ortiz pottery is considered to be artesanía even though the pieces produced in this Chihuahua village have only a glimmer of resemblance to the Pakime pottery Juan Quesada worked to reconstruct from shards in the 20th century.

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Colored straw

Popotillo runs into a similar lineage problem, which for some categorizes it as a manualidad. Although many artisans claim pre-Hispanic origins, there are no written or oral records to back this up. Nor is it documented in colonial works. There are some indications that there may be a historical/cultural component to the craft.

One problem with the pre-Hispanic claim is that the craft can be and is done with material we know of as “straw,” either wheat, oat, rye and barley, all introduced by the Spanish in the colonial period. Another issue is the images that are created with the technique. These tend to be geometric designs, Catholic religious images, landscapes and folkloric generic Mexican images and scenes. There is an element of kitsch in vast majority of what is produced.

News item about classes in the craft in Chalco, State of Mexico

On the other hand, the production of the craft seems to be limited to and area extending from far eastern Michoacan, into the State of Mexico, Mexico City and into Puebla and parts of Hidalgo state. All areas which were either the heart of the old Aztec empire or strongly affected by it. The techniques have been transmitted across generations, and in some areas, straw is not used at all, but rather the use of certain native plants are required. For example, in the areas around the Popocatepetl Volcano (Puebla and State of Mexico), the plan is a grass called zacatón which grows on the slopes, harvested by local and sold to artisans in communities lower down. In Hidalgo and some other places the plant is cambray, in the flax family, called “mijo” in the vernacular.

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The craft remains popular particularly in Michoacan where about 200 families are known to make “painting” and use it to decorate other objects. Most of the artisans who do this in the US have roots in the state. Its popularity straddles the border area between Michoacan and State of Mexico, in particular Tlalpujahua (Michoacan) and El Oro (State of Mexico), which share a number of handcraft traditions. El Oro is known for making large, intricate paintings which can command high prices.

Artisans can also be found in several of the suburbs of Mexico City and it is regularly taught in community centers here and in the city proper. The Mexico City suburbs include Nicolas Romero, Huixquilucan and Los Reyes/La Paz.  Huixquilucan specializes in items such as bookmarks and Christmas cards. In Los Reyes/La Paz, artisan Roberto Domingo has developed techniques for using the straw decoration on various wood items including boxes, key holders and more. Similarly in Puebla, including Santa Maria Tonanzintla, the poptillos is applied ot various three dimensional objects. There are a few communities that produce paintings in Hidalgo as well.

The craft is labor intensive. An 8×10 image can take 2 or 3 days, depending on complexity and all the space must be covered in straw… no bare patches. The use of the hands, or in the case of very tiny pieces, tweezers to place the bits of colored lines has not changed, but there has been some modernization. Traditionally, the straw or grass is collected, dried and colored either by the craftsperson proper or by another person. Originally, vegetable dyes were used and straw colored this way still can be found, but most are now colored using aniline dyes, as the color lasts longer. The straw pieces are applied on paper, posterboard or other surfaces, not by cutting the straw first, but rather applying the straw and snapping it where the artisan wants the line to end. The traditional adhesive is beeswax or Campeche wax, but other glues are sometimes used. After the image is completed, it is usually coated to make it shine. In the past, this was done using egg whites, but today commercial varnish is used.

Popotillo’s “questionable” status as a handcraft shows how often classification is not a clear cut process, but a subjective one, much the way of classifying fine from popular art or even good from bad work. There is no doubt that the people dedicated to this put in long hours and need a fine, creative eye, especially in the creation of unique pieces.

 

 

Snakes on a mask: the Horta brothers

Tócuaro is a tiny community. You can walk from end-to-end in less than 5 minutes, but it is home to one of the Lake Patzcuaro region’s notable handcrafts, the making of wooden masks, especially those depicting devils. These masks are mostly tied to the largest annual event here, the “Pastorelas” which occurs in early February.  All must be made of wood (not plastic or other materials) and each mask is worn by only one dancer.

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Small mural of a devil mask on the delegation building in the center of Tócuaro

Tócuaro is an artisan town, with most families involved in wood working, mostly the making of rustic furniture. That woodworking did not include the making of masks. The first to make his own masks was a craftsman named Jose Ponce, but he made them mostly for his own use, not for sale. Until the latter 20th century, those from the town who needed a mask bought them from a nearby community callted Pichátaro or other communities around Lake Patzcuaro.

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Snake/devil mask at the Museo de Arte Popular in Mexico City

This changed with the Horta family, specifically Juan Horta Castilla. Horta originally made a living as a farmhand. He was very poor and did not have the money to buy a mask in Pichátaro. He went to another Lake area town, Quiroga, to find a woodworker who would teach him how to make masks. Like Ponce, he originally was interested only in making his own masks and maybe for family and friends. But the tourism of the area provided an alternative market for his work. Horta’s early masks were simple, without the elaborate designs, images and color schemes that often dominate masks made today. They were similar to masks made by other Lake Patzcuaro communities. However, as the Pastorela does not dictate exactly how the devils should be depicted through the masks, experimentation and creativity are permitted.

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Juan Horta home and workshop in Tócuaro

Horta’s talent allowed him to sell to markets beyond local dancers, first around Lake Patzcuaro, then to other parts of Michoacan, then to other parts of Mexico and even in the United States eventually.

He used local woods and natural paints including those made from soot and pigments used for the dyeing of cloth. The opportunity to sell in more upscale venues, such as the Casa de Artesanias in Morelia and later the Feria Maestros de Arte in Chapala prompted him to develop masks with finer features.  His travels, often sponored by government entities, not only allowed him to sell but also to work with and learn from other artisans.

Juan died on December 19, 2006, but not before a long history of success at handcraft competitions, including a prize for a mask he entered for the National Prize in Arts and Sciences in 1980.

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Orlando Horta demonstrating mask painting at the Feria Maestros del Arte in Chapala

Today, five of Horta’s sons (as well as a few other families) continue the work of making masks for both dancers’ and collectors’ markets. Three (Orlando, Hugo and Manuel) still work in the father’s old workshop, which still carries Juan’s name. The other live and work elsewhere in the small community.

Each brother has his own speciality and his own clients.  The oldest, Orlando, specializes in miniature masks. Hugo does medium-sized ieces and Modesto makes larger masks of high quality mostly for collectors. Juan Jose specializes in masks of women like mermaids with fine detail. Manuel is more of a generalist, and his masks are more rustic.

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Inside the Juan Horta workshop in Tócuaro

Depending on size, detail and quality of the finished product, masks can take from weeks to months to make, that that does not mean that a single mask is being made during all of that tiem. Much of the time involved includes the drying of the wood (before and/or after carving) and the drying of paint layers. Various local woods are still used in the making of masks, each selected depending on its qualities. One important wood is called copalillo, which is native to the area. It is lightweight, relatively easy to carve and resistant to warping. It can also grow in capricious forms, lending itself in particular to the making of devil’s masks which feature one or more raised snake figures over the basic form.

HortaWorkshopTocuaro028Carving of the wood is still done very similarly to what Juan Horta did, there have been some changes, in particular in painting. Until very recently, masks were painted with water-based paints then acrylics, but since many dances are performed during the rainy season, water damage to both paint and wood is a problem. For this reason, Horta’s sons have turned to the use of automobile paint, which not only gives a higher gloss, it protects the wood much better for much longer.

The Horta’s make many types of masks for most of the regional dances in central Michoacan, they are by far best known for the making of the snake-laden devil masks. The snake adornment varies from a simple raised design to elements that are added to the “face” and almost obscuring it completely. These masks can be made from one single piece of wood or may take advantage of the smaller twising branches of the copalillo tree. While the snakes have always been a traditional aspect of these masks, the truly fantastic designs are new, dating back only about 20 years or so and are primarily driven by the collectors and institutional markets.

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Although the fine, fantastic masks are a trademark, the three brothers in the original workshop still produce a wide variety of masks for various markets. While size and type of wood play a role, most of the price is determined by the amount of time and effort the mask requires. Intricate and highly-crafted mass go for $6,000 pesos and more, but their market is limited mostly to collectors and institutions, with only 2 or 3 of these made per year on average. Most of the production, about 50 to 80 masks per year, are still basic, traditional masks made for both dancers and tourists and sell for between 100 and 500 pesos. They also take on special orders, including masks that may have nothing to do with any traditional model, not only because it is a guaranteed sale, but also a challenge to their creative abilities.

Although the home and workshop in Tócuaro is open to the public, few make their way to this town, various km away from Lake Patzcuaro proper. Those masks not intended for local dancers are mostly sold through galleries, tourist shops and other resellers, not only in Michoacan, but also in important tourist areas such as Puerto Vallarta, San Miguel Allende,  and various in the United States.

Despite their reputation, the making of the masks does not provide sufficient income, and there is little other economic opportunity in the area. Two of the brothers regularly migrate illegally to the United States to do seasonal work, primarily in New England. Here they have also given workshops and classes about the masks and their use in local school and even give classes at the Margaritas Mexican restaurant in Weymouth.