In areas outside of central Mexico, hard paper mache (cartonería) objects can hold important cultural niches. Like in San Miguel Allende, giant puppet figures worn over the shoulders of a dancer are an important element of various patron saint days and other festivals …. and can be seen both on the streets and on the stage of Oaxaca city’s annual Guelaguetza festival.
The Oaxacan version is distinct in style but also in name. Instead of being called “mojiganga” as in San Miguel, they are simply called “monas de calenda” lit. party dolls). Although construction is similar, from frame to the use of paper mache, these dolls generally vary in size with relatively few getting to the heights that are seen with their northern cousins.
Monas de calenda at a local festival
To talk about monas in the city of Oaxaca is to talk about “Pepe el Monero” or Pepe the dollmaker. His real name is José Octavio Azcona y Juarez. He does not come from an artisan family, but began his career over 30 years ago, stating poetically that he began when the tree outside his shop was only a twig.
In the city, many may not know his name but many do know where his shop is, on Héroes de Chapultepec, near the ADO bus station. It is a very unassuming place, just a typical shop, until the metal security curtain is opened to see a wide variety of figures in various states of completion staring back.
He began making the figures because he wanted to borrow a mona, but was denied. Frustrated, he learned to make them and has ever since make them for sale, rent and even to lend (though he admits lent figures can be hard to get back). Azcona has made figures from the traditional generic man and woman to caricatures of Mexican presidents, to homages to popular artists (such as La India Maria) and modern cartoon figures such as El Chavo el Ocho. He states he does not like to do a lot of the modern popular characters but does them because he needs to make a living. Not all cartonería figures are human. Azcona has make images of colorful spheres and even a VW Beetle with its doors open. These figures tend to be smaller and placed on sticks, rather than worn, covering a dancer.
Pepe has a colorful personality, bouncing from story to story. He works with his wife, who is Cuban and who he absolutely adores. But he is happiest in his little workshop, making his figures rather than looking for publicity. Despite his relative obscurity, his work can be found in the permanent collections of the Regional Museum of Oaxaca and the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.
Featured image by Leigh Thelmadatter. Other images by permission of the artisan.