Hammered metal existed in Mexico before the arrival of Columbus, but it was limited to gold and silver, with copper in its infancy. The Spanish introduced the mining and working of iron to Chiapas and the rest of Mexico.
Today, traditional iron working in this state is concentrated in San Cristobal de las Casas, one of few produced in this city better known as the place to sell the products of the state’s very rich handcraft tradition.
Both wrought and cast iron can be found, but wrought is what can be seen in balconies all over the city. Even more unique to the city are the intricately-made crosses called Passion crosses, named such as they contain allegories of the Passion of Christ, along with some indigenous ones.
Placed on the roof when it is raised, these can been seen all over the city, considered to “bless” the house on which they appear. In the past, these crosses were used in processions, especially during Holy Week, likely because the thinness of the metal made them relatively light.
Guadalupe Hermosillo Escabar may be the best ironworker in San Cristobal. Born in Tapachula, Chiapas in 1962, he began working with scrap metals and old tin cans when he was only 11 or 12 years old, as these were the only materials available to him at the time.
When he was 17, he moved to San Cristobal and in 1985, started to work Flores Nájera family workshop, and even married one of their daughters, Maria Esther. Despite the fact that Maria has 9 siblings and the family has three generations of experience prior, it is Guadalupe who has excelled in his generation, but the workshop remains in the family with members the following two generations (sons and grandsons) showing promise. Hermosillo has his eye on one grandson in particular.
Hermosillo and the family makes all kinds of reproductions of item from Chiapas’ colonial period, still using almost all of the same techniques and tools from the past. All pieces are hand-hammered. These include door and padlocks (including giant versios, door knockers, hinges, etc. However, his most popular item by far are the Passion crosses, followed by a metal version of the Tree of Life. His largest pieces to date are these same two, the largest of which are up to three meters tall. One of these can be seen at the family workshop museum and another at a museum in San Miguel Allende.
Like just about all handcraft traditions in Mexico, wrought iron work is under pressure to change both techniques and styles to cater to the largest craft market… that related to the tourist trade. But Hermosillo sees his work as something more than just creating things to sell… rather a way of preserving the past.
The is the impetus to the family’s private museum, the Museo de Metalistería Hermosillo. Its main purpose is to educate about the history and techniques of traditional ironwork, to help keep it alive. Almost all of the pieces have been made by the family, including reproductions of colonial-era torture devices. However, these items are never made for sale to the general public.
Hermosillo’s work not only stands out due to its adherence to tradition, there is innovation as well. In particular, many of the pieces stand out because of the addition of silver, blue, gold, red and other tones, sometimes mixed on the same piece. These tones are created only through the spot application of heat.
Hermosillo’s work has been recognized in a number of ways. He began to be invited to give classes in ironwork in the 1990s. Since then, he has given lectures, demonstrations and classes. He particularly focuses on the training of youths, but says that he can only teach the basics. Really inspired work must come from within the artisan.
He has been invited to give lectures and demonstrations as well as to sell his work in various parts of Mexico and even the United States. He is one of few artisans who is invited back to the Feria Maestros de Arte in Chapala, Jalisco for 5 or more years. Most of the family’s sales are through galleries and the like, focusing on Mexico’s tourist hotspots as well as exports to the United States with some to Europe and even as far as India. However, son Gerardo Hermosillo maintains a Facebook account with allows direct contact.
Hermosillo’s awards numerous one at the local and state level, including the 2002 Fray Bartolome de las Casas Award, the highest artistic prize awarded by the state of Chiapas. National recognition is through inclusion in the Great Masters of Mexican Folk Art guide by Banamex… This periodically updated book allows only about 100 entries for artisans of all kinds in the entire country.