Paper, Paste and Celebration: Mexican Cartonería – Chapter 2 History and Definition through the 20th century

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Lupita doll at the Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo Studio in San Angel, Mexico City (Alejandro Linares Garcia)

For the introduction see https://creativehandsofmexicodotorg.wordpress.com/2017/12/18/writing-a-book/

 

Most people in English-speaking countries are familiar with paper maché, mostly from elementary school arts and crafts projects. Their experience almost never extends beyond this and, therefore, do not consider the material or technique to have artistic or cultural value.

This is not true in Mexico. In this country, the craft is called cartonería, from the word “cartón” which means cardboard or heavy paper. According to Celaya master craftsman and author, Carlos Derramadero Vega, cartonería can be distinguished by its history of coming to Mexico from Spain, where it developed slightly differently than in France. It can also be distinguished by its texture, which is harder and more resistant than most paper maché, leading to the alternate name of cartón piedra (literally stone cardboard). One other traditionally distinguishing feature is the use of molds, where the paper is layered over or inside (depending on the kind of mold) to make all or part of the final piece. However, Derramadero and others admit that the term cartonería is now used almost indistinctly for works using all kinds of paper and paste, with or without molds, with the only marker now that the final piece is hard, smooth and resistant to most minor knocks. Although not by definition necessary, most cartonería artisans (called cartoneros) prefer heavier paper, especially for the basic shape, as the desired hardness can be achieved with fewer layers.

The term “cartonería” will be used in this book to respect Mexican cultural tradition, distinguishing it as a folk art form. The best pieces show no seams or wrinkles from the layered strips of paper and can even appear to be lacquered wood. The use of molds made of plaster, wood, and other materials, created specifically for cartonería projects, is still an important part of the trade in some areas. Even with the use of molds, no two pieces are exactly the same, mostly because of the use of hand painting and other decorative techniques. Every artisan has his or her own techniques, which vary mainly in how the paper is handled.

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Cartoneria masks drying in the courtyard of the home and workshop of Maricarmen Jimenez Paloalto in Celaya, Guanajuato

Cartonería objects range in height from only a few centimeters to life-sized (1-2 meters) and  monumental pieces which can be up to 12 meters tall, requiring the support of wicker, wood, metal or wire frames. Cheaper works to be sold for festivals and to the general public are often made with a base of recycled paper, with decorative elements, such as crepe paper, being new. The popularity of the craft has been driven in part by its use of waste paper, which was (and still is) easily and cheaply available, with stiff paper obtainable from the packaging of certain construction materials, such as cement, along with the ubiquitous newspapers. However, those created for their artistic value and/or for collectors will usually be made entirely or almost entirely with new materials.

 

The most traditional means of decorating a cartoneria piece is by painting, and for a number of cartoneros and experts, this is the only acceptable method. Until the mid-20th century, paints were made by the cartoneros themselves, with families such as the Linares of Mexico City and the Derramaderos in Celaya retaining knowledge of how to make these paints. Today, the use of commercial paints, including cheap acrylics is uncontroversial, but this is not the case with the use of other elements such as plastics, sequins, feathers, even other recycled materials. As most cartonería items are meant for festivals, the colors used are not realistic, but often gaudy, and often have wild designs as well. The reason for this is that the decorations are meant to attract attention. The quality of the painting on cartoneria, at least until the latter 20th century, was generally poor, simply because they were meant to be used only for a brief time and often destroyed; therefore, customers were more concerned about price than appearance. This has changed for most of what is now produced as the two main markets are now community festivals and collectors (both more demanding and with more money). Both molding and painting have improved, but fine detailed painting will add the most value to a piece.

The process of making of cartonería pieces is a long one, generally due to the drying and curing procedures employed. It is even longer if the pieces are to be made completely by hand and/or are of large sizes. Those who make monumental pieces can spend months working on a single creation. These processes take even longer in the rainy season due to the high levels of humidity common at that time of year. For these reasons, most family workshops and cooperatives have a low output. During certain seasons or when there is a large order, many of these workshops have to outsource work to other cartoneros, or even to general laborers. In Celaya, many of the general laborers are elderly women, who work on helmets or other small, specific parts.  It is also the reason why the vast majority of cartoneros work in other occupations and/or work with the medium for reasons other than economic ones.

One distinctive element of cartonería in Mexico is the use of molds for smaller pieces meant to be produced serially, such as masks, toys and some festival items. Initially these were only made of wood and clay, but later those made of plaster and cement have come into use. The most traditional cartoneros make their own molds, which require sculpting skills. Most of these are convex, meaning that the paper that touches the mold will become the interior of the piece. These are easier to use, but also mean that the outer surface cannot be finely detailed by the mold itself.  For each use, the mold is prepared with some kind of lubricant. This was originally rancid animal fat, but today it can be motor oil, vegetable oil, or vaseline. The paper strips covered with flour-and-water paste are carefully laid over the mold, and when this part is finished, paper and mold are left to dry.

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Preparing a monumental skeletal figure for the Festival de Calaveras at the Casa de Artesanias in Aguascalientes

The vast majority of those made without molds use a reed/wicker or wire frame, which is called an alma (soul). This is particularly true of large pieces up to a meter or so. For monumental-sized projects, soldering of metal frames may be required. Laying the strips onto such a frame to get a smooth “skin” (hiding the frame) is tricky, with some cartoneros experimenting with overlaying frames with plastic strips, especially from old PET bottles, and/or masking tape. However, this is somewhat controversial as pure paper-and-paste-work is seen as the most authentic technique to use; not to mention that there can be problems with cracking and separating over time. This can be problematic with pieces meant to be a part of a collection.

 

History

Paper was not always the inexpensive commodity it is now, especially not when sheets of paper were made by hand. In the past, paper was not simply thrown away after its primary use was completed. The reuse of old paper with some kind of paste or glue to make new objects is very old, with origins in the Orient. The idea migrated west to Europe and then from there to the Americas by the 18th century. Originally, it was a kind of industrial material. Old paper was mashed, mixed with chalk, glue or sometimes sand to make a substance much harder than what is usually made today. It was hard enough that with heavy varnishing ancient Chinese soldiers made helmets from it.

In more recent centuries, one of its attractions has been as a substitute for more expensive materials, such as wood or plaster; for example, it was used to make ornate lacquered furniture in the Victorian era. In the 19th century, this material was also popular for the making of dolls’ heads in Europe.

Paper maché began to fall out of favor in the late 19th century, as the technology was no longer new, and the idea of paper furniture began to be seen as unsophisticated. By the mid20th century, paper maché became more of a simple craft practiced by women than an industrial material. The advent of even cheaper plastics has led to the disappearance of commercial paper maché products in most parts of the world.

By the latter 20th century, it had been almost entirely relegated to elementary school arts-and-crafts projects in Europe and the Americas. One exception to its diminished role is that it is still valued in theater production for making large props, such as trees and rocks, as they have a realistic look and are relatively light. However, the technique has not been completely abandoned as an artistic and decorative medium in the United States. Dan Reeder is a paper maché artist in the Pacific Northwest, known as “Dan the monster man” for making dragons and other fantastic creatures from paper maché and cloth. He has uploaded a number of YouTube videos which have gone viral and has a website called Gourmet Paper Maché. As a craft, people such as Martha Stewart has presented it on television and online as a means of making holiday-related and other decorations. However, this has not elevated the status of the material as a whole in this country.

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Cora culture mask for Holy Week (1970) from Jesus Maria, Del Nayar, Nayarit

The story is quite different in Mexico. Paper crafts were common in the preHispanic era, mostly in relation to religious ceremonies, but the making of three-dimensional objects from paper and some kind of glue is a European introduction. One very early example is an image of Saint Anne in the collection of the Franz Mayer Museum in Mexico City, dating from the 16th century. The interior of the body is modeled from recycled paper, including documents written in Nahuatl. The head, hands and backs of the legs are carved from wood. Paper images of this kind were principally made to be lightweight for carrying in processions. Instead of page, animal glue held the layers in place. As it was a religious image, steps had been taken to conceal the paper to imitate a purely wood piece.

Modern cartonería was introduced to Mexico by the Spanish Catholic clergy in the 17th century, at first encouraged for the making of religious objects. By the mid18th century, it had become an indispensable part of festivals, both religious and secular, especially for the making of Judas Iscariot effigies, small bull figures and other popular themes, often made as mediums for fireworks, with the piece destined to end up in ashes. Another use for the medium was the making of cheap imitations of certain products, especially dolls and other toys. Because they were not intended for longterm use, the pieces were generally not finely made.

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Dragon head base made with PET plastic and masking tape at the workshop of Clara Romero Murcia

With the exception of piñatas, the making of cartonería has mostly been concentrated in the central highlands of the country, especially in the Mexico City metropolitan area and Guanajuato. The craft has been dominated by mestizos (those of mixed European and indigenous heritage) as these areas have low indigenous populations. The low cost of materials has made it popular with the lower socioeconomic classes up to the present day.

The use of cartonería for religious objects has since faded, being favored now for popular celebrations that are often related to religious holidays, but not part of religious ritual. One notable exception to this is found within the Cora indigenous population of the Jesús María, El Nayar and Santa Teresa communities in the state of Nayarit, who create cartonería masks to depict the Pharisees during Holy Week. When their role in the festivities is finished on Holy Saturday has finished, the masks are ceremoniously placed in a river to dissolve, as an act of purification.

Although Celaya, Guanajuato was named the “cradle” of Mexican cartonería by the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes, it is not absolutely certain where the craft was first established. However, by the 19th century, Celaya had become a major producer of cartonería, in particular, of toys and masks. This came about from using cartonería to make cheaper imitations of European products, the first and most popular of these being dolls, followed by masks, heads for hobby horses, soldiers’ helmets and swords, rattles, and toy animals. Masks commonly depicted clowns, devils, goats, witches, old people, sultans, monkeys and beautiful women. This activity became concentrated among certain families in the Tierras Negras, El Zapote and San Juan neighborhoods, where there was an established population of artisans, with potters making the first cartonería molds.  Eventually the making and sale of toys extended beyond these holidays, becoming a major industry as it allowed poorer children to have something to play with. This industry began to decline with the introduction of commercial plastic equivalents in the mid-20th century, collapsing in the 1990s, with the deaths of many of the old masters. For many Celaya families, the marked the end of the tradition,  so much so that they did not even keep the old toy molds; instead, they were thrown out, broken or used as filler in construction. What is left of cartonería production is almost entirely limited to the Santiaguito and Tierras Negras neighborhoods. In the 1950s, there were over thirty family workshops in Santiaguito and Tierras Negras. Today, that is down to about a dozen in total.

With the exception of piñatas, central Mexico remains the center of most cartonería production, with the Mexico City metropolitan area becoming the largest and most varied producer of this craft. In fact, cartonería is one of few handcraft traditions to survive in the Mexico City area, which offers other, better-paying, options for work. It can still be found for sale in traditional markets and on the street, with the La Merced, Jamaica and Sonora markets its most important sales venues. Celaya and other communities in eastern Guanajuato are in second place. It should be noted that cartonería is concentrated in urban areas rather than in rural ones. In addition to Mexico City and Celaya, significant production can be found in San Miguel Allende, the city of Puebla, the city of Oaxaca, Pátzcuaro, Cuernavaca, and the major cities of the State of Mexico. This overall link with urban Mexico means that cartonería has followed a somewhat different track than better-known handcrafts, such as pottery, which are generally linked to the country’s rural and indigenous populations.

 

Like other handcraft traditions, cartonería has thrived mostly where there is an abundance of raw materials. Granted, paper can be found just about anywhere in Mexico, but cartonería requires a large amount of readily available paper. Until recently, cartonería objects were always made with a base of waste rather than new paper, and only urban areas can produce an abundance of this. Originally, much of this arrived in Mexico as part of expensive imports from Spain, and, instead of it being thrown away, other uses were found for it.  While most professional cartoneros, such as the Linares family, now use new paper bought in bulk for most of their creations, the use of waste paper has not been completely eliminated. New techniques for assembly and decoration use other waste products also produced in abundance in urban areas, notably PET plastic, although this is somewhat controversial. Masking tape is favored by a number of younger artisans to hold the basic form together (either a frame or crumpled newspaper), which may or may not be removed as the layers of paper and paste are added. The use of natural materials such as straw and wood is rare in cartonería, with the exceptions of reeds in few areas in Mexico City and Morelos state where these grow in abundance. The reason for this is that today’s cartonería is an urban folk art, created in an urban environment, and intended for an urban market.

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Cartoneria figure harvesting “aguamiel” from a maguey by Maria Graciela Lopez Alvarez of Morelos

In the mid20th century, there was a shift from the making of cartonería items purely for local festivals to making pieces for collectors and others with a cultural interest in the craft, following a trend found in most branches of Mexican handcrafts and folk art. This has resulted in changes in the designs and materials used. In fact, much of its survival since the mid20th century has been due to innovation, especially the integration of more modern imagery. Regarding these changes, one cannot overstate the role of the Linares family in Mexico City. Five generations have been documented as making cartonería starting from the 19th century, but the fame of the family began in the 1950s, with the work of Pedro Linares. Pedro’s father and grandfather made traditional throwaway items related to the Mexican festival calendar, limiting cartonería to a seasonal occupation for the family. However, Pedro’s work inventing colorful monsters and lively skeletons has not only made it a year-round occupation, but has also brought the family international fame.

There is a chapter dedicated to the family later on in this book, but the point to be made here is that Pedro used cartonería techniques to create new forms which can be linked to the various cultural and social changes that were taking place in Mexico City, as it began its chaotic sprawl over the Valley of Mexico, swallowing former farmland such as that which the Linares had worked for generations dating back to the colonial period. This sprawl put the formerly rural Linares family in contact with urban artists and intellectuals, in particular the work of José Guadalupe Posada, whose work became very important to the social changes of the 1920s and 1930s Mexico. Pedro’s innovations remain the base of what most cartoneros, even the younger generations, do today.

But this innovation seems to have limits. Modern cartonería can and has adapted some images from 21st century life and mass media, along with foreign influences from the United States and Japan. However, it pales in comparison to the innovations from Pedro Linares’ time, with most current artisans sticking to what he created and to forms even older than that. With the exception of piñatas and, to some extent, skeletal figures engaged in modern activities and Judas figures mocking or paying homage to public figures, cartonería pieces do not integrate modern influences on a large scale. The main reason is that today artisans sell to collectors, who generally want objects inspired by tradition, or to public institutions for traditional festivals and celebrations. Another issue is copyright, especially for images from mass media. As will be discussed in the chapter on the craft’s future, the main innovations today are related to size and mobility of pieces.

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Large skeletal horse for fundraising at the Feria de Cartoneria in Mexico City

The trajectory of modern cartonería also shows its urban tendency. Most family workshops of any size and reputation date from before the mid20th century. These are still run traditionally with the tasks often divided among members, under the direction of a master craftsman. Children learn the craft very young, starting as apprentices to craftsmen and master craftsmen. However, these families and their workshops are disappearing, and outside of them, such an apprenticeship system is rare. Most younger cartoneros learn the craft through classes, and occasionally through friends. One reason is that the traditional families do not take on apprentices outside their own children, but perhaps more importantly because urban youth tend to absorb their culture’s knowledge and traditions through media and institutions. This is particularly true in the Mexico City metropolitan area and in areas where the craft has been (re) introduced. In areas where such classes are available, the craft is stable and even growing; in areas where this is lacking, it is on the decline.

Cartonería does not have the same status as a collectable that other types of Mexican handcrafts do. One reason is their relative lack of durability. Only exceptionally well-made pieces can last for decades or more and even those require careful storage and handling. The Museo Casa Estudio Diego Rivera y Frida Kahlo has the largest collection of cartonería from the mid20th century, which consists of 38 Judas figures, 72 skulls, 7 dolls and 12 figures, toys, alebrijes, etc. However, most of the pieces that can be seen in museums are of much more recent origin. With the exception of the work done by the Linares family and a few other artisans, major foreign collectors of Mexican folk art have not shown much interest in cartonería, especially if the work has been done by someone who does not have a link to the craft through family or community ties, which are so important in most of Mexico’s other craft traditions.  Ironically, while the Linares works command higher prices because of family ties, those ties are to an innovator, to someone who kept the technique alive by transforming it from a simple repetitive craft form to one that creates unique works of folk art.

Those who defined the modern craft in the 20th century

Pedro Linares

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Pedro Linares with son Miguel in 1970 (Judith Bronowski)

The decline of cartoneria in Guanajuato was countered by its growth in the Mexico City metropolitan area, principally due to contact between cartoneros and the Mexican art world. It is not possible to write a book on cartoneria without discussing the work of Pedro Linares. His work extended cartoneria beyond its traditional boundaries and popularizing it outside of its traditional markets. His work still remains as a reference point for the craft in Mexico City and beyond.

Pedro Linares was born 1906 in Mexico City. He became the third generation of his family to make cartoneria objects, learning from his father, José Dolores Linares and grandfather, Celso Linares. Like for most cartoneros, this as a part-time occupation, as its production was exclusively tied to Mexico’s festival calendar. For five months out of the year, the family did no cartonería work, instead fixing shoes, working on masonry and selling items in markets to survive.

Pedro taught his three sons, Enrique, Felipe and Miguel. Much of their production was Judas figures, making as many as 300 a week to sell on the streets before Holy Saturday.  When Pedro’s sons were small, he could afford to buy them clothes once a year, when all the Judas figures were sold.

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Puppet show depicting Pedro Linares’ first encounter with alebrijes (Alejandro Linares Garcia)

The pivotal moment in Pedro’s career came in the early 1950s. In 1951, a friend of theirs took a group of Pedro’s Judas figures, with which he had begun to innovate from the general devil image, to the Angel of Independence statue in Mexico City. This location is important because it was outside the Linares’ usual sales venues near the family home. The statue area, now called Zona Rosa, was an upper class neighborhood with artists and intellectuals. The unusual Judas figures caught the attention of anthropologist Eduardo Pareyon, who became the Linares’ first patron, and more importantly introduced Pedro’s work to artists such as Diego Rivera. This not only led to the making of Judases for this famous painter, but also an annual commission for decorations at the formal ball of the Academy of San Carlos.

In Mexico City before the mid 20th century, the sale of Judases was the most lucrative of all cartonería products. In 1957, their sale was essentially banned after a warehouse containing explosives caught fire, killing a number of people and injuring many more. As the use of fireworks was essential to the Judases’ role in Holy Week, with the ban rendering the cartonería figure useless. This had the effect to putting most cartonería makers out of business.

Fortunately for the Linares family, Pedro’s experimentation led to a new branch of cartonería, alebrijes, pieces made not for a holiday but rather aesthetics. These strange creatures not only save their business, but allowed it to grow enough to become the family’s central occupation.

 

Pedro Linares used to insist that the concept of alebrijes was completely from his imagination. An oft-retold story has Pedro coming down with a illness and high fever that caused him to hallucinate being in a strange place with colorful but ugly creatures which were a mixture of two or more animals such as a donkey with butterfly wings and a lion with an eagle’s head. Susan N. Masuoka in En Calavera: The Papier-Mache Art of the Linares Family (1991) traces the evolution of alebrijes from humanoid Judas figures with animals heads and wings to the creatures known today, amalgams of various animals decorated in bright colors and great detail. However, Masuoka and this author concede that the fever-dream story is an essential part of the alebrije’s place in Mexico folk art.

The other Linares innovation was the production of skeletal figures in animated positions. These was not completely new, but the focus on imitating the living allowed the figures be in demand outside the traditional season of Day of the Dead. Skeletal figures are produced year round, but still are in the most demand for Day of the Dead. They have lent themselves to large scale commissions usually to commemorate an event or promote a theme.

 

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Pedro Linares piece in the collection of the Indianapolis Children’s Museum (Indianapolis Children’s Museum)

The Linares’ first large scale commission, the creation of almost 70 large-sized skeletal figures for the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, was part of cultural activities directed by Dolores Olmedo. In 1986, the family was commissioned to create “Earthquake Scene” only a year after the 1985 disaster that left thousands dead. The scene had the expected figures of rescue workers and rubble, but raised some eyebrows with realistic depictions of victims, women carrying buckets of water (plumbing in many areas was out for months afterwards) and even a looter with a television set. There have been a number of major commissions and exhibitions by the family, mostly while Pedro was still alive. The Museum of Mankind exhibit consisted of skeletal figures by Felipe and Leonardo called The Atomic Apocalypse: Will Death Die? in which several scenes are featured focusing on the various crises faced by the modern world.

 

By the time Pedro died in January of 1992, the family had achieved international recognition, with Pedro’s sons as well-established artisans in their own right. However, the three sons of Pedro, Enrique, Felipe and Miguel, have gone their own ways, with their own workshops. Enrique moved to his wife’s family’s ranch in southern Hidalgo in 1979, taking with him molds made by his father. While he and his family continued to made cartonería items, the move meant that this branch of the family has left the sphere of international recognition.  Felipe and Miguel both have family workshops in Mexico City and maintain the family’s influence, but these workshops no longer work together. Felipe’s workshops, which is base for the work of sons Leonardo and David, as well as David’s sons, is in the old family homestead. Within this workshop, Pedro’s system work division remains. Each artisan cultivates clients and patrons, but when there are approaching deadlines and/or major commissions, family members pitch in under the direction of the artisan who obtained the work and are paid by percentage of work done.

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The Linares family still makes a monument altar each year for Day of the Dead for the Dolores Olmedo Museum in Mexico City. (Luisroj96)

Pedro’s work remains the base of the family’s production and style. They use the apprenticeship system established by him to maintain this style, but there has been some evolution, especially with some more modern themes, such as skateboard riders and basketball players. Perhaps the largest change initiated by Pedro’s sons, according to Leonardo, is making the figures, especially the skeletons, more fluid and artistic. However Leonardo credits the apprenticeship system, which begin with having children simply play with the paste and newspaper, with giving him a solid basis in the history of the craft, and a sense of its place in Mexican culture, something he tried to pass along in the classes, workshops and talks he gives to museums, universities and other institutions. Their status gives them an exception to Mexico City’s laws on the burning of Judas figures, and each year the family burns about twenty or so, with national and international news coverage.

It is important to note that cartonería remains mostly the purview of men in the family. Female members help and in younger generations, their role has increased in Miguel’s family. But the public faces are still of Pedro’s sons and three of his grandsons, Leonardo, David and Ricardo. Their works can be found in the permanent collections of the Modern Art Museum in Tokyo, the Pompidou Center in Paris, the Fowler Museum in Los Angeles, the British Museum, the Royal Museum of Modern Art in Glasgow, the Museum of Mankind in London. In Mexico, they can be found in the Dolores Olmedo Museum and the Studio Museum of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. The work of the Linares family has been documented in books, newspapers, videos and photographs, and more recently in Wikipedia.

 

While a number of museums and galleries do sell authentic Linares’ work, many more sell imitations, especially of alebrijes. While Pedro’s role as originator of alebrijes is not disputed, whether or not there is a trademark on the name is. Leonardo has received a court order awarding ownership of the name, which he has successfully used in several lawsuits against television and movie production studios. However, most Mexican museums and institutions which teach classes on making alebrijes state that the name is not trademarkable or that the claim to the name was filed too late. The name has become widely used with an mostly unrelated woodcarving craft in Oaxaca, and more recently, the Museo de Arte Popular has been promoting a kind of lighted puppet figure called an “illuminated alebrije.”

Carmen Caballero Sevilla

Although a contemporary of Pedro Linares, Carmen Caballero Sevilla is not well known today, but during her time, she was an important producer of Judas figures. Like Linares, she was a humble artisan, whose work came to the attention of Mexico’s artistic elite.

Caballero was born in Celaya, Guanajuato, the daughter of a lieutenant colonel in the Mexican Revolution. He died when she was only five, and she worked with her mother selling fruit.

When she was 18, a cartonero by the name of Gregorio Piedrasanta taught her the basics of the craft, but she went on to develop her own style, by dramatically simplifying the forms. Caballero eventually moved to Mexico City, where she made a living selling fruit and making seasonal cartonería items in the Abelardo Rodriguez market. Carmen was exceptionally poor. According to art critic Raquel Tibol, she was mistreated by her spouse, but, despite this sad existence, her Judas figures had a element of happiness to them.

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Judas figues by Caballero at the Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo Studio (Alejandro Linares Garcia)

It was in the market that none other than Diego Rivera discovered her work in 1955, buying a Judas 2.5 meters high, with a frame of over 150 strips of cane, the first of what would be many. Rivera invited her to his studio in San Angel, becoming her patron, and she his “official Judas maker” until the artist’s death. Here she created Judas and skeletal figures (including one called “Diego at Death”), all one-of-a-kind pieces. Depictions include those of charros, bicyclists, lovers, workers in overalls, Cantinflas and goats. All these pieces were kept by the artist, covering ceilings and walls, as well as taking space on floors and shelves. By the time Caballero died at the age of 58, she left behind one of the largest collections of cartonería objects in the world at the time. Although she likely made thousands of Judas figures, only dozens survive. She never signed her work, as this was not custom for artisans.

Rivera appreciated Carmen’s use of color and compared her work with that of Picasso. The shapes of her pieces are simplified, with the angles created by the frame not only not hidden, they were actually emphasized.  Her work appears in several paintings by the artist, including El estudio del pintor and El niño Efrén José Antonio del Pozo a los 12 años (1955). The fame from this work brought in new admirers such as English sculptor Henry Moore, and Mexican photographer Nacho Lopez documented various pieces. A number of her works can still be seen at the House Studio Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in the San Angel neighborhood of Mexico City, as well as in the Frida Kahlo (Blue) House and the Anahuacalli Museum, both in Coyoacan, Mexico City. In 2009, the National Museum of Popular Culture held an exhibition of her work under the name of “Carmen Caballero, maker of Judases” which included photographs by Nacho Lopez.

Caballero bore twenty children, but only four reached adulthood. One reason why her work has not survived in the history of cartonería is that the family has died out, according to Pilar Fosado Vazquez, whose family has own Mexico City’s oldest store dedicated to folk art (Victor’s), operating since the 1940s. Carmen’s son José Miranda Caballero also made Judas figures, along with devils and skeletons, selling primarily to the Fosado family until his death in 2006. Although his son, Raymundo Miranda (who also used his grandmother’s surname of Caballero) also followed the tradition, he died tragically young only two years after his father, leaving no one to carry on.

Susana Buyo

A rather different story is that of Susana Buyo. She was not born into a cartonería making family, nor in Mexico. Buyo was born in Luján, Argentina and moved permanently to Mexico in 1978 as a young woman. She and her family settled in the upper-middle class Condesa neighborhood of Mexico City.

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Buyo working in her workshop in Mazatlan (photo courtesy of the artisan)

Some time after that, the former ceramics craftsperson became enamoured with Pedro Linares’ alebrijes. Not having the opportunity to learn from the Linares or any other cartonero, she set about teaching herself basic cartonería techniques, then moving on to creating her own unique style and mode of working.

941154_10201646415425418_323091202_nBuyo never strayed from alebrije making, preferring to call herself an alebrijera, rather than a cartonera. Her background as a self-taught artisan leads her to stress that her work is “instinctual” rather than “academic,” unwilling to entertain ideas of what has influenced her work. This may be because she considers alebrijes to be magical creatures with a kind of psychological reality as a personal or home guardian. She stated that once she was exhibiting an alebrije and when a boy saw it, he became wide-eyes and stated “That’s what I dreamt last night!”  She also may not want to stress her distinctive background from other alebrije makers.

Her work has the same basic form that the alebrijes that Pedro Linares developed over his lifetime, but they are far less “ugly” (as Linares called them), with more delicate and sophisticated lines. In fact, they have a feel of European surrealism about them. Unlike many other alebrije makers, there is attention to color combinations and the effects they have together on the piece. They are also distinct from the Linares’ work in that she has incorporated commercially-made elements in her pieces, such as glass marbles for eyes and sequins.

The height of Buyo’s career extended through 1990s into the early 2000s, with her activities taking over the entire living room of the family apartment.  It was during these years that she exhibited her work in Mexico and abroad, such as National Museum of Popular Culture in Coyoacan, Mexico City (1990 and 2006), the Library of Mexico (1992), the Sor Juana Cloister University (1994) the Mexico City International Airport (1996), the Soumaya Museum (1999), the University of Bergen, Norway (2000), the Oslo Historical Museum (2001) and the La Mama Gallery in New York (2003). However, the most important of these was an exhibition at the Museum of Anthropology of Denmark in 2001, which not only bought the collection brought for display, but also invited her to give classes at the institution.

In addition, she taught hundreds of students during this time, including a few that attained their own prominence, such as Rodolfo Villena Hernandez, currently the center of cartonería activities in the state of Puebla. However, she and her work has never been fully accepted as part of Mexico’s cartonería tradition. Although she has pieces in the permanent collections of European museums such as Museum of Anthropology in Denmark, the Museum of America in Madrid and the National Ethnographic Museum of Copenhagen, neither Buyo, nor the students interviewed for this text, know of any public collections in Mexico that include her work.

Buyo recognizes that her work has been more appreciated abroad than in Mexico, invoking the saying “No one is a prophet in their own land.” (Nadie es profeta en su propia tierra.) She does not feel it is discrimination per se, but rather that her work is not completely part of Mexican culture. Former student Rodolfo Villena echos this sentiment, acknowledging that although he developed as a cartonero under her, his work is more traditional. He also states that Buyo “reinvented” the alebrije, something that most cartoneros do not feel is necessary.

In 2013, Buyo ended her work in the apartment in Mexico City, feeling that at her age, she needed to move to the quieter and safer Mazatlan. She still creates pieces and teaches classes, and in the past couple of years has staged something of a comeback in the Mazatlan area. One of her former students, Saul Ibarra, took over her Mexico City classes, but only teaches a couple of days a week.

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Writing a book

Mr Bezos… you certainly have the money to do better… so why is Create Space (for self publishing) like something out of 1992 rather than 2017?

I thought the hardest part of writing a book on Mexico’s paper mache (cartonería) tradition, especially since I have no monetary interest in it, would be the research and the actual writing.  That turns out to be the easy part.

Publishing, even in this era of self-publishing, seems to be the real stumbling-block.

I went through the usual publishers of books on Mexican handcrafts but got rejections or no response. Oh well… let’s try Amazon/Kindle.

To say these are not user-friendly environments is an understatement. I do not know if this is because they do not want to put the development money into making a better interface or they want to discourage submissions. I believe I have about 85-90% of what the Create Space interface wants, but I am stuck with formatting issues I cannot resolve. And for some time, no money to hire someone to do this for me.

So I have decided to “publish” my book in pieces here, with the hope that it at least gets read… but if I dare to really hope, maybe attract the attention of someone willing to see that the work of Mexico’s paper mache or cartonería artisans, gets more and better attention than it does now.

I will start with the shortest part of the book… the introduction.

1 Introduction

To Anglo senses, Mexico is a never-ending wave of sight, sound and movement. Parties go on until the early morning and festivals, both religious and secular go on for days. The importance of celebration in the Mexican psyche cannot be overstated, so it is no surprise to find that there is an entire branch of Mexican folk art dedicated to created celebratory paraphernalia.

Pegando_a_la_piñataBy far, the best known of these is the piñata, originally for Christmas but today also an indispensable part of children’s and even some adults’ birthday parties. But the use of paper and paste to make stuff for celebrations does not stop here. It extends into laughing skeletons for Day of the Dead, giant wearable masks and puppets for various festivals, monumental figures to commemorate historical figures and events, effigies of Judas Iscariot that are exploded on Holy Saturday and even giant colorful monsters which now have an entire annual parade held in their honor in Mexico City.

Cartonería is generally harder and more culturally relevant than any school paper maché project in the United States, but it is still “ephemeral.” Except for those made for collectors, objects are only meant to be used for a specific purpose or ritual, then destroyed during the event or discarded afterwards, no matter how much effort was put into it, which is almost always considerable.

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The world of Mexican handcraft and folk art is like the famous Russian matryoshka dolls; what you see on the surface indicates many hidden layers underneath. Decades of introduction of Mexican handcrafts to foreign collectors have raised awareness levels, but to date there is no complete volume dedicated to this handcraft tradition in either Spanish or English. This book serves as both an introduction and a reference into a world of paper skeletons, monsters, dolls, traitors and more…. but never with malicious intent.

Mexico’s paper maché, its history and traditions are unlike any other in the world, and is still evolving…

Preserving the “soul” of rural pottery among urban sprawl

Although not as well known to tourists as places such as San Bartolo Coyotepec, Mata Ortiz and Tonalá/Tlaquepaque, Metepec in the State of Mexico is an important producer of pottery. Its making dates back to the pre Hispanic period. Bowls with legs called “cajetes” are a common archeological find here, used for ceremonies on the hill that still overlooks the center of the town. A number of the decorative elements on these pieces can be found on modern ones.

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The making of these ceremonial pieces was forbidden by Catholic authorities, and production of utilitarian items became important. Even today, local markets are filled with locally-made bowls, plates and “cazuelas” actual cooking pots made of clay, which range from those holding only a few cups of food to giant ones requiring two or more people to lift and put onto a charcoal stove.

But the need for something ceremonial/religious did not entirely disappear with the evangelization efforts. Sometimes during the early colonial period began the making of Trees of Life, originally representations of the story of the Garden of Eden, which over the centuries became a traditional wedding gift and more recently, a tourist and collector item. More about these trees can be seen here.

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Minature Tree depicting Adam and Eve demonstrated by Hilario Hernandez

There are several families who dominate the making of these trees, having developed reputations over 3 or even more generations. One of these is the Hernandez family, the proprietors of the El Sol Family Workshop.

The roots of this family extend back in the Metepec area well back to when this area was farmland and wetlands, before the urban sprawl of Toluca overran Metepec with shopping centers and housing developments for commuters both to this state capital and Mexico City.

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Hilario in the store section of the family home/workshop in Metepec

But the family works to preserve what they can of old Metepec. They still live and work on the family homestead, although it is now limited only to the family house. Economic pressures forced the development of all of what was the surrounding farmland. But inside the house, things are pretty much the same as they were a couple of generations ago. Extended family lives and works together and one is surrounded with representations of traditional Metepec culture.

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Tree depicting Mexican tradtions.*

Like traditional artisan families of this type, the transmission of knowledge from generation-to-generation is important, as well as having a patriarch who represents the family to the outside world. Today, this role falls to Hilario Hernandez Sanchez, despite the fact that he is only in his forties.

Hilario began modeling clay as a small child, learning from his father and grandfather. He began as apprentices do, learning to work the clay from the initial stages, spending years on preparation tasks such as grinding, kneading and mixing. The maestro insists this experience was extremely important, as it gave him a basis in understand how the three clays of the Metepec area feel and work alone and mixed.

At that time, however, the family’s production was limited to the making of pitchers for pulque and other utilitarian items. But the making of the pitchers, with their decorative heads of farm animals and personages from popular culture, gave young Hilario a creative outlet, which led to more. He began painting simple designs when he was 8 or 9 and despite having absolutely no formal training, his decoration was soon noticed. He was invited to enter a piece in a competition for young artistans, which won second place.

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Nativity scene with wire-suspended elements.

The experience encouraged him not only to learn absolutely everything his family could teach him, but also to seek out other maestros (who he reverently calls “señores) in Metepec, including those in their 80s and 90s who had been doing this themselves since they were children. They taught him many of the philosophical attitudes towards his work that he maintains to this day.

The outreach to other local artisans also resulted in his personal shift from utilitarian items (which are still made by the workshop) to Metepec’s iconic trees of life. These trees not only present more financial opportunity, but artistic opportunity as well. The señores taught him the basics, but his techniques and style have been developed over the decades to pieces that are clearly that of the Hernandez family.

One aspect is to conserve as much of the old techniques and designs as possible. For Hilario, Trees of Life are not just decorative objects or collectors’ items, but rather representations of Metepec’s history and culture, and need to be respected as such.

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Hilario working clay with his hands only.

He is rather romantic about work and artisans of the past. While he admits that the work was done primarily to make a living, he believes that the artisans of the past had a more emotive and spiritual connection to the working of clay. To him, this relationship is extremely important. He talked at great length about the need to “caress” the clay and even ask its permission before adding foreign elements such as the wires used to suspend small decorative elements on Trees. While there are many machines to help with the preparation work, he has resisted their use because he feels it disconnects the artisan from the clay. Hilario will also not work on days he feels bothered or angry because he believes his feelings are transmitted to the clay, with sub-optimal results.

The family does what it can to preserve the old technique, but modern realities have forced some changes. Wood-fired kilns are now prohibited and brushes made with animal hair are impossible to purchase, so gas and synthetic brushes are standard. Hilario states that he avoids orders for mulitple copies of a design and design he feels are not respectful to tradition. But there is some flexibility here as well. While no two overall pieces will be exactly alike, many of the tiny elements on trees, etc. such as birds and flowers are created with the use of molds.

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With giant-sized tree before painting.*

Absolutely traditional Trees of Life represent the Garden of Eden, but other themes can be found, such as Day of the Dead, Mexican handcrafts and aspects of Mexico’s history. These he does gladly as they honor Mexico’s heritage. He has refused orders for more commerical themes, such as a request for a Pokémon Tree, but he has done ones for Mexican companies (the Toluca area is home to many factories), even putting company logos on the tree if he is permitted to interpret the design in his own way.

Hilario’s role as the face of the family workshop means that he himself is limited to making 3 or so pieces per year, but these pieces tend to be the best the family produces for national level competitions and very special orders, such as a Tree depicting the life of Pope Frances, given to the Vatican by the Mexican government.

The rest of the production is by other members of the family, under Hilario’s supervision. This work includes other detailed decorative pieces such as (Noah’s) Arks. These tend to stick more to the traditional Biblical story but there are signs that this two is seeing a similar development as the trees of life. Pulque jars, some with elaborate decoration can be found, as well as figures of dolls, Metepec’s “mermaids” (in reality a water sprite said to have inhabited the old wetlands) and even cazuelas still made by his mother.

Despite their insistence on tradition in production and design, the family embraces modern technology in both the promotion, marketing and administration of the business end. They generously allow photos of their work online, with the knowledge that the more the work is known, the more it is recognized as their, whether or not their clients and resellers document this fact or not. Several of his children are involved in this aspect of the family business.

Hilario believes in the future of this family business, not only because several of his children and grandchildren show promise as artisans, but because the family has been able to manage the various aspects of the business in house, keeping costs down and allowing them to maximize their ability to make a living. As of now, nine are involved full time in some fashion over 3 generations. The youngest generations are trained as Hilario was, but they start a little later than he did because of compulsatory education.

Another reason he belives in the family workshop is that it distinguishes their work. The growing popularity of Trees of Life means that the younger generations of artisans in the town include those who are not from multigenerational artisan families, but rather those who learned techniques in classes when they were in their 20s or so. Hilario dismisses the work of these artisans, stating that while a number do have good technique, they do not have the same connection to the clay that he and his family have. Their products lack the “soul” of pieces made by multi-generational workshops.

Photos by Alejandro Linares Garcia except those with a *, which used with the permission of the El Sol Workshop.

 

 

 

 

Tzjon non, or people of the textiles

Mexico’s many small, isolated valleys are a double-edged sword. Isolated from most of the outside world, traditions are better preserved but usually at the cost of poverty.

Finding a way to raise living standards without losing at least some tradition has proved impossible, but sometimes adaptations allow for more preservation than absolute adherance.

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Good Friday procession in Xochistlahuaca with women and girls in more everyday huipils
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Book in the Amuzgo language at the Xochistlahuaca Community Museum

The Amuzgo people are a small indigenous ethnic group located on the Guerrero/Oaxaca border, a region known as the Costa Chica. Despite their proximity to the ocean, these are hill people, having been pushed from the beach areas proper by a wave of escaped African slaves centuries ago. Most live in and around the municipality of Xochistlahuaca, with more found in Ometepec, along with San Pedro de los Amuzgos, Santa Maria Ipalapa and Putla.

The region’s indigenous are traditional and the Amuzgo language is still spoken by an estimated 35,000 people. The Amuzgo women of this area are readily identified by their huipils, a long, unfitted garment generally worn over a blouse/skirt or dress (generally modern). These huipils may be made of commercial cloth, especially those for everyday use, but handwoven, hand-stitched and hand-embroidered huipils are still very much in existence.

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Working raw coyuchi cotton

401px-XochisWeavers29These highly labor-intensive garments are still made for family use, especially those for special events. But the weaving has also become an important means for women to earn money for their households, without having to leave their traditional roles. The weaving and other steps of huipil making is still mostly traditional, but there have been intrusions of outside, commericial supplies. The main one is the cotton used. The most traditional huipils are made from a locally-grown cotton called coyochi, which is naturally light-brown, hand spindled to thread then woven on a backstrap loom. Design elements, woven or embroidered are with the same thread dyed with natural dyes. White commericial cotton has made its way to these spindles, not only because it is cheaper but also because the outside markets prefer it. Commericial dyes and embroidery thread have also made inroads.

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Close up of designs woven into a piece on a backstrap loom

What stays steadfastly the same are the weaving and embroidery techniques, done individually by women who can sit and kneel for hours on the ground with little more than a straw mat (petate) underneath. Designs are also traditional and most have kept their cultural significance.

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Modern women’s suit with Amuzgo woven designs

The main innovations are in the finished products. The traditional huipil comes in an long and longer version, but to take advantage of new markets, weaving and embroidery are being turned into products such as shirt-length huipils, rebozos, purses and other bags, linen items and more.

Xochistlahuaca has the largest number of weavers, along with the most complex and best preserved textile tradtions. There are two main cooperatives of women weavers, with a distinct rivalry between them. The cooperatives have been working to develop speciality markets, catering to collectors, tourists and speciality clothing lines. These groups have worked with various government, educational and other organizations to develop new markets and new kinds of goods. But these goods are still viable only to small niche markets, such as rich Mexican woman looking for garb to wear during Independence Day festivities, collectors and cultural tourists, including those hardy enough to make the trek over very poor roads to Xochistlahuaca.

The significant efforts to protect and promote this work has show significant results. Many Amuzgo women are involved in the commercial activity and more than a few men as well. But like many other craft traditions, it has trouble attracting the younger generations, which keeps its future in doubt.