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.


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.


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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Good Friday procession in Xochistlahuaca with women and girls in more everyday huipils
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.

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.

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.

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.