I had hoped not to have to write this, but unfortunately this is not the case.
Due to health and financial issues (somewhat connected) I will have to put Creative Hands on hold for a while. Neither of the two kinds of issues are so serious… but the two together have been a time and energy drain. The good thing is that only one needs to be resolved in order to bring this blog back.
Which I really hope to do as soon as possible. If the last two years taught me anything, is that the world of Mexican artesanía is far wider than anyone might imagine and includes people from many different origins, social classes and life circumstances.
There are SO MANY that deserve attention and havent gotten it.
If you are interested in helping me get Creative Hands back online. By all means contactme at osamadre at hotmail dot com and lets talk!
Continuing blogging the book. Chapter 3 can be seen here. To go to the beginning, go here.
The most notable families and individuals in this field are multifaceted, they are artists as well as business people, who have international reputations. They are creators, teachers and promoters.
Traditional family workshops
Linares family today
Maestro Pedro Linares died in 1992, with several branches and generations of the family continuing to make cartonería products. Two workshops have the strongest claim to the Linares legacy and the prestige that comes with it, those of sons Felipe and Miguel.
Felipe’s workshop is located in the old family homestead in the Merced Balbuena neighborhood of Mexico City, in which he works with sons Leonardo and David, as well as David’s sons. This branch of the family preserves much of the old traditions, including the annual burning of multiple Judas figures on Holy Saturday, which is still covered by national and international media. It continues just about all of the old ways, from the apprenticeship system, to the division of work to what is made. Each person in the family cultivates their own clients and patrons, but members will pitch in with large projects and/or when deadlines loom.
The Miguel Linares workshop has been somewhat more innovative. Women have a somewhat more prominent role with daughters Blanca and Elsa achieving a certain amount of independent status. However, the more prominent member of the younger generation is Ricardo Linares, who has worked with the more recent trend of making monumental (two meters and higher) pieces, particularly pieces for the annual monumental alebrije parade of the Museo de Arte Popular.
The story of the Lemus family is probably the most representative of the history and current status of cartonería in Celaya today. The family today consists of several branches, which are relatively disconnected, despite their close proximity. What ties them together is their connection to Bernardino Lemus. This link to Bernardino has more to do with family ties than the artistic development of Lemus family products as Bernardino and later generations would marry into families with cartonería roots much older than theirs.
Bernardino Lemus Valencia grew up and worked in the Tierras Negras neighborhood of Celaya in the early 20th century. Family lore states that he was taught the craft by brother-in-law Gregorio Luna, with whom he ran a bakery in the 1920s. The first generations mostly or exclusively focused on the making of Lupita dolls, and were known for the fine painting of details such as the eyes and the intricate decoration that covers the chests of these dolls.
Bernardino established the family compound on Santo Degollado Street in the Tierras Negras neighborhood, where several generations of the family still live. The family worked here through most of the 20th century. During their heyday, areas of the compound would be stacked with dolls and at times other items, and all members of the family participated in production. Family roles here were traditional, with more basic tasks done by women and children, with the fine detail painting (which had the most effect on the value of the finished piece) generally reserved for the ranking adult male(s).
Bernardino first married Ildefonso Flores, and taught all of their children. However, the workshop passed onto one son, Sotero Lemus Flores. He preferred to call himself a “monero” (doll maker) and personally focused on the painting of Lupitas, but he did not work at this full time, working also in a local factory. His wife Remedio Muñiz Cruz was more responsible for the development and success of the family business at this time. She was an innovator, introducing new products such as Judas figures, masks, skeletons, etc. and raised the importance of working paper-and-paste rather than just painting pre-made dolls. The variety of products made the workshop more economically successful, able to sell more, including to toy wholesalers and well as at their stand in town. At this time the family also began competing in local and regional handcraft competitions, which made their products more widely known, even gaining clients in Japan. A frequently-told family story has some Japanese customers coming to the workshop to see the “factory” where the Lupita dolls were made, only to be amazed to see a dark workshop, a old battered table and a few tools.
This generation saw the height of Celaya cartonería, from the 1930s to the 1950s, before the introduction of cheaper plastic toys would undermine their market. However, it was not without changes. Commercial paints and brushes replaced those the family made themselves, and new molds could be made of plaster or cement along with fired clay.
Two of Sotero’s sons took up the trade, Martín Lemus Muñiz and Guillermo Lemus Muñiz. Over time, Martín became the head of the original family compound, with Guillermo moving to a new house one block west on Mariano Abasolo Street. Martín is long retired, mostly due to eyesight, but Guillermo is still active. This generation has lived through the decline of Celaya cartonería to where very little of this work is still done at either location. Like many family-trained cartoneros, Guillermo places a special quality on traditional, family-produced work, and is the most philosophical about it. He mourns the loss of the trade and its relationship with the culture of Tierras Negras. He has little respect for those who go into cartonería with the sole aim of earning money. Although most Celaya work, past and present, was based on serial production, Guillermo today prefers to focus on individual pieces, even though he still makes and uses molds. Like generations before him, his focus is on painting, stating he can spend a whole day painting and not get bored. He also states that he is very likely the only remaining artisan who, when mining clay to make new molds, still thanks the Earth in the old tradition.
None of either Martín’s or Guillermo’s children are dedicated to the craft, although Guillermo’s son Pablo will help his father from time to time. In the original family compound, Sotero’s grandson Miguel Angel Lemus Martinez struggles to keep the family tradition alive. Although only in his early thirties, as a child he did learn the craft as a child, working with his father. However in later years, he focused his attention on schooling and learning a completely different profession. About five years ago, having established a business and having some leisure time, he decided to try and revive the family tradition. It has not been easy, lack of time and lack of market means that the activity at best provide a small amount of side income. Miguel Angel has had artistic success, especially competing in local and regional handcraft competitions and various pieces are in the collection of the Centro de Artes in Celaya.
In the mid-20th century, there was an exodus of people from Celaya, mostly towards Mexico City. Among these migrants was Bernardino’s son Leobardo Lemus Flores, who went to the capital in the 1960s to work in construction. He had married Leonor Gervasio Mendoz, also from a Celaya cartonería family. By the 1970s, the family needed another source of income and, drawing upon their heritage, obtained molds from Celaya to start producing and selling Lupitas and other items. The business took off when Leonor began selling pieces in front of the National Museum of Folk Arts and Industries in downtown Mexico City, attracting the attention of the authorities of the museum.
Their children grew up working the craft in the 1970s, with son Sotero Lemus Gervasio obtaining some status Mexico City cartonería scene. He has benefitted by the fact that cartonería has become a growing cultural phenomena, adapting forms and techniques found in this city as well as taking art classes at the prestigious Academy of San Carlos. The basis of his work is still figures produced by molds, but he has experimented with adding other elements such as springs to give different movements. His most successful individual piece was a 12-meter tall figure of Don Quixote on horseback, which toured parts of Mexico, appearing at the National Palace and the Cervantine Festival in Guanajuato. Sotero still works with his mother and sister at the family workshop, now just outside the city proper, but neither he nor his sister have any children to take over after them.
Later in life, Bernardino married Alicia Mendez Juarez, who comes from a cartonería family with roots back to the 19th century. He worked with this family until his death in 2010 and the couple had several children. Today, this branch of the family is based in Tenerio del Santuario, just north of Celaya and is headed by Mendez.
Despite her connection to Lemus, Mendez has an independent reputation as a cartonero. Her career extends over fifty years, over twenty of which have been dedicated to teaching as well as making. Unlike the family still in Celaya proper, Mendez, her daughters (Alba Lemus Mendez, Rosa María Lemus Mendez and Alma Luisa Zarate Mendez) and their children have had more success with the craft and it remains the family’s main source of income.
They have kept the traditional apprenticeship system and most of the production techniques. What distinguishes this branch is design innovation and a much better sense of marketing. While they do a range of items, dolls remain their main product. They can and do make traditional Lupitas, but they have also developed other styles, including miniatures (still using molds!), the addition of fiber for realistic-looking hair in various styles and fabric clothing. These dolls can represent babies, fairies, mermaids and more. Marketing includes more aggressive participation in handcraft competitions and various fairs as far away as Guadalajara, which includes the wearing of the old traditional dress for women of Celaya, as it attraction attention. They are particularly mindful of the tourist industry in Mexico, which prompts much of their innovation efforts.
Those from old-school families such as the Linares and the Lemus, as well as many collectors of Mexican folk art insist that “true” cartonería can only come from artisans of families with generations of experience. While links to the past do seem to be important in this and other Mexican crafts, the majority of cartoneros today in Mexico are not from these kinds of families, but rather learned the techniques from a teacher, sometimes from apprenticeship but more often through formal or semi-formal classes. This shift has allowed the craft to expand geographically, both retaking areas in which it had died out as well as introducing it into new regions. This rise of “non-traditional” cartoneros has meant those who have gained recognition for a specialty, the reestablishment of cartonería in areas where it had been lost and the establishment of it in areas where it has not been a part of the culture. The following are just some examples of these phenomena.
Many cartoneros, especially those who use it as a primary source of income, teach classes and a number indicate that they earn more from this than the creation of their art. One reason for this is the increasing visibility and popularity of items such as monumental altars for Day of the Dead and alebrijes of all sizes. These classes have also had the effect of reinforcing Mexico City style cartonería as the dominant style in Mexico, with most classes taught by people either from the metropolitan area or having a strong artistic connection to the city.
Classes have spread the cartonería-making as far south as Chiapas and the Yucatan and as far north as Zacatecas and Sinaloa. In these new areas, the dominant technique is mostly freehand with frames for larger pieces, rather than the use of molds. The pieces created are still very similar to those which dominate in the Mexico City area: alebrijes and skeletal figures (especially Catrinas). As this phenomenon in only at most a couple of decades old, there is little to distinguish a piece made in Mexico City from those made by new cartoneros in other parts of the country.
Some cartoneros have managed to make a significant reputation with their teaching, (re)introducing the craft both in areas of Mexico and even abroad.
Osvaldo Ruelas Ramirez
Osvaldo Ruelas Ramirez was in a small town outside of Celaya, Guanajuato. He is the founder of what may be the newest and most dynamic cartonería production in the state of Guanajuato, not in Celaya, but in Salamanca, just west in the same Bajio region.
Unlike many Guanajuato cartoneros, his reputation does not stem from being from a cartonería family, but rather the quality of his work. He was trained as a cartonero by local artisan Rafael Hernandez, who gave a series of workshops in Salamanca and other parts of Guanajuato in the 1990s. Since then, Ruelos has been the axis of a growing collective of young people who work and socialize together, creating both traditional and novel designs. His base of operations is the Casa de Cultura (House of Culture) in Salamanca, where he teaches. He has a number of loyal students, all under the age of 30.
Ruelos’s own works tend to be fairly traditional, as he believes that the importance of cartonería stems from its role in Mexican culture and the human psyche. Nevertheless, he both respects and encourages the experimentation of his young students who have been ambitious. These include new takes on traditional designs, such as shocking pink Judases and non-traditional figures. These students tend to dominate the annual Celaya cartonería contest’s “free design” categories. They also take cues from other handcrafts. José Eleazar, specializes in the making of figures and scenes which can only be fully appreciated only when they are set in motion. This motion is provided with simple cranks, belts, levers, etc. inspired by the area’s wood toy tradition. Some of his students have won national awards such as Mexico’s National Grand Prize of Folk Art.
Oscar Becerra Mora
Becerra is a self-taught cartonero who mostly specializes in the making of alebrijes and small scenes with cartonería figures in boxes. However, most of his professional time is dedicated to teaching the craft to others, including internationally.
Born and raised in the northern part of Mexico City, Becerra is now based in the far south, in the municipality of Tlalpan, near where city ends and forest begins where he lives with his wife and small child. He began working with cartonería as a hobby while in college in 2000, learning some basics from a family member. He developed most of his techniques himself, by studying pieces made by others, including the Linares family, who he admires, and by asking questions of fellow artisans. Despite graduating college with a degree in anthropology, he has since become a full-time artisan.
Much of his time is spent teaching classes with the Museo de Arte Popular in the center of Mexico City, where he teaches mostly children and other artisans. Since 2013, he has expanded his teaching to the international level, despite very limited English. His first experience was with Denver Art Museum that year, where he taught classes. He was invited back in 2014, not to teach a class but also commissioned to make a monumental alebrije, one of the first to be exhibited in the United States, which was exhibited at the museum, the Mexican Cultural Center and at the Denver International Airport.
This was followed shortly after by an invitation to demonstrate and teach alebrije making in Poland by the Polish embassy in Mexico. Becerra spent several weeks at the Ethnographic Museum in Warsaw teaching children learning Spanish and a number of adults as well. These classes have led to a group of Polish women now dedicated to the making of alebrijes in that country.
Hector Fernandez Hernandez
Hector Fernandez Hernandez was born in the state of Oaxaca and eventually moved to Mexico City to study art at the prestigious La Esmeralda School. He had begun to work with cartonería as a teen, in conjunction with work with educational theater, making puppets. He has continued to work in this endeavor among others since starting his career over 45 years ago, living in various locations such as Culiacán, Sinaloa and Morelia, Michoacán and with institutions such as the Secretariat of Fine Arts and the National Autonomous University of Mexico.
Thirty years ago, he moved to Villahermosa, Tabasco to work for the state government there as an art promoter, teaching drawing, other visual arts, with cartonería initially reserved for projects related to holidays such as Day of the Dead and Christmas. He still continues to do this, with projects such as a Christmas exhibit made depicting the various indigenous ethnicities of Mexico.
His work has evolved to mostly working with youth and while other artistic endeavors have not been completely abandoned, cartonería has become a principal activity, as an economical means to introduce, or sometimes reintroduce, children and teens to artistic expression.
Cartonería is not a traditional handcraft of this southeastern Mexican state, so Fernandez is essentially establishing it at least in the city of Villahermosa. Much of his students’ work is classic figures from the Mexico City tradition, skeletal figures, skulls and alebrijes, along with puppets and masks. Fernandez estimates that he has taught over 1,500 students the technique, with about 600 people he knows of that work the technique either full or part time.
Fábrica de Artes y Oficios (Arts and Trades Factory)
While there is no single outstanding teacher associated with the institution, it is hard to overstate the importance of the Fábrica de Artes y Oficios (lit. Arts and Trades Factory) to the development of cartonería in the past twenty years in Mexico City.
Its purpose is to teach trades, handcrafts and arts to some of the poorest residents in Mexico City, to provide skills to start small businesses and act as a cultural center. The first FARO was established in the far east of the city. Its success has since lead to three other FARO centers in other parts of the city.
Work with cartonería started when FARO was founded in 2000, but the first activities were projects rather than formal classes, as it was not considered part of its main activities. The popularity of alebrijes eventually changed this. In 2005, the first work with monumental-size pieces changed the institution’s perception of the craft. FARO sponsored a concert by the popular ska band Panteón Rococó. An idea emerged for FARO to make a monumental sized tzompantli (Aztec rack for enemy skulls) for the main stage, with meters-tall skulls and the letters “FARO” filling the stage. The success of this event showed the possibilities for commercial and artistic use of the medium.
Soon after, FARO students and others participated using the medium in events sponsored by civic associations and businesses, primarily in the making of monumental pieces. One in particular was sponsored by Volkswagen, for its 100th anniversary, for which FARO made a “Vocho-trajinera” which roughly translates to “boat-Beetle,” combining an image of the Volkswagon Beetle with that of the traditional flat-bottomed boats used on the canals of Xochimilco in the south of the city. This piece won first place. These events launched the making of monumental pieces, much larger than anything made before.
Cartonería is one of the classes most in demand at FARO, and space fills quickly with 30 or 40 students each trimester at the original campus alone. Over 1,600 students have taken classes at the institution since they were offered, which does not include those who have participated in projects at a more informal level. Numerous alumni have gone on to create businesses, become teachers and even win awards for their work.
The classes attract three types of students: those who do it as a hobby, those interested in it as an artistic medium and those looking to earn some money. Most students come to the classes with little or no idea how cartonería is made or its history. Those who do know something generally come from a family or community where cartonería is still important, but may have declined. Most of FARO’s students have discovered the craft through the Day of the Dead and Alebrije Parade events. FARO’s classes have been the template for other institutional classes such as those offered by the Museo de Arte Popular.One significant difference is that FARO’s classes focus on festival and event use of cartonería, rather than the making of pieces for collectorsof cartonería, rather than the making of pieces for collectors.
Cartoneros preserving and expanding the craft
Hermes Arroyo Guerrero
Hermes Arroyo is an all-around jack of all trades artisan. Able to work with wood, plaster, fabric, gold leaf, ceramic and other materials aside from cartonería. He began his career apprenticing as a child with a friend’s father, named Genero Almanza. Almanza specialized in the making, reparation and restoration of religious images, other items for religious celebrations and church interiors. In San Miguel Allende, Guanajuato, such artisans are called santeros after the word for “saints.” However, Maestro Almanza did not make the giant puppets called mojigangas that have made Arroyo a major part of preserving local culture.
Born in 1950, Arroyo grew up in San Miguel, mostly before it became one of Mexico’s main centers for U.S. expats living in Mexico. Arroyo recalls seeing mojigangas as a child in pre-Christmas processions, made by a cartonero named Don Pitos. Arroyo’s development as an artisan was primarily with Maestro Almanza, but it also include fine arts classes in San Miguel and Monterrey. By the age of seventeen, Arroyo was accepted into the santeros’ guild and was able to take on his own commissions, which included becoming the caretaker of several local churches. He also began teaching handcrafts, especially at the El Charco del Ingenio Botanical Gardens, working with environmentally-friendly materials and the special needs school in the nearby town of Comonfort.
His work with mojigangas began in the early 1990s, when a local French expat, who was also a puppeteer, asked Hermes to make mojigangas for a local festival in the neighborhood of El Valle de Maiz. The skeleton and devil figures he made were very successful, despite being weighing about fifty kilos. Since then, Arroyo has worked to make the figure lighter, now rarely surpassing twenty kilos. He has also replaced the normal hemp shoulder straps for those made from inner tube, which are not only more comfortable, but make the puppet bounce more when danced.
Although most of his paid work relates to mojigangas, he has not abandoned work with religious images, etc. In fact, he divides his work into “business” (using the English word) and cultural, with much of the business income supporting the rest. He never married or had children but he still works with members of the family in his parents’ home on the upper section of San Francisco Street in the historic center of the city, which is filled with mojigangas to greet visitors.
Arroyo’s work has been exhibited and bought for collections in various parts of Mexico and the United States. One purpose of the exhibitions is the preservation of San Miguel’s uses for mojigangas.
His work in this now bicultural city has attracted a number of others into the making and preservation of mojigangas. One of these is American Cindi Olsman, who has a doctorate in psychology but fell in love with mojigangas when she saw them in San Miguel and meeting Hermes in his small workshop in the chapel. Sometime later she moved into her own studio in San Miguel and has been friends and colleagues with Hermes ever since. She continues to make mojigangas after moving back to the US and is based in Philadelphia.
Alfonso Morales Vazquez
Just to the south of Mexico City, the small state of Morelos is not one of Mexico’s handcraft powerhouses, which much of what is made being crude, with the exception of sculpted wax for elaborate candles. Cartonería has a similar history here as in Mexico City and Guanajuato. What distinguishes the craft here is that it is still strongly tied to the festival calendar (piñatas, Judases, etc) and the use of reed frames is very common, as the plants grow in the state’s still-abundant wetlands. In the past decade or so, alebrije-making has become popular, especially among younger craftsmen due to influence from Mexico City. This influence has made the technique more popular with both professionals and hobbyists and there is now a statewide competition for cartonería.
Alfonso Morales Vazquez is from a small town called Tlatenchi, just outside the city of Jojutla, Morelos. Morales began his handcrafts career as a potter, specializing mostly in making figures of farm workers and animals. In 2000, he became exposed to cartonería techniques through his son, who was learning in school. Seeing similarities with his clay work, Morales learned through experimentation, especially through making iguanas and other reptiles.
By mid-decade he had his first competition with the technique in his home state. However, since cartonería was not commonly included in such events, his pieces went into a miscellaneous category, competing with pieces of wood, metal, etc. The work received positive attention, so Morales continued to develop his work, mostly by researching on the Internet, finding the work of Susana Buyo and then of Pedro Linares.
By 2007, his work began to sell, especially small skeletal figures and toys, which reminded older people of similar items from their childhoods. In this same year, Morales competed in the inaugural version of the Monumental Alebrije Parade of the Museo de Arte Popular in Mexico City, despite his distance from the capital. While they did not win, the exposure was instrumental in establishing a reputation outside of the state of Morelos. This led to an invitation to Monterrey to represent his state in cartonería, and since then, his work has been profiled in various local and Mexico City newspapers.
Unlike many artisans new to the technique, Morales has established a family workshop called Taller de Cartonería Morales, which works in both the creation of mostly traditional objects and teaching. All of his children and a number of grandchildren work here on a full-time basis. This workshop was originally dedicated to clay, but has since completely changed to paper. However, this does not mean that he is against those who work in different setting or those who innovation in designs or materials, as he believes the value of the craft lies in the talent of the craftsman. Morales himself also promotes the work of cartoneros from his home municipality.
His work has made cartonería more popular in the Jojutla area, finding many people interested in the craft, especially the making of Catrinas, iguanas, Judases and alebrijes. Morales has brought back the tradition of the burning of Judas, personally making monumental figures for the occasion worth between 2,000 and 7,000 pesos. Beginning in 2012, these figures reach over five meters tall, with a wicker frame. However, he insists on only devil-like Judases instead of ones patterned after political or popular culture themes.
Sales of his pieces have expanded to various parts of Morelos, especially at festivals and into the gift shop of the Museo de Arte Popular. Morales and family still regularly participate in the Night of the Alebrijes event. Some clients have found them in Tlatenchi. His students have gone on to compete in the Night of the Alebrijes event and to teach others.
Rodolfo Villena Hernandez
Villena is by far the best-known cartonero in the state of Puebla, mostly through his work creating monumental altars with cartonería figures. He was raised in the state capital of Puebla, but by the early 1990s was living in Mexico City involved in theater production.
In 1990, he took at class in cartonería with Susana Buyo and although he was interested in skeletal figure and the like rather than alebrjies, she worked him. It was more of a hobby at first, even though his first monumental altar, built in his garage in the Coyoacan district of Mexico City received much positive attention from friends and neighbors. By 1996, he became involved full time in the craft as he moved into making altars to participate in community competitions for altars, especially for Day of the Dead. He recalls seeing a line for the first time of people waiting to see his creation in the main plaza of Coyoacan, amazed that it was so popular.
For personal reasons, he moved back to his home state by the end of the decade, with the reputation from Mexico City competitions opening doors to finding work in the making of monumental altars. Here, he switched from altars for competitions to those on commission, mostly from local and state government agency. By far his busiest season is the months and weeks up to Day of the Dead, but he is regularly commissioned to make altars for Holy Week, Corpus Christi and other holidays as well as nativity scenes. Like the Linares’, Villena’s skeletal figures for these altar are representations of people and activities in life, as well as homages to historical and popular figures, often created with a sense of irony.
Most of his work is related to Puebla, exhibited there and/or representing the state in other parts of Mexico and abroad. His most regular exhibitions are in the city of Puebla and his mother’s hometown of Atlixco in venues such as convention centers, main squares and museums. Outside of Puebla, his work has been exhibited at the Museo de Arte Popular in Mexico City (which named him a “grand master”), multiple times at the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago and other locations. In 2015, Villena was commissioned to make a major work for the Mexican embassy in London, invited to spend a couple of weeks to not only promote his work but also represent the state of Puebla.
Like the Linares family, his cultural and artistic success has not translated into much economic success. Villena’s workshop is based in a humble structure which he rents cheaply from a neighbor, located in an old industrial corridor on the old highway leading out of the city of Puebla to the city of Tlaxcala. The only thing that distinguishes the workshop on the outside is his name on the door. Like other cartoneros, his two-room workshop is filled with materials, pieces in various stations of completions and numerous awards and other recognitions on the walls. However, it is a lot better organized than most artisans.
Prior to Villena’s work in Puebla, the state had (and still has) some cartoneros, primarily toymakers with roots in Celaya, but cartonería was not a major, visible aspect of the state’s culture. Villena has established the monumental altars as a tradition in central Puebla, but it has not spread beyond that, because most municipalities are poor and cannot afford his services. He regularly teaches students in Puebla, but he remains the only cartonero who is dedicated full-time to the making of altars, with no apprentices or heirs-apparent to his work. This may be because of the way he works, alone with no helpers, unlike those who work on monumental projects in the Mexico City area. It remains to be seen if the tradition that Villena founded can develop over the next decade or so into something that can survive his retirement.
Pepe el Monero
Pepe el Monero (real name José Octavio Azcona y Juárez) is Oaxaca’s best known maker of monas de calenda or mojigangas. 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. He is Oaxaca’s best known cartonero. 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. Even more have seen his work, as he is the maker of the monas de calenda that appear each year in the Guelaguetza, the state’s main showcase of the various cultures of Oaxaca.
He began making the figures because he wanted to borrow a figure 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, despite the name “mona” which means doll. 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.
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.
Cartoneros extending the craft geographically and culturally
Emilio Sosa Medina
The work of Emilio Sosa Medina is quite distinct in a number of ways from other Mexican cartoneros. First of all, he is not from an area with a cartonería tradition, but rather from the very rural town of Yobain, Yucatán, Mexico, born there in 1955. He grew up in a very poor family with now artistic background, and finishing only the third grade.
In 1974, he had the opportunity to move to Isla Mujeres, finding work through a woman he met. Here he worked in the tourism industry in various jobs. In 1986, he took a class at the local community center in the craft being taught by a teacher from Mexico City. Interestingly. Sosa insists that he learned only to work with newspaper and paste from the teacher, who apparently did not even know how to painted the dried pieces.
Sosa’s specialities are masks, mostly with Mayan imagery, and imaginary animals. He does use the term alebrijes, but denies that his pieces have any influence from the Mexico City tradition, insisting that his work is purely from his dream, fantasies and imagination. Unlike other Mexican cartoneros, imaginary animals also include sea monsters, lizards and dragons similar to those made by paper maché artists in the United States.
Sosa calls his word paper maché and not cartonería as he uses pure newspaper, about 150 kilos per year.(eshapiro) His supply comes from papers he buys from his own use, those given to him by neighbors, and when that is not enough, buying old newspapers. He creates between thirty and forty pieces a year from those the size of a hand to those two meters long. These pieces can take from weeks to up to three years to make. Despite the use of newspaper, his pieces are extremely strong, generally with more than twenty layers of newspaper. On YouTube, the artisan has a promotional video where he takes a small mask and proceeds to step on it, putting his entire weight on it. Large figures use up to forty kilos of paper, and may even be completely solid paper, which he describes as “wood from paper.” Wire is an essential part of his creations, to form the basic body shape and/or to create the base for details, such as a beard on a mask. Dried pieces are painted with acrylic paint and coated with a polymer resin.
Sosa states the the main evolution of his pieces is that they have become much smoother, which is exceptional and allows for very fine painting. With a high gloss, the pieces look more like ceramics than paper maché.
Sosa began selling his work shortly after taking the class, at his artesania store. Today he sells his work exclusively through this shop called the Artesanias Glenssy, in dollars, as his clientele is American visitors to the island, especially to those who come each year and buy a new piece from him. He is fluent in English. Prices range from $50 to $13,000, although as of this writing the $13,000 piece, a solid paper dragon two meters long, has not yet sold. Sosa rarely takes special orders as he prefers to work in his own way, at his own pace.
Sosa’s is an isolated artisan/artist. He is the only artisan who works with paper full time. There are a few who make piñatas, but only seasonally. He is not aware of any other cartonería/paper maché artisans in the Yucatan region, and is only aware of the work of the Linares family in Mexico City through the Internet, whose work he calls “artisanal” and sees his work as more finely done.
Maria Magdalena Jimenez Jimenez
Maria Magdalena Jimenez Jimenez is a local historian (called crónista) in the Zoque community of Chiapas. Cartonería has not been a part of the state’s culture. She took classes with a teacher who came to the state to teach and fell in love with the craft. She specializes in the making of figures from the Zoque’s history and lore, with the aim of promoting the community’s culture. The pieces are about a meter or so high and take about a month to make. They are used in local religious festivals and have been featured on TVAzteca in Chiapas.
Unfortunately, maestra Jimenez no longer seems to be an active cartonera, with no mention of her work in local traditional or social media since the early 2010s.
Miguel Alejandro Gonzalez Vacio
Despite the strong influence that Mexico City has over modern cartoneria, there is some evidence that regional variations are or will be developing. Some of these are subtle, such as the work of Zacatecas artisan Miguel Alejandro Gonzalez Vacio. He is a newcomer to the field, deciding in his mid-thirties to learn the craft. He began along with a number of others from the Zacatecas city area in the mid-2000s when two teachers came to the area. Previously, there had been no cartoneria tradition, except for poorly-made Judas figures which here are dragged behind horses when they are set up. His pieces are mostly limited to the making of skeletal figures, particularly Catrinas. What sets them apart from others is the coloring and decorations. Being from a semi-arid area, he does not connect with bright colors and loud floral designs, instead opting for more somber colors and simpler lines.
Casa de Artesanias, Aguascalientes
In nearby Aguascalientes, the story is similiar, with the main cartonería product being Judas figures (however, not dragged behind horses). There are about a half dozen cartoneros who make these, as well as the alebrijes and Catrinas, showing influence from Mexico City. One very recent development is experimentation with monumental figures, prompted by the popularity of the Mexico City Monumental Alebrije Parade and Aguascalientes’ native Festival de las Calaveras event at the end of October. While monumental pieces have been made for this event, only in the mid 2010’s have there been entries made with cartonería. These have been entirely limited to skeletal figures, but local images such as the “chicahual” have been represented. While the skeletal figures have not been as sophisticated as those in Mexico City, several craftspeople have managed to create fairly realistic clothing.
The A-Trejo workshop
The workshop consists of several artisans, Mauricio Vargas, Oscar Rolón, Elisa Alvarez, along with the namesake, Alberto Trejo, who makes most of the pieces. The workshop is in the west coast tourist city of Puerto Vallarta, although none of the members if from here. The group learned the craft in various ways. For example, Mauricio Vargas learned from the uncle of a university classmate in the 1990s. While he lived in León, Guanajuato, there was an incident at a book fair when puppets needed to put on a show had not arrived from Mexico City. It was then this uncle, Alberto Serrato Manteca, or “Nacho,” decided to make a new set of puppets in cartonería, and Vargas learned by helping out. Since then, he has improved his techniques on his own, at first as a hobby. Sometime later he met Alberto Trejo, to whom he taught what he knew.
In 2005, they became more involved in the craft, making pieces for family and friends and eventually they considered the idea of selling their work. This was set in motion in 2008. Eventually others joined in the enterprise.
The workshop is based in Vargas’s home where the members. The base of their work is paper and paste, with or without wire frames. Decoration can include the common acrylics or common colorings, such as pastels, pencils, ink and watercolors. Decorative items such as glass marbles for eyes may be used.
Their work is inspired by the cartonería of central Mexico along with the work of artists such as Sergio Bustamante, Carlos Albert, Javier Marin, Jorge Marin and Remedios Varo. Another important influence is the traditional pottery of the state of Jalisco, where Puerto Vallarta is located. The styles of the work vary, but they are mostly recognizable animal or human figures. Rarely are bright colors combined. It is more common to see more subdued tones and shades showing the different painting/coloring processes used. They even make pieces with no paint or coloring at all; the natural newspaper print provides a black-and-white color scheme.
The vast majority of their clients are foreign tourists and residents, principally from the U.S. and Canada, selling in local galleries and a farmer’s market. Like Emilio Sosa in the Yucatan, this has an effect on the development of their work, looking to catch the attention of their target market.
So far, Vargas and Trejo have only trained the other members of the group. They have interest in classes for children and believe the craft to be viable in Puerto Vallarta. That said, they have already had issues with people copying their work, and even successfully sued a gallery for selling (bad) imitations of thier work
Today, the making of cartonería items is strongly associated with certain celebrations, with most items made seasonally depending on the holiday that is approaching.
The best known cultural object both in Mexico and abroad is the piñata. Its importance in the country is underlined by the appearance of these in works done by many Mexican artists, including Diego Rivera, who painted a mural dedicated to it in 1953. They have also appeared in numerous Mexican movies and television shows and even some American ones. Despite being strongly associated with Mexico, their origin is a bit complicated. The Aztecs did have a tradition of breaking an old pot in covered in feathers to celebrate the birthday of the god Huitzilopochtli in December. However, the modern version has its origins in China, where the breaking of a decorated pot with treats was associated with the New Year. This idea migrated to Europe, where it was associated with Lent. The Spanish introduced this version of the piñata, specifically at the monastery in Acolman just north of Mexico City, but reinterpreted it in order to replace the older Huitzilopochtli tradition. The breaking of the piñata was moved to December, and the piñata redesigned to be used as an evangelization tool. Seven points added to the decorated pot to symbolize the Seven Deadly Sins and the treats inside, released when the pot was broken, then symbolized the reward for overcoming sin.
While there are still piñatas made in Mexico using ceramic pots as a base, the vast majority of those sold today are made completely with paper and paste, but the resulting figure is not as hard as other cartonería items as it needs to be broken relatively easily. The most traditional piñatas are still those made for the Christmas season, especially for the weeks prior when families participate in “posadas,” reenactments of the search of Joseph and Mary for a place to stay before the birth of Jesus. Come December, traditional markets all over the country fill with these. They are round in shape but the number of points varies from five to nine, with nine now being the most common. The colors of these piñatas comes from the use of crepe paper, which is cut and glued to both the sphere and the points. The end of the points often have tassels, which can be of fine strips of crepe paper or other materials. The most traditional treats include jicama, guava fruit, pieces of sugar cane, peanuts and other fruits of the season, but store-bought candy is now more common.
Their popularity with children is such that piñatas have become staples of birthday parties as well. However, these piñatas are not of the traditional star shape, but rather take on a wide variety of motifs including, princesses, sports figures, cartoon characters (almost always made without permission of the copyright owner), animals and much more. These are most often achieved with the use of molds, with the dried figures painted in bright colors. Whether a traditional Christmas piñata or not, the process of breaking one is the same. The piñata is suspended in the air in such a way that someone on the ground can move it around, making it harder to hit. A child is blindfolded, spun then sent to hit the pinata, receiving verbal help from spectators to locate it. The time the child has to break it is determined by singing a song for this purpose. When the song ends, so does the turn.
Unlike other traditional cartonería products, piñatas have not generally transformed into artistic pieces or collectors’ items. They are still made to be broken. However, one exception to this is an annual piñata making competition held by the Folk Art Museum in Mexico City. Piñata themes generally do not run into political or social commentary, but in 2015, Tampico artisan Dalton Javier Avalos Ramirez created a piñata of Donald Trump to sell to fellow Mexicans, after the Trump’s remarks about Mexican immigration. In this case, it was not for filling with candy, but rather for the simple pleasure of hitting it.
Most piñatas are made by families and small businesses that specialize in making and selling them. Piñata making can be found all over Mexico, not limited to certain regions most other forms are. In the State of Mexico, two towns are particularly noted for this activity, Temascalcingo, where many are still made with ceramic pots, and San Agustín Acolman, where they originated. Acolman holds a fair dedicated to piñatas for a week or so before Christmas. Noted piñata makers from here include Romana Zacarías Camacho, who can make up to thirty in one day, and a younger member of the same family, María de Lourdes Ortiz Zacarias.
The piñata has been familiar to Americans as a symbol of Mexico especially since a scene appeared in Walt Disney’s The Three Caballeros featuring one. Its popularity as a crossover item in the United States is traced to only about the 1980s, particularly in the states bordering Mexico. Because of this crossover, with piñatas now made in northern Mexico in the forms of Santa Claus, Christmas trees, Easter eggs, large wedding cakes and more which target the U.S. market, generally for supermarkets, stationery stores and speciality boutiques. Their popularity in Latino households is nostalgia, whereas for others their popularity has been fueled by piñatas’ appearances in popular media, such as comics and children’s shows, making them common at birthday parties. This exportation of piñatas has not been without problems, however. There have been cases of piñatas being used to smuggle drugs, copyright issues of piñatas in the forms of images from popular culture and even finding nude images from the paper used to made the piñatas. Even within Mexico, which is more lax about enforcing copyright laws, piñata makers for the domestic market have lost inventory to raids, but continue to make images of cartoon characters and the like because the demand for them is so high.
The making of Judas Iscariot figures may have been one of the first uses of cartonería in Mexico. These figures and their destruction appear to be an amalgamation of two southern European traditions. Their first is the burning of figure for the Fallas de Valencia, when carpenters made figures of wood for the feast of Saint Joseph on March 19th. Usually these were devils, but they could also be humorous and/or related to current events. The burning of Judas effigies on Holy Saturday can be found in various parts of southern Europe, but in most cases, the effigy is crudely made and truly is destroyed by flames. How it was introduced to Mexico is debated. One story states that it was introduced by Franciscan monks for evangelization purposes. The other asserts that it rose in popularity as a response to the Mexican Inquisition, with cartonería dolls, representing heretics, given to children.
A Judas effigy in the shape of the devil made with cartonería emerged, which represents Judas after the betrayal as a symbol of evil. Over time, these figures became more elaborate and also used as a form of social and political protest. In past, the Judases would be authority figures, which at times invited restrictions and prohibitions. Today, political figures are still a target, but public ire can also extend to celebrities and sports figures. As recently as 20th century, there are stories of the secret police of then president Adolfo Ruiz Cortines checking workshops to make sure no effigies of the president were being made. In an odd twist, sometimes the person the effigy is representing is being honored with the burning. This has happened with well-loved figures such as comic actor Cantinflas and lucha libre wrestler El Santo. It is interesting to note that Judas effigies to be burned never represent women.
Judas figures are usually large, from about fifteen centimeters to three or four meters tall, necessitating the use of a wicker or wire frame to support the cartonería “skin.” This skin is painted often elaborately, but very rarely are other decorative materials used.
Until the mid-20th century, the destruction of Judas Iscariot in effigy was an extremely popular, with thousands made in many parts of Mexico for Holy Saturday, especially in Mexico City, in no small part due the simple burning of the figure giving way to its being torn to pieces with the use of strategically placed firecrackers. In some areas, their popularity was even further enhanced with the addition of coins or candy inside, so that when they exploded, the public was showered with the gifts as a reward for destroying evil. In the San Antonio neighborhood of Celaya, this was taken another step further with sausages from local butchers’ shops.
Judas figures experienced a sudden drop in popularly when a warehouse in La Merced, Mexico City caught fire and exploded in a heavily populated area, causing a number of deaths and injuries. It is still debated exactly what was in that warehouse, fireworks or stronger military explosives, but the result was the ban on the making and sale of almost all fireworks in the capital. The tradition nearly died out in the latter 20th century and many cartoneros left the business as the Judas represented a major part of their income. Outside of Mexico City, their popularity also declined with the more-gradual introduction of fireworks restrictions. Such event can still be found in parts of Mexico City, its suburbs, Guanajuato, Puebla, Zacatecas, Hidalgo, Morelos and the State of Mexico, but most Judases today are burned as community events, which obtain special permission from authorities. In some neighborhoods in Celaya, Judas figures are again simply burned after being doused in gasoline, in order to avoid the fireworks.
Before the ebb in Judas figures, artisan Pedro Linares, and to a lesser extent,Carmen Caballero Sevilla laid the groundwork to assure that Judases would not entirely disappear. Linares had begun experimenting with new shapes for Judases, which attracted the attention of the city’s artist and intellectual community, who began buying his work as cultural and artistic pieces. These would eventually evolve into a new form called alebrijes. Diego Rivera found Caballero’s work in the Abelardo Rodriguez market and had her work for him making her heavily simplified Judas figures, which can still be seen today in the Rivera/Kahlo House and Studio Museum in Mexico City’s San Angel neighborhood.
Alebrijes are are an innovation in Mexican cartonería. As mentioned above, they evolved from Judas figures and can be attributed to the work of one man, Pedro Linares (1906-1992). Unlike most other cartonería products, alebrijes are not associated with festivals or celebrations and since their inception have been collectors’ items. Their current place in Mexican culture is due to their acceptance as a kind of folk art by the artist and intellectual communities of Mexico City in the mid 20th century.
Pedro Linares began as a part time cartonero, making many of the same pieces that his father and grandfather did, in the same family homestead, today just east of Mexico City’s historic center. The traditional story of their origin is that Pedro dreamt or hallucinated them during a fever and upon his recovery sought to recreate what he saw. However, Susan N. Masuoka’s book, En Calavera: The Papier-Mache Art of the Linares Family, makes a strong case for their gradual development from Judas figures in the 1950s, mostly likely after the fireworks ban dropped the bottom out of the Judas market in the city. Early Judas figures bear a strong resemblance to Judases and many alebrijes still have animal heads and wings that can be found on Judas figures.
Later in life, Pedro also admitted that the creatures had evolved. The inspirations for this evolution are unclear as well. They have been compared to naguals, fantastic creatures with a pre Hispanic origin, but there is also some evidence that Linares may have been influenced by his contact with the Academy of San Carlos (then Mexico’s national art school), where he did festival decorations in technique, design or both.
The innovative Judas or early alebrijes caught the attention of Mexico City’s artist and intellectual community, leading to patronage for the Linares family. The unlikely connection allowed this poor family to continue with cartonería when many others had to find other work with the demise of Judases. Not only that, the popularity of the alebrijes, along with the La Catrina and skeletal figures mentioned earlier meant that the family could make a living from the activity year round and even specialize in it.
By the 1970s, the Linares alebrijes had brought international attention to Pedro and the family. Third generation alebrije maker Leonardo Linares states that the creatures have been touted as being good luck or scaring bad dreams, but he says that people probably have said this to sell more alebrijes. To him, they are purely decorative.
Alebrijes are classified as a handcraft or folk art, which unfortunately for the Linares, means that their creations do not have the same intellectual property rights as art. Pedro Linares created the name to refer to his “ugly” brightly colored creatures of various real and unreal animal parts in cartonería. His grandson Leonardo Linares obtained a court order stating that the name belongs to the family, and he would rather that any colorful monsters made by others not be called alebrijes. However, he has had very little success in enforcing the court order. Not only is “alebrije” the common name for these figures, no matter who made them, it has since become used to refer to a series of small wood carvings made in Oaxaca. These figures are generally recognizable creatures, painted in bright colors with intricate designs. They are more recognized as “alebrijes” by many outside of Mexico as they have been popularized by tourists visiting Oaxaca.
Cartonería alebrijes can be considered Mexico City’s main, if not only, indigenous handcraft, and its popularity among Mexican cartoneros continues to grow. It has spread in many parts of central Mexico, and where cartonería is spreading and/or growing in popularity, alebrijes are at the forefront. This is in spite of the fact that alebrijes are labor-intensive, done entirely freehand with no molds. Each alebrije is unique and commands higher prices. Each begins with a wire frame, sometimes with unicel or crumpled newspaper to form the head and/or body. Layers of paper cover this, and fine details are made by folding and crumpling newspaper or heavier paper such as craft. The most traditional alebrijes consist only of cartonería and paint although other elements have been added, especially by younger generations of cartoneros.
Skeletal figures for Day of the Dead
Today, the making of items related to Day of the Dead is the largest segment of most cartoneros’ business, making the weeks leading up to November 2 the busiest on their calendar.
Day of the Dead in Mexico is an annual commemoration for those who have died. It has pre-Hispanic roots, when it was believed that once a year, the dead could return to be with family. After the Spanish conquest of Mexico, this commemoration was grafted onto All Soul’s and All Saint’s Day. Day of the Dead proper is November 2, but in many communities, observances can extend from October 31 to November 2 and in a few places to November 3. This commemoration is not morbid, but a mixture of respect for one’s own lost loved ones and gentle mockery of death itself.
Commemorations revolve around an temporary altar which is set up specifically for this purpose. How this altar is arranged and decorated vary from region to region, with a number of communities having notable local traditions. However, most of the decorations involved marigolds and seasonal fruits, certain foods related to the holiday such as pan de muerto (bread of the dead) and foods that deceased loved ones favored in life.
Decorations depicting skulls and skeletons have become important element both on and off altars during this time. However, this is a relatively recent phenomenon. Traditionally skulls and skeletal figures have been made with a variety of materials, including sugar paste, clay wood and more, most likely originating as toys for children. Cartonería skeletal figures are not meant to be scary. Despite the growing influence of Halloween at this time, elements of this foreign holiday have not yet appeared in cartonería. Instead the figures are most often made to be humorous, dressed as and/or engaging in activities of the living. Sometimes they are made in reference to historical figures or classes of people important in the past, such as the Aztecs. Cartonería skulls are imitations of those made with sugar, heavily decorated but often using bright colors instead of white being dominant. Their popularity have increased such over the years that large and even monumental figures are common in public institutions and common spaces, especially in central Mexico during Day of the Dead. Exhibitions of skeletal figures have even broken the barrier of the holiday. The Linares family was commissioned to make life-sized skeletal figures for the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, and exhibition that cemented the figures’ role in modern Mexican culture. Their importance was further demonstrated with another Linares creation La Muerta Tembloroso (Death in Tremors), with over fifty life-sized figures representing key elements of the 1985 Mexico City Earthquake including firemen, victims under rubble, soldiers and even a looter with a television set. There are essentially two kinds of skeletal figures. The first is called “La Catrina,” a figure dressed as a late 19th century upper class woman and the rest, which are simply called “calacas.”
The origins of cartonería skeletal figures and their relation to the living is somewhat controversial. A pivotal figure in their development is the graphic art of José Guadalupe Posada. He has been credited with the invention of Catrina and even with inventing the use of skeletal figures for social and political commentary. The use of skeletons in graphic content for the same purposes dates back at least until mid-19th century and probably earlier. The use of skulls and skeleton figures for Day of the Dead extends back even further.
Why his Catrina became famous enough to become a separate entity in itself has to do with Posada’s politics. He lived during the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz as a fierce critic, dying in 1913 when the Mexican Revolution was in full swing. The post-Revolution government put significant resources in the arts, particularly those who would promote “revolutionary ideals” and give the new government legitimacy. These include emphasis on Mexico’s indigenous past, it rural and poor, and of course the role of government and arts to improve the country. Posada was idealized for this purpose, and his work, including his skeletons were promoted by the artistic and intellectual elite. One important work in this vein is Diego Rivera’s mural Sueño de una tarde dominical en la Alameda Central (Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda Central). It takes Posada’s original image of just a skull wearing a wide 19th century ladies’ hat with large feathers, and completes with figure with a long gown and feather boa, strolling in the park alongside Rivera, depicted as a boy. The promotion of Posada’s work continued into the time of Pedro Linares, patronized by the same elite classes, began to commission skeletal figures based off Posada, especially La Catrina.
The Linares developed the basis of depicting skeletal figures in cartonería which is most commonly in use today. They have not changed radically since those made by Pedro with his sons in the mid-century. The only differences with pieces made today by the Linares and others is that they tend to suggest more movement, and sometimes are depicted with more modern clothing, doing more modern activities, such as skateboarding. Sometimes they may even be dedicated to the memory of the more recently deceased, such a Michael Jackson. Their popularity in Mexico and perhaps the curiosity that Day of the Dead provokes in foreigners have made skeletal figures, especially Catrina, an item that is sold year round in Mexico and abroad, especially in the United States and Europe. Just about all cartoneros have experience in making Catrinas. Large versions for public Day of the Dead altars are becoming more common and larger. The best-known altars that employ them include those at the Mexico City main square (Zocalo), the National Autonomous University of Mexico, the plaza of the city of Aguascalientes and the Dolores Olmedo Museum.
The term “mojiganga” originally referred to a kind of comic theatrical piece. In Mexico today, it still can refer to a number of events with comic character, such as the mojiganga in Zacualpan de Amilpas in the state of Morelos in September. These events use cartonería props including masks, elements for floats and large to monumental pieces such as alebrijes and realistic animals which are carried over the parade route. Interestingly enough, they generally do not have the giant puppet figures known by the same name in the rest of the country.
These, usually called mojigangas or “gigantes” (giants), grew out of some mojiganga events in Spain and from there introduced to Latin America. However, their use has not been adopted uniformly in Mexico. Only certain communities have continued with their creation and participation in certain festivities, which have evolved somewhat different based on local customs and local materials. There are prominent in festivals in parts of Guanajuato, Michoacan and Oaxaca and can appear elsewhere. Towns noted for their use include San Miguel de Allende (and some surrounding communities), Patzcuaro, Oaxaca (city), Santo Tomas Jalieza and Cuilapam de Guerrero. Most mojiganga makers do not do the craft full time, but it is one of several economic activities. For example, in Oaxaca (state), most mojigangas are made by those who also produce fireworks, although the two are not put together.
The forms they take and how they are traditionally used vary from place to place, but can appear in both religious or secular events, most often for processions or parades. Their main purpose is comic relief, as they have a Carnival-like appearance, generally several meters tall, with exaggerated facial features, often in colorful costume and arms which are left to swing loosely, with no control of the dancer supporting the figure.
Depending on the location and occasion, mojiganga can be of buxom blondes in revealing attire, Mexican historical figures, devils, angels, skeletons, brides and grooms. They have also included Aztec priests, Gandhi, Einstein, astronauts, Frida Kahlo and La China Poblana. They play a prominent role in the famous Guelaguetza festival of Oaxaca. Their use in weddings and events in September, celebrating the patron saint of Archangel Michael and Mexico’s Independence Day is a defining characteristic of the local culture of San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato. Other events includes their use in the National Autonomous University of Mexico’s observances for Day of the Dead.
The puppets can be divided into two halves. The upper half is cartonería, constructed in a similar manner as Judas figures, with frames of wicker or wire. This upper half may be the head and upper torso, as is common in Guanajuato or just the head, more common in Oaxaca. Regardless of preference, the lower part to the legs of the dancer is then made with cloth, which may or may not be over a frame. It functions as both costume and puppet, with a dancer inside who generally carries the figure using integrated straps which rest on the shoulders. Overall height, with dancer, can be between two and six meters tall.
The figures are painted with additions such as hair of some kind of fiber such as yarn or ixtle (from the maguey plant), jewelry, etc. The dress or suit that the mojiganga almost always wears is meant to further conceal the dancer, although the dancer’s legs are the legs of the mojiganga, and may or may not match the character. The dancer sees through a hole placed in the mojiganga, usually at the lower abdomen level. In the past mojigangas weighed up to 30 kilos, but today they can weigh 22 kilos or less. The reed frames and cartonería have been conserved, but heavier plasters have been replaced by lighter more-modern ones. Interestingly enough, there is no indication of replacing the cartonería with lighter materials. This is mostly due to tradition, but also because in some communities, mojigangas are ritually burned after their use.
Toritos and other figures with fireworks
While the Judas is the most important cartonería object made to support fireworks, there are others that need to be mentioned.
The warehouse fire that has nearly killed the making of Judas figures in Mexico, has also had profound effects on the production of fireworks and related products. The main one is the push of fireworks to outside the Mexico City limits, primarily to the northern suburbs of the capital in the State of Mexico (Estado de México, commonly referred to as Edomex), with some in the Toluca Valley. Today, the city of Tultepec claims to be the fireworks capital of Mexico, and the importance of fireworks has affected the production and use of cartonería products.
These toritos are almost exclusively made and exploded in relationship to patron saint and some other religious events, rather than secular. They are a kind of offering in appreciation for blessings and protection.
Toritos appear in other areas in Mexico, but Tultepec is best known for them, especially their appearance during the town’s feast for its patron saint, John of God on March 8. Until the end of the 20th century, all toritos were small enough to be carried on a person’s head or worn around a person’s waist. The wearer danced among the crowds while the fireworks on the torito were set off. This is still the case in most festivals in Mexico, but in Tultepec, they have been eclipsed by monumental bull constructions which require wheels and a team to both build and run the bull in the streets. Because of this, the toritos are paraded around the town in the afternoon, to show off the handiwork before they are set off in the main plaza after dark. In the 2016 festivities for John of God, there were over 300 of these gigantic bulls, which were set off one-by-one until about 3 am.
Tultepec is also noted for making other figures of cartonería, which are made to have movement when they accompanying fireworks are set off. These figures generally depict characters from folk and modern popular culture. Most of the movement is provided by wheels which spin when the fireworks are set off, The wheels have pistons attached to appendages which then move in a specified way. These are also almost always made for and used in conjunction with Mexico’s many religious celebrations, but are festive rather than a kind of offering.
In an interesting return to the roots of alebrijes, those which are made in communities such as Tultepec and Zumpango are not made for sale as folk art, but rather to be exploded at religious and secular events in the same way as their Judas antecedents. However, these figures are not associated with Holy Saturday.
Lupita dolls and other toys
The most common use of cartonería items is the making of paraphernalia for various Mexican festivals, generally to be used once, with the item ending up destroyed or simply thrown away. One exception to this is the creation of toys, which emerged as an industry in Celaya, Guanajuato among certain families in the Tierras Negras, El Zapote and San Juan neighborhoods by the 19th century.
The origin of cartonería toys is related to the festival of Corpus Christi and some other feast days and some secular holidays such as Independence Day. Parents until the 20th century (and in some places still today), would buy items such as Roman helmets, shields swords, hobby horses etc, with girls traditionally receiving dolls and other items related to traditional roles, such as miniature brooms, dishes and even baskets smaller than a thimble. Another customary item was cartonería dragon called a “tarasco,” with wheels for feet and the tail in the shape of a lance. It is a miniature of a larger such dragon carried in processions for the festival, along with other figures. The toys were a kind of teaching tools, related to the Biblical stories and personajes of the festival, but were not meant to last. Cheap toys, but today of plastic, are still ubiquitously found at popular religious festivals, but most are generic, with the same purpose, to give children a way to participate in the festival.
The toys became used year-round as they represented the a way many poor children could have toys at all. The most important toy is the doll. From the colonial period to the 19th century, the finest dolls were imported from Europe and were had only by the daughters of rich Spanish or criollo families. The most expensive of these has heads of porcelain, with a somewhat cheaper and more common doll called the “Pepona” doll from Spain, which had a body made of cloth and a head, heavily covered in plaster, lacquer or other such substance, with clothing made to fit. These dolls were still out of reach for poor families.
“Lupitas” (sometimes called Peponas, Juanitas, Rositas, Mariquitas, Celaya dolls or just cartonería doll, depending on the community) are simply cheaper versions of the Spanish Peponas. The entire body is made of cartonería, which is easier to reproduce via molds. Gone are the heavy coatings to make the doll more durable and clothing is only hinted it through designs painted on the body itself. Their purchase became disconnected from festivals and the ease of production led them to become their first instance of mass toy production in Mexico.
They are always made with molds, and come in sizes from about five centimeters high to up to a meter. The most common sizes are designated such dedal (finger), cacahuetita (from peanut), quinta (fifth), cuarta (fourth), tercera (third), segunda (second), primera (first), extra and jumbo. Most are made with arms and legs that are tied to the body, hence movable, but there is a variation called tabloides, which are completely rigid. There are also some which only the arms are tied, with the legs rigid. The proportions of the dolls are such that they can be likened to the “…hefty circus riders on the posters of…” the 1940s. Skin color is somewhat realistic, but generally limited to a dark peach pink, representing Europeans, not the indigenous. Traditional hair colors include black and red, generally tied back. There is more variation on hair color today, and to some extent style, but it is always a fixed part of the doll. The “dress” of the Lupita figure is based off of a style of 19th century bathing suit or that worn by circus performers. The “dress” is often painted with flower patterns, generally to form a diamond-like shape in the center of the torso.The chest of the doll used to also be painted with the name of the child for whom it was intended. Glitter and other elements may be applied to mimic jewelry. The dolls appear in a 1943 painting (Girasoles or Sunflowers) by Diego Rivera.
The popularity of cartonería toys reached at its peak in central Mexico from the 19th century to the first half of the 20th. The technique became used to make a variety of secular toys including clown figures, mamertos (figures of fat Mexican cowboys with large mustaches), horses on wheeled carts (some large enough to hold the weight of an adult), other common animals in miniature, rattles, trumpets, masks, often in animal shapes, soldier’s helmets and swords. By far, the Lupita doll remained the most popular and still is today.
The introduction of mass-produced plastic items decimated the market for cartonería toy. The new versions were not only cheaper, but more durable and by the latter 20th century able to do things the traditional toys never could, such as speak, move on their own and even wet a diaper. As late as the 1990s, Celaya had a Christmas fair to sell locally-made toys, but this has since disappeared.
Few cartoneros make toys today, mostly located in Celaya and in Mexico City. In fact, most of the toy makers in Mexico City, Puebla and other locations have roots in Celaya. Those which are still made are now for collectors or as decorations, with the most popular being Lupita dolls, followed by hobby horses and miniature animals. Far more difficult to find are clowns, charros, figures from Mexican popular culture such as Cantinflas and soldiers’ helmets and swords, which are disappearing. Humorous skeletal figures were made as toys for Day of the Dead in Celaya.
Tradition has a strong effect on the making of toy figures, and the variation of what is made is narrowing, rather than expanding, with little innovation in the forms still made. In 2010, Mexico City artist Carolina Esparragoza initiated a project with the aim of rescuing and promoting the making of Lupita dolls in Mexico City. She recruited artisans and artists from Celaya and Mexico City to found workshops to teach the basics of cartonería as well as encourage participants to create new forms and designs. Most of the production was Lupita dolls with novel and even wild outfits, from 19th century ladies, to those with indigenous appearance and dress to prostitutes and one in honor of 20th century Mexican poet Pita Amor. The project caught the attention of Sokei Academy and Sagio Plaza Gallery in Tokyo, which held an exhibition of the resulting figures. However, the concept ran into difficulty with traditionalists in Mexico, including the use of the English title “Miss” in front of “Lupita” (added to give a pageant-like feel to the project). Not all cartoneros were against the concept, significantly third generation Celaya artisan Carlos Derramadero, who agrees with Espargoza that younger generations have the right to reinterpret traditional objects and designs as they see fit,
Masks are a very important element in traditional Mexican culture and have been made of all kinds of materials with the most popular being from wood, followed by leather. Most are made by indigenous communities for traditional dances and often have religious significance. Masks also appear in mestizo and urban environments as well, as entertainment, in theatre and in celebratory events,especially patron saint days and Carnival in certain parts of the country.
Cartonería masks do not have the same status in Mexico in for collectors that those made with other materials do. Traditionally they were non-religious items made for children and were one-use items, with little attention paid to their making. For this reason, cartonería masks are classified in Mexico as “toys” (juguetes) rather than cultural items with one important exception. The Cora people in Nayarit create fantastic cartonería masks for dancers participating in Holy Week rights. These, too, made for a single use, then destroyed by dissolving in a river as an act of purification. Interestingly, these are a relative innovation, dating back no further than the 1930s. Before this, dancers painted their faces.
Unlike masks made of wood, cartonería masks do not have any pre Hispanic links as the technique was introduced fairly late in the colonial period. Most cartonería masks are made in central Mexico, especially Celaya, with some made for cities and towns that hold Carnival celebrations. As late as the 1990s, mask making could be found various parts of Bajio region, including Querétaro, Irapuato, Silao, as well as in Mexico City and Puebla, but today, it is mostly limited to Celaya. There used to be a section of town where mask makers were concentrated, but today masks seem to be part of the inventory of most cartoneros.
The masks of Celaya are generally colorful and those who make them have had the designs passed down from generation to generation. Many traditional masks are of animals such as wolves, birds, rabbits, tigers and more, as well as human and humanoid figures such as clowns, devils, characters from popular cultures such as movie stars, historical figures such as Maximilian I and Victorian ladies. Those made for Day of the Dead are intricately and colorfully painted skulls, often decorated with flowers and crowns which refer to the concept of death in a humorous or satirical way. (The James Bond movie, Spectre, was accurate in the use of skull masks, but inaccurate in the pale-ivory malevolent expression that they had.) Satire is also prominent in masks that are related to politics.
Cartonería masks are almost always made from molds, usually made of clay, plaster or wood. They may be only painted or other materials may be added such as paper strips, fur, plant fibers and more. They are not made to be realistic, but rather in unnatural and even wild colors, especially devil’s masks which can be in yellow, purple and red together, with red, white and black striped horns. Lacquered masks resist sweat and last longer, but cost about double those with only paint. The making of masks is still strongly tied to the festival calendar with most made for Carnival, Holy Week, Independence Day and Day of the Dead. Masks are also popular for a number of school-related events.
Cartonería masks are an important part of the mojiganga event at the end of September in Zacualpan de Milpas in Morelos. This tradition began in 1965, when some young men decided to run around the streets on the feast day of Our Lady of the Rosary, principally comic relief. Since then the event has become a kind of artistic outlet for the young people of the municipality and even those from other parts of Morelos and Mexico who now participate. Overall, the effect of the masks, costumes, floats and live music is Carnivalesque, with brotherhoods preparing each year for the event, choosing themes from fantasy, history and religion. These mask range from small ones covering part of the face to large helmet-like objects, which create a new head for the dancer.
It is a young tradition with an emphasis on creativity, with cartonería integrated mostly because it is economical. For this reason, the masks and other elements tend to vary widely and are not as attached to tradition than other uses of cartonería. These masks vary from those depicting alebrijes, to realistic animal heads and skulls (especially bulls), to Egyptian gods, devils, European fairy tale creatures, pre-Hispanic and colonial era personages and more. While there are masks that cover only the face, often oversized, most of the masks are helmet-like, covering the entire head. These are made particularly hard and are lined with foam rubber to keep them steady while in use. All masks tend to be in high relief, with prominent facial and cranial features, such as cheekbones, protruding eyebrows, chins and horns. They may be painted in realistic or fantastic colors, with or without added decorative designs or non-cartonería elements. Comparsa Zacualpan Mágico even used the technique one year to make samurai helmets and armor. While costumes, floats and other elements may have themes such as popular modern movies, masks and other cartonería elements tend to avoid this.
Cartonería has also been one of various materials used in the creation of floats for parades, especially for the large carnival celebrations in Veracruz, Mazatlan and Campeche. It has been gaining somewhat in popularity in a number of places both because it is cheaper than some other materials, most notably wood, and is more ecological than fiberglass, plastics and styrofoam. However in most cases, the paper mass is only one of several materials used for the creation of floats and does not replace fiberglass, wood, metal and plastics. It is simply one other option. For example, roughly sculpted styrofoam bases can be created, then covered with paper as this is a cheap, light and quick way to build the large pieces that such floats need. If a frame is used, it is metal, not reed as the latter is not strong enough to withstand the shaking and bumps suffered by the floats during their journey along the parade route.
Most of these floats (using cartonería or not) are made or sponsored by local brotherhoods called comparsas (like the krews of Mardi Gras in New Orleans). Since the carnival is the focus and not the cartonería per se, themes and styles can widely depart from the more traditional ones found in the center of Mexico City. They can include paper maché tanks, biblical scenes pop culture references and human or animal figures of all kinds. However, the making of floats has provided work for a number of cartonería artisans from the traditional areas, who do bring their influence with them In particular, giant alebrijes have found their way into carnival floats in Mexican coastal cities.