Paper, Paste and Celebration: Mexican Cartonería Chapter 4: Notable Cartonería Artisans Today

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.

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Leonardo Linares at the family workshop in Mexico City

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.

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Media attention at the annual Judas burning event in front of the Linares home and workshop

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.

Lemus family

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Lupita style doll in traditional Celaya dress by Miguel Angel Lemus Lopez

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.

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Partially finished skull with intricate design by Guillermo Lemus Múñiz

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.

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Sotero Lemus Gervasio with 100-year-old mold at his workshop in Ciudad Nezahualcoyotl, State of Mexico

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.

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Alicia Mendez Juarez with Catrina creation in Celaya.

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.

Other artisans

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.

The teachers

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.

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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

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Oscar Becerra with mixed-media scene at his workshop in Mexico City

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

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Hector Fernandez with piece at the Encuentro de Cartonería in Cuernavaca

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)

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Monumental piece depicting the Aztec lord of the underworld for the Day of the Dead in Mexico City’s main square. Piece sponsored by FARO

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

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Arroyo with some of his mojigangas at his workshop in San Miguel Allende, Guanajuato

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

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Morales Vazquez working at the Encuentro de Cartonería in Cuernavaca

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.

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Villena Hernandez with China Poblana at the Museo de Arte Popular in Mexico City

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

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Pepe with creations in his workshop in the city of Oaxaca

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 

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Sun figure by the artisan (courtesy of Mauricio Handler)

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 

Miguel
Gonzalez Vacio with skeletal figure in his home in Zacatecas

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

aguas
Monumental piece in progress for the local Festival de Calaveras in 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

 

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