Cactus, furniture and floods

Most of Mexico’s traditional handcrafts come from small rural towns, and few are smaller or more rural than Venta Vieja, Guerrero, located north of the state capital Chilpancingo. It is rugged terrain, with little tree cover, which means that major rain events such as the hurricanes Ingrid and Manuel that hit Mexico in 2013 devastated the tiny village of about 100 families, even though they are far inland. Most homes were swept away or made uninhabitable by the flash flooding. Below is a video with English subtitles about the devastation and reconstruction.

The village is even smaller now as some were not able to rebuild. Those who remain maintain a rather precarious existence with subsistence agriculture and furniture making. It is a 100% populated by native Nahua, with just about all of the population speaking this indigenous language, with some not even speaking Spanish.

It is these communities that events such as the twice-yearly Expo de Pueblos Indigenas are designed to help. Sponsored by National Commission for the Development of Indigenous Communities (CDI as it is commonly referred to), the Expo is one of various programs to help indigenous-owned businesses start or improve their business. Most of these are related to handcrafts and one of the major goals is to wean these creators from their dependency on middlemen, selling more directly to end users and making a better profit from their work.

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No automatic alt text available.This past May the To Neluayo group participated in the Expo, their first. It comes on the heels of support to start gaining a presence online, both in Facebook and a soon-to-be-launch website. It is a family affair with 3 generations in several branches. This is typical for these workshops. What attracted my attention was the quality of the work as well as the use of the dried skeletons of a local type of organ cactus. To Neluayo says that the cactus is from the local mountains, but it is not harvested but rather collected after the plant dies naturally. This might be the case today, but I have to wonder if that will be a sustainable plan in the long run. However, it is best that if these resources are going to be utilized, and the recent devastation did result in a lot of dead trees, best that the local people benefit as much as possible.




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It´s never too late to make an impact

DSC_0045Few stories illustrate this point better than that of Angela Ramírez del Prado of Tultepec, State of Mexico.

This suburb of Mexico City is best known for the making of fireworks, which unfortunately also includes the occasional disaster such as the explosions that tore out a huge chunk of the fireworks market back in December of 2016.

When Ramírez was growing up, none of that existed. Born in 1928 (and turning 90 on 16 May), the area was all rural farmland with Mexico City far away. She described her childhood as very happy, raising chickens and the like but noted with a hint of regret that she only learned “her letters” and some very basic arithmetic. The family was poor, even more so when her father became incapacitated and she and her brothers had to work to make ends meet. This was her first contact with fireworks making.

DSC_0062Her economic situation did not improve after marrying a local farmworker, so she did what so many poor ingenious Mexicans do, they take what is available and create products, to sell here and there… often for almost nothing. Over the years, Ramírez became adept at all kinds of handcrafts, crediting television for teaching her many of them as soon as it was available in her area.


However, none of them involved paper and paste (cartonería) a craft that is heavily associated with fireworks. While fireworks can and are set off by themselves, very often they are affixed to colorful large figures such as devils (Judas effigies), figures of bulls and even alebrijes. Tultepec attracts much local tourism during several holidays when fireworks and these figures take center stage. The largest of these is the celebrations of the town’s and fireworks makers patron saint, John of God. Here toritos (little bulls) take center stage.

Only about 20 years ago, Ramírez hit upon an idea. She saw the crowds that came to Tultepec to enjoy the shows and realized that no one was selling any kind of souvenirs for them. Many do not know the processes or traditions associated with fireworks. So she took on another handcraft, fashioning figures in paper and paper of fireworks makers and sellers to sell at these events. The idea was a success and since then several others in the town also do this work. She went on to create more elaborate scenes such as processions and branched out into other themes such as scenes of what life was like in Tultepec when she was young. Her work began to receive official recognition starting in 2001 from local, state agencies as well as cartonería organizations.


Although she still has many ideas and is still overall in very good health, her hands and eyes no longer permit her to create her figures herself. It remains to be seen if the family will continue doing what she did as they have a thriving business making more traditional figures as well as renting dance and holiday costumes.


While her pieces are rustic, there is no denying that there is an artist inside of her. No two faces look the same; all have different expressions based off of people she has met over her lifetime. Positions and scenes have a very realistic feel, and there is heart which cannot be duplicated by someone who has not lived this life. It is the kind of work that brings cartonería up to the level of folk art, a phenomenon that has been happening in Mexico for only about 20-25 years or so. In the future, I hope that some museum will take notice and put on an exhibition of this work.


This traditional footwear has its roots in pre Hispanic Mexico with variations found among the Olmec, Purhépecha, Mexica and other indigenous cultures. The word derives from the Purhépecha kwarachi.

The most original huarache types are simply strips of leather or even ixtle woven through holes made into a sole, which can form (but not necessarily) intricate pattern. Originally, they were made only from leather or braided cord, but the use of rubber from old car tires in the 20th century increased their popularity. The rubber makes for a much more durable sole, and it requires the use of nails to fix the uppers onto the soles, which also increases the shoes’ lifespan.


Huaraches at a market in Zaachila, Oaxaca


Huaraches can vary greatly, from the cheap souvenir type to pairs as fine as any footwear from Europe. The uppers vary from a couple of straps to those resembling modern closed-toe shoes. Some even have holes for shoelaces. What makes a sandal a huarache is that it is handmade and that the upper has at least some braided leather (even if it is only decorative). Commercially-made sandals go by various names, most commonly “chancla.” The importance of the natural upper means that most huaraches are some kind of natural tan to brown color, but multicolored versions are widely available as well. The use of synthetic materials even in the uppers is increasing. Designs have become more complicated and have taken cues from other modern footwear.


Adding decorative elements to a huarache at a workshop at the Museo de Arte Popular in Mexico City. (courtesy of the museum)


Most artisans making the shoes are found in Guanajuato, Jalsico, Michoacan and Zacatecas. Only about ten people in the entire country produce the finest huaraches. Most are sold on the street or traditional markets and can cost anywhere from just 100 pesos and up, depending on style, materials, and craftsmanship.


Huaraches rancheros (Huaracheblog)


The shoes are iconic in Mexico, mostly associated with the indigenous and Mexican farmworkers, both important to Mexico’s view of itself. The name huarache has since come to refer to a common street food, basically, a large thick tortilla with a thin layer of beans inside topped with vegetables, meat, cheese and/or salsa. The name comes from the idea that the base is the size and shape of the shoe’s sole, but most huaraches eaten today are far larger than that.


Huarache with chicken and cheese (Svein Meinguer)


However, they have found favor with other segments of Mexican society and with foreigners as well. They were initially popularized in the United States by hippies in the 1960s. Since then, they can be easily found in tourist markets all over the country. They can be popular among certain, generally younger, segments of Mexican society, especially those which have updated designs.

(Featured image: Traditional huaraches from the north of Mexico on display at the Museo de Arte Popular (Alejandro Linares Garcia))




From paper to ceramic

Many cultural centers and others who teach crafts and trades use Mexico’s hard paper mache called cartonería to introduce students to creativity and design. This is not just to children but to adults, too.

It is an economical medium, need only waste paper, a few tools like paintbrushes and no expensive equipment such as kilns. This allows students to experiment and make mistakes without having to worry about cost. Those who find that they have talent and desire go on to other mediums can transfer much of what they learn from working with simple paper and paste.

Eva Gonzalez Guzman is one of

Gonzalez with two of her alebrijes

these artists.


Gonzalez always had a creative bent, studying textile design in college and working for years in factories working on designs of products to be mass-produced. However, she did not find this work fulfilling or creative enough. She changed over to graphic design but found that jobs in this field required too much time dedicated to administrative tasks. She was looking for work that would allow her to spend as much time as possible creating.

Sometime in the early 2000s, she began working with paper in general as a hobby with her daughters, using ideas she got from various arts and crafts shows on television. Both she and her young daughters enjoyed this and this prompted Gonzalez to investigate what else can be done with the material. In 2006, she discovered Mexico City style alebrijes at a workshop taught at a local college and fell in love with the making of these fantastic, sometimes scary-looking creatures.


A nearly life-sized piece made from paper

The discovery of alebrijes is significant as Gonzalez is from the San Marcos neighborhood of the city of Aguascalientes. The state of the same name does have several handcraft traditions, all of which are little-known, but the making of cartonería is not one of them. The class Gonzalez took was given by Mexico City artisan, part of a 20+ year phenomenon of artisans from the capital spreading techniques and forms from this area to most parts of the country.


Despite the fact that cartoneria is almost completely unknown in Aguascalientes, Gonzalez managed to soon exhibit and even sell some of her paper work. Encouraged, she went on to learn high-fire artistic ceramics starting in 2009. Today, she is a full-time artist and artisan, dividing her time between the two media, with an area in her home dedicated to her work.


While there are definite stylistic and thematic differences between her paper and ceramic work, both focus on sculpture, from fantastic and real creatures to skeletons and realistic depictions of humans to abstract forms.


Dual hearts sculpture in ceramic

Gonzalez is part of a small group of artisans who are affiliated with the state’s Casa de Artesanias and while she has had success with her work, she states that it is still difficult. One problem is that Aguascalientes does not have the handcrafts reputation that certain other states have and the second is that much of the work she does is little known and relatively unappreciated in the state itself.



Traditional skeletal figure in ceramic

Alebrijes are a very recent introduction here with little-to-no understanding of what they are or what their history is. Gonzalez states that many people love to look at her work, but when it comes to buying, many find the glaring colors and fierce appearance intimidating. For this reason, Gonzalez has simplified her alebrijes in the sense that they are usually one identifiable animal with one or two elements of some other, rather than a mixture of several to many elements common in Mexico City. However, this does not mean that they are simple in execution as they often have fine detail (sometimes using toilet paper to make elements like feathers) and intricate painting. The result is something quite different from the alebrijes of either Mexico City or Oaxaca.


Gonzalez also spends significant time now teaching cartoneria in Aguascalientes, to both adults and children. Her adult students are almost all women, which reflect the cartoneria situation in general in the state. (The children she teaches tend to be more evenly divided by sex.) These adults either tend to be housewives who have extensive experience in other kinds of arts and crafts, or professionals with demanding careers, who find making alebrijes and other creatures relaxing.




Gonzalez’s hopes for the future include that Aguascalientes gets more recognition for its craftspeople. She also hopes that the emerging tradition with paper-and-paste done by her and her colleagues continues to grow and becomes more appreciated.


Folk painters and tourist markets

Tepotzotlan is a Pueblo Màgico, a designation by federal tourism authorities that a small town (a day’s distance from a major city) has something special about it to make it worth visiting.

I have been here several times and I could spend a lot of time talking about it. Most pertinent to the art/artisans presented here is that it is different in the sense that it is home to small remnants of what was the north of the Valley of Mexico, before rapid expansion of the metro area filled it with warehouses, industry, highways and tract housing.


The center of Tepozotlan (not really a pueblo because of the area’s large population) makes its living from day tourists, from Mexico City who like to pretend they are somehow outside the city. Like destinations of this type, the sale of handcrafts is important to the overall ambiance.

Sales are usually made through fixed stores, street markets and wandering vendors. I will not say that it is impossible to find and buy authentic, locally-made products in such places, but since the main target is tourists, few people wandering the area know what to look for… and many don’t care.

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Local craftspeople can be found and in the street market in front of the National Colonial-Era Museum (Museo de Virreinato), local producers do have priority. But there are no signs indicating they are and they have to compete with resellers of both crafts and trinkets, which are often cheaper.

However, treasure and surprises can be found in such places. I’ve written earlier about Creaturas, and their unique take on cartonerìa alebrijes and calacas. Near there stall, there is an area set aside for painters from the local area. Most are not professionally-trained and their work may never see the inside of a museum, but they share a passion for a certain local theme or topic.

DSC_0176One is Ramon Ortiz Mayen, who principally sells landscapes of areas in and around the Tepotzotlan area. (The featured image is one of his paintings.) This work is important because he is capturing the remnants of what was a rural farming region. Ortiz paints landmarks such as churches, chapels, stone bridges and other structures that pre-date this industrialization, but they are idealized versions, avoiding depictions the garbage, dirty water and graffiti that is unfortunately common here.  He even adds touches of himself as a child as well as other memories to the paintings.

Arturo Dominguez Guerrero has some professional training as a painter but for economic reasons spent much time doing reproduction work. He has been selling at the Tepozotlan square for about 20 years. What he paints and sells here depends on what sells, and has had particular success with paintings of Mexican folk art, especially Maria dolls. He originally worked on surrealistic paintings but these don’t sell in a tourist market.


Maria Antonia Gonzalez took some art classes locally but does not have professional training. She began selling at the plaza about 20 years ago, shortly after learning how to paint. While she does earn some money selling her painting, she says that she does it mostly for her own satisfaction, working when she has time among her other responsibilities. Even the selling has a personal side to it, as she states she enjoys interacting with the people who come by.