Few 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.
Her 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.