Fate has taken me from Mexico City to Victoria de Durango, the capital of the state of Durango. Despite being a state capital, Durango City is small and isolated. It is connected to Zacatecas, Parral, Mazatlán and Nayarit though highways, but major highways here did not exist as late as the 1980s and even in the 1960s, only dirt roads led to the town.
Although this is changing, Durango still gives the impression of a cowboy town. While there are efforts to bring tourism here, the city’s economy is still that of a regional center, where people from the country come in for supplies. SUV’s and trucks are a common sight as are women in traditional Tepehuano dress.
It is an interesting mix of central Mexican colonial buildings (the northwestern edge of where you will find this), food based on beef and green chilis (mostly poblanos) as found in Sonora and parts of Chihuahua and the urban sprawl that has grown up in the past couple of decades. A local gringo told me that Durango lost its complete isolation once the first Walmart opened in 1993.
The state of Durango is very rugged territory. Many areas are still not accessible directly from the state capital and the state boasts four indigenous peoples, many of whom still live traditionally. The most numerous are the Tepehuanes, but there are important communities of the better known Huichols and Tarahumaras as well as some Nahuas which migrated here from central Mexico after the Conquest.
Like much of the US’s Wild West, northern Mexicans come from (sub)cultures accustomed to self sufficiency, and most of the state’s handcrafts reflect this fact. Also reflected is the fact that is this Aridoamerica, which did not see the rise of major empires as those that developed further south. This means that most crafts here are of the utilitarian sort and not usually geared toward any kind of goods for upper classes. Much of it is done by the native peoples, with a small but growing number of artisans associated with the state’s School of Painting, Sculpture and Crafts. The two largest categories of crafts relate to pottery and textiles, which vary from extremely rustic to reinterpretations of traditional designs. Heavily represented for their small size are the Huichols, who are famous for their yarn paintings and beadwork, although this work is better known in Jalisco and Nayarit.
A visit to the state’s Museo de Culturas Populares gives a brief but good overview of this, with guides ready to give a tour in Spanish. Unfortunately, individual items and shelves lack labeling, though most of the rooms have signs in three languages (Spanish, Tepehuana and English) to explain the unifying theme.
By far, the finest of what is to be found here are related to the production of the School of Painting, Sculpture and Crafts as well as winning pieces from the state’s annual handcraft competition, which provides the best of the state’s indigenous creativity. School pieces tend to lean toward pottery and glass work. The rest range the entire gamut of materials including wood, leather, maguey fiber, wool, clay, basketry beads and paper mache (cartonería). There is also a large and interesting collection of decorative masks, the likes of which seem more African than Mexican. The staff here is friendly and willing to help with contact with Durango artisans.