From Taxco to Durango

Gualberto008Although only 3.5 hours away, the city of Durango is a world apart from neighboring Zacatecas. A Durango resident once told me that (heading north) “Civilization ends in Zacatecas and carne asada begins.”

Now, well-done carne asada is a wonderful thing, don’t get me wrong, but there is some truth to this statement. For some reason, the state of Zacatecas (while very much part of El Norte) has more southern influence in its culture than Durango.

One reason for this is that Durango lacked large deposits of silver and gold, the two metals that drove Spanish colonization. The city of Durango was founded with the expectation that the nearby Cerro de Mercado was a silver deposit, but instead held (and holds) an important deposit of iron. Nowhere near as glamorous.

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Almost all of the finer artisan activity in the state very recent in origin with more than a little influence slowly coming up from the center of the country. Gualberto Francisco Mota Martínez came to Durango 11 years ago after a long career in silver working in Taxco. His unusual first name has led to him being known as “Gualas” (play off of English Wallace, and pronounced the same). He is known by the name both socially and professionally.

His formation as an artisan is classic. He began as a child-apprentice at age eight at the workshop where his father was a craftsman. Instead of working exclusively with his father or any other craftsman, he became the shop zorra (lit. fox), the slang term for apprentices. This meant that he did tasks for all the workers.  He said the work was very hard, especially for such a young child, but it allowed him to learn from number of maestros, instead of being tied to the limited techniques and designs of one.

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As a young adult he moved to Mexico City, studied at college and had a career for a time, but he returned to silver, stating that “it’s in his blood.” He kept contact with all his former artisan maestros who became friends and colleagues. This was invaluable to him as he worked to attain his own style and niche in the highly-competitive silver working market in Taxco.  He achieved this not only with decorative design but in how he attaches elements of his pieces, particularly necklaces to hide the small rings. The result looks like the elements hang together magically.

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Durango does not have a silver working tradition. However, it is not far from a number of deposits in the states of Durango and Zacatecas, so silver is not completely out-of-place here.  The maestro was invited up to the area by a government project to teach silver working skills to disabled people, especially those who cannot speak or hear. Gualas worked on this project for only two years, with only a few students, until a change in administration pulled funding for the project. By this time, however, the maestro had become enchanted with Durango and decided to stay. Since then, he has worked as both a producer and teacher.

His teaching is based on his experience as an apprentice. He does not give formal classes but rather teaches as his students require. They decide on projects and together they pull from Gualas’s repertoire of 30+ techniques to work out how the design can be made.  Most of his student/apprentices are older and (semi-) retired, coming in and out of his workshop on Coronado Street in the center of Durango.

Most make commercial designs or some variations thereof. However, Gualis has worked in the past decade to develop artisan designs based off motifs he finds in Durango, both pre Hispanic and Spanish. Inspirations come from pottery, paintings and architectural details from the city’s colonial buildings. There is also a series with interesting mask designs carved into semi-precious stones, then set in silver.

He will do more commercial designs only if he has a relationship with the purchaser. Otherwise, he refers such requests to those he has trained. This has limited his business, as the designs have not yet caught on widely despite their quality. As in most cases in Mexico, the innovations are more popular with foreign purchasers than with national ones.

The maestro can be contacted via his Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/gualbertomota/ or by email at gualas84@hotmail.com

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Taming emotions with alebrijes

Unlike the cute creatures featured in Disney’s Coco, the original alebrijes have inspired a range of emotions. Amalgams of various creatures, both real and imagined, decorated in bright colors, alebrijes originated not in Oaxaca, but in Mexico City.

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Puppet show depicting Pedro Linares meeting his first alebrije (Alejandro Linares Garcia CC-by-SA 3.0)

The creation of these creatures are correctly credited to a cartonero (paper mache artisan) named Pedro Linares, sometime in the mid 20th century.  The traditional story of their origin states that Linares came down with a very high fever. While in bed, he hallucinated various terrifying creatures, which kept whispering alebrijes. When he recovered, he worked to recreate what he saw in his visions.

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Alebrije by Pedro Linares (CC-by-SA 3.0 Children’s Museum of Indianapolis)

The real story is more mundane and convoluted than that, and it is easy to dismiss the dream story as a fanciful way to sell more alebrijes. However, there may be more to it than that. More than a few cartoneros attached more meaning to the creatures. One notable example is “alebrijista” Susana Buyo, who considers the creatures to be a kind of home or spiritual guardian, often telling a story about a boy that saw one of her alebrijes and exclaimed “That’s what I dreamt last night!”

L: Susana Buyo and student with alebrije in progress R: Close up of a Buyo alebrijes in progress.

Indeed, if the scary, ugly/beautiful creatures were merely the product of one man’s fevered imagination, they would not have the iconic status they do now. After decorations for Day of the Dead, alebrijes are the most important product for cartoneros, and the main reason why paper mache workshops can be found now in most cultural centers in Mexico City, spreading out into other parts of the country.

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Bermudez and an art class in Durango (used with permission of the artist)

The idea that alebrijes has some psychological reality for us (hinted at by the dream story) is further enhanced by the work of Durango native Prudence Bermudez.

Bermudez is an artist and artisan from Durango, whose mother and art teachers were a constant source of affirmation to her as a very shy child. Although she started college with the intention of studying business management, fate led her back to art and she received her degree in the field from the state’s School of Painting, Sculpture and Handcrafts.

With little opportunity in Durango, she took the chance to live and work in Buenos Aires from 2007 to 2014. Here, she was not only able to sell her painting, but she gained a new appreciation of Mexican culture and iconography seeing how foreigners responded to it.  It was also here that she studied psychology and art therapy, finding this to be her life’s work.

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Alebrije by Prudence Bermudez (used with permission of the artist)

In Argentina, she worked primarily with adults and in painting, doing a thesis on art therapy for adults legally incapacitated by stress.  The focus of this thesis was the use of paper (often symbolizing the office) to redirect negative emotions that stem from there.

Bermudez’s work with alebrijes and other forms of cartoneria is very recent. On vacation home in Durango in 2012, she found that her long-time mentor, artist and artisan Trinidad Núñez, had begun a program to introduce Mexico City-style alebrijes to Durango.  Taking advantage of what little time she had, she quickly learned the basics and continued to work with the medium in Argentina. She even began selling the creatures here, which were considered a kind of crazy curiosity.

Returning to Durango in 2014, she has begun working as an art therapist. Much of this work is still with traditional painting, but alebrije-making is now part of her repertoire. She finds it useful for certain patients in particular, as the mish-mosh of animal parts can be used to represents various interconnected emotions.

While there are no studies to support this idea, it is still quite interesting nonetheless. Perhaps there are more to Pedro Linares’s “ugly” monsters than he ever envisioned.

Featured image – Artist Prudence Bermudez and daughter with alebrije – used with permission of the artist)

From brushes to clothing

Ixtle (sometimes spelled istle in English) is a term used to describe various fibers that have been obtained from native plants in Mexico since long before the arrival of the Spanish. It predates even the use of cotton, which was reserved for the elite. In the past, it was used for everything fiber can be used for, including clothing. The famous tilma (mantle) of Juan Diego, which bears the first image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, is made of ixtle.

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Ixtle products are traditionally sold at stores called jarcierias, which specialize in rope, brooms, bags and cleaning supplies. (credit Carmen Flores)

The fibers come from a number of plants. In the north and center of Mexico, various plants from the agave, maguey and yucca families are used, along with roots of a grass called sacaton.  These plants tend to grow in semi-arid parts of the country, on soils not suitable for agriculture. The states with the most production of ixtle and ixtle-based products, include Tamaulipas, Coahuila, Chihuahua, Durango, Zacatecas, Jalisco, Michoacán and Hidalgo. The most prized ixtle comes from the agave funkiana plant, which grows in the Jaumauve region of Tamaulipas. Fibers from the young, inner leaves yield measure from 50 to 100 cm long and are almost white and as strong as sisal (henequen).

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Agave lechuguilla (colloquially called shin daggers in English)
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Traditional tools used to extract fiber from leaves
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Doll knitted from ixtle by Matilde Hernandez at the Amealco Doll Museum

Some of the hardest (often called Tampico fiber) was introduced to the US in 1969 with the name of “The Original Tampico Vegetable and Dish Brush) as a household cleaning tool. Another important fiber which can also be called ixtle (or pita) is derived from a completely different plant, the aechmea magdalenae, which grows in southern Mexico. This fiber is most often used for piteado, a kind of embroidery on leather heavily favored by Mexico’s charro (cowboy) culture. The best-known community for this work is Colotán in Jalisco. The popularity of piteado means that much of what is for sale is not done by hand, but rather by machine and some is even imported from China.

The fibers from succulents are related to henniquen. A few types of ixtle produce soft cloth, but the vast majority produce coarse fibers which can range from burlap-like to fibers that are almost stick-like. Harder fibers are used to make brushes, lariats, cords and belts. Softer fibers are used to make carrying bags, nets and other accessories. However, most of the ixtle fiber that is harvested in Mexico is exported to countries such as the United States and Germany, which uses it in a number of cottage industries.

Ixtle products from Durango (left) and Guerrero

There are no statistics as to the annual production of ixtle fiber in Mexico as it is generally done by family and other small concerns. The extraction of the fibers is not done industrially, as the fibers are delicate until they have been fully processed. Plants are harvested when they are about 4 or 5 years of age. In the case of yucca, the leaves must be boiled or steamed for hours first. After that the process is the same; leaves are gently pounded to separate the fibers from the pulp, the laid out to dry in the sun. This work is poorly paid, and relegated to those times of the year when it is to dry to grow crops. Despite this, it is an important economic activity in certain rural areas of Mexico, particularly for the Otomi of the Mezquital Valley of Hidalgo, where it has cultural as well as economic importance.

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Modern lamp made from ixtle fiber at the Museo de Arte Popular in Mexico City

The survival of the ixtle industry is very much in doubt. It is labor-intensive and relatively expensive to produce.  Many ítems formerly made from ixtle are now made with plastic strips or cord.

Featured image by McGau