Although 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.
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org