Making a comeback with a bang

4FeriaCartoneria061Most of us envision Mexican handcrafts and folk art as a timeless tradition, representative of a quiet, dignified life free from the cacophony of much of human interaction. And certainly this can be found. However, there is one product that has had a controversial past.

Southern Europe originated a tradition of burning an effigy of Judas Iscariot on Holy Saturday, commemorating his suicide after betraying Christ. It is a kind of purification ritual, whereby the community “transfers its sins” to the effigy, then burns it. In most traditions of this sort, the effigy is crudely made human figure and set on fire.

But not in Mexico….

The Spanish brought this tradition and a related one, the Fallas de Valencia, to Mexico. The latter, consisted of making a wooden figure in the form of a devil or something related to current events, then burning it for the feast of Saint Joseph on March 19th. Over time, these two traditions fused. Modern paper mache was introduced to Mexico in the later colonial period/early 19th century, and it appears that one of its first uses was the making of these devil figures, allowing for much creativity. Somehow, they became intimately connected with the fireworks-making communities in Mexico, so instead of being “gently” set on fire, they are loaded up with firecrackers and ripped apart with a series of bangs.

Small Judas figures in the toy collection of Juan Jimenez Izquierdo at his home in Mexico City
Image of former Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto with donkey ears, a bag of money and no pants

But that is not the controversial part. The making of non-devil figures related to something that has the attention of the populace got embedded here as well. So on a day devoted to destroying evil, someone who the people are angry with, usually politicians/other authority figures, would appear in these effigies to receive the same treatment as a kind of catharsis… which would not sit well with many authorities. This led to the entire practice of the burning of Judas being restricted or banned at times over history, but always resurfacing.

The last banning occurred in Mexico City in the 1950s. In 1957, a warehouse near the Merced market exploded, leveling nearby buildings and causing deaths. Authorities blamed fireworks makers and sellers, but many believe that the warehouse was being used to store military ammunition. Fireworks making and almost all selling was banned from the city proper (making the suburb of Tultepec the new hub for this activity). Without fireworks, the tradition of the Burning of Judas almost died completely.

Giant Judas being paraded as part of the Festival de la Cartonería in Mexico City

In later years, under the guise of safety, the Burning of Judas itself officially was banned, then allowed but only with special permits, not easy to get. What goes in Mexico City often goes in the provinces and many states/cities enacted similar laws. However, many cartoneros do not believe it is a safety issue but rather a political one, which very well could be the case as running around streets with bulls loaded with fireworks (which never had a political aspect) is still permitted.

2016BurningLinares060With the weakening and fall of the single-party PRI system in the late 20th and early 21st century, the tradition of the Burning of Judas seems to be making a comeback. The Linares family in the east of the city has kept it alive this whole time, their fame allowing them to get the needed permissions. But other individuals and groups have had more luck in getting permits, especially in the last 10 years or so including the organizers of the annual Festival de la Cartonería in Mexico City and prominent artisans such as Alfonso Morales of southern Morelos state, who has reestablished the tradition there.

One change is that because of the restrictions, multiple Judases are burned/exploded at events, not just one. Devils make a mandatory appearance as per tradition,but perhaps the real draw is to see what other figures might appear. It is almost guaranteed that with the Linares, both the Mexican and US presidents will appear, no matter what the political party. One year an Italian singer was burned, basically for saying that he thought Mexican women were ugly.  In a twist, sometimes the figure being burned is actually admired rather than scorned. This is the case with Judases in the form of figures from popular culture such as Cantinflas and El Chavo del Ocho. This means that any appearance this year by new Mexican president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador may be for either reason. It will depend on how the figure is depicted.


A grandmother’s gift


She was one of four girls, but she was the only one who took interest in the making of dolls.

Making dolls was a family tradition going back at least to her grandmother’s generation. At around 8 years of age she began to go over to her grandmother’s house to watch her make dolls. These dolls were very special, she says, because they were made for family and friends, with great care and artistry in each one.  Not long after, she wanted to start making her own and her grandmother helped her make a plush swan. The making of that swan remains a strong memory of her grandmother to this day.

She left school after the fifth grade to help out her mother. Her mother also made dolls, but it was more of a commercial activity, a way for the family to earn money to make ends meet. Through this she began a career of making dolls, starting at age 12. She developed her various skills with her mother although she says that the dolls were much simpler than those her grandmother made. These dolls needed to be made more quickly and serially so that they could have enough to sell.

By age 17, she specialized in dolls that could stand and be manipulated into various positions. To achieve this, the arms, legs and torso are of rolled cloth over a wire frame. It was also at this time that the labor was divided such that her mother dedicated herself to selling and Concepción to making. Her mother acknowledged her talent and encouraged her to experiment with new forms, such as images of old people.


These were one of many kinds of images that Concepción had in her head. Over time her work has included images of saints, nativity scene figures, dancers, vendors, craftsmen and more based on life in and around Celaya. She began exhibiting and participating in state handcraft competitions successfully. Her dolls have also competed in other Mexican states such as Oaxaca, Chiapas, Puebla, Tlaxcala and Coahuila.


Over the years, she has taught many classes in Celaya on doll making, but her favorite student and heir is not a daughter, but her son, Luis Alberto Alvarado Balderas. He learned how to make dolls as well, but instead of making them as individuals, he concentrates in the making of elaborate scenes of the places and festivals of Celaya, with the dolls populating the squares, and streets. This is an outgrowth not only of Concepción’s addition of straw hats, miniature pots, bird cages and other accoutrements to her figures, but Luis’s love of various crafts, including wood working.

Unfortunately, Doña Concepción is no long making dolls as she began to have problems with her vision some years ago. However, her dolls can be found in the collections of various individuals and museums in Guanajuato. With luck, her legacy will continue with her students as well as with her son and grandchildren.

The value of beads…

Most of us from north of the border associate beadwork with the indigenous peoples of the United States and Canada. If we are more aware of Mexico, we may know something about the Wixáritari (Huichol) who are probably most famous for this craft in this country. However, beadwork was an important activity in pre Hispanic Mexico and even continued to have significance from the Conquest to the late 19th century.


Bead painting at the Museo de Arte Popular in Mexico City

As in a number of parts of the world and at various times in history beads and their use played a significant cultural role. Although we think of them today mostly as cheap junk, this is only because they are now so easy to manufacture in great quantity. The value that beads had in pre-industrial cultures is not hard to understand when you consider that they were made one-at-a-time and very often without metal tools. In other words, the value of beads came not so much from the value of the materials, but rather the work that went into making them.


Olmec jade necklace (photo credit Vassil)

Taking Mesoamerica as the example, bead and bead-like objects were made from shell, bone, animal teeth, clay, gold and semi-precious stones like jade. The type and quantity of beads worn were often more than just decorative, they often indicated social rank. Aztec nobles wore beads made of jade. More common people would have beads of more common and took less time to shape and perforate. The easiest beads to make are simply seeds that have been pierced by a needles. Jewelry and other objects made of seeds can still be seen in Oaxaca, Guerrero and among various groups in Baja California.

Although Europe had not yet entered the Industrial Age, the continent had become adept at making glass beads. Glass is made with ordinary sand, which can be melted down and dripped in a an array of small molds, allowing for something akin to mass production in comparison. Glass was an unknown substance in the New World, so the value of beads remained high.


English trade beads circa 1740 (photo credit Uyvsdi)

It is known that glass beads arrived early in the colonial period, but because the material is fragile, very little physical evidence survives. According to records from the colonial period, Hernán Cortés took off a collar made with glass beads imitating precious stones off his own neck to give to Montezuma. It certainly was introduced by conquistadors and missionaries and native artisans quickly adopted them. From 1531 to 1591, the city of Culiacan excelled in the use of beads as soldiers traded them with the locals for gold nuggets found in this northern territory.  The trade in glass beads in Mexico (and other parts of the world) created demand such that enterprises in Europe began manufacturing them specifically for this kind of export. They were followed by beads produced in India and China, brought over the the Manila Galleon. (For this reason, beads are are sometimes called “chinitas” (little Chinese ones).) It is interesting to note that a percentage of the beads produced in Europe found their way back as part of handcrafted items, applied to textiles, necklaces, religious objects,  and many of these finely-made pieces can be found still in European museums. The Franz Mayer museum in Mexico City has a number of valuable pieces made with glass beads. Their value does not come from the materials but rather the skilled work needed to produce them.

Plato_de_chaquira,_San_Pablito,_PueblaNima Ita Rosa

Plate with glass beads in San Pablito, Puebla (Photo:Norma Ita Rosa)

The popularity of glass beads among the indigenous did not mean that beadwork in Mexico was limited to them. The Spanish brought over their own beadworking techniques and designs. These would make the greatest impact in central Mexico. Much of the beadwork in the colonial period by the non-indigenous was done nuns. The most important use of beads was in the making of rosaries. Nuns also made other finery, adorning the clothing for the statues of saints as well as altar cloths and with wire, making flower decorations as well as the crowns that were commonly seen on images of nuns. A popular bead used by the nuns was called the lentejuela (as they are roughly the size and shape of lentils. Nuns also taught girls from well-to-do families to decorate wth beads. Saddles and bridles could be decorated with them and speciality beads, such as those made from silver, adorned finely-made containers and clothing for the nobility.

The apogee of beadwork came in the 19th century, with beadwork commonly found on many women’s clothing, even those living in very rural areas.  Almost all the beads used during this century came from what is now the Czech Republic, Italy or Asia. However, the supply of beads from Europe dropped after Independence with the end of the runs of the Manila Galleon.  These were soon replaced by those brought by English traders generally from India and China. These new shipments also included cigarette cases decorated with beads, which the Mexicans quickly copied, adapting Mexican motifs.


However, the use of beads among the non-indigenous dropped permanently at the end of the 19th century/beginning of the 20th with the adoption of French fashions in Mexico.

Simple bead jewelry at a handcraft market in Mexico

Beadwork became relegated to handcrafts and to some extent, the decoration of bridal gowns (similar to beadwork’s fate in the US). The substitution of plastic for glass in most cases devalued beadwork even further.

Today, beadwork as a valued cultural handcraft is all but gone but with a number of important exceptions. They are found in areas where Spanish (and later Mexican criollo) had the least cultural dominance, especially in the colonial period. One such area is in eastern Mexico in parts of Puebla, Veracruz and Hidalgo. Here, the use of fine beadwork is found on traditional women’s blouses, especially the yoke. The blouses themselves are of Spanish origin, with Oriental influence. The beadwork motifs are a mix of Spanish colonial and indigenous designs and can be found among the Totonacs, Nahuas, Tepehuas and Otomi. The beadwork can indicate where the blouse is from, but this is not always the case. Although still found, the making of these blouses is waning due to the time and effort needed to apply the beads. These blouses used to be part of daily wear, but they are not reserved for special occasions or made for sale. It is a similar story with men’s shirts, although they never had the quantity of beadwork as the women’s blouses.  Some beadwork blouses are also made in the Costa Chica region of Oaxaca and Guerrero by Mixtec women, but are mainly sold to mestizo women for the Chinelas dance.

L: Beaded blouse from Veracruz (photo:Poshmark) R: Beaded yoke ready for assembly (Photo:Clothroads)

Another important use of beadwork on clothing is the making of the dress of the Poblana China (lit. Chinese woman from Puebla). She was supposedly a noble women who was captured in India and sold as a slave. In the Philippines, she was baptized as Catarina de San Juan by the Jesuits, then brought to Mexico where she spent the rest of her life. (She is buried in one of the city’s churches.) Catarina is credited for the creation of this particular style of festive dress, distinguished particularly by the skirt, which contains a large number of flattened beads (and/or sequins today) sewn on for form images and patterns that cover nearly the entire front of the garment. The China Poblana’s outfit was banned in the latter colonial period, considered by Spanish authorities as politically provocative. When Mexico gained its independence, the dress reappeared and became a national symbol. Other articles of clothing adorned with the national seal of Mexico (an eagle with a snake, perched on a cactus) in beadwork also became very popular.

China Poblana outfits at the city museum of Monterrey

By far the most famous beadwork done in Mexico today is done by the Wixáritari. The reason for this is that the vast majority of items that they make with beads are for sale to both Mexican and foreigners (tourists). They and their work are a common sights not only in western Mexico where Wixáritari communities are found (Jalisco, Nayarit, Zacatecas and Durango) but in most of the popular tourist areas far from there.

L: Shaman mask at the Museo de Arte Popular R:Artisan applying beads to a jaguar head covered in wax

Authentic uses of beadwork is for ceremonial objects, such as the Kuka, a three-dimensional mask used by shamans. However, beads can be found covering a wide array of objects. The most common of these are small wood sculptures (often of animals) and beaded necklaces and earrings. The sculptures are covered in campeche wax, then the beads are applied one-by-one, after being arranged on a needle to make the process quicker and easier. Wixáritari beadwork is extremely popular in tourist markets and has even been applied to modern objects such as footwear (using glue instead of wax). For the 2010 Mexican Bicentennial of Independence, the Museo de Arte Popular in Mexico City commissioned four Wixáritari families to design and decorate a VW Beetle (known as a “vocho” in Mexico) with traditional and patriotic symbols. The resulting work of art is known as the Vochol (combination of vocho and huichol). It was originally made for auction as a fundraiser, but it was so popular that the museum kept it and uses it for promotional purposes.


Other traditional uses of beads can by found in northern and northwestern Mexico. The Tarahumara uses many strings of bead as necklaces. The Yaquis of Sonora during the Deer Dance will denote local elders with necklaces made of white beads and crosses made of shell. There remain some Kickapoo in a small area of Coahuila who conserve their traditional beadwork, such as those found on moccasins.  However, even among the more traditional groups, traditional beadwork finds itself under pressure. aCucupa women used to wear a very large and elaborate beadwork collar that covered the chest instead of a blouse. This is no longer the case but examples of these collars can be found in museums in Baja California and other parts of Mexico.


Featured image by George I. Quimby