I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate the Cartoneros de la Ciudad de México organization for its staging of the 7th Festival de Cartonería during Holy Week in the Santa Maria la Ribera neighborhood of Mexico City. The event not only shows how far the annual event has come, but also how far the craft has come in its recent development. It also shows political changes happening in Mexico.
It started as the Feria de Cartoneria by collector Juan Jimenez Izquierdo in 2012 with modest ambitions. Having worked with the Secretariat of Culture, and being an avid toy collector, he was aware of the lack of networking among cartoneros, those who work in paper and paste to create festival paraphernalia and increasingly, other art as well. His goal was to get Mexico City artisans together and give them a chance to sell some of their work. The event got off to a rocky start. From the beginning, it was decided to have the event during Holy Week, as Holy Saturday historically was very important for cartoneros. For this holiday, they made effigies of Judas Iscariot in devil for to be burned (really exploded), and problems with authorities worried about safety caused the event to change location several times.
However it should be noted that, the Judases could also be made to represent authority figures or others who might have caused ire among the populace, inviting restrictions and outright bans. The end of the PRI monopoly on political power has meant a comeback for Judases. There is still a lot of bureaucracy to get permits to burn Judases, but community organizations have stepped up to navigate it. The Festival is probably the second best-known Burning event aside from that of the Linares family. I went to the 3rd event after hearing about it, and learned the hard (on my ears) way what “burning” means in Mexico. (The video of that Judas is in the Wikipedia article on the Burning of Judas.)
Back then, the event was small and only two Judases were burned. Each year has had more and in 2016, they added a kind of parade/procession of Judas figures. This year, there were over 16 or 17 Judases competing for prizes, with one representing Attila the Hun winning first place. All eventually sacrificed except for the top three. Current Mexican president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador made an appearance among the Judases, a welcome change from the days when the government made sure that no effigies of presidents were made.
But some of the old restrictions have not completely gone away. Licenses must be sought, making it impossible for ordinary families to burn Judases as in times past. Organizations that do manage to get the permits are required to perform a kind of “safety theatre,” cordoning off the area where the Judases are hung and exploded, with an “emergency exit” (although outside) and various warnings about the dangers of exploding Judases. This might just sound precautionary, but nothing of this sort is required of the paper mache bulls, which are loaded with many more fireworks and run through crowds as they are set off. But then, the bulls never represented anything but bulls.
While the Burning of Judas is by far the highlight of the annual Festival of Cartonería, the vending area has become an impressive display of the skills and inventiveness of Mexico’s cartoneria community. The vast majority of artisans are local, but increasingly those from other parts of the country have invited to participate, such as Rosita Lemus, from the distinguished family of the same name in Celaya, Guanajuato, and Alejandro La Blu, a talented artist from Aguascalientes. This year it seems that new versions of traditional products and completely new products and imagery have taken over, and the variety is breathtaking. Although cartonería pieces can be large and even monumentally-sized, smaller pieces dominate the Festival as it caters to those who need to carry their purchases home easily. Masks were an easy favorite this year, followed by various kinds of decorative figures, skeletons, animal figures, alebrijes and dolls. Imagery based off of popular movies (especially Groot) and medieval-style dragons and other fantasy figures are finding their way into the fold as well. Still, all vendors are producers and hopefully this will remain the case as this important festival continues to grow and evolve.
L to R Carlos “Torito” Arredondo, the same artistan as a “calaca”; and Alejandra La Blu, Leigh Thelmadatter and Torito
The Festival de Cartonería is one a growing number of reasons to be in Mexico City during the Holy Week holidays.