Noted dollmaker Mayra René calls Bertha Garcia the “queen” of cartonería in northeastern Mexico.
Garcia began working with paper in 1989. At that time, she and other women in her family decided to do something with the stacks of old newspaper that her grandmother had in her house. Their first idea was to roll strips of this paper and weave them to make decorative baskets, painting/dying them with a mixture of Elmer’s glue and coffee. For some time, grandma’s house smelled quite strongly of coffee.
Her grandmother also made and sold cookies, so it was natural to put the two together and sell small baskets filled with cookies and other treats. They branched out into making other items, such as tortilla holders, picture frames, and more. Even one of her uncles became involved in the activity, eventually figuring out how to make an image of Christ with the technique.
L:Bride doll that Garcia made for a friend using a piece of her wedding dress. R: Catrina doll viewed from behind
Garcia became intrigued with the possibilities of working with old paper, and despite her young age (and lack of Internet) began looking for other techniques. She discovered cartonería even though this Mexican paper mache had not been traditional in the north of the country. With no one to teach her, she taught herself, starting by making the skeletal figures called Catrinas. Later she went on to making articulated dolls known as Lupitas, but she simply calls them dolls. When she entered college to study psychology, she began selling her creations at school. During her school years, she also studied dramatic arts for a time. In this program, she learned paper mache technique for the making of puppets.
Since then, Garcia has worked to integrate everything she has learned as she continues to develop and refine her craft. Her repertoire has expanded to include masks, dragons, alebrijes and more to complement her dolls and Catrinas, which continue to become more refined and more adapted to the North’s distinct regional culture. To this end, she has even made contact with Leonardo Linares, of the Pedro Linares family in Mexico City.
Initially, the craft was a part-time vocation for Garcia, working a more mundane job to pay the bills, but eventually Garcia was able to shift to doing what she loves full-time Galería 44 Creaciones , founded in Apodaca (just outside Monterrey) specifically to teach cartonería in the Monterrey area and educate people here about its history, its traditions and the innovations that are possible with this technique. It is important to note here that the only long-term use of paper-and-paste work in the north has been the making of piñatas and there has been some innovation here, such as painting the piñatas in various designs instead of using crepe paper. However, Garcia admits that there is not yet any serious organization of these artisans as it happening in the center and south of the country.
But Garcia’s creativity has not stopped there. Some years ago, Garcia met and allied with dollmaker Mayra René of Reynosa, Tamaulipas and began to work with her. About 3 or 4 years ago, she also began to make cloth dolls. There is some tradition of this in the north of Mexico. Her mother, aunts and grandmother all made dolls in styles called Lúlu and Negrita using crocheted yarn and styrofoam balls to sell. However, she did not participate in this activity. Her (and René’s) work goes way beyond this to much more sophisticated techniques generally using poplin and other commercial fabric. In both media, the aim is to make fantastic creatures or images from traditional Mexican culture such as Catrinas.
L:One of Garcia’s takes on “Lupita” dolls, note the button usually seen on cloth dolls C:doll made in 1990s with craft and newspaper, most of coloring is Nescafe dissolved in Elmer’s glue R: Another Lupita variation
Today, the making of cloth dolls accounts for about a third of the Galería’s activities. The gallery hosts workshops and other events related to cartoneria and cloth both on their own and with René. One such event is this years “summer camp” (using the English expression) to introduce children to the tradition of transforming mound of paper and glue into puppets, dinosaurs and anything else they can imagine. With René, the Galería hosted a workshop dedicated to making art dolls with a hipster theme.
I will note here with great embarassment that I did not find out about Garcia’s work until well after the deadline for my book Mexican Cartonería: Paper, Paste and Fiesta. If we are fortunate to have a second edition, she will definitely be included.
All photos and creations by Bertha Garcia, used with permission.