Setting up miniatures in the city

20190909_160454Mexico City has long brought people from all over Mexico to live and work. This means that, if you know where to look, you can find food and handcrafts and even craftsmen from just about everywhere. However, the vast majority of these people and even the food is not available in tourist areas or even in the center of the city. Most of the people who migrate to Mexico City are poorer and live east and north edges of the urban area.

Craftsman Esteban Bautista lives in a community called Chicoloapan, State of Mexico. It is on the far eastern edge of the Mexico City metropolican area, very close to the border of the Mount Tlaloc natural reserve. East of that is the state of Puebla. It is barely metropolitan and not easy to get to. There are small vans that go there from a point in eastern Mexico City proper, but it takes about an hour in said van. The municipaly shows signs of both its rural and suburban history, with remnants of the old Costitlan Hacienda and various cookie cutter housing developments. But the traffic is becoming more and more like the rest of the Mexico City area.

Bautista’s family moved to Mexico City when he was just a boy, but he was born in the rural municipality of Tlalpujahua, Michoacan… today a noted former mining town that makes Christmas ornaments. However, the more traditional crafts of this area focus on clay. The village he is from, and still identifies with, is Santa Maria de los Angeles, locally known as “Jarrolandia” because most of the residents make pottery pitchers (jarros). Nearby is Estanzuela, which specializes in high-fire ceramics.  The family moved because it is not easy to make a living in here, although not all of the extended family moved. He still has aunts and uncles back “home,” maintaining his connection.

Bautista had a typical city upbringing, and handcrafts were not in the picture. He went to school and became an industrial electrician. However, this job sometimes has low periods when he needs to earn income from another source. Michoacan is not as well-known as Oaxaca and Chiapas, but it is one of Mexico’s major producer of traditional handcrafts. He became interested in this and began to research with the idea of bringing merchandise to Mexico City to sell. His hometown, as well as other areas, makes miniature versions of their traditional wares, originally as toys for children. Bautista found these attractive as they were relatively easy to transport and sell. He found they sold even better if he arranged the minatures in sets, even something as simple as putting dried flowers in a tiny flower vase.

He also began collaborating with number of his coworkers who came from various parts of Mexico. They formed a kind of club where they taught each other skills they knew to work on crafts such as wire animals and stone pieces to sell. They were successful enough to need a space to work and store merchandise.

About eight years ago, he began putting this all together to create small scenes in boxes. Almost all of these are of traditonal or historic Mexican kitchens. He began with what he remembered of his grandmother’s kitchen with its wood shelves, brick counters and wood fired stove. With research, he began making models of traditional kitchens from other parts of Mexico as well as those from the 19th century and earlier.

He says that this activity makes more sense than trying to recreate an activity that is done in Michoacan an elsewhere. It also allows him to give work to artisans who live in these rural areas. He began with miniatures from Michoacan and most of what he buys is from that state, followed by Guanajuato and some particular pieces from Tonalá, Jalisco. In Mexico City, he married a women from the Mixtec area of southern Puebla and through that connection has important suppliers, especially of miniature woven items, which can be hard to find.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

With the growth of his business, he has also been able to put in special orders for miniatures of things that have not been done on that scale before such as mats and crucifixes.  His miniatures are made with various materials. Most are from clay, which can be molded, but there are those made from cloth, straw, palm fronds, wood, glass and metal.  His scenes lack human and animal figures generally as these miniatures have not been done at such a small scale.

20190909_132259Most of his boxes scenes are about the size of a cigar box or a bit larger, but he has made some up to a meter in height with multiple compartments. These boxes he makes from scratch, along with the internal infrastructure (shelves, counters….) on which the miniatures will be organized and affixed. No two kitchens are the same as each is made individually, often determined by what miniatures he has available and his mood. The costs of the scenes vary widely depending on size and the cost of the pieces he uses. Some are made from relatively expensive material such as tin and copper, but the biggest cost for miniatures is that, despite their small size, they use many of the same processes that the larger pieces do.

He has started experimenting with setting up scenes in other enclosures. Those in pots used principally for making atole and “cazuelas” (a kind of wide, shallow clay pot) have been successful. The pots are either made with a side missing for this purpose, or at times he has to carefully cut a common pot. He is also working with using traditonal baskets and large gourds as backdrops. He has even done very small scenes nestled in the cup part of the huge wooden spoons traditionally used for making mole for large gatherings, with the rest of the spoon painted in bright colors and designs.

He also makes miniatures of the old fashioned wooden racks used to store dishes and pots in traditional kitchens, holding minature pots, plates, spoons and more.

Bautista has an online presence, but mostly sells through fairs and personal contacts as he much prefers to see and meet the buyer. He stated that he has done some distance selling and even has contacts in the United States that are interested in his work, but for both practical reasons and own personal comfort, he has been hesistant to pursue this. He especially appreciates buyers who are aware of what is involved in the making of miniatures and what they represent in Mexican culture. These include those adults who played with miniatures as children.

Bautista admits that most of his dedication to this activity is for the love of doing something creative. He is a fan of the work of late artisan Teresa Nava, who made similar works for Mexican writer Carlos Monsivais, and are on display at his museum in the historic center of Mexico City. It is very difficult to make any money making these scene, especially with the cumulative cost of the miniatures. Another problem is the strong tendency to bargain in Mexico as miniatures in particular are not valued. He will sell only at cultural events and the like where this tendency is somewhat ameliorated.

Thanks to the artisan for the majority of these photos.

You can contact the artisan directly on his Facebook page at












The art of lotería

320px-Gallo.svg“Se va y se corre con la vieja del pozole! ¡La dama! (She goes and runs with the old woman of the pozole!  The Lady!)

Pórtate bien amiguito, si no te lleva: ¡el diablito! (Behave yourself, my good little friend so that he doesn’t tak you: The Devil!)

Yo con mi elegancia y distinción: ¡el catrín!” (With elegance and distinction: The dandy!)

If you spend enough time in Mexico, you will run into a traditional board game for sale all over Mexico, from bookstores, to department stores to traditional markets. It is called La Lotería or The Lottery.

The game came to Mexico from Europe, but it probably has origins in China. The European version dates back to Italy in the 1400s and became popular all over the continent. By 1769, it had become part of Mexican culture, played by the upper classes, who had time for such diversions. Soldiers popularized it during the War of Independence, spreading it all over the country.

Wood block print by Alec Dempser depicting a kind of Huasteca tamale called zacahuil for the Lotería Huasteca board game

Lotería has always been a handcrafted game with huge variation in style and how finely the cards are made. Originally, the cards and the boards were hand painted, with content varying depending on the craftsman making the set.

A sort of a standardization occurred in the 19th century, when Frenchman Clemente Jacques started a business called Pasatiempos Gallo, registering a lotería set called Gallo Don Clemente with the 54 images seen on most lotería sets today. The images reflect Mexican traditional life and culture, from skulls representing Day of the Dead, to chalupa boats representing the canals of Xochimilco, to the rooster of farm life, the soldier, the nopal cactus…. Although the game has lost popularity in modern times, you would be very hard pressed to find a Mexican who has never put beans on board in a bingo-like fashion.

This does not mean that all lotería sets must look like those designed by Don Clemente. Often with a didactic or promotional purpose, sets with themes have been made over the years, such as a set that was produced by the Catholic Church with images related to religion and another with images from the fine arts.

The game lends itself extremely well to printing, which is recognized in Mexico as both a craft AND as an art form. Artist Alec Dempster’s work has included creating sets of lotería combining artistic printing processes to promote Mexican regional culture, principally that of the Huasteca region. Dempster has an interesting history and relationship to Mexico. He was born in Mexico City, but only because his foreign parents happened to be here at the time. He was raised in Canada, but his Mexican back story always stayed with him. As an adult, that part of his story drew him back here, not only to live, but also become an expert in Huasteca son music after an extended stay in Veracruz. In fact, he is a recognized expert and promoter of Huasteca music and culture in Canada and among the Huasteca son community in Mexico.

Alex Dempster with book at presentation in Mexico City

He is a graphic artist and author with many prints, books and other products to his credit, many of which can be seen at Much of his graphic work has classic themes and styles from traditional Mexican printing and more than a little in common with the printwork that proliferated in Mexico in the decades after the Revolution.

His most recent work is the Lotería Huasteca,  a book and a set of cards in artistic black-and-white done in wood block printing. Nothing digital about this design. Dempster cut blocks of wood by hand to create the original images. The “mass” production of cards and boards is done in offset printing.

The book serves to reinforce the didactic purpose of this lotería game, with detailed descriptions of each of the images used in his version, along with the meanings these have in Huasteca culture. Some are versions of those found in more typical lotería games such as the rooster, the sombrero, the mermaid and the drum. For these, the descriptions focus on the meanings these have specifically to the Huasteca, as part of the Mexican whole. But most of the images are specific to Huasteca culture from food to agricultural work, to handcrafts, musical instruments and celebrations. Often these have indigenous names rather than Spanish ones. These include La Acamaya (a kind of shellfish), (Carnaval) Carnival, (Caña) sugar cane, El Nukub (a kind of percussion instrument), La Curandera (healer) and many more. The boards simply have the images and the names, but the cards used to call out the images come with verses that describe the image in an poetic way, taking advantage of the tradition of calling to teach about the concept.

*** Update- the game is available in English and Spanish. The English version is available at The Porcupine Quill or you can contact Alec  for either the English or Spanish version.


The art and craft of printing is not something that is normally associated with Mexican handcrafts but the making of toys and games are. However, there is also a long tradition of handcrafts inspiring art and art inspiring handcrafts. This intermixing has been to the benefit of both and serves to keep both “Mexican” no matter the physical origin of the hands that make them.


Women in wool


The state of Veracruz is not one that is well-known for handcrafts. Except for the port city and perhaps son music (think La Bamba), very little is known of its culture outside of Mexico. The main reason for this is that, despite being on the coast, it does not have a major tourism industry.

Even less known are the rugged mountain areas away from the coast. The terrain juts up sharply as one travels west from the Gulf of Mexico. This makes for very rainy climates, and depending on the altitude, cool or even cold temperatures. However, it is these inland regions which are home to a wide variety in indigenous and other traditional communities and cultures, which include the Nahuas, Tepehuas, Otomis, Huastecas, Totonacas and Popolucas. Perhaps the most widespread and varied type of handcraft here is textiles. Depending on the climate of the region, the dominant fiber for these crafts is either cotton or wool.

DSC09770 2

Fortunately, at least one area of the state is starting to get its due attention for its handcrafts and traditional culture. The Sierra de Zongolica is a rugged, mountainous areas in the southwest of the state, bordering the state of Puebla. It is an important center of Nahua peoples in the east of Mexico. 

The region is only 100km from the state capital, but it takes hours to get there because of the terrain and lack of highways. Isolation over its history has allowed it to maintain a traditional way of life. About 80% of the people here speak an indigenous language, principally Nahuatl. Subsistance agriculture is the main economic activity, although some cash crops such as coffee and oranges are grown in lower elevations. However, the price of this conservation has been severe economic marginalization.

DSC09413 1

The women of Zongolica have woven clothing from wool grown on their own sheep, using spindles and backstrap looms, traditionally for home use. These women learn young, as children, working with their mothers and grandmothers in all aspects of the work from shearing sheep with hand scissors to cleaning, carding, dyeing, spinning and weaving. This means that many of the women here have decades of experience as weavers.

DSC08990 4DSC09044 3

The story of the commercialization of Zongolica textiles begins in 1992, when a number of women decided to work together to find ways to produce and sell what they make. They formed cooperatives such as Cihuamechikah (women who weave) which over time began to work with local and state cultural and economic authorities. Many of these women live in very small villages away from the “main” town of Zongolica, which itself has only thousands of people. Weavers are principally found in places such as Tlaquilpa, Mazetualla, Xoxocotla, Tequila and Alhuaca.

The women have worked with traditional techniques for centuries, making items such as rebozos,  jorongos (sarapes cut to fit like a loose shirt or jacket), sarapes and blankets. This area is one of the few in Veracruz that still grows, spins and weaves local wool, although commerically bought wool is also used. The use of local wool means that a natural gray can appear, which is unusual because many herders no longer raise gray-haired sheep. These women work the most number of weaving techniques (seven) and have the widest variety of designs in the region. Dyes are made with plants gathered from local forests, although this is something that has been resurrected in more recent years after the knowledge was all but forgotten. This resurgence was due to efforts between outsiders and some of the last of the women who knew the techniques to teach them to others and keep them alive.


The collaboration with outside entities has meant some innovation in products with an eye to what outside markets want. In addition to the traditional items, they have added scarves, backpacks, wool animals and dolls. The traditional hair ties called tlalpiales have been modified to make necklaces and earrings. There was even a project for the Xalapa Antropoligy Museum were monumental decorative pieces were made as works of art.

Much of the progress has occured in the past eight years or so. At this time, anthropology student Miguel Angel Sosme Campos came to study the women of Zongolica and their lives in the mountains. Sosme is not from here but rather from the southern Veracruz city of Coatzacoalcos. His involvement with the women came with the Proyecto Sierra Norte-Huasteca Sur, affiliated with Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History.

portada1 1

One of Sosme’s first efforts was the publication of his research into the Zongolica region including the book  Tejedoras de esperanza. Empoderamiento de los grupos artesanales de la sierra de Zongolica. In Tejedoras de esperanza, Sosme tells these women’s stories, many of which had never been documented before. The book has won various awards such as the Fray Bernardino de Sahagun in 2014 and the Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, both national-level prices as well as a number of state-level recognitions.

Not content with simple research, his efforts have extended into advocacy for the Nahua women here. Of particular concern to the anthropologist was that the women’s efforts to organize and market their products were hampered by the men in their society. Women in traditional indigenous communities often have no economic, political or religious influence. Unfortunately, according to Sosme, domestic violence against them is not uncommon either. Efforts prior to 2011 were hampered because many husbands could not believe that the women could earn money from the work they did and assumed any money was earned through prostitiution or other immoral means. The backlash caused many women then, and even now, to not participate in such activities.

DSC09359However, for the women who have participated, the impact on their lives has been astouding, both economically and socially. They are able to contribute to practical needs such as medicines, school supplies and food stuffs either through sales or barter. This is particularly true with sales of smaller items such as belts and hair ties as they are sold more frequently. The sale of larger items allow women to support social and religious events, elevating their status in their communities. Because of this, women are traveling outside of their communities, learning Spanish and making long term contacts in parts of Mexico. They regularly travel to Xalapa, Veracruz (city), Mexico City, Monterrey, Oaxaca (city) and even Europe to sell and even receive invitation to present about their work and life.

Collaboration of these women’s cooperatives and outside organizastions has included conferences, exhibitions and fairs to not only promote textiles and other handcrafts, but also local culture and language. One of these events is the Festival Regional de Artes Textiles in Zongolica in December, which has only been around for the past 3 years or so. The purpose of the event is not only to showcase the textiles but also the region’s culture, with expositions related to art, music and photography. Sosme did not start this process, the women themselves did, but his advocacy and ability to network in Mexico and even beyond has allowed for Zongolica’s name to be recognized far more than it might have been otherwise. In 2018, Sosme was awarded the Premio Nacional de la Juventud (National Youth Prize) for his efforts.

DSC08780 4

Sosme’s efforts are not done by any means. A more recent project as been the ambitious 30-minute documentary called Tlakimilolli: voces del telar, in Nahuatl with Spanish and English subtitles. It is the first documentary of its kind in the Nahuatl language were eleven women from the region talk about their knowledge and processes that have been transmitted over generations. Financed by the Fondo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes (FONCA), it was researched and produced by Sosme along with Belinda Contreras. It has been presented in film festivals and other events in Mexico, Spain and France, with a showing scheduled next year in the United States.

The recent efforts have caught the attention of international  organizations such as Amigos de Arte Popular in the United States and the Feria de Maestros de Arte, a prestigious handcraft exhibition and sale in Chapala, Jalisco.  A number of the women have even been invited to Europe to exhibit, sell and demonstrate how they work.

The viability of the women’s industry still faces challenges. These include low prices (even compared to similar items from other parts of Mexico), long trips to where products can be sold for good prices and and outlets limited to fairs and other events that can be months apart. There are still women afraid to participate, either because they are afraid to leave their home area or their husbands will not let them. The success of the weavers means some have been targets of crime, including kidnapping for ransom. Lastly, the future is in doubt because the younger generations are not interested in learning how to weave.

Sosme believes that anthropologists have a role in social change because simply gathering knowledge is useless if it does not result in better living conditions. The success of his and his organization’s work has led to similar efforts for women artisans in Chiapas, Puebla, Guerrero, Oaxaca, Morelos, State of Mexico and even Peru.

Photos used with permission from Miguel Angel Sosme Campos, from the documentary Tlakimilolli: voces del telar