Mexico 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.
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.
Most 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 https://www.facebook.com/esteban.bautista.3576