The case for a broader definition of “artesanía”

Researching paper mache in Mexico and contact with cloth doll makers here has led me to be interested in what can be called “urban handcrafts and folk art.” Almost all Mexican folk art collectors think of Mexico’s rural and indigenous peoples doing a craft for generations when it comes to what makes for “real” handcrafts. I admit, this makes for a relatively easy way to distinguish between something that is or is not culturally relevant even though this rule is often ignored.

Working on a ceramic piece at the Tibercio Soteno workshop in Metepec, State of Mexico

But it also relegates Mexico’s cultural identity to a number of frozen forms. These pieces of past time are attractive to many of us in the long-industrialized world as it satisfies a longing we have for some kind of simply idyllic past. However, Mexico does not exist in a bubble. The country is undergoing the same urbanization processes that the rest of the world has and is still going through. More people live in cities than in the countryside. The Mexico of the past still exists and should still be cherished, but it is worth a look to see how these traditional values can translate to an urban setting. The main one here is the ability to create something wonderful with whatever is on hand.

Weaving a Chiapas style textile at the Textile Festival in Mexico City

A good laboratory for this is, of course, Mexico City. It has long attracted people from all over the country primarily for economic reasons. But people from Oaxaca, Chiapas, Michoacan, Yucatan etc. don’t leave their regional identity behind just became they have become “chilangos.” It is possible to find people doing some of the same handcrafts they did back home, from textiles to pottery and more. It is also possible to find a couple that have been done here since the colonial period. The two most important today are cartonería (paper mache) and silverwork.

However, of more interest here are those forms of folk creativity that have sprung up only in the past 50 years or so and shaped by urban reality. Two aspects of urban life in Mexico City seem to be really important here… the federal government’s greater interest in the economy of the city (which accounts for about 25% of the entire country’s GDP) and the lack of natural raw materials.

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Minatures made outside of Mexico City arranged in scenes by Mexico City resident Esteban Bautista

Unlike the fine arts, handcrafts and folk art have always been tied to locale and local materials. For Mexico City of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, the two most abundant materials are cheap commercial materials (cloth, wire, paper, plastic….) and of course, trash.

Catrín or “dandy” figure from paper mache (20th century) from the Juan Jimenez collection

Both are main staples of paper mache production in Mexico City and other urban areas. Originally, only waste paper was used as the creators of piñatas, Judas effigies and the like had little access to anything else. However, in the past 50 years there has been a shift to buying new paper, especially craft paper, in bulk as the price of this paper has come down, newspaper is disappearing in the digital age and the craft has experienced a surge in popularity and status. One of the most popular items made with this technique now is the alebrije, which has been internationally popularized by the Disney movie Coco.  The development of cartonería in the past 50 years has been the inclusion of more commerical items, but this can be controversial. The use of acrylic paints is not, but other commerical items, glass or plastic are not accepted by older generations of artisans. The question to ask here is “Does authenticity come from recreating techniques exactly as they were done in the past, or do we take the creative impulse of generations before who took whatever is at hand to make something to satisfy a need?”  There is no easy or one answer to this question.

Monumental alebrije named “Aguas Vivas” at the Alebrije Parade. Paper mache figures of this size are a recent innovation going back only about 20 years. This figure incorporates a very non-traditional figure, a track and wheels to allow the legs to move around the figure

Another important urban/modern craft has been the recent resurgence of cloth doll making all over Mexico. Although cloth dolls can be documented to the colonial period, and the National Museum of Anthropology has a marvelous collection of late 19th century cloth dolls from Puebla, documentation is sparse and way too often non-existant. They have even been left out of modern documentation of Mexican folk art that began in the 20th century.

One cloth doll that is widely known all over the country is the María doll. She is instantly recognized by her wide face, braided hair generously decorated with ribbons, smiling face and colorful, vaguely indigenous dress. There is much misinformation about the origin of this doll, with the two main indigenous groups claiming her being the Otomi in Querétaro (and even Guanajuato) and the Mazahua in Michoacan. Colorful stories about her origin exist and the town of Amealco has done much in recent years to cement its reputation as the home of the dolls.

Marias made by the Flor de Mazahua cooperative, one of the last groups of women still making the dolls in Mexico City

However, the truth is that these dolls were invented in Mexico City in the 1970s as part of a government program. From the 1940s to 1970s, there were several large waves of migration of Mazahua and Otomi from the northwest of the State of Mexico, especially in the municipality of San Felipe del Progreso. There were a number of economic and political reasons for this, but their proximity to Mexico City made migrating there attractive. However, they face major discrimination in the city, relegated to menial jobs and selling food and handcrafts in the street. Women were also readily identified by their traditional dress, which became the basis of a television and film comedian named “La India María.”

The government found that these women faced horrible abuses by authorities and other vendors and looked for an alternative. The federal government (which ran the city at the time) set up centers for both the Mazahua and Otomi peoples with the idea that the women would work making their traditional handcrafts but the city would commercialize them. Other services were also offered. The woman in charge of establishing the centers was Guadalupe Rivera Marin, the daughter of Diego Rivera and she came up with the idea of creating a doll representing the “Marias” in part because of the popularity of Barbie. The prototype was created in Mexico City by Otomi hands, but the dress was based off that of the Mazahua because it is more colorful.

Maria doll decoration for Independence Day at a school in Durango

The dolls were initially very successful in Mexico City, but their popularity in both making and selling has shifted to outside. Today, almost all Marias are made in Queretaro, parts of Michoacan and State of Mexico and Guanajuato. Their making has also spread to other parts of Mexico, especially north to places were Otomi have since migrated.

The dolls are urban for two reasons. First, they originated in an urban areas and have been made then and since with commercial materials. They cannot get “denomiation of origin” status since that depends on the old notion of handcrafts being tied to materials obtain in a certain area (like the agave of Tequila). The second is that the construction is nothing like traditional dolls of the center-north of Mexico, where rolled cloth dolls dominate those traditional made by mothers and grandmothers for little girls. Although Marias have become of Mexico’s main tourist symbols, they are a modern invention.

 Frida and Calavera Catrina rag dolls from Creaciones Mixtecas of Ensenada, Baja California
Modern doll by Ana Karen Allende from Mexico City

Cloth doll making in general have undergone a resurgence in Mexico, thanks to the dolls. Many indigenous groups now make them, often with very authentic local dress. These are almost exclusively made for the tourist trade, but get more acceptance in folk art circles because of the authentic dress and lack of plastic. Those made by non-indigenous in Mexico’s cities have not seen a similar level of acceptance because Mexico does not have a reputation for cloth doll making and the dolls are modern in appearance, leading many to think they are simply copies of what is being done in the United States. While there is influence from the US, especially in art dolls, Mexico does have its own traditions and realities to draw from, not in the least images of Frida Kahlo, La Catrina, lucha libre and Sor Juana de la Cruz. That there a foreign origen or influence does not preclude a number of accepted kinds of artesania such as glazed pottery, introduced from Europe in the colonial period or high fire ceramics, introduced much later.

The popularity of alebrijes in Mexico City have led to the invention an ilumnated version. These may have been the inspiration for the Disney ones that flash colors.

Looking around on the streets of Mexico City, it is possible to see other kinds of handcrafted items from cheap furniture, to lamps made of industrial waste products, knitted sweaters. decorated sneakers and other clothing and more. It is not to say that all of these should have “folk art” or artesanía status, but they do come from the same impulses that the venerated forms do… the need to make do with something… including having something to sell and earn a little money. If the criterion is to be a tradtional culture, than some forms that are accepted now should not be. If the criteron is simply how long it has been done in Mexico, that length of time should be better established.

Featured image – two Maria dolls in the doll museum in Amealco, Querétaro


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