Creating an identity in the north

71894432_10217482249881288_2535362346365222912_nAs I wrote last year during my time in Durango, the north of the country is very overlooked when it comes to handcraft and folk art. The main reason is that the “land of carne asada” simply does not have the history and reputation that the center and south of the country do. The second is that the north is sparsely populated with large expanses between population areas, making traveling to find artisans time- and money-consuming.

I firmly believe there is more here than even the northerners realize.

One wonderful example I had the pleasure to discover is a very new annual event called the Ciclo de Cartonería del Noreste – Arte Emergente (Norteastern Cartonería “Cycle” – An Upcoming Art) which is wholly the work of two tireless women, Mayra Rene and Berta Garcia. Garcia is the paper mache artisan (cartonera) and her story can be seen here.

It is not unusual to have a lone artisan who discovers a technique and works it out for him/herself, and there are quite a few of such in Mexico. What makes these two women truly special is their commitment to this “upcoming art” has spawned a small group who produce work of amazing quality and often originality.

For their second major exhibition, which opened on October 10, 2019, the theme was to emphasize this originality, tying it to the culture of northeast Mexico and in particular the international influence this region has due to its proximity to the United States. The exhibition features three of cartonerías traditional products: alebrijes, Catrinas and Lupita dolls. There were also three masks, but this is an area they still need to explore more.


20191010_173727[1]Two of the products, alebrijes and Catrinas, kept to the traditional forms for the most part. Departures from what is done in the south are somewhat subtle. In the case of alebrijes most of those exhibited were creatures with parts from multiple animals with various and sometimes clashing colors. There were a few that were entirely or almost entirely one animal showing similarities with the Oaxacan alebrijes. Some depicted animals not commonly seen further south such as foxes and bulldogs (very reminicent of ceramic decorations found in department stores). Coloring was somewhat different… less gaudy and more earthy tones appeared, but the most striking difference was the willingness to experiment with texture. “Traditional” alebrijes are smooth, with any kind of texture indicated by the paint. Here small pieces of paper are folded, crimped and/or torn and placed on the “skin” for form scales, gills, and other small details.


Many of the Catrinas on display showed strong influence from further south as this image has been well-known here for a long time. There were three that caught my attention. The first was that of a flamenco dancer. The topic is not too far off from tradition, but the making of a stable figure with an extremely arched back shows a high level of talent by the artist. The second has a traditional body, but the head is inspired Surrealist paintings done in Mexico between the 1930s and 1950s. This and the last example carry masks of living human faces, something that has deeper meaning even if I cannot place my finger on it. The last is that of a mermaid skeleton. The issue of how to mount is cleverly resolved by making the piece wall hanging rather than a statue.


As promising as the above changes seem to be, a distinct identity has most definitely blossomed in the making of Lupita dolls. This is not surprising as Mayra Rene is a noted art doll maker. The range of doll images was astounding, from “baby” forms of traditional Lupitas, to those which are elongated, to male versions, to those depicting women from the mid 20th century.


In addition to the exhibition’s message that there is and should be a regional variation for Monterrey,  it also made a strong, if somewhat apologetic statement that said identity is tied to the region’s relationship with the United States. I don’t think there is anything to apologize for. Mexican visual arts have shown strong international influence for many decades without any apologies, and handcrafts by definition, should and do reflect local culture and circumstances. This does mean that much of what is produced will not be what the typical tourist (and often collector) is looking for, but perhaps that is because the typical tourist is wholely unschooled in just how varied Mexican culture truly is and that it, like all other cultures, is changing.


Silk and lace and ribbons and beads and…

The wonderful thing about cloth dolls is that there are few limits to an artistan’s creativity in making one. Materials for construction of all kinds abound to be purchased or even found. For this reason, most doll makers find their niche through the kinds of materials they use, a particular style, or both. In some cases, a doll maker will also look to bring something they believe into the making.

Isabel Monter has always liked rag dolls because, she says, they have a warmth that plastic dolls like Barbie can never have. Her interest in collecting dolls began young. Her father was a gem miner who travelled all over Mexico and the world. Every time he traveled, he brought a doll back for her. Although born in Santa Rosalia, Baja California Sur, her family also moved around a lot. She spent her childhood in 17 different places until the family finally settled in Mexico City.


Monter’s need to be creative also began young, doing things with her grandmother such as knitting and embroidery. She moved onto wire, palm fronds and even learned to cut stones to make jewelry.

In college, her interest in crafts did not stray far. She majored in anthorpology, with a specialization in linguistics, but she became interested in traditional Mexican textiles. This led to her eventually amassing a large collection, along with researching, exhibiting, buying and selling. While putting on a exhibition of Mexican textiles at George Mason University in Washington DC, she came in contact with artisans who painted on silk cloth.

Fascinated by the process, Monter learned to paint on silk, making clothing items and accesories … and producing scraps of precious painted silk. What to do with these scraps was answered by a “free spirit” by the name of Dahlia, who lived life her own way. She made a living by doing ritual cleansings in the Mexico City main plaza but also by creating and selling dolls. Dahlia’s work inspired Monter to take these silk scraps, along with her grandfather’s old hankerchiefs to make two dolls. She has been making dolls ever since and started selling her creations in Coyoacan in 1989


She found that making dolls from scraps fit in with another passion, collecting small items that are attractive to her, but no one else wants. The dolls give her a way to use the boxes and bags of buttons, old jewelry, ribbon and of course fabric (new and used) that piles up in her house. Some she finds, some she gets from friends who are seamstresses, but much comes from people who hear of her penchant for collecting and give her stuff.

Essentially, Monter has been “upcycling” since long before such a word entered the popular vocabulary. Her repurposing work also includes creative patching of clothing and other items, as well as teaching clases on how to repair and otherwise save clothing, but by far the most successful activity has been the making of her dolls. Her goal is to make the dolls entirely from recycled materials when possible, although that is often difficult when it comes to stuffing them. But for the making of the dolls’ bodies and in particular dressing them, her large, wholly disorganized collection of stuff forms the basis. She even does dolls by special order when a client asks her to take something of sentimenal value, such as a child’s old dress and use it to make a doll.


However, most dolls are completely from her own mental and material resources. Her dolls often are not made to imitate reality, but rather fantasy. She particularly likes to make dolls she called “female shaman protectors, those that protect dogs and other animals…”  Her repertoire also includes ballerinas, elves, fairies, archangles, mermaids, ladies-in-waiting… She also makes more stereotypical Mexican images such as La Catrina, Aztecs as well as Frida Kahlo, although she has mixed feelings about doing the latter. She recognizes Frida’s popularity and her positive effect on promoting Mexican culture but worries that commercializing her image also commercializes her suffering in life. Her answer to this dilemma is to reinterpret the image of Frida (keeping the trademark eyebrows of course) instead of just copying how she looked in life.  Notably, Monter states that she “cannot” make dolls that represent men.

19Monter’s faces are always embroidered as they matter much to her. However, her work is better defined by the use of recycled materials, especially in the heavy decoration and the use of silk, often as the “skin” of the dolls. This silk skin is often painted and does not represent any kind present in nature, but most dolls contain at least 30% silk in one form or another. When the silk is colored, it is her own work, using various techniques such as batik. The individualization of the dolls does not come from the construction of their bodies but rather in their dress and decoration. Inspirations for the heavily decorations comes from her father’s work with gems, her own work with jewelry and her love of baubles.

As much as Monter is a creator, she is also a businesswomen. For a number of years, she owned a craft and novelty store in the historic borough of Coyoacan. She still does a lot of buying and selling, especially related to items she has a personal interest in. This activity provides her income as well as chances to travel. Dolls have always been an important part of her inventory. In addition to Coyoacan, she sold for many years at the Saturday handcraft bazar in San Angel. However, most of her selling today is to small retailers in various parts of Mexico includine one client who has resold her work in Queretaro and San Miguel Allende for over 14 years.  Today, Monter makes only about three to seven dolls per week. Making dolls of this quality is a highly laborious process, she refuses to streamline it. She has also cut back on the number of hours she works for quality-of-life reasons. However, there are no indications that she is to retire anytime soon.

Photos used with permission by the artisan and photographer (photographer credit: Ricardo Suárez)



Huizache-finding strength in numbers and tradition

A perennial problem that artisans have is the push-pull between production and sales. Any time spent on sales takes time away from production, but relying on resellers results in very low prices for artisans.

One answer that a number of artisans have found is in cooperatives. The simplest and most successful of these have been small groups of producers, often women, who make similar items and take turns selling, especially at fairs where one needs days of travel and sales time.

However, there have been attempts to take the cooperative idea and develop it into something further, both economically and culturally. Huizache Arte Vivo de Oaxaca is one of these.


Most people’s first look at Huizache is their store, located on one of Oaxaca City’s main tourist avenues, Macedonio Alcalá (near the corner of Murguia) in the historic center. It is an old colonial building that the cooperative practically rebuilt. The building has ten rooms, each concentrating on the different handcrafts produced in the state of Oaxaca. These include the famous barro negro from San Bartolo Coyotepec, the pottery of Santa Maria Atzompa, various huipils and other textiles along with lesser-known items such as gold and silver jewelry, knives, a multitude of textile products (cotton, wool and silk), baskets, leather and more. All of the state’s eight regions are represented. The fixed, prominent location of the store has given the artisans associated with it a number of benefits, but perhaps the real beauty of Huizache is what is behind the scenes. First, of all, there is an organization behind it strong enough to send representatives to other parts of Mexico to promote their project and network. I became aware of the organization by meeting member Pedro Mendoza at the First Reunion of Cartoneros in Orizaba, Veracruz.

The idea of an artisans’ cooperative is not new in Oaxaca. Huizache itself branched off from a similar organization called the Casa de las Artesanías de Oaxaca, which was established in 2001. Thirteen years later, a number of families from the Casa wanted to create a more inclusive organization, one not only open to artisans, but other kinds of creators as well. They were also interested in adapting traditional rural and indigenous organizational concepts to a modern cooperative.


Today, seventy families form the membership base of Huizache Arte Vivo de Oaxaca.  Almost all members are artisans making Oaxacan alebrijes, various types of pottery, textiles, jewelry and more. In addition to products made by the member families, products from 400+ more make their way into the shop, with a board of authenticity making sure that all products are handcrafted 100% in Oaxaca. Huizache has worked to have artisans from a variety of age groups. About 40% are over 40, but the rest are between 26 and 40 years of age. But the main goal of Huizache is help artisans live as such “with dignity.” They combat the idea that being an artisan is only for very poor people with no other means of making a living. About 40% of their membership has college degrees. Some have abandoned their professions entirely in favor of their craft. One example is Pedro Mendoza Ko, who now works full time in wood and paper mache, creating a number of very visible projects.




But perhaps one of the main ways that Huizache works to raise the prestige of artisans is through its cultural programs. In addition to the store, the building is a cultural center as well. It supports and promots musicians, artists, anthropologists and those practicing traditional medicine. One reason for this is discontent with the state’s annual Guelaguetza extravaganza, which many consider to be nothing more than a money-making scheme. In addition, there are many aspects of Oaxacan culture that do not adapt well to large stages and are ignored by the annual event.

In additon to art and handcraft exhibitions, concerts, literature events, the center offers classes in cultural studies such as Zapotec cosmology. Perhaps with activity with the most direct link to the artisans are those which teach the making of the various crafts. The goal of these classes is to teach tourists and others to appreciate the time and skill needed to make fine handcrafts, although the classes have produced a number of people who decide to pursue the activity.




Unlike other artisan cooperatives, Huizache has welcomed visual artists, musicians and writers present at their facilities and even be members. The current president is a radio announcer. But all members, artisans or not, produce something for the organization; none are there only to do administration. One benefit to inviting other kinds of creators is that Huizache has been able to promote itself in ways many other artisans do not, in particular taking advantage of social media. They have a blog, a Facebook group and a YouTube channel.

That is not to say that administration is not important. It is extremely important and extremely difficult. One the the artisans’ main concerns create an administrative system that remains true to their values and avoids power getting concentrated into a few hands… or worse… shifting to the government.




In Huizache, all admininstrative function are done via unpaid community service by members, a concept traditionally called tequio. There are many administrative positions and these rotage among the membership with two-year terms. No position can be held by the same person for a second term without a ten-year gap inbetween. This means that just about all members are performing administrative functions, all eventually learn all aspects of administration and it works to keep “vicios” (lit. vices) away.


The concept of tequio is just one of five traditional concepts that underlie the organization and which come from the traditional organization (usos y costumbres) of rural and indigenous communities. These are the Asamblea (assembly), the Tequio (unpaid community service), Guelaguetza (festival), Trueque (barter) and Tianguis (market). The Asamblea is the main authority of the community.  For the cooperative, members meet once a month to make communal decisions affecting their operations. Tequio underlies the building maintenance and care along with administrative tasks. In Huizache, Guelaguetza is achieved through its various cultural events.  The last, tianguis, refers to economic activity necesary for the organization’s survival. The organization also encourages members to trade goods and knowledge among themselves.

The organization exists in part because its members feel that official government channels do not meet their needs, or worse, thwart them. Huizache and other similar Oaxacan organiztions promote these traditional ideals as a way to resolve many of the social and economic ills that plague one of Mexico’s poorest states, not just as a way to run a cooperative. When artisans are doing shifts in the store, they have to resist the urge to focus on the sale only on their own wares, but to promote everything in the store.  They need to think communally to the point of taking classes and workshops so that artisans of any type can explain what is important about any other kind of handcraft in the store, not just the ones they personally make. But perhaps one of the most dignified things that Huizache does is individualistic… it DOES give credit to the artisan (family) that made the item. This is something most galleries, even government-run ones, do not do. 


Huizache is completely self-sustaining, receiving no government or NGO help. The organization takes only 10% of the purchage price to cover expenses, which includes rent for the space (prime real estate), utilities, etc. Sometimes extra costs are taken on voluntarily by the group. A member was fined heavily by her local community for teaching classes in her craft at the cooperative, something prohibited by the local council. Although she only asked for a loan to pay the fine, the membership decided to chip in and pay it for her. This independence gives the organization freedom to operate how they want, and the government cannot ask them for “favors” such as supporting certain policies. It also gives them a kind of authority and reputation in Oaxaca. They have worked to discourage the very Mexican tradition of negotiating prices down. The main reason for this is that such “regeteo” comes from an ignorance of just how much time and talent is needed for the making of fine handcrafts. It also disrepects the communities that produce them, which are often very poor, very rural and indigenous.