Saving Mazahua traditional jewelry

One of the most important Mazahua communities is the municipality of San Felipe del Progreso, a forgotten corner of the State of Mexico about 2 hours northwest of Mexico City.

This community has had a difficult time of it in the past century, despite its proximity to the country’s capital and the industry of the State of Mexico. The indigenous people here struggle to maintain a traditional life, but the decimation of farmland and other natural resources make this extremely difficult. The obvious deforestation of the area stands testament to this.

 

(Photo credit: Alejandro Linares Garcia)

That said, it is impressive just how much of the traditional culture survives in food, clothing (especially of women), politics and handcrafts. Even those Mazahua who have migrated to cities to work, bring their handcrafts and more with them.

By far, the Mazahua are best known for their embroidery on traditional garments and accessories such as wrap belts (fajas), carrying bags (morrales), “ponchos” (quexquemitls), shirts, skirts as well as tablecloths, napkins and even bedspreads.

No less important but barely hanging on is the working of silver. The main product is earrings, although some artisans have started venturing into other items.

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Mazahua earrings at the Tianguis de Domingo de Ramos, Uruapan (Alejandro Linares Garcia)

Traditionally, Mazahua women’s earrings are of a half-moon shape, either filigree or thin lamina. Their function was to indicate a woman’s marital status. If she was single, the earrings had one dove each. If she was married, the earring had two doves each. The story of the earrings was that they were made using silver coins, as this was how most silver was available in the colonial period. Upon engagement, the groom-to-be would earn enough silver to give to a smith, who would then pound the coins with the two doves to give to the woman when they married instead of a ring.

This tradition of indicating marital status has died out even among conservative Mazahua and the making of the earrings almost entirely died out as well.

One reason it did not hinges on the story of artisan Gregorio Garcia Ruiz of San Felipe del Progreso.  His father, Domingo Garcia was a painter, and he met a silversmith from nearby Michoacan. The two decided to exchange what they knew about silver and painting respectively. But the silversmith not only taught the father, but also the sons, including young Gregorio, only 13 at the time. Of the sons, Gregorio took the the activity the most.

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Don Gregorio eventually taught not only his own sons, but also a group of 30 young people in a small village outside of San Felipe called Palmillas. In 1974, he and his student won an international prize in silverwork creating a marvelous depiction of the tree of life in the metal competing againt 29 other countries. The tree of life is an important symbol in the State of Mexico. It is a major handcraft tradition in the city of Metepec, State of Mexico, a free-standing folk sculpture of a tree in clay, the most traditional of which tells the the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

Because of this, the State of Mexico set him up with land and other resources to start a school and cooperative in the small village. This ran successfully for a time, but has since disbanded. Most of the silver worked in San Felipe is still done here, but it is now in small, independent family workshops. Although in his 90s now, Don Gregorio’s work has not been forgotten. He was one of the featured artisans in the Bank of Mexico’s important reference on Mexican handcrafts, the Great Masters of Mexican Folk Art.

 

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However, most of the maestro’s work over the decades was much more humble, making earrings  and some other jewelry to sell once a week at a local market. It was at a local market where a bureaucrat from the State of Mexico found his work, looking to help preserve the tradition which at the time was extremely hard to find. The family did not trust the overtures of the government at first, but eventually were convinced that the offer was genuine.

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He and the family, now on the third generation have experimented with other designs based on Mazahua life and working with semi-precious stones. Today, Don Gregorio is retired but his son, Wilibaldo Garcia Tomás and grandson Jose Wilibaldo Garcia Rebollo. They work together in a small workshop just of the main road leading into hills surrounding the town. Their tools have become more sophisticated than that of Don Gregorio (who made his own tools) and they work with nearly pure silver purchased for the purpose for both aesthetic and practical purposes, but both carry on making traditional jewelry as well as experimenting with new designs.

 

This is particularly true for Jose Wilibaldo Garcia Rebollo, who is a dentist by training (and admits there is some overlap between jewelry making and dentistry).  Despite the fact that silverwork does not pay what dentistry does, he says there is a satisfaction in the work he cannot get from fixing teeth. His education and relative youth has one other important effect… it makes him more amendable to media and technology as well as new techniques, designs and materials. One great blessing of this is his willingness to document their production and share this docuentation.

 

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This does not mean that he strays very far from Mazahua culture, but rather means that he looks for other aspects of life in this region to incorporate in his work. One motif that has been successful is that of the quexquemitl. Its triangular shapes lends itself well to both earrings and necklace pendents and allows him to use many of the techniques already used for the half-moon earrings, including the addition of decorative elements over the laminate.

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The future of Mazahua silverwork is by no means assured even with this family’s hard work. It seriously lacks promotion and despite all Mazahua culture has to offer, the state has not worked to made San Felipe a destination worthy of tourism… so essential to Mexican handcrafts these days. But silver’s easy portability and relatively high markup value does lend itself to widespread marketing. Taxco’s success is based on that as well as innovative design, which is starting to happen here.

The Garcia family’s work will be seen and available for the first time at the prestigious Feria Maestros de Arte November 8 to 10, 2019.

 

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