The stone of colonial Mexico

Caja de Agua in pink cantera in San Luis Potosí (credit: Rosendo Photo)

A distinguishing feature of the traditional architecture of central Mexico is the stone buildings found in the historic centers of just about all of the major cities here, and even some formerly bustling mining towns.

The architectural style is mostly from the Baroque period, with some Neo classical and Neo Baroque. What all have in common is the use of a stone called “cantera” in Mexican Spanish.

This term is confusing as its dictionary meaning is simply “quarry.” More specifically, the stone is (volcanic) tuff, formed by the compacting of volcanic ash. The more exact term for the rock in Spanish would be toba volcánica or tufo volcánico. The term cantera is used in Mexico because in the colonial period, it was so ubiquitous that it simply what was quarried.

It’s so common that it can be taken from places like this.

Such rock has a very long history of being used in areas where it is available. It has been commonly used in Italy (where the word tuff derives from tufa), since at least since the Roman period. The moai statues on Easter Island are also made of the same kind of rock. Its popularity in the construction of buildings and monuments comes from the fact that it is relatively soft.

Olmec head from San Lorenzo, Veracruz at the Museum of Anthropology

The stone has been worked since the pre-Hispanic period in major cities including Tenochititlan, today Mexico City. The oldest manifestation of its working in Mexico are the giant Olmec heads found in Tabasco and southern Veracruz.

But it is the colonial period when the material began to make its mark in the identity of the country. The very first churches and monasteries were built of adobe with straw roofs starting just after the Conquest. But these materials do not last and today very, very few survive, even in ruins. As soon as it was feasible, the Spanish began building with the more majestic and permanent stone. Over the next couple of centuries, stone cities such as Mexico City, Puebla, Morelia, Oaxaca, Guadalajara, Zacatecas, San Luis Potosí, Durango and many more testify to the expansion of Spanish control in Mesoamerica and into the arid lands north. All of these cities are located inland, on mountainous plateaus formed in part by volcanic activity. These locations not only provided cantera in abundance, but also the riches from mining that allowed for ornate decoration as well.

Tabernacle of the Mexico City Cathedral. The gray is cantera. The blood-red stone is tezontle, a highly-porous volcanic stone what is usually used only for decorative purposes. It gives red/gray gives the city’s historic center a distinctive look (credit: Juan Carlos Fonseca Mata)

The churches, monasteries, mansions, and more built in the 16th to 18th centuries still form an important part of the identity of these cities, and by extension, the rest of Mexico. This identity, along with the ever-important tourism industry, means that conservation and restoration projects are a priority for federal and local governments. Many of these majestic buildings (with the notable exception of churches) have been converted into public buildings, to further justify the cost to renovation and upkeep.

Part of the facade of the Oaxaca city cathedral in its green cantera (credit: Francisco Anzola)

Mexico’s cantera stone comes in a wide variety of colors depending on local conditions during the time the rock was formed. The most common colors are a greyish black and pink, but hues such as peach, orange, yellow, brown and green are also found. In fact, the color of the local cantera can have an effect on the city’s identity. Morelia is famous for its use of pink cantera and Oaxaca’s nickname is Antequera Verde, a combination of its former name and the green cantera found in its colonial buildings. Hardness and fineness of cantera also varies. The hardest canter has no pores or pebbles and is suitable for statues and for architectural elements with intricate carving. Blocks of the most porous cantera were traditionally used as water filters, with the liquid seeping slowly through, leaving impurities behind.

Steel reinforced concrete completely took over construction in the 20th century, but cantera work can still be found. It is still important in restoration projects, neo-colonial buildings and other projects where reference to Mexico’s past is important. Most of the architectural use of cantera now is in the making of decorative elements, rather than providing the bulk of the wall structure. This is because traditionally such blocks were covered over in plaster or other material and not visible. However, it is possible to buy cinderblock-like material that mimics such walls.

Image of Neptune for a fountain by Alfredo Alvarado of Jesús Maria, Aguascalientes

The working of the stone can be divided into three enterprises: those that mine it, those that shape it and in the case of construction, those that fit it into place. The shaping of cantera is classified as a traditional handcraft, rather than as an artistic endeavor. Much of the work is still done by hand, with hammer and chisel, although fine details may be done with motorized implements.

The number of cantera workshops has actually increased in the past years, as demand rises for ornamental pieces. The states most noted for this work include Guanajuato, Jalisco, State of Mexico, Michoacan, Oaxaca, Puebla, Querétaro, San Luis Potosi and Aguascalientes. San Luis Potosi is particularly noted for its use of cantera in new construction, both in the state capital and in rural ranches. The stone is still even worked in some areas on the edges of the Mexico City metropolitan area, such as Chimalhuacan, where it is an important source of income for a number of families.

Most cantera workshops are family affairs, with generations of experience. The mainstays of small workshops are fountains, gravestones, religious images (esp. the Virgin of Guadalupe and Francis of Asisi) animal figures and flowerpots, almost always for outdoor spaces. Larger and specialty workshops make ornate pieces for building facades, along with columns, cornices and floor tiles. Well-regarded workshops can receive orders not only from their home state but also from other parts of Mexico. Workshops in San Luis Potosi, such as those of the Rivera Bravo, Moreno Galvan and Moreno Bravo families, regularly sell products to Guanajuato, Coahuila and Nuevo Leon.

While most cantera work is large and for construction, there are one important exception, the making of two very traditional implements for food preparation: the molcajete and the metate. The former is a mortar and pestle, and the later is a inclined flat stone with a stone rolling pin. Both are used to crush and grind food. The metate was particularly important for the grinding of corn. Today, it is most commonly used to grind the ingredients for mole.

Featured image: Cathedral of the minining town of San Miguel Allende.

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