In the small municipality of Jesus Maria, just outside the city of Aguascalientes, the Alvarado family has been linked to the working of stone for generations. Today, the best-known member of the family is Fernando Alvarado, the fifth generation to chisel.
The first generations did more utilitarian work, making things like stone water filters, water ducts for haciendas and troughs for livestock. After learning polishing techniques from a Zacatecas craftsman, the family began to make decorative pieces for church buildings.
Alvarado’s father worked with both stone and wood, and had 10 children, 5 boys and 5 girls. All the boys were taught to work in both media, but only Fernando and brother Alfredo opted to become craftsmen, with Alfredo specializing in wood toys.
Fernando continued working with the local building stone, a volcanic rock called tuff. He began helping his father when he was just ten years old and enjoyed the work in part because as a child, he liked to draw and mold figures from clay. But the atmosphere had something to do with it, too. As one relative told him, “…he was born surrounded by stone, listening to the sound of pounding chisels.” For this reason Fernando believes that he was meant for no other kind of work.
The first stone pieces that Alvarado learned to make were decorative molding and cornices for buildings. But the 1994 peso devaluation crisis dried up orders from architects and contractors. In addition, the growing popularity of the molding and cornices cast from concrete severely hurt his father’s business.
To continue working with stone, father and son shifted focus to smaller decorative items. The most popular are religious images, but their making is much more detailed and requires other types of artistic skills. Through the study of art and anatomy books as well as old-fashioned trial-and-error, the two men spent three years perfecting their skills. But Alvarado found that he liked the work, enjoying the feel of the stone’s texture before and during sculpting, and watching the figure emerge as he patiently chisels and blows away the particles. Success with one piece encouraged him to move onto the next.
From 1994 to 2012, Alvarado made his living from displaying and selling his and his father’s work in Jesus Maria. At that time, Alvarado took a university art class as the local cultural institute, which invited him to exhibit and sell at the Casa de Artesanía in the city of Aguascalientes. At that time, the administration of the state, especially the governor’s wife, Blanca Rivera de Lozano) was actively supporting artisans.
While they still make smaller decorative pieces, they have also moved onto remodeling and restoration work in the state of Aguascalientes. Almost all of the state’s historic buildings are made from pink or yellow tuff, with yellow being the most emblematic.
Before, the family used to mine the stone, but permission to do this is no longer possible. Today, their stone come from nearby Calvillo. On days when Alvarado do this, he and assistants get up very early to avoid the heat. When the blocks are loaded, they picnic eating beans and tortillas heated over an open fire.
As for the decorative pieces, most orders by far are for religious images, especially the Virgin of Guadalupe. Even when they make a Virgin without a pre-order, it sells quickly. Alvardo does go to fairs and exhibitions to promote, but his most successful advertising is simply word-of-mouth. Some of his clients have been buying from him for 10 or even 15 years, sometimes selling to two or more generations in the same family.
His work has even made it into museums in Mexico City (Rufino Tamayo) and New York. Alvarado has a standing relationship with an artist and designer. The artist designs and draws the concepts, and Alvarado executes them. They have even attended the artist’s openings of shows on which they have collaborated.
Alvarado also hopes to make an artistic piece for the Jesus Maria municipality because it is where he and his family were born and raised. They are descended from the first indigenous inhabitants of the area.
Family is extremely important to Alvarado. He spoke of his great grandfather who was a stone mason and participated in the Mexican Revolution. As a child, he had the opportunity to hear those stories.
Today, although his father is in his 80s and cannot work very much, Alvarado still values his presence. Alvarado considers his father to be his best inheritance… his wisdom, his technical knowledge, his company and his respect. He sees his father in every piece he creates, and keeps him going, especially when doing a large piece or feels ambivalent about starting on a block of stone. As an example of such, he states “In this case, we see the thread (vein) of the tuff. Such veins are formed by the layers of ash and mark the formation of the stone. At this point, one needs only to hit it to make a separation, following the vein. Here, color does not matter, but hardness does, so splitting stone in this way is easier.”
Today, Jesus Maria is far better known for work working than stone, but originally it was a stone mason town. The indigenous worked here for the haciendas cutting stone and doing construction along with the other back breaking work associated with traditional farm life.
Interest in the stone cutting has waned as the state industrializes and people are interested in other kinds of work… work that pays better and is more secure than that of a self-employed artisan. Alvarado’s three children suddenly have taken an interest and have started to help, but they did not grow up with the craft the way he did.
Alvarado has mixed feelings about his children’s involvement. On the one hand, he, like other fathers, see a better future for them in education and industry, but on the other, he would like that one of them takes over after him.
At one time, a stone mason made three times what a bricklayer did, but those days are past as people are no longer willing to pay for the work needed to extract, cut and place the stone. One molding piece, one meter long takes about 15 days to make, more if with a complicated design. Most construction is now minimalist, and most want construction that is fast and cheap. However, Alvarado says that as long as there is stone work and God gives him help, he will continue.
The artisan can be reached through his Facebook page.
All photos not otherwise credits are by Alejandra Martínez (La Blu).