Sometimes we foreigners, even those of us who live here, get the false impression that “Mexican culture” is something static… stuck somewhere 100 years or more in the past.
We can be forgiven for this as most of what is promoted, especially to tourists, gives this impression, especially in the arts and handcrafts.
The reality is that Mexico and its arts continue to evolve, which means adopting and adapting new imagery, materials and techniques.
Handcraft-making is probably the most conservative of Mexico’s artistic expressions, but in some cases, such as the working of paper mache (called cartonería), there have been major changes. The main reason for this is that the craft has grown tremendously in popularity in the last few decades. One important type of growth has been geographic. Where once it survived only in the Mexico City area and Celaya, it has exploded beyond central Mexico into areas where it had been previously lost, and in places where it had never existed as part of the local culture.
Those that work in cartonería’s traditional areas feel the strong pull of tradition. While innovation certainly does go on, artisans, even younger ones, feel a need to connect what they do with that of the past.
The further away you get from Mexico City and Celaya, the less strong this need becomes. One reason is a lack of teachers with serious training in past forms and techniques, but it is also because these new areas have their own regional and local cultures and feel less obligated to repeat or “preserve” something from another region.
The story of Jorge “Lobito” Ferretiz is a good case in point. The artisan was born and raised in the city of San Luis Potosí (SLP for short), a transitional area between “central Mexico” and the “North.” The city has Baroque colonial buildings like the center of the country, but also strong elements from the north such as its popular music and the love of grilled meat. SLP did have a cartonería tradition, but it all but died out by the 20th century. All that remained was the making of “marmotas,” star or globe figures on poles that accompany some pilgrimages and celebrations for feast days.
Ferretiz’s first experience working with paper and paste was not with any maestro with a generational history, but with an aunt who took great interest in her five nieces and nephews. Visiting regularly, she would lead the children in the making of paper mache masks, then put on music by Cri-Cri (Mexico’s beloved children’s composer), and they would use the masks to dance or perform the stories in the songs.
Ferretiz was only 8 when he began, and it was purely for fun, but the experience stuck with him…more so than he realized. Years later, the child was an adolescent and naturally rebellious, but the aunt saw something in him that he did not.
Ferretiz remembers being on the couch watching television when he was about 17. His aunt came by and asked him to help her with some heavy bags. He did so, but in the grumpy way that is normal for that age. The task took them to the National Mask Museum in the city of San Luis Potosi. His aunt told a workshop teacher there. “Here is the material you asked for. I’m leaving it here with you, but I’m also leaving my nephew for you to teach him.” At first, Ferretiz was angry, but when he started making masks with the maestro, it was like he was a child again. He has worked with cartonería ever since.
The classes at the museum taught him the real basics of the craft, but it was focused only on mask-making. Interested in other objects such as alebrijes, Ferretiz found that he had to figure that out on his own as these are not part of SLP’s culture. His maestro at the museum was not very encouraging in this endeavor, but Ferretiz began hanging his work outside his house, which drew positive attention.
He began getting requests from neighbors and friends based on what they were interested in, which may or may not be objects traditionally associated with cartonería.
As an adult, Ferretiz’s world has been associated with the arts in one form or another. He states that he has gone through a number of phases: working in theater, urban art, music, acting etc. His interests and requests come from this world, as well as traditional objects that have become known in SLP due to the promotion of cartonería in the mass media.
Ferretiz has made gargoyles, dragons, images of Santa Muerte and Saint Judas Thaddeus, Olmec heads, Aztec gods along with traditional Catrinas, skulls and alebrijes. He recently made an image of Buddha because a client asked for one. He is somewhat aware of the history of cartonería but lacks detailed knowledge. For example, he believes that cane strips are more authentic than wire, but wire has been acceptable in traditional cartonería for generations.
The resurgence of cartonería in SLP follows the same pattern as in other parts of Mexico. Influence of forms from Mexico City are particularly strong, both because of the media and the availability of teachers willing to travel from that city. Catrina-making is popular, with competitions that can attract up to 300 participants. However, the vast majority are hobbyists.
Ferretiz is one of very few cartoneros who can and does make a living from the craft. This year, he has begun to travel to places such as Monterrey and León to work on projects and give workshops.
The artisan lives and works in the center of San Luis Potosí, near the San Sebastian Church. He can be reached through his Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/lobito.ferretiz
Featured image: Artisan working on “Peyote en la montaña”. All images are used with permission of the artisan.