A reminder of what we lose during quarantine

During this time of COVID pandemic, Mexico’s paper mache artisans have been especially hard hit. Almost all of their traditional products are regalia for festivals and other celebrations. Although understandably on hold for now, such events have been the glue of Mexican society, making and reaffirming ties that help individuals and families whether life’s storms.

For this reason, it is important to remember what life was like before COVID, even if it seems weirdly distant right now. It also gives us something to look forward to in the future.

Although celebration in general has been a steadfast component of Mexican culture, just how these celebrations take place can and do change. Traditions remain, change and sometimes, make a comeback.

Maestro Alfonso Morales lives in the small state of Morelos, in and even smaller town called Tlatenchi (Jojutla) in the south of the state.  The state is not one of Mexico’s major handcraft producers. It is better known for the production of sugar and rice, and the home of the “city of eternal spring,” Cuernavaca.

The area was conquered by the Aztecs early in their empire, and Mexico City still looms large in their consciousness. In the past, it shared a tradition with that city of paper mache festival paraphernalia. But in the 20th century, much of that tradition was lost and what multi-generational “cartoneros” the state had moved onto other things.

The overall resurgence of paper mache in Mexico has inspired some artisans to create Judas effigies, toys, large puppets and more. Perhaps more importantly, they are reclaiming the traditional uses of these items, rather then just making them as curious decorative items from the past.

Morales is one of these artisans. He was originally a potter who specialized in the making of figures of farmworkers and animals. The making of paper mache had disappeared from the Jojutla area, but Morales discovered it when his son came home from school in 2000 and showed him what he was doing in school.

Using what he knew from clay, he began to experiment with paper and paste, making the same animal figures. Morales was able to learn much this way, and today he is still known for the making of paper mache animals, in particular iguanas.

More importantly, he began researching the traditions related to the craft, the most important of which was the burning of Judas during Holy Week. This had disappeared, but Morales decided to bring it back.

By 2005, he won his first handcraft competition in his home state. The craft was so unknown at the time that his work was put into the miscellaneous category.  By 2007, it began to sell, but the real break was his participation in the first Monumental Alebrije Parade sponsored by the Museo de Arte Popular in Mexico City. His alebrije (a colorful monster figure) established a reputation for him outside of his local area, and become representative for this work for Morelos.

Today, Morales is held in high esteem not only by state cultural authorities but by paper mache artisans all over Mexico. His work tends to be traditional in style, and he conserves the use of reed strips to form the skeleton supports of his larger figures. This technique has almost disappeared in Mexico City with the destruction of that valley’s shallow lake system. His Judases are the traditional devils, but they are often “anatomically correct” a throwback to the old belief that evil was immodest and without constraint.

The maestro can be contacted through his Facebook page here https://www.facebook.com/alfonso.morales.583

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