Like most other artisans, few cartoneros are able to work at the craft full time and earn a decent living. Over 80% of surveyed cartoneros make less than $3000 pesos per month, with a fortunate few making more than $5000. Even those of the Linares family, whose work regularly results in invitations to present in Mexico and abroad, live very modestly, in poor neighborhoods, and many wearing the same paint-spattered clothes every day. Most of the youngest generations of family workshops have moved onto better-paying professions which urban areas offer.
It should be noted that living in urban areas often means a higher cost-of-living. Cartonería objects cannot demand the kind of prices that some other handcrafts can, because the objects are based in paper, which will degrade eventually, limiting the collectors’ market. Most of the market in Mexico, with the exception of alebrijes, is still for festivals, with the aim of not keeping the piece permanently. This is particularly true for very large and monumental pieces.
Despite this, there is some market for small cartonería collectables outside of Mexico, primarily in the United States. Although traditional cartonería families have relied on personal contacts to obtain and keep foreign customers, many newcomers have had success with the Internet. Internet access is reliable and inexpensive in Mexico’s urban centers, and the vast majority of surveyed cartoneros have at least a Facebook account, often with a page dedicated to their work. It has become the most widespread and successful marketing strategy for cartoneros in general as it is free to the artisan, and cartonería items, being relatively light and resistant, are easy to ship. There is also more interest in cartonería as a cultural manifestation among foreigners, whereas among locals, it is often seen as kitsch.
Most work at the craft part time, and either as one source of income, for its artistic and/or cultural value or some combination of both. While many urban dwellers may not be able to earn a living from the craft, there are many who have the financial means to take the craft on as a hobby or artistic endeavor. For many of these artisans, the making of cartonería objects is fulfilling in a personal way, whether their creations sell or not. It is a manifestation of their creativity, whether they make creations that are decorative, or those which have some kind of message. Whether they worked to make money or not, the word “noble” came up very frequently in interviews with cartoneros. The use was not in the sense of royalty, but noble in the sense that the craft is based on “garbage,” with the value of the finished piece deriving from the artisan’s skill, creativity and, of course, time. According to craftswoman Clara Romero Murcia, It is noble because you start with something that no one wants, like old newspaper to create something wonderful. When you sell a piece, no one asks you “how much did you invest (in materials) in this? They simply see the work and pay you for that. The value of the finished product can be easily twice the cost of materials in the case of piñatas to local and poor communities to many times that for collectors and institutions.
Cartonería’s ties to Mexico’s urban centers means that its economic future depends on the economic trends of its cities. The decreasing stress on family economically means that the traditional family workshops are likely to disappear in the next two or three generations. However, the cities’ relative prosperity supports a new kind of cartonero, individuals and groups who work with the medium, generally learning through classes. For these newcomers, the need to earn some money from their efforts may be there, but it does not serve as a primary means to support a family. Instead, the personal satisfaction of hands in paper and paste is as much, if not more, a motivator than selling the finished works.
Traditional family workshops vs individuals and cooperatives
Despite the economic shift away from traditional family workshops, the most prestigious cartonería still comes from these, especially those who have been noted for their work three or more generations. The value of these pieces comes from the way other Mexican handcrafts and folk art is valued, as manifestations of Mexico’s history and culture, especially in collectors’ markets.
However, there are problems with valuing Mexican cartonería in this fashion. Cartonería traditional was a throwaway craft, producing items for a particular festival or event, or in the case of toys, creating cheap alternatives for poor children. In both cases, the pieces are not created to last, but rather to fulfill their purpose as inexpensively as possible. This is one reason why cartonería has not received the kind of government support that others handcrafts have. Another consideration is the fact that the craft does not fit well with Mexico’s extremely important tourism industry. Since the 1960s, tourism has both buoyed and transformed Mexican handcrafts in general, with artisans now mostly producing for the souvenir and collectible markets. Cartonería is most developed in areas which do not see as much tourism and probably will not in the foreseeable future. Even though Mexico City has received more attention in travel information channels, most cartoneros live in the poor and seedy east side of the city, as well as the even poorer and seedier suburbs. Many of the products made are not suited to tourists. Demonic Judas figures and Pedro Linares’ “ugly” alebrijes are likely to turn off unknowledgeable foreign visitors. Those in giant sizes and/or those with fireworks are difficult to impossible to bring back home.
With access to the tourism and collectible market limited, the traditional markets for cartonería have diminished as well. Holiday decoration and toy markets are now dominated by plastics, sometimes paper, all of which is industrially-made and much cheaper than what individuals and small enterprises can produce. The downward spiral of family workshops and traditional markets is best seen in Celaya. Despite being close to the expat Mecca of San Miguel Allende, Celaya has lost much of its colonial appeal. The old buildings are sure to be seen in the historic center, with most in good condition. However, its economy is now based on being a regional economic center, someplace where those in surrounding rural areas including San Miguel go to make major purchases. This means that the first things that people see entering the city is masses of modern stores and shabby developments that envelope and hide what Celaya may have to offer tourists. The city was a regional wholesale center for all kinds of handmade toys, including many in cartonería, but this market collapsed entirely by the 1990s, swept aside by cheap, plastic imports, toys with electronics, etc and of course, videogames. However, handcrafted toys of any kind and objects are impossible to find in the city’s shops. Even the city’s main cultural center (Casa de Cultura) prominently display only a couple of large pieces and nothing else.
Another issue is that the Celaya family workshops that remain cling to the family-based system. The city is down to only about a dozen workshops, down from hundreds in the city’s heyday of toy making and down from even the thirty or so that existed in the late 20th century. There has not been the establishment of new individuals and groups such as seen in Mexico City, primarily because there has not been the offering of classes in cultural centers and other institutions as seen in the capital.
A number of cartonería artisans, especially in the Mexico City area, do not work in either family workshops or as individuals. Instead, they work and promote themselves in collaborative groups. This is a recent phenomenon, which seems to have been spurred by the use of cartonería in large-scale projects.
Fábrica de Artes y Oficios (FARO) in Mexico City has been instrumental in the formation of various collectives dedicated to cartonería, especially for the making of monumental projects. Various collectives include Uguros, Sindicato de Carton, Los Auxiliados and Los Hijos de la Calle. Most work in alebrijes and decorative objects for Day of the Dead, but a number have also begun to work with it as an artistic medium. But even with an artistic purpose, the resulting works are still considered ephemeral, meaning not mean to last for decades or generations like items made from other materials such as clay or metal, even when care is taken to make pieces last as long as possible. These cooperatives receive training at FARO and members often organize themselves there, but soon base themselves outside it. Most stay in the Mexico City metropolitan area but have done work in other parts of Mexico, including the training of new cartoneros. Almost none of these artisans have any family history in paper, or in Mexican handcrafts traditions. While most focus on basic traditional forms based off the work of the Linares family in particular, they do take them in new directions, incorporations new colors and imagery, for example from modern popular culture.
Colectivo Última Hora
The Coletivo Última Hora (Last Hour Collective) is a cooperative of five artisans who are based at the FARO in the east of Mexico City. All five members, Juan Vázquez Morales, Marco Osorio Maldonado, Raul Carbajal Ortiz and Ramon Espinoza Juarez are longtime associates of FARO, with all but one taking classes there in one area or another.
The cooperative was formed in 2005 by Raul Osorio and Juan Vazquez Morales who met while taking classes in cartonería. The two became friends, and were approached by an organization to work on floats for the city of Veracruz’s carnival in the early 2000s. While not exactly cartonería, many of the techniques of the project were similar and the two learned to work on projects of a monumental scale.
The two decided to take this experience and form Última Hora. The other members have joined over the years. All but one are full-time artisans although most do not dedicate themselves full-time to cartonería. Instead, they bring ideas and skills from their other activities to the work of Última Hora. The cooperative does work in all sizes, but they are mostly dedicated to and best-known for their work in monumental pieces. They have designed and executed pieces for fashion shows, Mexican and foreign businesses and individuals, but most of their work is in conjunction with cultural events sponsored by government entities. Their clients have included the Secretariats of Culture and Education, the states of Hidalgo and Morelos and the cities of Puebla, Toluca and Mexico City. By far their busiest time is late September into October, both to prepare a monumental alebrije for the Night of the Alebrijes, but to make objects scenes related to Day of the Dead: Catrinas, other skeletal figures and altars to the departed. They also do purely artistic and stage scenery work.
While allied with city-supported FARO, the collective is a for-profit organization. FARO does not charge for the workshop space they use, and completely fill in October. Instead the collective provides workspace, tools and advice to students taking cartonería classes and all pieces made by Ultima Hora are labeled as being from FARO as well.
Inclusion of new kinds of cartoneros
The shift in Mexico City from formation by family apprenticeship to formal or semi-formal instruction has allowed the inclusion of people who would not otherwise participate and impact the craft’s development particularly in the poor neighborhoods and suburbs of Mexico City. In the late 20th and early 21st century, classes in cartonería began to multiply here, a trend that has been strongly promoted and supported by two institutions in particular, the FARO and the Museo de Arte Popular (MAP). The first was established on the poor, east side by the city to offer free or very low cost classes in both the arts and trades principally to allow the chronically unemployed to start businesses. Cartonería was originally taught there informally, in conjunction with the staging of cultural events, but since then has become one of the most popular classes at the institution. Both FARO and MAP have since used the craft to stage massive events, gaining both local and national media attention, bringing the craft into view for thousands of people and elevating its status and popularity.
The promotion of cartonería in this way has attracted those who are more interested in the medium for personal, cultural and/or artistic reasons… hobbyists and artists, who may or may not be interested in selling their works. This has been most prominent in the Mexico City area, whose affluence allows for more people with the time on their hands for leisure activities. Those taking classes at FARO tend to be evenly divided among those who look to make money with it, those who are interested in it as a hobby and those interested in it as art.
It is not to say that cartonería has not been seen as an artistic medium before the 21st century. With the exception of toys, it has always been a decorative medium. The making of pieces requires at artistic talent, at least with the painting, even more so if the artisans creates his own molds and/or makes pieces freehand. The work of Linares family, and to some extent of Carmen Caballero Sevilla, established cartonería as an aesthetic medium, building on its traditional decorative role.
Patronage of cartoneros died down with the passing of Rivera’s generation but the link between art and artisan never completely died out. Today, many cartoneros have at least some artistic training with many notable ones such as Sotero Lemus and the Bobadilla family studying at Mexico’s major art institutions. FARO has worked to maintain and develop the link between fine art and cartonería. It has teachers in both fields who collaborate and has held events and other activities with the La Esmeralda National School of Painting, Sculpture and Graphic Arts.
The addition of hobbyists and artists in cartonería has not yet had major impact on the development of cartonería forms, as many work with the medium for personal reasons. However, it does mean that people with more financial means and education than the traditional cartonero is aware of its significance as well as the work and talent needed for its production. These participants may not make up a significant portion of cartonería producers, but they may help to maintain and promote the craft’s cultural importance much the way the artists and intellectuals of the mid 20th century did.
One group that has benefitted from the shift away from family workshops has been women. Traditionally, cartonería was men’s work. Studies of cartonería families such as the Linares by Susan N. Masuoka and Eli Bartra state that female participation in the craft was at best marginalized to prep work and perhaps painting, occasionally with women making complete pieces as members of the family, not as individuals. These pieces were generally made to help complete orders, and often considered inferior to commissioned pieces made by men, even by the women themselves. These attitudes were derived from traditional divisions of labor both in Mexico’s handcrafts as well as women’s place in traditional families. While this is nowhere as strong as in the past, family workshops both new and old still tend to favor men. For example, the La Lula workshop in Xochimilco, Mexico City, is the business of husband and wife Alejandro Camacho Barrera and Miriam Salgado. The workshop is the result of the urbanization of the area, leaving agriculture behind, with cartonería a new technique for the current family. However, although the business is officially promoted as “La Lula,” all media coverage focuses on Camacho Barrera, as the face of the enterprise. Salgado’s role is primarily supportive.
Marginalization of women who worked outside family workshops in the 20th century is debatable. Carmen Sevilla Caballero’s work was accepted and promoted by Diego Riviera on its merits and remains an important part of the Rivera/Kahlo museum in San Angel (Mexico City). Both Susana Buyo and her students state that her position outside the mainstream has been more because of her style and perhaps because she is not Mexican, rather than from being female. However, it is certain that neither of these women have had the same status as their male contemporaries then or now.
The availability of classes has had an effect. Women register and participate alongside men as equals, rather than has helpers. Perhaps more importantly, women then go on to work on their own or in groups of their choosing, not being limited to the family structure. Overall changes to women’s economic status, especially in the Mexico City area, have been important as well. When classes first began in the 1990s and even in the early years of FARO, most students were men. Today, about 35-40% of both students and active cartoneros are women, with almost all of these working outside of family workshops. Women’s work has become more prominent as well. Another important development is the rise of female instructors in cultural centers, including the cartonería instructors at FARO and classes led by Alicia Mendez Juarez in Celaya.
The new generations of women cartoneras generally are positive about their positions as craftspeople, even vis-a-vis men. They indicate that their works are accepted in the market equally, and they are accepted by male cartoneros as well. In the making of monumental works, the percentage of women involved is slightly lower, but at the 2015 Night of the Alebrijes event almost half of the entries were credited to women authors, although all were made by collaboratives or other groups of people. The only negative indicator was that women working on monumental pieces in collaboratives may be discouraged from working on the large metal frames, which require some strength in bending metal and the use of welding equipment. According to artisan Tania Aburto, this comes as much from traditional “courtesy” (her word) as from sexism per se, as if women insist on participation in all phases, there is little to no resistance.
Most women become involved in the craft for the same reasons that men do. One slight variation concerns the ability to make money while working at home and caring for children, an activity that is still highly divided and inclined toward women. For women such as Clara Romero Murcia in Iztapalapa, cartonería work allows her to supplement income from her full-time job as a salesperson, but still be home in the evenings with her children.
Both economic and cultural factors indicate the diminishing role of traditional family-based cartonería workshops and the rise of individuals and groups who enter the activity through other means. Cartonería’s urban nature continues to intensify not only because cities provide a large enough market for products, but also people with the means to get involved for reasons other than making money. Urban areas provide a wealth of cultural influences (both domestic and foreign) and even participants with the education to take advantage of these influences. However, it is not clear how much this new participation will affect the current and future development of the craft. Various cartoneros and institutional directors believe that the rise of women has had some impact, but lack specifics as to what this may be.
In general, tradition can have a very strong pull on Mexico’s cultural expressions, especially in handcrafts and folk art. Here, authenticity is an issue, leading to a distinctions between handcrafts that have underlying cultural value (artesanía) and those which do not (manualidad). Much has been written by experts such as Marta Turok on this distinction, but exactly what gives a handcraft that cultural value is not entirely clear. In the realm of cartonería, the issues generally revolve around who makes it, for what purpose, and whether and how modern materials and themes are used. No one would argue that Judas figures made by the Linares family fifty years ago or today would qualify as artesanía. Most accept the making of alebrijes and humourous skeletal figures by the same family, but some do not as the pieces are not (necessarily) tied to a specific Mexican festival. Every cartonero interviewed insisted that the base of his/her works is paper and paste, as a defining aspect that it is true cartonería. Most do not accept the addition of commercially-bought details (such as jewelry, feathers and sequins), in a purely authentic piece, although this is becoming more common to keep prices in range of what customers will pay. However, there is little controversy in the use of commercial acrylic paints, industrial oils for lubricating molds and molds made of modern materials.
The most traditional pieces and techniques are found in family workshops such as those of the Linares, where an apprenticeship system remains in place. In these, there is little innovation. There is more from individuals and groups that learn the craft outside of this system. Mexico City institutions such as MAP and FARO have encouraged innovation, with the latter’s director Jose Luis Galicia looking to implement a “new proposal for the craft” by having cartoneros and contemporary fine artists collaborate and influence each other through the institution. Despite this, even among younger cartoneros, there is little inclination to any major experimentation with basic design elements or the look of pieces, primarily because any major departures are seen as no longer being “Mexican folk art” by artisans and many buyers, especially institutional ones. Any changes in this regard are the “tweaking” of designs, with a link to some traditional Mexican cultural image or tradition still evident.
The most widespread innovations among cartonería products are the phenomenal increase in size in pieces destined for public celebrations and the introduction of articulations in cartonería pieces. Products which have increased noticeably and even dramatically over the past 50+ years include Judas figures, toritos, skeletal figures for community altars and of course the alebrijes of the Night of the Alebrijes parade in Mexico City.
Perhaps the most innovative idea of the late 20th and early 21st century is the idea that of cartonería as art. While Pedro Linares, Carmen Caballero and Susana Buyo certainly took cues from the fine arts, none of these considered what they did as “art.” The younger generations of Linares and the vast majority of cartoneros do not consider themselves “only” as artisans as well. However, there are exceptions, almost all of whom are in the Mexico City metropolitan area.
Like many cartoneros, Raymundo Amezcua’s focus is on traditional pieces, in particular Catrinas and other skeletal figures with some relationship to Mexico’s history and culture. What makes Amezcua different is his approach and attitude.
His workmanship is as careful as any artist. While still respecting basic cartonería techniques, he works to assure that the finishes of all pieces are smooth, with great attention to detail. In fact, his pieces look like they are made of other materials, such as clay or acrylic and in the case of clothing items, even fabric. This is achieved through the use of 20+ layers of craft paper covered in a paper paste. There is also the meticulous working and placing of tiny shreds of paper to create hair styles, gesturing bony fingers and facial features. When commissioned for a piece to represent a real person, he puts time into researching that person. For example, while a representation of Benito Juarez as a skeleton for Day of the Dead cannot have his face or skin color, it can have a suit, hairstyle, body posture which makes it instantly recognizable. Coloring tends to shun the garish and work for more realistic, using various techniques including encaustic painting.
Another indication that is tack is different is that he has put much time and effort into creating figures that will last 10 years or more. This includes keeping paper as dry as possible while working and creating his own formula for paste that includes natural ingredients to deter both bugs and time.
Amezcua has also established his own particular style for his skeletal figures. He makes the clothing as realistic as possible, which allows him to indicate body features a skeleton normally would not have, such as ample busts and hips on women and musculature in the case of a figure of a bullfighter. But what really distinguishes him from other cartoneros is his attitude towards his work. He principally works for museums and other institutions, and even made a prop for a popular film in Mexico in 2014. He is temperamental, both in his relationship with his clients and what pay he will accept, refusing commissions that do not respect his talents.
It is not simply a question of money that distinguishes those who do it for art’s sake and those who do it as a business. Daniel Vera Garcia lives very modestly in the seedy borough of Iztapalapa, and has his workshop in a half-building that also doubles as a pulque bar. Cartonería is only one of his techniques, along with mural painting and graphic art. Most of his cartonería work is self financed through his modest income from the bar, as he does not create with the aim of selling, but rather to see how his creations affect onlookers. This is particularly true of his monumental alebrijes, which he displays each year at the Museo de Arte Popular’s annual parade. This dedication to aesthetics means that he is less worried about maintaining cartonería tradition, using imagery from Pink Floyd, psychedelia and surrealism, and is more willing to use non-traditional materials and techniques, in particular the use of plastics from beverage bottles as support for the paper, as well as cut pieces of plastic to give a stained-glass effect.
Dierdre Ramirez considers herself both an artisan and artist, working with cartonería for over 25 years. She began out of curiosity, first making piñatas and other items for Christmas. Since then, her work has developed in two directions, more traditional items such as skeletal figures and experimentation with more artistic and modern designs. She has formal training in the arts, with degrees in graphic communication and a masters in “art, architecture and ephemeral spaces” from the Polytechnic Foundation of Barcelona Spain. She has worked on a number of artistic projects in various media in both Mexico and the United States.
Her specialty in cartonería is masks, both for wearing and as an decorative/artistic item along with non-skeletal figures. Her interest in them stems from her artistic relation with psychology. This results in pieces that have a much more modern look, meant to express something about the human condition more than preserving tradition. One distinguishing characteristic of her masks is that they tend to have much more texture than those made for traditional celebrations, using techniques such as adding crumpled newspaper or other waste paper with paste over the main body, which is usually smooth, hard cartonería. Another influence in her work is science fiction and fantasy. Pieces with this kind of inspiration often have a metallic look and can prominently include non-paper elements such as yarn, feathers and insect wings
The most impressive work artistically is that of Adelberto Alvarez Marines, who lives just barely outside of the Mexico City in a small town called Santa Catarina Ayotzingo (Chalco). He is a completely self-taught artist, starting with drawing and even illustrating books when he was still an adolescent. In his 20s, he discovered cartonería observing some neighbors trying to learn it themselves. Watching them, he decided he could do better and has been at it ever since.
What sets Alvarez’s work apart is his artistic sense. While there are some pieces in his personal collection that are folk art, most of his work well crosses the line into sculpture, anywhere from about a half meter in height to life sized, with realistic anatomy, even with fantastic creatures. He has even created a bust of himself. Alvarez’s dedication to his art consumes most of his time, even stating that he does not like to go to exhibitions of his work or awards at it takes time away from creating. A senior citizen now, his main concern is to do as much as he can with time his has left.
While he has exhibited his work in the Mexico City area and Washington DC, Alvarez decided to create his own “home museum” dedicated to cartonería where he live in Ayotzingo. Most of the small pieces are his, and all of the large pieces are.
Until the beginning of the 21st century, cartonería items ranged in sizes from only centimeters, to those up to about a meter maybe two. Mojigangas have always been large to be seen above the crowds, and Judas figures could also be large as well. In 1968, the Linares family was commissioned to make life-size skeletal figures for the Summer Olympics in Mexico City, which has since led to commissioned works of this kind for this family and other cartoneros. The size of these works have been limited to the use of traditional support elements, such as wicker and wire.
The word “monumental” related to cartonería begins with the creation of monumental community or public altars for various Mexican festivals, especially Day of the Dead. Such altars have a long history, but the inclusion of cartonería figures as a prominent aspect is a bit more recent. One early example of this is the annual Day of the Dead altar sponsored by the parish of San Pedro Apostol in Tepozotlan, State of Mexico, which began in 1997. It is sponsored by a youth group called Jovenes al Rescate de Tepotzotlán (Youth Rescuing Tepozotlán), supported by the local parish and other organizations. The idea has spread to other areas in central Mexico. One of the best-known altars of this type include the “Mega-ofrenda” (Mega-altar) set up each year by students of the National Autonomous University of Mexico, which fills a section of the large campus mall. Another is set up by the Dolores Olmedo Museum in Mexico City. The life-sized figures for this altar is provided every year by the Linares family.
While the altars themselves are monumentally-sized, the cartonería figures in them are large but were no more than life-sized. It is the 2005 Panteón Rococo concert at FARO that marks the start of even larger monumental pieces. Panteón Rococó is Mexican ska band, very popular among the young people that FARO serves. The idea to create set elements with cartonería emerged from FARO and the collective Ultima Hora. The elements consisted of giant decorated skulls hung from rafters of the stage, tombstones and meters tall letters, spelling out “FARO.” The concert was a huge success and cemented the role of cartonería at the institution as an artistic medium and a trade.
The stage set caught the attention of Mexico City’s cultural authorities, who approached FARO with the idea of creating a monumental altar for the city’s main square, the Zocalo for Day of the Dead. The proposed elements for this altar were even larger than the stage set for Panteón Rococó, and new kinds of supports, welded metal, was needed. Another issue was that the elements were free-standing, with no stage to use to keep elements from falling over. The altar and its elements were constructed at FARO and on their sides and transported to the Zocalo the same way, not knowing if the pieces would be stable once erected. In fact, after setting up the first piece, someone jokingly yelled “Run!”
Fortunately, stability of the pieces has not been a problem and the altars have been recreated every year for Day of the Dead since 2006. The mega structures have included ten-meter high tzompantlis (Aztec racks for enemies’ skulls), images of the Aztec god of the dead, skulls of figures from Mexico’s history and much more. In 2010, the theme related to the Bicentennial of Mexico’s Independence and Centennial of the start of the Mexican Revolution. Pieces generally range from two to five meters, with some reaching higher than that. The altar remains over the entirety of the Zocalo for about a week or more and no structures have fallen to date.
The construction of this altar is FARO’s most successful annual project. It has become an attraction each year to the center of the city, and its connection to FARO has brought many students to the institution, particularly those who become interested in cartonería through it. It has its greatest impact in the Mexico City metropolitan area, but it is regularly televised nationally because of the square historical and cultural importance. The annual event also caught the attention of the studios that produce the James Bond movies, who ultimately included giant skeletal figures in the 2015 film, Spectre.
The monumental altar at the Zocalo quickly inspired the Museo de Arte Popular to sponsor with city officials an event dedicated to monumentally-sized alebrijes, starting in 2007. The official name of the event is La Noche de los Alebrijes (Night of the Alebrijes), but the main activity of the event is a daytime parade of meters-tall figures that are rolled by participants on carts from the Zocalo west through the city’s financial district, where they are put on display for several weeks on Paseo de la Reforma.
The event has attracted the participation of notable artists and artisans, such as Ricardo Linares of the Linares family, and sponsorship of projects by various businesses and civic organizations. However, a significant number of entries are made by groups in interested persons investing their own time and money. The parade mostly consists of the entries, but it is usually led by the Symphonic Band of the Mexican Navy and can have clowns, costumed people on stilts, lucha libre wrestlers and more.
The parade and exhibition attracts thousands of people, mostly families, to see the alebrijes and take pictures. During exhibition, the pieces are judged with prizes as high as $60,000 pesos awarded in several categories.The event is now an annual tradition for the city, occurring in October shortly before Day of the Dead.
It is MAP’s most successful annual event by far, with nothing else reaching the number of participants, spectators or media coverage. As of 2015, 18 million people have seen at least part of the event live or on television; over 14,000 people have participated in making and parading the entries, which has grown to over 200 each year. Despite being held for ten consecutive years, the event has not lost interest, and participation is expected to grow.
The popularity of the event is from the alebrijes themselves, not only for their unusual size, but with their wild colors and shapes, making them suitable for a parade. Unlike the Day of the Dead altar of FARO, the Alebrije Parade directly involves city cartoneros, allowing them to showcase their best work. This had led to an increase of quality and creativity, not just in parade entries, but also in general cartonería work in the city. For young artisans such as Tania Aburto, the feedback the event provides has been valuable in raising confidence about her work. Its promotional aspect has been national and international, with exports of (smaller) cartonería pieces, especially alebrijes, to Colombia, England and Belgium directly attributable to the event.
Although not televised, another important event with monumental cartonería figures is Tultepec’s annual setting off of “toritos” in the main square of this city just north of Mexico City. Tultepec is not the only town that parades fireworks laden cartonería bulls in the streets and then sets them off at night, but their event is by far the largest, with over 300 giant torito bulls. The setting off of these bulls goes well on into the early morning hours.
Like alebrijes and skeletal figures, these toritos did not start off as giant monsters, but their growth began around the same time as the introduction of the other monumental figures. Today, very few of the toritos that participate to honor John of God, the city’s patron saint are the traditional size. Those that do appear are now relegated mostly to children. An increase of size of the bull also translates to large cages with far more fireworks, making the event one of the most dangerous in Mexico. Justly named the “Pyrotechnic Pamplona” it is impossible not to be hit and burned with rockets and other fireworks filling the entire plaza.
While fireworks are the main attraction, the increase in the size of the bulls has meant more attention to the bulls themselves. The frames and basic skin take months, making the decoration of the bulls themselves, and the daylight procession to see them an almost equally important part of the tradition. The decoration can be indeed intricate and creative. Often the bulls have names such as “Rey Casanova” (Casanova King), “Zorro,” “The King” (in English) and many more, with themes from both Mexican and foreign cultures. Some are meticulously decorated, such as the bull petitioning for world peace covered in hundreds small folded Japanese cranes, arranged to look like hair or scales.
The advent of monumental cartonería pieces has upped the ante for public festivals in the Mexico City area and beyond. It is no longer enough to have family celebrations for Day of the Dead, Christmas and the like, but cities now sponsor monumental pieces, to be used once, like their original, small antecedents. Obviously the cost of the largest puts them out of reach of small villages and towns, but even in smaller urban areas, community-sponsored large-size decorations are becoming more common.
After their use, most of the monumental pieces are destroyed and/or disposed of, possibly with elements and metal being recycled. Sometimes, especially with alebrijes, the piece finds a place to continue being displayed, such as malls, community centers and schools, at least until it degrades sufficiently to be unattractive. While monumental cartonería is still most associated with Day of the Dead, its use for floats and other occasions is increasing.
The popularity of extra large and monumental sizes pieces for municipal events is growing, at least in central Mexico. The mojiganga of Zacualpan has added large and monument-sized alebrijes and other figures to its lineup, which has increased interest in participation. The smaller of these are carried by one person like a balloon on a stick, with the larger ones still small enough to be carried on litters with a team of young men over the entire parade route. Head-borne toritos have been a part of many Mexican festivals for ages, with the monumental variety starting to appear as well, even if it is only a couple.
Most cartonería products are static, meaning that once formed, no elements can be moved or repositioned. Movement can often be indicated by a piece, but in general they have not made to have moving parts. Exceptions to this are Lupita dolls, which often have arms and legs tied on to permit movement, and the pyrotechnic figures whose rockets and wheels are designed to provoke movement.
There has been some effort to adapt cartonería to items which require moving parts. One example of this is the work of Javier Bautista Escalante and Aaron Leon Fortenel of the La creativa fabrica de arte popular in Mexico City. Cartonería is only a part of their activities, but they have adapted it one of their foci, the making puppets and marionettes. Such pieces require at least some level of movement, particularly marionettes, so these are made in pieces and joined together with hinges, much the way that puppets/marionettes of any other material. Those made of cartonería tend to be heavier than those made of wood, but cartonería is a more affordable choice.
With the size of monumental alebrijes limited now by low-hanging wires over the parade route, some cartoneros have experimented with introducing movement into their entries. La creativa fabrica de arte popular scaled up the marionette idea with the making of Tonalpaualli, their entry for the 2015 Night of the Alebrijes parade. This is a mostly-wildcat alebrije seated with a drum, surrounded by a cage to support a rope-and-pulley system. This system is used to make the alebrije’s hands and arms move over the drum while the team wheels the figure along the streets of Mexico City. Similarly, the Ultima Hora Collaborative made a fish-based alebrije suspended in a cage. However, rather than setting it up to make specific movements, the alebrije was heavily segmented, with parts connected by metal cables. The idea here was to allow the piece to move in a wave-like motion as a consequence of wheeling it in the parade, rather than having one or more team members dedicated to manipulating the piece.
Mechanical movement is less common but it has been used. Students from the National Polytechnic Institute entered an alebrije with robotic movement for the first time in 2011 and monumental toritos in Tultepec with heads that turn or otherwise move are not uncommon.
Themes, materials and techniques
The pull of tradition is strongest in the basic designs of pieces, followed by materials and then techniques, mostly likely because of what will be seen by the public. The need to have the finished product somehow connected with Mexico’s past and/or traditional culture is very strong in order to be acceptable to both domestic and foreign markets. More traditional areas of Mexico such as Oaxaca and rural Guanajuato may not accept any serious innovations on product. This is less the case in Mexico City, but even here, innovation must be done with care.
This is ironic given how much of the craft’s current popularly is tied to alebrijes and skeletal figures imitating living persons and their activities, two major innovations of the mid 20th century by a single cartonero, Pedro Linares. With the exception of piñatas, these account for the vast majority of cartonería made today and considered the vanguard of cartonería’s development, especially as a cultural phenomenon.
Most thematic innovations are tweaks on the old. Again the exception here is piñatas. Many piñatas with traditional themes are still sold, especially the pointed stars for the Christmas season, but those sold for birthday parties and the like in Mexico will more often than not will be copies of trademarked cartoon characters and the like, generally made illegally. This is due to economic pressure, as it is hard to sell donkey and other non-trademarked shapes when children want what they see on television and the movies. This phenomenon does not have a major impact outside piñatas, nor does it represent anything more in Mexican culture other than the influence of mass media. In other cartonería products, there still must be something that ties the piece with “Mexican-ness,” most often defined through some link with the past.
In Mexico City, elements of a more recent past are accepted. Even Pedro Linares and sons worked with images from movies, such as images of the famed comedic actor Cantinflas, but images of modern movie and television stars are rare today, even in Judas figures. The most common images of modern figures in cartonería are those of politicians in Judases. This is not really new, as it is based on a tradition of protest from the colonial period. The only new twist is the inclusion of U.S. political figures, such as the burning of Judases in the form of Barack Obama and Donald Trump alongside that of Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto at the Linares’ annual Holy Saturday event in Mexico City.
The making of pieces outside of traditional figures (Judas, dolls, alebrijes, etc.) is rare but is done, at least in the Mexico City metropolitan area. However, even with these, it is necessary to have a theme that relates to something “Mexican.” Tania Aburto is a cartonería artisan in Mexico City, who prefers to work with imagery of what she sees around her in her marginalized neighborhood of Santa María la Ribera, particularly dogs and cars, as she lives in a neighborhood with many pet dogs as well as street dogs (relatively unusual in Mexico City). Her dog figures are often doing human activities and particularly likes activities related to Mexican culture, such as lucha libre and mariachi music. Cars include the 1957 Fairlane, which was made famous as taxis called “crocodiles” because of their green paint and alternative blank-and-white rows of triangles. These were prominent in Mexican movies and other media in the 1960s and 1970s. In this case, she is still added romanticized elements to her figures, which is necessary in order to sell her work.
There are a few exceptions to this. The first is the making of floats, especially for the major carnivals of Veracruz and Mazatlan, and another is the making of special masks and set pieces for theatrical works. Sometimes it will be a traditional piece with some commercial element, such as a logo of the sponsoring company. The most common exception is the making of a piece which copies some (copyrighted character) from mass media. Those who admit to doing this are not proud of it, but consider it necessary as they do not have the luxury of turning down paying work.
Conservation and growth
Cartonería does not receive anywhere near the governmental support that rural and indigenous crafts such as pottery and textiles do, even though its survival is just about as precarious as theirs. The most likely reason for this is that it does not tie well into Mexico’s tourism trade, as it is practiced in areas that are not (as) marketed to foreign visitors.
Despite this, the craft is growing in these areas and spreading. Geographically, it is becoming more popular both south and north of the central highlands of the country, with the popularity of alebrijes leading the way. In areas, where it is already known, it is being re-established and reinvented. The main conduit for this is through classes, often by those from Mexico City who have transplanted to other parts of the country.
Although a number of experts and gallery owners insist that true Mexican handcraft (artesanía) must have a cultural and/or familial connection, often to preserve past techniques and designs, the majority of the artisans, even those from family workshops. This is most likely due to the fact that cartonería is surviving best where alternate means of entering the trade are present, and where items made from it are a part of local popular culture.
Because of its cultural and historic value, a number of governmental and non-governmental entities are involved in its preservation. Classes are offered at venues such as the Escuela de Artesanía (Handcrafts School) and the various Fábrica de Artes y Oficios (Arts and Trades Factory) cultural centers in Mexico City. Cartonería is one of various crafts that are taught to prisoners to keep them occupied as well as a way to make a little money.
The surge in school-trained cartoneros follows the decline of the family apprenticeship system. It has allowed people who might not otherwise do so the chance to be involved. It also allows a cross pollination of other techniques into cartonería. For example, Tania Aburto learned the craft first through classes at FARO Oriente. Later, she took classes with Mexico’s federal School of Handcrafts (Escuela de Artesania) in Mexico City, the only accredited technical school of its kind in Latin America. This school does not teach cartonería, but Aburto says that techniques she has learned there, such as screen printing and clay modeling, have been used in her pieces. However, the most important influence has been an artistic and aesthetic sense.
Towards a cartonería “community”
Until the latter 20th century, the making of cartonería products was dominated by certain families, working on a closed, guild-like system. This has meant little to no interaction among cartonería workshops, little-to-no opportunity or even desire among cartoneros to share ideas and techniques or to take on learners of the trade from outside the family. This has changed somewhat, as artisans can earn money from teaching classes, but there still is reluctance. Most of the best known artisans and workshops still keep all trade secrets in the family or workshop, with no outside students whatsoever. Many cartoneros, whether from these families or not, limit or prohibit the taking of photographs to keep others from copying their designs (at least not without buying the piece(s) in question).
The rise of cartonería’s artistic and cultural value has prompted some change in this, especially in the Mexico City area, especially the rise of monumental works, which give the craft major visibility. In 2002 and 2003, the Fábrica de Arte y Oficios (FARO) held two conferences related to cartonería. The first was very local, focusing on the eastern side of the Mexico City metro area, where most cartoneros live and work. The second was more regional and more ambitious, pairing 20 cartoneros with 20 fine arts students to share ideas. They spent a week at the institution attending workshops and working together on projects. The idea behind this event was to explore cartonería as both a handcraft and an art form. However, since this event FARO has not held anything similar.
The next main event to bring cartoneros together was the inauguration of the annual Night of the Alebrijes of the Museo de Arte Popular. This event opened the making of monumental cartonería pieces to anyone willing to participate, professional or not. Among its goals is to bring cartoneros together physically to meet one another and to exhibit their best work. It has been quite successful at this, with the public attention and the attention of their peers prompting cartoneros to not only improve their entries to the event each year, but their general output as well.
A cartonería fair was started for Mexico City artisans in 2013 and national level conference in 2015, sponsored by the Morelos Museum of Popular Art in Cuernavaca. Except for an area for sales, it is not open to the public, rather its focus is to invite cartoneros from various parts of Mexico to exchange ideas. Here invited participants attend talks and workshops as well as have chances to informally exhibit and talk about their work with experts and other artisans.
A similar even is the Mexico City Feria (Fair) de la Cartonería, started in 2013 by handcraft collector and writer Juan Jimenez. The idea for the fair arose from his experience working with CONACULTA (today the Secretariat of Culture), finding that themed events for handcrafts attract public attention to the traditions. The Fair is set during Holy Week because of the craft’s relationship with this time period, especially Holy Saturday. The highlight of the event is the burning of Judas on this date. While the small event has been successful in drawing crowds who come to buy crafts, attend talks and see the burning of Judas, getting a site each year has been something of a struggle with authorities. It has been held in several locations, mostly in center of Mexico City. Unlike the Cuernavaca event, the focus here is to promote cartonería to the public, both traditional items and the introduction of new designs into the Mexico City culture. Vendors are not charged for their booths, but must be working cartoneros selling their own work. About half of the 2016 participants were full-time cartoneros. About 40% were women. Participants came from both traditional family workshops such as those from the Lemus family and new generations. The idea is to allow the craft to grow enough such that cartoneros can make a living at it.
The result of events such as there is that there is at least the start of a cartonería community of Mexico, which allows artisans to exchange ideas and open new markets. But this “community” is still very new. Many cartoneros, especially the most traditional ones, still labor in obscurity, with little to no idea of what is happening regionally or nationally, and often not even outside of their own social circle. So far, these events have been most relevant and useful to the newcomers to the craft. How inclusive this developing network will ultimately be remains to be seen.