The Drive, Part 1

It is impossible to go straight into a talk about the beautiful lacquer ware of Olinalá without talking about just how isolated this community is.

Olinalá is a small community in the Mexican state of Guerrero. While I have met a couple of their artisans, I had also been told that not many travel to sell their merchandise because of the area’s roads. So a decision had to be made….

  1. Really really really rural area? – check
  2. Tiny, singular “highway” for much of the ride? – check
  3. 5hr 20min to travel 260km (according to Google)? – check
  4. 1999 Ford Escort with rebuilt motor and transmisson? – check
  5. Only $2800 pesos between my husband and I until payday? – check
  6. A couple in their mid-fifties that really ought to know better? – check


We have driven slow roads before. The culprits have been either really rugged terrain with a LOT of sharp curves, (e.g. mountains of Oaxaca), or a ridiculous number of topes ( highway between Toluca and Zihuatanejo). Yes, poor road conditions have cause some headaches in the past, but they were NOT kidding about the road into Olinalá.

The first leg of the drive, from Mexico City to Cuautla, is no problem. Heading east and south from Cuautla to Axochiapan is pretty straightforward, too. Our first issue was the area around Chiautla. Google tried to direct us twice to two short cuts to avoid the big bend of highway to the town, but our car was not cut out for either of them. To be fair to Google, the highway heading south from Chiautla was really bad for a stretch.

Continuing on Highway 23 and crossing into the state of Puebla, we were soon rewarded by much better road and by some of the nicest scenery we have passed in Mexico, as the photos below show.


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We even got treated to views of eagles and buzzards.


Most of the drive on Highway 23 (from Chiautla) is in the state of Puebla proper, ending in the municipality of Ixcamilpa. Road quality did go down noticably as we traveled south, but the views and the feeling of having the road to ourselves more than made up for swerving around the bad ones.  While definitely mountainous, the curves were gentle. Its not super highway, but we did not see the reason why the drive should take so long.

Until we crossed into Guerrero…

Our first warning was that immediately upon exiting the town of Ixcamilpa, the road turned to dirt/mud for a few hundred meters, then we entered a modern bridge to cross the river. There was no traffic, and we felt quite safe stopping in the middle of the bridge to take photos.

The mountains do get a bit more rugged here, forcing significantly more cuts into them. But this is not really the problem. The problems is that … well to say it is poor maintenance would be the understatment of the year. The rock is this area is particularly crumbly and the cuts all pretty much vertical. Not a good combination. Where the Puebla issues were easily overlooked, the road conditions degraded to dangerous as we approached Olinalá. Average speed… about 30kph…. 60 felt like flying. Rock falls everywhere, in places closing a lane and lots of evidence of where very large rock had fallen previously.


The scenery was still beautiful but unfortuately the road took almost all of our attention. We made a short stop in the other lacquer town of Temazcalcingo, but time and the need to meet contacts, pushed us onto Olinalá proper.

Then the trip was worth it again.

Our first reward was the town church. Average colonial style rural church, but the inside is covered in evidence of the town’s creative hands. Walls, columns and more are covered in the designs of the lacquerware, using the same techniques and materials. We also discovered a second traditional handcraft here, the making of items with fine wood inlay.

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The people inside were busy preparing the image of the patron for her Day of Assumption on Aug 15, but several were happy to talk to us about her, the lacquer and the woodwork, giving us a couple of contacts.

To be continued….

Photos by Alejandro Linares Garcia (the other 50-something that ought to know better)


Earth, bright colors and shape-shifters

Maestro Arnulfo with large jar

The Vazquez family is one of Tonalá best-known families of traditional potters, specializing in barro brunido, but that does not mean that they shun innovation.

The best-known family member now is award-winning potter, Arnulfo Vazquez, but the story begins with his paternal grandmother, Encarnación Carmon. She began making traditional barro brunido, focusing on traditional utilitarian pieces, but she did put significant effort in the making and decoration of her pieces, making them and the family name stand out in the market. Vazquez’s father, Salvador Vazquez, continued his mother’s work. But it has been Arnulfo who has made the pottery nationally and internationally known.

Vazquez’s began working with his father when he was about seven year old, learning all aspects of the craft, including even the digging of clay and determining its quality. To date, the maestro has accumulated around 40 years of experience.

Vazquez pottery is mostly traditional but does have several unique features. Tradition mostly resides in the clay and how it is worked. Like the generations before him, all clay is mind locally, and Vazquez knows very well which mines produce the clay he looks for. There are two main types “barro blando,” which is a whitish color and “barro tieso” which is black. The two are mixed in certain proportions to take advantage of the properties each has. The shaping  and firing of the clay has not changed much since his grandmother’s time, which the process still very individual.

But modern times have made a difference. Unlike his father, maestro Arnulfo no longer has to go to the mines himself and load a donkey with the raw material. He can either use a truck or even pay someone else to mine, clean and deliver the clays he needs. He also has some machinery to make the grinding, and sorting of the clay, along with wetting it, much easier. However, the shaping of pieces is done has it was two generations ago.

The Vazquez family specializes in barro brunido, one of the state of Jalisco’s traditional pottery styles. Its matte shine is not from glaze, but rather from burnishing, much the way indigenous pottery was made. Although other potters take imagery from Jalisco’s myths and legends, none give it such prominence as this workshop.

The hallmark of Vazquez pottery is the appearance of a nagual somewhere on the piece. Naguals are Mesoamerican shape-shifting animals who can do good or harm depending on their personalities and have various incarnations both in pre Hispanic lore as well as a number of Mexican handcrafts. In more than a few pieces, a nagual appears as a main element, but even when it does not, one is on the piece somewhere, acting as a kind of family signature. The focus on the stories and culture of the Tonala area is important to the Vazquez family, which believe it gives the pieces meaning for buyers and promotes the region’s culture. The importance of the nagual for Arnulfo is such that he has now taken to painting images of naguals on canvas, based on the images he puts on pottery.

Example of nagual painting

While tradition remains important in both technique and design, this does not mean that the pottery is stagnant. In fact, there are nods to both tradition and innovation in the production and often times in a single piece. Purely traditional pieces are made, still using traditional earth pigments… which produce colors such as black, red, white, terracotta and sometimes pink.

But the use of commercial pigments has introduced brighter and new colors, especially blue and green. The main drive in the use of these new colors comes from the markets, particularly from younger buyers who prefer the brighter, stronger look. Vazquez considers it part of the natural evolution of the craft comparing it with new models of cars. The newer color schemes seem to be taking over the Vazquez production, but Arnulfo states that there is still a strong market for traditional pieces, especially from older and more conservative buyers.

Fully traditional vase (left) and mostly traditional pot (with exception of blue highlights) before firing.

Many of the basic forms are traditional, with plates and bowls dominating along with large covered jars called tibores. None of the pieces in the home/workshop were utilitarian, all were decorative. Almost all were medium to large-sized but the maestro says he creates pieces of all sizes. Arnulfo has done many custom pieces up to tibors 2.2 meters tall. He has also done tile murals, including a 4 meter x 3 meter mural which is now located in Ajijic, Jalisco.

401px-ArnulfoVazquez034As a business, the workshop has had its ups and downs as demand fluxuates. On the plus side, the workshop is well enough known that many of the clients come to him either visiting or through the Internet. Many are from the United States and some from Europe. Currently another advantage is the very strong dollar, which make his pieces more affordable to foreign markets.  But price is not the basis of his market; quality of desigan and execution are. As upper-end handcrafts are a niche market, Vazquez depends much on his and the family’s reputation, one that is mostly spread through word-of-mouth and other forms of recommendation.

To this end, Vazquez family work can be seen in various museums and other important collections in Mexico and the United States such as the Museo de Arte Popular in Mexico City, various museums in Guadalajara, the Banamex folk art collections and several museums in the United States. Arnulfo personally has over 60 prizes and other recognitions including the Galardon Nacional of Folk Art in 2015 and the National Prize of Arts and Sciences, Folk Art Category awarded by then President Vicente Fox.

Arnulfo’s son Jaime Eduardo is the fourth generation to take up the craft, following family tradition, but developing his own mark as well. This is significant in an age when it is becoming harder to pass on handcraft tradittion to younger generations, especially in this rapidly urbanizing town outside of Guadalajara proper. Despite this maestro Arnulfo remains fairly optimistic of barro brunido’s future, being highly active in local efforts to promote traditional Jalisco pottery, especially in schools to give students pride in their heritage. Despite his own training being so family-oriented, stating several times that pottery “is in his blood,” he is also active in training young people from Tonala, whether or not they are from families involved in pottery or any other kind of handcraft.

Maestro Arnulfo with newer verstion (left) and more traditional coloring (right)






The night no one sleeps

Many foreigners living in Mexico may have never heard of the country’s smallest state, Tlaxcala. The area’s history, from pre-Hispanic kingdom to the present, seems to revolve around maintaining its independence and identity, first from the Aztecs, then the Spanish and in more modern times, the state of Puebla, which surrounds it on three sides.

It is home to one of Mexico’s most important festivals, the Feria de Huamantla, this year taking place from 4-20 August. It is an extension of the feast day of the city’s patron saint, the Virgin of Charity, but has since evolved into a major celebration of the area’s culture, religion and gastronomy, not to mention a running of the bulls.


The most important night of this festival is called La Noche que Nadie Duerme or The Night No One Sleeps which extends from the night of the 14th and into the early morning hours of the 15th. This is not hyperbole. During the 14th,  townspeople work on preparing the procession route for the one day a year that the image comes out to bless the faithful.

Its not just cleaning; the way needs to be meticulously prepared with over 11 kilometers of finely made “sawdust carpets.”  These are images and patterns covering the streets made with colored sawdust, flower petals and other vegetative matter. Huamantla is not the only location that makes these, but it is probably the best known example of the ephemeral craft.

Preparing a section of the carpet

Why ephemeral? Because the hours spend arranging the colors and images that cover the entire street will be destroyed as the image and its procession passes over starting exactly at midnight on the 15th of August, the Virgin’s saint day. Indeed this is part of the point, to show that life on earth is transient and only the divine is truly real.

2012 procession over a section of the carpet

The Feria has a number of other important events includign the Flower Parade (Desfile de las flores) , a day dedicated to the famous seasonal dish chile en nogada and Mockery Night (Noche de burladeros). But the most famous event of the Feria after the sleepless night occurs on the last day, the Huamantlada, when dozens of bulls run on the streets, Pamplona-style.

Special thanks to Antareth Reyna for the still photos of last year’s carpets.

Straws drawing

One of the most amazing things about finely-worked handcrafts is both the talent and patience needed to create them. Unfortunately, that talent and patience is not always rewarded with respect.


Popotillo (lit. little straw) is the craft of creating colorful images using the thin stalks of various grasses. The art is not well known in Mexico and virtually unknown among ethnic Mexicans living in the United States, even though there are some people living in California and other places who do it.

Mexican handcrafts experts make a distinction among handcrafted items which does not exist in English. “Artesanía” refers to a “higher caste” of decorative or utilitarian items created using pre-industrial methods but are not fine art. “Manualidad” also refers to handcrafted items, but of a less-respected sort. The distinction is loosely based on whether or not the making of the item has a history and/or a significance in the culture of the place(s) where it is made. All indigenous pottery traditions which can trace their origins unbroken from the pre Hispanic period are unquestionably artesanía, and party favors made with foam rubber bought at crafts store following pre-printed instructions would be manualidades.

But the line isn’t always so clear. Mata Ortiz pottery is considered to be artesanía even though the pieces produced in this Chihuahua village have only a glimmer of resemblance to the Pakime pottery Juan Quesada worked to reconstruct from shards in the 20th century.

Colored straw

Popotillo runs into a similar lineage problem, which for some categorizes it as a manualidad. Although many artisans claim pre-Hispanic origins, there are no written or oral records to back this up. Nor is it documented in colonial works. There are some indications that there may be a historical/cultural component to the craft.

One problem with the pre-Hispanic claim is that the craft can be and is done with material we know of as “straw,” either wheat, oat, rye and barley, all introduced by the Spanish in the colonial period. Another issue is the images that are created with the technique. These tend to be geometric designs, Catholic religious images, landscapes and folkloric generic Mexican images and scenes. There is an element of kitsch in vast majority of what is produced.

News item about classes in the craft in Chalco, State of Mexico

On the other hand, the production of the craft seems to be limited to and area extending from far eastern Michoacan, into the State of Mexico, Mexico City and into Puebla and parts of Hidalgo state. All areas which were either the heart of the old Aztec empire or strongly affected by it. The techniques have been transmitted across generations, and in some areas, straw is not used at all, but rather the use of certain native plants are required. For example, in the areas around the Popocatepetl Volcano (Puebla and State of Mexico), the plan is a grass called zacatón which grows on the slopes, harvested by local and sold to artisans in communities lower down. In Hidalgo and some other places the plant is cambray, in the flax family, called “mijo” in the vernacular.


The craft remains popular particularly in Michoacan where about 200 families are known to make “painting” and use it to decorate other objects. Most of the artisans who do this in the US have roots in the state. Its popularity straddles the border area between Michoacan and State of Mexico, in particular Tlalpujahua (Michoacan) and El Oro (State of Mexico), which share a number of handcraft traditions. El Oro is known for making large, intricate paintings which can command high prices.

Artisans can also be found in several of the suburbs of Mexico City and it is regularly taught in community centers here and in the city proper. The Mexico City suburbs include Nicolas Romero, Huixquilucan and Los Reyes/La Paz.  Huixquilucan specializes in items such as bookmarks and Christmas cards. In Los Reyes/La Paz, artisan Roberto Domingo has developed techniques for using the straw decoration on various wood items including boxes, key holders and more. Similarly in Puebla, including Santa Maria Tonanzintla, the poptillos is applied ot various three dimensional objects. There are a few communities that produce paintings in Hidalgo as well.

The craft is labor intensive. An 8×10 image can take 2 or 3 days, depending on complexity and all the space must be covered in straw… no bare patches. The use of the hands, or in the case of very tiny pieces, tweezers to place the bits of colored lines has not changed, but there has been some modernization. Traditionally, the straw or grass is collected, dried and colored either by the craftsperson proper or by another person. Originally, vegetable dyes were used and straw colored this way still can be found, but most are now colored using aniline dyes, as the color lasts longer. The straw pieces are applied on paper, posterboard or other surfaces, not by cutting the straw first, but rather applying the straw and snapping it where the artisan wants the line to end. The traditional adhesive is beeswax or Campeche wax, but other glues are sometimes used. After the image is completed, it is usually coated to make it shine. In the past, this was done using egg whites, but today commercial varnish is used.

Popotillo’s “questionable” status as a handcraft shows how often classification is not a clear cut process, but a subjective one, much the way of classifying fine from popular art or even good from bad work. There is no doubt that the people dedicated to this put in long hours and need a fine, creative eye, especially in the creation of unique pieces.



Snakes on a mask: the Horta brothers

Tócuaro is a tiny community. You can walk from end-to-end in less than 5 minutes, but it is home to one of the Lake Patzcuaro region’s notable handcrafts, the making of wooden masks, especially those depicting devils. These masks are mostly tied to the largest annual event here, the “Pastorelas” which occurs in early February.  All must be made of wood (not plastic or other materials) and each mask is worn by only one dancer.

Small mural of a devil mask on the delegation building in the center of Tócuaro

Tócuaro is an artisan town, with most families involved in wood working, mostly the making of rustic furniture. That woodworking did not include the making of masks. The first to make his own masks was a craftsman named Jose Ponce, but he made them mostly for his own use, not for sale. Until the latter 20th century, those from the town who needed a mask bought them from a nearby community callted Pichátaro or other communities around Lake Patzcuaro.

Snake/devil mask at the Museo de Arte Popular in Mexico City

This changed with the Horta family, specifically Juan Horta Castilla. Horta originally made a living as a farmhand. He was very poor and did not have the money to buy a mask in Pichátaro. He went to another Lake area town, Quiroga, to find a woodworker who would teach him how to make masks. Like Ponce, he originally was interested only in making his own masks and maybe for family and friends. But the tourism of the area provided an alternative market for his work. Horta’s early masks were simple, without the elaborate designs, images and color schemes that often dominate masks made today. They were similar to masks made by other Lake Patzcuaro communities. However, as the Pastorela does not dictate exactly how the devils should be depicted through the masks, experimentation and creativity are permitted.

Juan Horta home and workshop in Tócuaro

Horta’s talent allowed him to sell to markets beyond local dancers, first around Lake Patzcuaro, then to other parts of Michoacan, then to other parts of Mexico and even in the United States eventually.

He used local woods and natural paints including those made from soot and pigments used for the dyeing of cloth. The opportunity to sell in more upscale venues, such as the Casa de Artesanias in Morelia and later the Feria Maestros de Arte in Chapala prompted him to develop masks with finer features.  His travels, often sponored by government entities, not only allowed him to sell but also to work with and learn from other artisans.

Juan died on December 19, 2006, but not before a long history of success at handcraft competitions, including a prize for a mask he entered for the National Prize in Arts and Sciences in 1980.

Orlando Horta demonstrating mask painting at the Feria Maestros del Arte in Chapala

Today, five of Horta’s sons (as well as a few other families) continue the work of making masks for both dancers’ and collectors’ markets. Three (Orlando, Hugo and Manuel) still work in the father’s old workshop, which still carries Juan’s name. The other live and work elsewhere in the small community.

Each brother has his own speciality and his own clients.  The oldest, Orlando, specializes in miniature masks. Hugo does medium-sized ieces and Modesto makes larger masks of high quality mostly for collectors. Juan Jose specializes in masks of women like mermaids with fine detail. Manuel is more of a generalist, and his masks are more rustic.

Inside the Juan Horta workshop in Tócuaro

Depending on size, detail and quality of the finished product, masks can take from weeks to months to make, that that does not mean that a single mask is being made during all of that tiem. Much of the time involved includes the drying of the wood (before and/or after carving) and the drying of paint layers. Various local woods are still used in the making of masks, each selected depending on its qualities. One important wood is called copalillo, which is native to the area. It is lightweight, relatively easy to carve and resistant to warping. It can also grow in capricious forms, lending itself in particular to the making of devil’s masks which feature one or more raised snake figures over the basic form.

HortaWorkshopTocuaro028Carving of the wood is still done very similarly to what Juan Horta did, there have been some changes, in particular in painting. Until very recently, masks were painted with water-based paints then acrylics, but since many dances are performed during the rainy season, water damage to both paint and wood is a problem. For this reason, Horta’s sons have turned to the use of automobile paint, which not only gives a higher gloss, it protects the wood much better for much longer.

The Horta’s make many types of masks for most of the regional dances in central Michoacan, they are by far best known for the making of the snake-laden devil masks. The snake adornment varies from a simple raised design to elements that are added to the “face” and almost obscuring it completely. These masks can be made from one single piece of wood or may take advantage of the smaller twising branches of the copalillo tree. While the snakes have always been a traditional aspect of these masks, the truly fantastic designs are new, dating back only about 20 years or so and are primarily driven by the collectors and institutional markets.


Although the fine, fantastic masks are a trademark, the three brothers in the original workshop still produce a wide variety of masks for various markets. While size and type of wood play a role, most of the price is determined by the amount of time and effort the mask requires. Intricate and highly-crafted mass go for $6,000 pesos and more, but their market is limited mostly to collectors and institutions, with only 2 or 3 of these made per year on average. Most of the production, about 50 to 80 masks per year, are still basic, traditional masks made for both dancers and tourists and sell for between 100 and 500 pesos. They also take on special orders, including masks that may have nothing to do with any traditional model, not only because it is a guaranteed sale, but also a challenge to their creative abilities.

Although the home and workshop in Tócuaro is open to the public, few make their way to this town, various km away from Lake Patzcuaro proper. Those masks not intended for local dancers are mostly sold through galleries, tourist shops and other resellers, not only in Michoacan, but also in important tourist areas such as Puerto Vallarta, San Miguel Allende,  and various in the United States.

Despite their reputation, the making of the masks does not provide sufficient income, and there is little other economic opportunity in the area. Two of the brothers regularly migrate illegally to the United States to do seasonal work, primarily in New England. Here they have also given workshops and classes about the masks and their use in local school and even give classes at the Margaritas Mexican restaurant in Weymouth.








Planting alebrijes

Since Manuel Jimenez developed the first Oaxacan alebrijes in the 20th century, the carving of these colorful figures has become an economic lifeline for the poor, rural people of the Central Valleys of Oaxaca. In towns such as San Martin Tilcajete, almost everyone makes a living, in whole or in part, by carving and painting figures destined for the collectors’ and tourist markets.

Jacobo Angeles with alebrije in progress (1)

But there has been a downside. One reason for its success was that it took advantage of a tree/shrub called copal, which had always been a kind of weed in the semi-arid valleys here. The wood it produces is very soft, and trunks and branches grow in capricious shapes. Until Jimenez’s invention, there was simply no use for the plant that grew all over the hillsides.


The very traits that makes copal undesirable for any other use makes it perfect for the carving of these fantastic figures. Its softness means that carving can be done relatively quickly, and the twists and turns are taken advantage of to partially form the figure and its pose.

IMG_8294 - copia
Planting a copal tree

It certainly seemed that not only did copal provide a new source of income, the supply seemed endless. Alas, this is never the case with natural resources.

The hills around towns like Tilcajete (and Arrazola, etc) are now mostly barren. Much of the year only dry grass can be seen. Artisans must buy their raw wood from vendors who themselves must go further and further afield, often cutting illegally. This has not only made copal wood more costly, it has brought the attention of state and federal environmental authorities, who have been getting ever stricter about illegal harvesting.


Food for the volunteers

The first efforts at reforestation were with the Rodolfo Morales Foundation, which has been running an annual reforestation event for about 20 years. About seven years ago, the Jacobo and Maria Angeles workshop, one of the biggest (and biggest employers) began their own efforts, even starting their own copal plant nursery. But this is not just a tree-hugging exercise, but rather a matter of enlightened self-interest. The long-term aim is to have a system of sustainable planting and harvesting to assure supply for generations to come.


The 2016 , the Foundation and the Angeles workshop together planted about 5000 trees. This year, the Angeles Workshop plans to plant 2,500 trees itself, with will include 1000 of other native species along with the copal.

Video of the 2016 event

The 2017 Festival del Copal is on 13 August and volunteers will meet at the Angeles workshop at 8am on that day. It is a family-oriented event, with children especially welcome so they can learn to appreciate the fragility of nature. Local cuisine will be provided to volunteers. It is recommended to bring a shovel or pick, wear comfortable clothes and shoes as well as a sombrero or cap for sun protection. Sunscreen is a very good idea as well. You can register for the event at, and if you have questions, you can contact the taller on Facebook. Their son Ricardo speaks English.

Angeles nursery for reforestation



All photos courtesy of the Angeles Workshop with the exception of (1) which is courtesy of Friends of Oaxacan Folk Art (CC-by-SA 4.0)



Weaving in San Juan Cancuc, Chiapas

By Laramie Xico Garcia

Nestled in a highland valley about an hour outside San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico, lies the small community of San Juan Cancuc. The inhabitants are indigenous Maya and speak their indigenous language, mostly Tseltal. In the tradition of weaving and embroidery unique to each community, the people of San Juan Cancuc have their distinctive fashion emblazoned with bold, geometric patterns.

Juana of San Juan Cancuc, Chiapas proudly shows us one of her complex designs

Many people in the community proudly wear their ancestral clothing. Styles that have been passed down for generations can be seen being worn while passing through the small town center. However, these labor-intensive fashions take a lot of time to produce and are a high cost for locals. Because of this, locals opt to purchase more affordable clothes like jeans and t-shirts. You see this change especially in the dress of the men.

Larimie (back) in traditional men's garment of San Juan Cancuc handmade by Juana (front)

The men of San Juan Cancuc wear long white tunics accented by incredible embroidery in fantastical colors. The bold designs cover the cuffs of the long sleeves and the chest area up to around the neck. A thin vertical line extends from the bottom edge of the design to the bottom edge of the garment. The best thing about this garment is that there are large holes under the sleeves that cut down the side slightly. These serve two purposes; when it’s cold you can fold your arms in the sleeves up inside across your chest and when it’s hot, you can remove your arms from the long sleeves and let them hang decoratively.

Juana demonstrates the backstop loom as her kids play nearby
Little Juana with a huipil folded on her head.

The women on the other hand wear short sleeve huipils, that have the chest and back blocked with a field of embroidered designs. At the bottom of the embroidery block, there is one broad vertical line of design on each side of the block that continues down the length of the dress.

Little Juana shows us one of the recently completed designs by her mother.

Spending an afternoon seeing how these garments are made is always an unforgettable trip. We headed to San Juan Cancuc with a lovely woman I know from San Cristóbal, Marta. We headed to Marta’s sister-in-law’s home. Welcomed by Juana, who is a skilled weaver, and her lovely family, we get to pass the afternoon at their humble home located up a small path through the brush and trees. Here she demonstrates the unique style of weaving to San Juan Cancuc that incorporates embroidered geometric patterns. Everything is made by hand on the Mayan backstrap loom. This ancient technique has been passed down for generations. In the simplest explanation, it involves a series of sticks that the thread is attached to. One end of the threads are secured on the stick and then to a pole. The other end is attached to a piece of leather that wraps around the artisan’s waist at her lower back. The loom extends and hangs about six feet between the pole to her waist. Once the strap is attached, the base layer of the textile is started. White thread is carefully woven between each thread from one side to the other. Once the thread is through, it is then pulled taut with a long piece of a wooden wedge that is placed through the threads and pulled toward the maker. This process is repeated and you can see the textile begin to form.

Juana happily details her garment with embroidery

As the main cloth is made, there comes a time to add the embellishments. This is where the embroidery technique begins. Juana carefully lays in rows of brightly colored thread. As she weaves each small section, she counts the threads as this is how she knows her design. She actually can’t see her design as she is making it because it is on the reverse side as she weaves. The rows of color begin to take shape as a grid of brightly colored blocks. Her eleven year old daughter, Juana, carefully watches her mother as she too is learning this art form.

Eleven year old Juana shows us what she can do with the backstrap loom

The pattern design on the garments of San Juan Cancuc are easily recognizable. Intense hues with brilliant pinks and darker tones like deep purples and blacks are arranged in columns of color. The younger generation can be seen experimenting with patterns including zig zag and floral motifs. One of these woven pieces takes about three months to complete working on them partially throughout the day.

Family portrait in San Juan Cancuc, Chiapas, Mexico

The weaving demonstration is punctuated by everyday life. The kids, shy at first, quickly warm up to me and Manuel de Jesus can’t get enough of the camera. They play around the yard and want to show us parts of their wonderful life. Around the house, we discovered chicken coops, a rabbit pen, a small nursery where they are growing coffee plants, a beautiful little vegetable garden abundant with cabbage and plenty of wild edibles growing in the surrounding nature. Little Juana climbed one of the mango trees to pick us some delicious mangoes.

Little Juana climbs the mango tree to pick us some fruit.
Mid-air mango! Manuel de Jesus cowers as his sister tosses a mango to him.
Mango time!

After spending time on the porch weaving with Juana, she prepared a local staple, pozol. This isn’t the soup some of you might be thinking of. This is a traditional drink made with water and fermented masa (corn dough) – sometimes cacao is added for a different flavor. This drink is what the men drink before and after going out to work for the day instead of eating a regular meal. It is said to provide potent energy for the day’s work.

Juana mixes a regional drink of fermented masa (corn dough) and water known as "Pozol"
Marta picks wild epazote on the hillside
Cabbage patch in the garden
Juana cuts us some cabbage from her garden to take home
Manuel de Jesus has coffee growing at several stages in his nursery
Kids having fun with the pet rabbits
Fresh honey collected from their bees being bottled to go.

When Juana’s husband, Manuel de Jesus (not the junior mentioned earlier), returned from worked he greeted us and then the first thing he did was sit down for a large bowl of pozol. We then went to a small shed where he shared some of their honey that they’ve collected from their bees. It was delicious and I took a small bottle home.

As it was time to end the day, Marta, her daughter and I headed back to San Cristóbal with some extra goodies besides woven goods. We left with honey, a branch of bananas, epazote, cabbage, a rabbit and an great appreciation for this amazing culture.

Little Juana carries a branch of bananas with a head-strap down the trail to the car.

Special thanks to Mi Milpa Blog for allowing Creative Hands to reblog this post. It is an area of Mexico that is difficult for us to get to because of distance. Laramie has better photography skills than I!

Guelaguetza and handcrafts

The best laid plans of mice and men…

Last week I had a chance to take family to Oaxaca to encourage them to see more of Mexico than just the typical tourist resorts. In this respect the trip was very successful. I also had every intention of squeezing in at least one or two artisan interviews. In that I failed miserably. Time flies by on vacation and there was so much for the family to see just to get the absolute basics, center of Oaxaca city, food, drink, visting some little towns in the valleys, more food and drink, archeological sites, more food and drink…. I think you get the picture.


Dancers from San Antonino Castilla Velasco at Guelaguetza main stage (1)

We went during Guelaguetza week. I had hoped to attend the main events on Monday on the hill, but I was unable to get decent tickets and I refuse to see it any other way. Fortunately, there are many other smaller events and the people watching is great.

Woman selling rebozos on the Zocalo (2)

Handcrafts are always on sale in Oaxaca city, from upscale stores to street vendors with quality ranging from what are really fine works of art to cheap trinkets. But little compares with the sheer numbers of street vendors on the main square (Zocalo) and into some adjoining streets during Guelaguetza.

By far, these stalls are dominated by resellers with indigenous-style blouses for women. The main shows of Guelaguetza feature dancers and others in authentic regional dress, and the women’s clothing is far more varied and colorful than those of the men. Many visitors buy and wear these items during the time they are in town.

I have mixed feelings about this. I do not worry about “cultural appropriation” as the makers of regional dress generally do not and a blouse paired with a pair of jeans is not trying to pass oneself off as a member of an indigenous group. Whether they conscientiously realize it or not. visitors are acknowledging that it is its indigenous heritage that makes Oaxaca so special. Perhaps what I do not like is that the buying of these shirts (authentic or not) is that of a “throwaway” item… something to be used during the festival then relegated to the back of a closet for a time until it is finally gotten rid of.

Better made machine  embroidered blouse made and sold in Mitla, Oaxaca

The “party favor” aspect of these clothes is noted by the extreme poor quality of most, with the aim of selling as cheaply as possible. There wasnt a single shirt I could comfortably say was close to authentic (either in design or manufacture)… and many would not stand more than a wash or two before seams frays to the point of making the garment useless.

Sales of authentic garb could be found, but making the situation worse, these opportunities were hidden beyond the Zocalo where most of the tourists roamed. Other than the usual galleries that specialize in these, there were stand set up for artisans from various regions of the state, these stalls were set up at the far north end of the Andador Macedonia Alcala. While there was a respectable crowd there when we visited, it was nothing like the areas closer to the Zocalo.

All in all, I heartily recommend going to Oaxaca for the Guelaguetza (and getting tickets for the main show if at all possible) and seeing the items for sale. While most is not for collectors, they do show some interesting innovation in design and colors, especially those which are a combination of traditional and modern dress. Better and better made examples of these can be found in Oaxaca and other areas such as Mitla and who knows, may be cherished as “traditional” garb some point in the future.

Photo credits:

Featured – Cristina Zapata Perez

(1) Armando Ambrocio

(2) Alejandro Linares Garcia


Tin man of Tonalá

Jose Luis Arzola Tovar lives in the famed pottery town of Tonalá, Jalisco, on the edge of the Guadalajara metro area. He is well-known among the artisan community here and has a following of collectors. But he does not work in clay but in tin.

The working of sheet tin is not traditional in Tonalá, but rather in San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, a few hours to the east. Four generations ago, Arzola’s great grandfather worked in the 1880s by soldering metal items in the streets of San Miguel and neighboring Dolores Hidalgo along with making items such as toys from sheet tin. His grandfather and father followed suit. The Guanajuato handcraft tradition extends into his mother’s lineage as well, with the making of beeswax figurines and highly decorated candles popular in the southern part of the state.



Upon entering don José’s modest home on Madero Street, one notices immediately the collections that give historic weight to the work that the maestro does. One side of the living room contains tables filled with tradtional tin toys, from the 20th century up to 1980s, some of which have been made by Arzola and predecessors.

The main bedroom wall is filled with old tin folk retablos, naif paintings dedicated to a certain saint or other Catholic figure either as a petition or in gratitude for a favor received.


But the main surprise awaits lucky visitors in the back of the property. Here there is a very small two-room structure that used to be Arzola’s parents’ home. When his father died, the family turned the space into a museum for a multi-generational interest in collecting cultural objects, especially tin handcrafts. The collection was started by Arzola’s grandfather. It includes pieces made by the family over 100 years such as tin frames, toys, and lanterns as well as soldered glass enclosures. From the mother’s side there are candles and beeswax figures and even one piece that is a mix of wax and tin.


JoseArzola019The museum does not limit  itself to work done by the family. Most of the pieces are tin frames surrounding religious icons which come from various parts of Mexico. There are also various wood pieces from all over Mexico, some pre Hispanic ceramics from Jalisco and some other areas and more. The two oldest pieces in the collection are both folk retablos on tin, one definitively dated to 1800 and the other likely from the same time, but too badly eroded to be certain. There is also an interesting collection of retablos depicting scenes from Mexico’s history, in particular the Mexican Revolution, noting suffering and escapes from death/injury by famous and not-so-famous participants in these events.

Arzola has been invited to exhibit the collection in museums in various parts of Jalisco and has even had one international exhibition in Buenos Aires. He says much of the interest in the collection is from foreigners, with most visitors to his home from the U.S. and Canada.


Image thanks to Cathy Merrill of Mainly Mexican

Don José’s work is based on the tradition demonstrated in the home and museum. He was born in Guanajuato, but when he was only three, the family moved to Monterrey and shortly thereafter to Tonala to the same block where he and various members of his family can still be found. He began working metal with his father at age ten, starting with the soldering of glass enclosures then moving on to working in sheet tin. When he married, he specialized in tin work, with one brother specializing in the glass structures.

Although he still makes tin toys, Arzola is better known for making the intricate frames for religous imagery. In the past, sometimes the family painted the images of the Virgin Mary and saints, but today Arzola focuses on the tin work to enclose commercially-produced images. (This is common for artisans of this type in Guanajuato as well.) His frames are replicas or near-replicas of the pieces found in his museum, using the same materials and techniques for the most part. Exceptions include commerically made elements such as military buttons, but these are sparingly used. The tin is worked only with hand tools on a simple table in the living room.

FullSizeRender (1)
Image thanks to Cathey Merrill of Mainly Mexican

Keeping the tradition alive here is proving difficult and it is very likely that don José will the last in his family to continue the tin work. While the family is interested on conserving and promoting the musuem/collection, none of his children have decided to dedicate themselves to craft. He has received support from government agencies and some academics, but the frames and toys have gone out of fashion in Mexican culture. However, the support has translated into the teaching of classes in Tonalá and Tlaquepaque, and the maestro has hopes that one or more of the young students will continue on after him.

Interestingly enough, the most eye-catching thing in the maestro’s living room is not the toy collection but the colorful marionettes that cover nearly an entire wall. These figures represent an interest of don José that began in 2012, after meeting marionette makers in Buenos Aires. He researched the tradition of marionettes in Mexico, and especially in western Mexico, finding people to teach him to to make and handle the figures.


Arzola took what he learned and decided to form a small marionette company that specializing in stories from and about Mexican indigenous people. Arzola’s family is Otomi (a dominant ethnicity in Guanajuato) and has been involved in indigenous groups in Jalisco for some time, leading him to speak a bit of other languages such Nahuatl, Tecuece and Coca, which are important in the history of Jalisco.

Arzola’s home, workshop and museum are on Madero #295 in Tonalá

Cel  33 1386 0881

All photos unless otherwise indicated by Leigh Thelmadatter



























Handcrafts, identity and religion

The center of just about any community, large or small, in Mexico is its local Catholic church. I cannot tell you how many times I oriented myself in car, public transport or walking by looking for bell towers. These churches replaced pre Hispanic temples as the center of Mexican life, legitimizing the new social and political situation.

While religion does not play the all-consuming function that it did up to the late 19th century, the parish church still has a function in the identity of a place. It not only marks the geographic and political center (as the main government building is almost always on the same plaza), but it also reflects the cultural and economic bases of the people who live here.

Mexico has quite a few towns whose main economic focus is the sale of handcrafts, the tourism it attracts or both. Some are quite famous, such as Mata Ortiz, Chihuahua and many others obscure. Although not all do, a number of the parish churches have elements related to this economic activity, and in some cases rather dominate the place of worship.

529px-ChandelierSagrarioCobreOne of the first churches of this type that we discovered is the Nuestra Señora del Sagrario Church in the center of Santa Clara del Cobre, Michoacan. Santa Clara is famous for its copper working, and may be the only town left in Mexico dedicated to it. The Purhepecha had just developed techniques for working this metal when the Spanish arrived, but the emotional attachment to the office is related to the work of Vasco de Quiroga, who set up a system of trades and trading that allows the region to recover economically from the Conquest.

Like many churches in Michoacan, the use of dark wood is a distinguishing feature. This provides the perfect backdrop for copper chandeliers and other elements.


Cuanajo014Another church in Michoacan is the Natividad de María parish of Cuanajo. This is a wood working town, specialing in furniture. The traditional furniture from here is colorful with raised images, although more simplistic and modern forms are becoming more popular.

Examples of the traditional style can be seen on a couple of pieces near the main altar. The stand for the Bible is particularly interesting as it contains the old pre-Hispanic symbol for speech, as can be seen in numerous codices. The pews are also made in town, with finely joined parquet style piecing and the inner doors show the fine work the local craftspeople are capable of. One surprise was 10 gigantic banners along the sides of the main nave, all cross-stitched by hand.


San Bartolo Coyotepec is famous for its barro negro (black clay) pottery. The working of this clay goes back to the pre Hispanic period, but what made it famous was a technique developed by local potter Doña Rosa, who found that if the piece was burnished with a smooth stone before firing, the result was a shiny black instead of a dull gray. This pottery ever since has been a favorite with tourists to the central Oaxaca valleys. The San Bartolo parish has pieces of barro negro both inside and outside the church.


Barro negro pots can be seen on the arch entering the atrium

Another pottery town, Metepec, State of Mexico, marks the importance of its wares on the Capillo de Calvario, which stands on the hill that overlooks the town center. The exterior wall has large ceramic suns with smiling faces in bright and/or terra cotta. These are one of several notable types of products made here. Part of the hill is covered with a “mural” made of ceramic tiles that tell the story of the town.


The small community of Vizarrón, Querétaro has not one, but two interconnected parish churches. The older one dates to the 18th century, with the newer one built in the 1990s. The older church faces the plaza which is paved with the local marble in white, black and yellow. Inside the older church, marble elements can been seen from the large block of black marble serving as the main altar to plaques indicating the stations of the cross and donors in rose or gray. These are significant because they date back to the beginning of the working of marble here in the 1950s (though mining it is older). These pieces show chisel marks from a time before the use of power tools in the artisan community here.

Marble nearly engulfs the interior of the new church, a modern circular building. The floors are of polished marble and the walls are lined with more roughly-hewed pieces. The main altar is of pink marble, with a high relief of the Last Supper. Even the priests seat on the main dias is of marble as well. The only breaks from marble there are the pews for congregants and the ceiling, formed with curved sections of brickwork. But the cupola at the center top of this ceiling is marble as well.



Sometimes local craftsmen’s talents are used to create images related to the local economic activity. In the case of the parish of Papantla, Veracruz, there are wood panels along the walls of the church dedicated to the vanilla plant. This plant is native to the area, important both culturally and economically for milenia.


Do you know of other churches which reflects the handcraft tradition of the community? Please note in the comments!

All photos by Alejandro Linares Garcia and Leigh Thelmadatter