Sarapes

Alberto_Garduño_-_El_sarape_rojo,_ca._1918_(584)
El Sarape Rojo by Alberto Garduño (1918)

Perhaps one of the most iconic handcrafts of Mexico… and one of the most misunderstood. It appears in books, movies (especially Westerns) and in its bastardized “blanket” form, in countless tourist-trap markets.

It is a men’s garmed with both indigenous and European origins, a fusion of the two textile traditions. One the indigenous side, its predecessor is the “tilma,” a rectangular cloth that was used as a kind of cape, a blanket and even for carrying loads. This is the cloth on which the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe appears for the first time, on a tilma belonging to Saint Juan Diego. The European predecesor is most likely the “manta jerezana (of Jerez)”, which itself is the result of Spanish and Arab textile fusion. This garment was popular with the conquistadores and early colonizers and generally made with wool. The name is most likely from Nahuatl. There are two possibilities for the origin, both from words with a general reference to textiles.

It developed gradually during the colonial period in various parts of central Mexico, so there is no credit to a single inventor. Its making and use reached its peak in the 18th and early 19th century, primarily in central Mexico, but also found in parts of the south and north. It was considered indispensable for those men who worked as laborers, fieldhands, cowboys as well as people who lived in rural areas. Most were rugged, coarse garments, but very fine versions were made for ranch owners and even city dwellers for use in certain festivals. Though often associated with rural workers, in reality the garment was popular among many strata of society. During this time, most were made by small workshops dedicated to this one garment, primarily in central and northern Mexico.

The garments popularity was due to its versatility. It could be used similar to a coat but also as a blanket, groundcover and even rain gear. The widespread production of sarapes led the regional variation and different techniques for making them. They could be simple sheets of cloth or adornments such as velvet, clasps and buttons could be added. In the latter colonial period, the best sarapes came from Puebla and Tlaxcala, which still produce fine sarapes today.

Mexican Independence, the Industrial Revolution and other factors led to significant changes in how sarapes and other textiles were made in Mexico. During the Colonial period, they were made most often with pedal looms that the Spanish introduced in central Mexico. Mass production of sarapes shifted from Puebla and Tlaxcala west-and northward and production industrialized, using mechanized looms. This was further reinforced with the rise of cotton and wool production in the north of the country, especially in Durango and Coahuila.

MAPElNorte065
Genuine handmade Saltillo sarapes on display at the Museo de Arte Popular in Mexico City

The popularity of the sarape faded with the industrialization of Mexico, but it remains iconic and often appears at Independence Day celebrations and similar events.  Colors can be bright or muted, and depend on the region the garment comes from. They tend to be earthier in the north and brighter further south. The most authentic are made from cotton or wool, but those of synthetic material are unfortunately ubiquitous. Many of these are mass-produced in Tlaxcala (and even imported from Asia). The thread used almost exclusively commercial for economic reasons. They can and sometimes are woven by hand but more often done by machine. Most common sarapes are made industrially for markets sensitive to price, such as lower-class markets and the tourist industry. But fine, handwoven pieces with intricate patterns and other decoration can still be found.

Traditional sarapes are made in Tlaxcala, Chiapas, Aguascalientes, Puebla, San Luis Potosí, Guanajuato, Zacatecas, State of Mexico and Oaxaca as well as Coahuila, where the city of Saltillo is located. Patterns are still regional, with the most recognized being those from Saltillo, Gualupita (State of Mexico), and Chiautempan (Tlaxcala). However, other notable designs come from San Bernardino Contla, Tlaxcala, Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, the city of San Luis Potosí,  and Guadalupe, Zacatecas (one of several known  landscape designs).  Thicker wool serapes are found in areas with colder winters, such as Masiaca, Sonora or Bacavachi, Chihuahua with thin, delicate versions coming from warm climes such as that of Zongolica, Veracruz.  Designs can range from geometric patterns, pure stripes, single-color, figures of people and animals to entire images of local landscapes.

Sarapes-2016
Contla (Tlaxcala) serape on a loom

The best known name is the Saltillo sarape, which makes many mistakenly believe that the garment originated there. In the latter 18th and early 19th centuries, some of the finest sarapes come from this area. Interestingly enough the establishment of a sarape industry here was due to the migration of indigenous peoples from the state of Tlaxcala north to “civilize” the local nomadic tribes. The style became popular in northeast and parts of central Mexico. Later it became popular in the US, especially in New Mexico and California.  Unfortunately, most of what is seen in tourist markets are terrible imitations of the Saltillo style, gaudy and useless.

The traditional colors of Saltillo sarapes comes from the former use of natural dyes, especially the cochineal insect (for red tones) and indigo for blue and purple. Other colors such as green and yellow were obtained from various native plants. Saltillo sarapes were developed on horizontal looms which allow wides of no more than 80cm, leading to two halves which are sewn up in the middle, leaving a space for the head. Distinguishing Saltillo design elements are found in the center, background and edges. The central motif is geometric, usually a rhomboid or circle which contrasts with the background and stands out when the garment is worn. Other geometric patterns tend to be horizontal as well as the lines. Backgrounds are intricate mosaics with colors generally limited to blue, brown and white. Edges are often crosshatch or diagonal patterns.

The popularlity of the Saltillo sarape today is in no small part due to its depiction and art and cinema in the 19th and 20th centuries. Foreign artists and writers documented the garment extensively. It was also popular in the western United States. In the 20th century, it made many appearances in Western films.

The National Anthropology Museum has an excellent collection of the garment, with nearly 500 examples.

Featured image by Andrés Monroy Hernández taken at the Sarape Museum

Advertisements

With love from Sinaloa

 

Hortensia López Gaxiola is a newcomer to the world of doll making but not to either the arts or the promotion of indigenous cultures. Born and raised in Guasave, Sinaloa, she comes from a fishing family. No one in the family is an artist or artisan, but her mother did have a sewing machine in which the young girl learned the basics of making blouses and dresses. In school, the advanced to making patterns. She went to college earning a degree in language and literature from the Autonomous University of Sinaloa. There, she was a founding member of Filibusteros, a university puppet theater group in 2002, transferring sewing and other skills to the making of puppets and sets. In 2010, she founded her own group called Imaginaria Títeries.

15109342_1485646291449600_7945381042490161401_n44830136_2360659203948300_7601182620235333632_n

44929042_2366667320014155_5910954436246634496_nThe idea of making dolls did not occur to her until in 2013, when she found Mayra René’s book on cloth dolls.After reading the stories of various women she was inspired to try the craft herself. She found that while the making of puppets and dolls are not the same artistically, many of the sewing and other skills transferred. It began as a hobby, for her own enjoyment. Soon after, she posted pictures on Facebook to share and started getting requests to make dolls.

The activity has grown into a side business for Gaxiola, called Sinaloíta, what the people of her state are called. She has easily made over 1000 dolls , saying that creating a dolls is making something out of nothing, a very agreeable sensation.

Gaxiola makes dolls related to the culture of the state of Sinaloa and of Mexico. She makes mermaids, images of Frida Kahlo, and dark-skinned nannies called Negritas and those performing regional folk dances. Her dolls are made with new materials but there is an element of yesterday to them. Older people have told her that they remind them of dolls of over forty years ago.

11700814_1119232714757628_6005462929453596835_nGaxiola is also an activist for cultural and indigenous issues. For example, she is active with the Tarahumara who have migrated to the state from their homes in Chihuahua to find work. They are extremely poor. In addition to promoting their cause to authorities, she has worked out an arrangement to have Tarahumara women makes dresses and other accessories for a line of dolls depicting them. The women are paid for their contributions, which make the dolls more authentic. There is interest among the Tarahumara in making the dolls as well, but they do not yet have the equipment and raw materials for this. She is working with state agencies to get this support.

Her work with the Tarahumara is based off her favorite dolls to make, that of the native Yoreme or Mayo people of Sinaloa. These artisans also make miniature clothing, headdresses, belts, bells, musical instruments and more for Yoreme dolls. Unlike the Tarahumara, the Yoreme are better off and there is no interest in making the dolls proper. As far as Gaxiola knows, she is the only person making Yoreme-inspired dolls.

In both cases, she has permission to make and sell the dolls. Buying the clothing and accessories from indigenous artisans raises the costs of the dolls, but the arrangement makes the activity ethical. Her major buyers are still friends and acquaintances along with collectors and the general public through Facebook. She has exhibited her work in various locations Sinaloa (including the Sinaloa Museum of Art), other states, and the Mexican consulate in McAllen, Texas.

50876700_2509913929022826_156248397672611840_nIn 2018, Gaxiola become the cultural director of her hometown of Guasave. She put one of her large dolls outside her office as part of her efforts to promote doll making. She is also working with the small community of Playita de Casillas, Sinaloa to revive the making of cloth dolls as offerings to the patron of the village, the Virgin of the Holy Cross. This tradition declined as commercial dolls replaced the handmade ones, but using two old dolls that still exist, workshops are held to reconstruct how they are made.

 

The artist can be reached via her Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/hortensia.lopezgaxiola

Melted handcrafts

Handcrafts are traditionally made for two types of purposes: utilitarian and ceremonial. The superimposition of Catholicism over indigenous beliefs in Mexico meant that various old crafts were repurposed and new crafts were introduced.

Perhaps the most pervasive of the latter relates to the use of wax. Candles have been an important part Catholic rites at just about all levels, from home altars and local processions to major masses.

mayan_woman_at_prayer_-_templo_de_calvario_-_santa_cruz_del_quiche_-_quiche_-_guatemala_(15746710920)

One important consideration is that the Church has not had very strict regulations about when, how and what type of candles to use. This allows much leeway for creativity. For example, wax of any type may be used, although pure beeswax still has a special status both because of its natural origin and for the way it burns.

ramirezlopezcandle10Until the 20th century, candles were made by hand and thus a handcraft. Today just about all are industrially made. However, there are some important exceptions as well as other items made from wax. Artistically, the most important candles are those which are highly decorated, made for a specific purpose or event.  The most impressive of these are the “velas esquemadas.” Their sizes and forms vary widely, but they usually consist of a single main candle which is highly embellished with wax decorative forms, often flowers and other vegetative matter. Their size can range from 15 cm to over 2 meters in height. These are often created as an offering for the community patron saint on his/her day or commissioned as an “ex-voto” a kind of thank-you for a miracle that is thought to have been received.

These esquemadas are made by working a wire frame over the candle and extending out from it. The metal is covered with crepe or metallic paper on which the wax elements are affixed. These elements are almost always made using wood molds. After molding, they are put directly onto the framework.

ramirezlopezcreations
Wax artisan Graciela Ramirez Lopez of Mexico City
expoindigenous2015_045
Esquemada candles from the state of Morelos

There are various areas that are noted for work of this type including Mexico City and several towns in the Bajio region of central Mexico such as Salamanca, Villagrán, Cortázar and Romita. Although they are made year round in various parts of Mexico, they are particularly important for the feast of Corpus Christi in the Bajio region. In the State of Mexico, they have become an important part of the feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe, where not only are the wax flowers and leaves colored, the Virgin herself appears in wax.

expoindigenous2015_048

Some of the most impressive work of this type is done in San Luis Potosí where esquemada “gardens” are created. These works are large enough to include various kinds of figures and often include elements of other materials. While they are also made in honor of patron saints, this has not precluded the appearance of modern and other non-traditional elements such as images of airplanes and fireworks. The best place to see these gardens is in Santa María del Río (famous for its rebozos) at the beginning of August when its patron saint, the Virgin of the Assumption is celebrated.

Photos by Adam Jones and Alejandro Linares Garcia in CC licenses.

 

Handcrafts sculpted by an artist

DSC_0018Miguel Angel Rosas is an unassuming and quiet 64-year old man.  I found him and his work on the periphery of the Jardín de Arte (Art Garden), a Sunday outdoor art market held at the park behind the Monumento a la Madre in Mexico City. On a makeshift table, in the street, there were a number of small pieces in a curious blueish stone. But it is the cut of the pieces is what really attracts the attention.

Rosas is not really an artisan. His career as an artist spans over fifty years with public works in his native Veracruz and Mexico City. He specializes in working with materials from his native Ciudad Mendoza valley in Veracruz, especially the blueish limestone, but he also works in clay, wood and some bronze. He also has a interest in fossils from his area, which can wind up in his works.

His interest in art and stone began when he was a small child. Despite its name and short distance from a superhighway, Ciudad Mendoza was and still is a very rural area of Veracruz, mostly because it is a valley surrounded by high mountains. There are still a significant number of people there who wear traditional dress and speak Nahuatl. He spend time as a child climbing hills and mountains and collecting local rocks and fossils. He worked in a number of artisan stone workshops in the area. About 30 years ago he came to Mexico City to study art at the La Esmeralda School but stayed only one year as he felt that there was too much emphasis on theory and the actually artistic work was “too easy.”

DSC_0009

Rosas has developed most of his career in Veracruz, with a main workshop in his hometown.  His larger works can be found in Ciudad Mendoza and number of towns in his region as well as Mexico City. In 2018, he unveiled a work called El Hombre y sus Circunstancias in the town of Nogales, Veracruz.

DSC_0027

Much of his work is inspired by pre Hispanic pieces, especially his faces and busts. Other tend to be semi abstract works. All stone sculpture is partly determined by the natural shape and properties of the rock. For this reason, at least, none of his indigenous-inspired pieces are copies of those found in archeological collections. He states that they are often a mix of influences from various pre Hispanic cultures as he is not partial to any of them. As for artistic influences, he cited only one, British artist Henry Moore, whose work was also influenced by Mexican pre Hispanic art and architecture.

DSC_0015

He was lived and worked in Mexico City with son Paulo for the past six years, selling at the Jardin de Arte as an artisan, rather than an artist. One reason for this is that the pieces he can carry from his workshop to the site are small. I suspect that indigenous themes might contribute to this classification.

Despite the long career and success in placing public works, including one in the Santo Domingo square of Mexico City, Rosas and his son live very very modestly. Although his stone pieces are made of the rock from his home valley, he has no truck with which to bring the raw materials or finished pieces to Mexico City. He told me that they are brought one-to-three at a time, depending on size, using public transportation. He admits this is a very tough way to do this, especially on the Metro, but he is dedicated to the limestone of Ciudad Mendoza.

 

 

 

 

 

Beautiful dolls of any size and shape

By early 2015, things were tough in the home of daughter and mother Marelsy Castillo Ocampo and Merry Ocampo Aguilar. But it was also the beginning of something great.

17883781_1740009796290587_6814153584884417841_nFor Castillo, years of battling her weight, dealing with job discrimination, bullying and a dysfunctional relationship had brought her to an emotional crisis. Ocampo, a teacher, had been injured in a car accident, that left her unable to work, forcing early retirement.

The turning point came when mother decided to take her sewing skills and new free time to make her daughter a cloth doll. Not just any doll, but one that reflected her daughter as she is, to look like her as much as possible. When Castillo came home one day and saw the doll, the impact was immediate. She could see herself in the doll as she is, not the way society wanted her to be. The gift changed her life and helped her to accept herself.

Very quickly the two decided to start producing the dolls and make a business out of it, calling them Melinas. By November of 2015, the two went to an exhibition with a number of the dolls. Initially their target market was young girls, but the dolls were a much bigger hit with women over the age of thirty. Encouraged by the response, they reworked the prototype to this new market and entered the project into a competition called Start Up México, sponsored by Universidad Anáhuac. Out of 26 entries, the Melinas won. The win not only earned them the right to be mentored in developing the business but it got the attention of media, including MTV which included Castillo in a documentary on entrepreneurs.

The women’s workshop is located on Avenida Alemán in the north of Merida, Yucatan. It is not only a business; it has a social side to it as well. It provides work to women who have been victims of domestic violence and discrimination. These women work five days a week and as part of their compensation receive psychological therapy.  In addition, mother and daughter participate in conferences on discrimination and domestic violence, and some of the profits of the company are donated to women’s groups. The business has grown such that the dolls are now sold locally, nationally and internationally.  They have sent dolls to Spain, the United States, Chile, Turkey, Scotland, Australia, Chile and Colombia.

1Marelsy

The goal of the company is to provide an alternative to commercial dolls that promote stereotypes about perfect bodies and faces. Each doll is unique with its own “personality” and design and are made-to-order. The dolls come in six different body types, three skin tones, four bust sizes and can even come with only one breast. The dolls are dressed in underwear to show their comfort with their bodies. They have a heart for a mouth to symbolize love and closed eyes to symbolize dreams. Customers can order dolls which different hairstyles and even moles. The dolls cost between 750 and 1,250 pesos depending on the size (ranging from 40 to 60 cm). The workshop produces about 150 dolls per month as each doll takes about ten to twelve days to make.

The duo have since added a new version called a Yatzil, a doll based off the Mayan indigenous people of the Yucatan. The name in this language means “she who is loved.” Targeting the various tourists markets of the region, this version is a little different than others as she wears white knickers and along with a traditional blouse and jewelry. It is a homage to the company’s and family’s Yucatan roots.

Castillo is now the CEO and spokesperson for the Melinas company.  She won the Women for Mexico award given to women entrepreneurs in the country. Women of Mexico. Her story has been published in newspapers such as Diario de Yucatán,  El Excelsior, El Universal, Milenio on television In 2018, she did a Tedx talk sponsored by the Universidad Privada de la Peninsula to share her story.

Photos courtesy of Melinas

Handcrafts and the president

In Mexico, unless you live in a cave, you know that Mexico’s new president Andrés Manuel López Obrador (colloquially called AMLO) was inaugurated on December 1 of this year.  Now this is not a political blog, but handcrafts made their way into this event.

promesas-de-campana-los-retos-de-amlo-e7ffd0b9a820a3e8aa85c4a28f27249e
Credit: elpopular.mx

AMLO was the first president to ask for and receive the “staff of command” (bastón de mando) from Mexico’s indigenous communities. The idea behind the staff and the ceremony is to remind the government and the rest of Mexico’s population of its indigenous peoples, which are often marginalized. The staff was hand carved of cedar in Tlaxcala, and is adorned with ribbons of various colors which symbolize the cosmology of Mexico’s 68 recognized indigenous ethnicities.

WhatsApp-Image-2018-12-01-at-16.42.46-770x392
Credit: El Quadratin

Behind the stage, there were meters-tall panels in various colors and patterns. These were also made in Tlaxcala, by artisans in Huamantla which is known for the making of temporary “carpets” of sawdust, flower petals and other organic matter for processions. These panels were made by arranging dried corn husks that were first colored with aniline dyes. The artisans worked 16-18 hour shifts for 22 days to make the 72 panels measuring 360 m2. The task required over 750 bundles of husks. This “vertical carpet” is the first of its kind and of this size, but it certainly will not be the last. The impression the panels made, along with the significance of the ceremony almost guarantees that panels like this will be created in the future.

Inaugurations are all about symbolism, representing what the incoming elected official has promised for the coming term. Im cynical by nature, but I cannot help but hope a little that this very prominent display of handcrafted talent will translate into something good for Mexico’s artisans, especially the indigenous ones.

 

 

 

Piñata party just outside of Mexico City

675px-Pinatas_pinata_stjärnaPerhaps Mexico’s most iconic and most widespread handcraft is the making of piñatas. Despite the growing popularity of Day of the Dead and the paper mache forms associated with it, the piñata remains king of things made with paper and paste. There is no town in the entire country that does not have at least one person who makes them at least part time. Those who make them are called piñateros, not the general term for paper mache artisans, cartoneros.

Originally, piñatas were made with old clay pots that were decorated. If you look hard enough in the State of Mexico, you can still find a few workshops that make these. But for both economy and safety, the piñata is now made with paper mache.

While they are fantastically popular with birthday parties, the most traditional use for piñatas is at Christmas, more specifically during the posadas, reenactments of the search of Mary and Joseph for lodging before Jesus is born. This use was established in the town of Acolman, State of Mexico, the birthplace of the Mexican piñata, which hold a festival every year in honor of its native handcraft.

602px-MonkPiñataAcolman1
Statue of monk breaking a piñata in Acolman

The 33rd edition of the feria de piñatas is held from 14-15 December 2018, and centered on the Acolman monastery which introduced the breaking of the piñatas as an evangelical tool, replacing a similar tradition formerly dedicated to the Aztec god of war. The event is regionally very popular bringing attendees from various municipalities here north of Mexico City.

The festivas has various activities over the weekend, with horse racing, the selection of a fair queen and various artistic and cultural activities. But the star of the show is the exhibition and sale of piñatas and other handcrafts, as well as an offering of regional cuisine. It is also worthwhile to note that the town of Acolman has been named a Pueblo Mágico, primarily because the huge early colonial monastery has been kept in very good condition… along with the piñatas of course!

1200px-FacadeAcolman2
Acolman monastery in Acolman, State of Mexico

 

Mexican Dreamweavers

42645327_2388223821217796_4239816054743760896_nMexican Dreamweavers is an organization of foreigners on the coast of Oaxaca that supports local artisans in various ways. It works with two cooperatives based in the Costa Chica region: a women’s cooperative that focuses on weaving and  the other for men that makes a special purple dye and carves coconut shells. The main idea of ​​the organization is to give artisans access to markets that they otherwise would not.

The organization has its origins in the teachers’ strike in Oaxaca in 2006, when tourism to the state dried up Patrice Perillie is an immigration lawyer. The weavers in the area initially came to her to ask for help to go to the United States, but she told them that their weaving work was too important, so she would work to help them stay.

Her insistence on helping the weavers make a living with their skills came in part from a fortuitous experience. While visiting the city of Oaxaca (inland), Perillie bought a huipil for a girl. Neither she nor the girl knew anything about it, but it was light and Perillie thought it would be good to use it on the beach of Puerto Escondido, where she lives. He found out about a project to paint Converse sneakers and went to investigate. She could not buy any of the slippers, since they were talked about, but she met the local weavers of Amuzgo. One of them informed him that this same huipil was from this area and could even tell who had achieved it. Perillie took this as a sign.

 

So, Perillie started selling out of her house in Puerto Escondido and the business grew.  In 2008, she worked with a group of foreign expatriate friends to create a craft fair in Puerto Escondido, an important tourist town. The fair was a success, not in the least because of the group’s ability to reach expats and other foreigners, a vital market for Mexican handcrafts. From this beginning over nine years ago, it has become a yearly event, held on the third Sunday of January.

20376130_1749025668470951_1254337418588820912_n

Originally the event drew tourists and others who were already in the area, but now there are people who travel specifically to attend. The organization also works to bring the groups’ work to other parts of Mexico and the United States, receiving  invitations to other events such as the Art Masters Fair in Chapala, Jalisco and the International Popular Art Market in Santa Fe, New Mexico, as well as non-handicraft events such as an exhibition dedicated to Frida Kahlo at the Botanical Garden of New York.

Although the Amuzco in Guerrero are better known for the working of native Coyochi cotton, Perillie insists that the coastal Mixtecs in neighboring Oaxaca are really the last to fully depend on growing, harvesting, spinning and weaving the fiber without buying supplemental commercial cotton.  Another distinction in their work is the use of a purple dye made from a local native purpura pansa mollusk. Not all purple garments are made with this dye, and those that are are significantly more expensive. The main reason for this is that the animal is endangered. The cooperatives have programs to manage the snail populations, including campaigns to dissuade local snail collectors to avoid these to sell for food.

By supporting these artisan you can help keep them at home weaving, instead of fleeing to El Norte to make a living. This is a reverse migration project of www.laabogadadelpueblo.org. For more information, you can contact Patrice Perillie by phone US (646) 290-5544 México (954) 102-1792 and by email at mexicandreamweavers@hotmail.com

Photos courtesy of Mexican Dreamweavers from their Facebook page.

 

 

From Taxco to Durango

Gualberto008Although only 3.5 hours away, the city of Durango is a world apart from neighboring Zacatecas. A Durango resident once told me that (heading north) “Civilization ends in Zacatecas and carne asada begins.”

Now, well-done carne asada is a wonderful thing, don’t get me wrong, but there is some truth to this statement. For some reason, the state of Zacatecas (while very much part of El Norte) has more southern influence in its culture than Durango.

One reason for this is that Durango lacked large deposits of silver and gold, the two metals that drove Spanish colonization. The city of Durango was founded with the expectation that the nearby Cerro de Mercado was a silver deposit, but instead held (and holds) an important deposit of iron. Nowhere near as glamorous.

Gualberto021

Almost all of the finer artisan activity in the state very recent in origin with more than a little influence slowly coming up from the center of the country. Gualberto Francisco Mota Martínez came to Durango 11 years ago after a long career in silver working in Taxco. His unusual first name has led to him being known as “Gualas” (play off of English Wallace, and pronounced the same). He is known by the name both socially and professionally.

His formation as an artisan is classic. He began as a child-apprentice at age eight at the workshop where his father was a craftsman. Instead of working exclusively with his father or any other craftsman, he became the shop zorra (lit. fox), the slang term for apprentices. This meant that he did tasks for all the workers.  He said the work was very hard, especially for such a young child, but it allowed him to learn from number of maestros, instead of being tied to the limited techniques and designs of one.

Gualberto009

As a young adult he moved to Mexico City, studied at college and had a career for a time, but he returned to silver, stating that “it’s in his blood.” He kept contact with all his former artisan maestros who became friends and colleagues. This was invaluable to him as he worked to attain his own style and niche in the highly-competitive silver working market in Taxco.  He achieved this not only with decorative design but in how he attaches elements of his pieces, particularly necklaces to hide the small rings. The result looks like the elements hang together magically.

Gualberto013

Durango does not have a silver working tradition. However, it is not far from a number of deposits in the states of Durango and Zacatecas, so silver is not completely out-of-place here.  The maestro was invited up to the area by a government project to teach silver working skills to disabled people, especially those who cannot speak or hear. Gualas worked on this project for only two years, with only a few students, until a change in administration pulled funding for the project. By this time, however, the maestro had become enchanted with Durango and decided to stay. Since then, he has worked as both a producer and teacher.

His teaching is based on his experience as an apprentice. He does not give formal classes but rather teaches as his students require. They decide on projects and together they pull from Gualas’s repertoire of 30+ techniques to work out how the design can be made.  Most of his student/apprentices are older and (semi-) retired, coming in and out of his workshop on Coronado Street in the center of Durango.

Most make commercial designs or some variations thereof. However, Gualis has worked in the past decade to develop artisan designs based off motifs he finds in Durango, both pre Hispanic and Spanish. Inspirations come from pottery, paintings and architectural details from the city’s colonial buildings. There is also a series with interesting mask designs carved into semi-precious stones, then set in silver.

He will do more commercial designs only if he has a relationship with the purchaser. Otherwise, he refers such requests to those he has trained. This has limited his business, as the designs have not yet caught on widely despite their quality. As in most cases in Mexico, the innovations are more popular with foreign purchasers than with national ones.

The maestro can be contacted via his Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/gualbertomota/ or by email at gualas84@hotmail.com

Taming emotions with alebrijes

Unlike the cute creatures featured in Disney’s Coco, the original alebrijes have inspired a range of emotions. Amalgams of various creatures, both real and imagined, decorated in bright colors, alebrijes originated not in Oaxaca, but in Mexico City.

OriginAlebrijes06
Puppet show depicting Pedro Linares meeting his first alebrije (Alejandro Linares Garcia CC-by-SA 3.0)

The creation of these creatures are correctly credited to a cartonero (paper mache artisan) named Pedro Linares, sometime in the mid 20th century.  The traditional story of their origin states that Linares came down with a very high fever. While in bed, he hallucinated various terrifying creatures, which kept whispering alebrijes. When he recovered, he worked to recreate what he saw in his visions.

The_Childrens_Museum_of_Indianapolis_-_Alebrije_bird_sculpture
Alebrije by Pedro Linares (CC-by-SA 3.0 Children’s Museum of Indianapolis)

The real story is more mundane and convoluted than that, and it is easy to dismiss the dream story as a fanciful way to sell more alebrijes. However, there may be more to it than that. More than a few cartoneros attached more meaning to the creatures. One notable example is “alebrijista” Susana Buyo, who considers the creatures to be a kind of home or spiritual guardian, often telling a story about a boy that saw one of her alebrijes and exclaimed “That’s what I dreamt last night!”

L: Susana Buyo and student with alebrije in progress R: Close up of a Buyo alebrijes in progress.

Indeed, if the scary, ugly/beautiful creatures were merely the product of one man’s fevered imagination, they would not have the iconic status they do now. After decorations for Day of the Dead, alebrijes are the most important product for cartoneros, and the main reason why paper mache workshops can be found now in most cultural centers in Mexico City, spreading out into other parts of the country.

29790768_10156038411525056_7886092372486914048_n_censored_censored
Bermudez and an art class in Durango (used with permission of the artist)

The idea that alebrijes has some psychological reality for us (hinted at by the dream story) is further enhanced by the work of Durango native Prudence Bermudez.

Bermudez is an artist and artisan from Durango, whose mother and art teachers were a constant source of affirmation to her as a very shy child. Although she started college with the intention of studying business management, fate led her back to art and she received her degree in the field from the state’s School of Painting, Sculpture and Handcrafts.

With little opportunity in Durango, she took the chance to live and work in Buenos Aires from 2007 to 2014. Here, she was not only able to sell her painting, but she gained a new appreciation of Mexican culture and iconography seeing how foreigners responded to it.  It was also here that she studied psychology and art therapy, finding this to be her life’s work.

1497290_10152198282360056_801504713_n
Alebrije by Prudence Bermudez (used with permission of the artist)

In Argentina, she worked primarily with adults and in painting, doing a thesis on art therapy for adults legally incapacitated by stress.  The focus of this thesis was the use of paper (often symbolizing the office) to redirect negative emotions that stem from there.

Bermudez’s work with alebrijes and other forms of cartoneria is very recent. On vacation home in Durango in 2012, she found that her long-time mentor, artist and artisan Trinidad Núñez, had begun a program to introduce Mexico City-style alebrijes to Durango.  Taking advantage of what little time she had, she quickly learned the basics and continued to work with the medium in Argentina. She even began selling the creatures here, which were considered a kind of crazy curiosity.

Returning to Durango in 2014, she has begun working as an art therapist. Much of this work is still with traditional painting, but alebrije-making is now part of her repertoire. She finds it useful for certain patients in particular, as the mish-mosh of animal parts can be used to represents various interconnected emotions.

While there are no studies to support this idea, it is still quite interesting nonetheless. Perhaps there are more to Pedro Linares’s “ugly” monsters than he ever envisioned.

Featured image – Artist Prudence Bermudez and daughter with alebrije – used with permission of the artist)