The “non-ugly” alebrijes

For all there is to admire about Mexican handcraft traditions, it is a relatively closed world, especially on the side of production. The major reason for this is that much of the value of the pieces depend on their cultural derivation, which for Mexico often is tied to questions of ethnicity.

One case that illustrates this point is that of Susana Buyo. She was born in Luján, Argentina and moved permanently to Mexico in 1978 as a young woman, settling with her family in the upper-middle class Condesa neighborhood of Mexico City.

Buyo working on an alebrije

In Argentina, Buyo trained as a ceramicist, but in Mexico City fell in love with the alebrijes of Pedro Linares. She set about teaching herself basic cartonería (paper maché) techniques, and then developed her own unique style of mode of working.

524477_4009495916169_1718480424_nBack at that time, becoming a self-taught “cartonero” or indeed becoming one by any means other than apprenticing as a member of a certain family was unheard of. It allowed Buyo to focus on alebrije making, which is her true passion, rather than cartoneria in general.

She strongly shys away from analyzing her style, insisting that her work is “instinctual” rather than “academic,” refusing to entertain idea of what has influenced her work.

148109_1804404270256_1459073_nBut influences are there. The basic form and “function” of her creations is in the work of Pedro Linares, the inventor of alebrijes, as well as the myth of alebrijes being derived from dreams. Buyo’s classic pieces are amalgams of real and imaginary creatures, usually with one dominating, She built on the Linares dream-creature myth, declaring alebrijes to be magical creatures with a kind of psychological reality as a personal or home guardian. One story she tells to this effect was when she was exhibiting an alebrije she made in 2001, a young boy stopped in front of it, became wide-eyed and declared “That’s what I dreamt last night!”This may be what Buyo means by her work being instinctual.

In her work Women in Mexican Folk Art, Eli Bartra covers Buyo’s work from a feminist perspective. She declares most alebrijes such as those by the Linares family to be generally male. (Pedro Linares himself declared his creatures to be ugly.) Buyo’s works are delicate with more sophisticated lines and have a feel of surrealism about them. Unlike other alebrije makers of her generation, there is attention to color combinations and the effects they have on the piece.

Buyo’s pieces are also distinct from the Linares’ work in that she has incorporated commercially-made elements, such as glass marbles for eyes and sequins, etc. as decorative elements. Until relatively recently, such additions were almost entirely rejected by Mexico’s cartoneria community, but this is changing. While Buyo’s gender probably influences her choices in color, form and decorative detail, so too may her foreign roots.


It is important to note that neither Buyo nor her work were particularly accepted by the cartoneria community of latter 20th century, and many of the present-day are not aware of who she is. Her work has been exhibited in Mexico and Europe but has found its way into permanent collections only in the latter. But that is not to say that Buyo  has not had any effect.

Buyo with student Susana Diaz and the latter’s alebrije

Her influence stems mostly from being a teacher. After mastering the making of alebrijes, she established a workshop at the family home. The height of this career in Mexico City extended through the 1990s into the early 2000s, with the workshop taking over the entire living room. Over the years, she taught hundreds of students, including currently-prominent cartoneros such as Rodolfo Villena Hernandez. Even some more traditional cartoneros such as Alfonso Morales (who has revived the craft in southern Morelos state), cite her as an influence.

Buyo and other cartoneros admit that her work has never been really accepted as part of Mexico’s cartonería tradition. Buyo is philosophical about it stating that “No one is a prophet in their own land” linking the non-acceptance more to her non-conventional style rather than to discrimination per se. However, this may not be accurate given cartonería’s near-obsession to link current work to something “traditionally Mexican,” be it traditional techniques, themes and/or to whom the artisan is linked and how.  According to former student Villena, Buyo reinvented the alebrije in her own image and sensibility, something that many other cartoneros do not feel is necessary.

Mexico does not have a strong immigrant tradition in the sense that naturalized citizens are immediately considered to be Mexican, such as with the “melting pot” principle. The principle of mestizaje does not apply to immigrants, but rather to their descendents who marry into already-established Mexican families.

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In 2013, Buyo decided to leave Mexico City for the quieter and safer Mazatlan. She left her original workshop to a former student. While the website/blog for this establishment still exists, the workshop, for all intents and purposes, does not.

But that is not the end of Buyo’s story. Despite being well into her 70s, she has reestablished herself as a craftswoman and teacher in Mazatlan and since 2016 has been gaining local and regional media attention for both her and her students’ work. Mazatlan has turned out to be a welcoming environment for the likes of Buyo, with its tourism and fairly large expat community making it more accepting of a “foreign” Mexican artisan.

Buyo is best contacted through the Facebook page of her workshop Taller de Alebrijes.


The intricate Catrinas of Capula

There are three women whose visages are known by every Mexican and seen by any foreigner who has spent time in Mexico, even if only in the tourist areas: the Virgin of Guadalupe, Frida Kahlo and La Catrina. As for the last, many tourist see her “face,” but may be completely unaware that she has a name.

Version by Posada, Circa turn of 20th century

This image can be found represented in almost all of Mexico’s major handcraft traditions, especially those of the center and south of the country. Models of her appear in wood, clay, resin, glass, cloth, candy, along with all manner of tourist items such as jewelry, t-shirts, etc.

Capula  Catrina greeting visitors to the community.

Her importance to various handcraft traditions is such that certain depictions of her can be recognized as being from a certain place. One of these are the clay sculptures of her from the tiny town of Capula, Michoacan.

Capula is so small that it is not even classified as a “municipio” to have its own government. Local government functions are from the state capital of Morelia. Although only a 20-minute drive, Capula is a world away from the city’s pink colonial architecture and crowded streets. It is essentially a deviation off the old highway linking Morelia to Patzcuaro, with  series of houses on either side, along with a number of workshops and resellers of the local pottery.

While utilitarian pottery is still made, sold and appreciated, it is the making of highly intricate depictions of La Catrina that show the local talent, especially since it has been done only since the 1970s. Depicting La Catrina is not like depicting just any skeletal figure. Since she is modeled on a grande dame of Mexican high society of the very early 20th century, large hats and long dresses with lace and other finery are a must. For those working in clay, this means the need to be able to depict these elements shaping tiny bits of clay and applying to the base figure. The smaller the Catrina, the finer the elements… to millimeters wide/long. This also presents challenges for firing. Even after the piece emerges safely from the kiln, great care needs to be had in handling the pieces as tiny extenstions such as bony fingers can snap off with the slightest pressure (which I unfortunately learned first-hand).

Arranging elements on the body of a Catrina in progress

The delicateness of these Catrinas, along with innovations in how she is portrayed distinguish these depictions from those from other areas of Mexico, even others done in clay. These figures do not stick with the static classic depictions of the figure done by José Guadalupe Posada and Diego Rivera but very often indicate movement, even if subtle. While still dressed in finery, she can be depicted doing a number of activities, including some quite common, such as carrying things on her back or selling in the market.

Capula Catrinas at the Tianguis de Domingo de Ramos in Patzcuaro, Michoacan

The importance of the Catrinas is such that a large statue of a Capula Catrina greets visitors to the town coming in from Morelia. The town has an all-important Feria de Catrina during the last two weeks leading up to Day of the Dead. The 2017 version begins on Oct 22.

Sweet Death

The term artesanía roughly translates to “handcrafts” or “folk art” although cultural differences mean that the terms are not completely equal. For example, the adjective artesanal can and often is applied to certain processed foods such as bottle salsas, chocolate, coffee and alcohols if said products are made at a home or by a small enterprises that do not use industrial methods.

Despite the tempation cover some of these artesanal goods (as they ARE wonderful), I have stuck to products that fit the definition of handcrafted in English. However, there is one tradition that truly blurs the line between edible and non-edible “handcrafts.”


Alfeñique is the creation of a sugar paste, which is then molded into various decorative shapes. The term is not known to foreigners, but anyone who has been to Mexico during Day of the Dead (esp. in central Mexico) has seen its most representative product… a highly decorative sugar skull, with a place to add the name of a person. If the skull is to be placed on an altar dedicated to loved ones passed on, it can take the name of the deceased. If it is a gift to be eaten, then the name of the recipient.


The craft has a long history in Mexico, from the early colonial period. A number of sources link it as a replacement for the pre-Hispanic making of figures of amaranth seed and agave syrup, which was banned by Catholic religious authorities. This old link is probably why the tradition is most firmly rooted in the old colonial cities  of central and southern Mexico.

Unfortunately, the cookie-cutter sugar skulls seen in supermarkets and even traditional markets are unlikely to be “artesanía” but rather more mass-produced. That does not mean there are no longer true artisans who work in sugar paste. They can be found in most of Mexico’s central states, Puebla, Estado de Mexico, Veracruz, Michoacan, parts of Zacatecas… but the center of truly creative sugar work is the city of Toluca, just west of Mexico City.

4th generation alfeñique maker Judith Gonzalez (722 601 3110) at her booth at the Feria de Alfeñique in Toluca.

Here the paste is used to make all kinds of figures, not just skulls and while figures such as animals and such can and are made for other occasions, by far most of the production is for and related to Day of the Dead. The city has had a fair dedicated to its production of alfenique and other Day of the Dead crafts for years now and recently opened a museum dedicated to the craft as well.

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DSC_0091The finished pieces are perfectly edible, but in reality most are not eaten. It is not sugar candy in the modern sense. It is a mixture of powdered sugar and egg white, with colors added depending on what the paste will be used for. In the case of skulls, the base is thicker and formed with a mold. The decorative elements are made with a softer paste that is piped on, much the way that decorative icing is applied onto fine bakery cakes. Both harden to something that is not only very hard to break with the teeth, but really does not melt in the mouth (a la Jolly Ranchers) because of the protein in the egg whites.  In the past, they were certainly eaten as sugar used to be an expensive commodity. But today, if one wants skulls or other decorations that can truly be enjoyed as candy, items made from other materials can be had. At the Feria de Alfeñique, artisans demonstrate skills in making items from chocolate, amaranth (a nod to the past), tamarid, peanut marzapan, wafers and pepita (a sweet paste made from pumpkin seeds). While skulls are still central, the Toluca event also features other items such as coffins, miniatures of food items often found on Day of the Dead altars, (mole, breads, fruits…), full skeletal figures and animals, in particular deer.

The Feria de Alfenique begins in mid October and runs through Day of the Dead on November 2. The stands are open every day during the entire time, with cultural activities such as music and craft workshops available on weekends.

All photos by Alejandro Linares Garcia. Featured photo of lighted sugar skull by Dulceria Tradicional Zarco of Toluca

Creating a monster

Eleven years ago, Mexico City’s Museo de Arte Popular created one of Mexico’s newest and most popular traditions… the annual Monumental Alebrjie Parade. Originally conceived as “Night of the Alebrijes,” most popular by far is the mid day parade of meters-tall colorful paper mache monsters rolling down from the main city square (Zocalo)  to the Angel of Independence.

The event not only put the small museum on the city’s cultural map, it spurred an entire industry of large-scale works, often sponsored by govenments and community associations.

Brothers Jonathan and Eduardo with their entry behind them

But of the 100+ entries the event attracts, many are made by individuals and groups of artisans (professional and amateur) with no kind of patronage or renumeration. For the pros, it is a way to demonstrating their skills and innovations, for the amateurs, it is often a way to show a sense of community, such as entries made by students of local universities.

Each “monster” is planned for up to a year, but most production is run on a tight schedule of about 4 months, from the time that their design is accepted by the museum to the day of the parade itself.

One of these monsters is being made by brothers Eduardo and Jonathan Garcia. They live in the same tenement that their parents raised them in, in the poor Peñon neighborhood, bordering the Mexico City airport. The brothers learned the craft from their father but have taken it farther than the previous generation.

They have participated over eight times in the parade, each time sponsoring their own work. Each year, Eduardo states emphatically, the piece made for the parade exhibits all the improvements in technique and innovation that they have accumulated so far.

Eduardo and the model for this year’s alebrije

Their piece for this year is named “Magnus, a 6-legged taloned dragon figure whose general body shape is based off their dog, a boxer. The piece as pictured here has just reached the painting stage but the work is impressive. First, despite the smoothness of the “skin” almost all of the supporting structure is split cane, with some of the main supports for the torso and wings in metal. Working in the common area of the tenement (called a vecindad), making a piece large enough to make an impact in the parade is difficult. A large alebrije can indeed be built, but getting out of the common area is another question. In the past, the brothers have worked on the roof, but that created new challenges in raising and lowering a piece that can weigh 100 kilos or more with nothing but the muscle power of local youths.

This year, they have tackled the problem by making the alebrije in sections, with parts such as head, tail and wings all remaining separate until assembled at the parade site.

As the alebrijes are large by definition, one of Eduardo’s complaints was that many looked impressive from a distance, but not up close. The brothers decided to go with detail this time around. The piece is large, but will not be the largest of the event by any means.

But it does have the up close visual impact the brothers are going for, even without paint. Mask elements decorate the body, reflecting the family’s main economic activity, the making of paper mache and wax masks for various traditional festivals. Some of these masks are skulls, with images of pan de muerto (bread of the dead) all reflecting Day of the Dead, one of Mexico’s most important folk religous observances (Nov 2).

There are also many finely-made decorative elements, made not with paper but with bits of plasticine, a material that is becoming more popular among certain Mexican artisans. It also reflects a growing trend in the making of these giant alebrijes to include decorative elements of various materials … glass, plastic, fabric and more… which normally is not accepted by Mexico City cartoneros (paper mache artisans).

Cartoneros helping cartoneros

One of the hardest hit areas from the September 19th is the state of Morelos, particularly the town of Jojutla in the south.

EncuentroCartoneriaTradicional183Alfonso Morales is a highly respected “cartonero” or paper mache artist. In Mexico, these craftspeople make piñatas, Judas effigies and many other items mostly associated with Mexico’s festival calendar.

But Morales is also a community leader as he has been demonstrating for the past week or so, organizing relief efforts in his municipality as well as getting word out about the damage the area has suffered and the needs of his neighbors. He has been particularly sucessful in motivating the general cartonero community in Mexico to help, including craftspeople in Mexico City which itself was hard hit.

22050054_1892301164119275_1215876570821449342_nThis include trips made by artisans bringing supplies themselves such as members of the La Ultima Hora cooperative (member in gear in featured photo). Help continues to pour in with shipments of supplies being brought by Mexico City arisan Arturo Becerra Acco and as far away as Veracruz state, courtesy of cartonero Blas Tlan Tecolutla.

It is small pueblos like Jojutla that take the longest to recover even if the major stats are coming from Mexico City. Despite the high death toll and damage estimates, the fact is that the city has resources and gets the lion’s share of federal resources… not to mention media coverage. Towns like Jojutla are left to their own ingenuity, in this case for almost a week before there was even any serious media or government attention.

Most of the damage in places like Jojutla are to residences and small businesses… to the basis of life of people who very likely have nothing in the way of insurance. Rebuilding will be a long, slow road.


It has been noted much in Mexico media and social media, that tragedies such as this bring out the best in the Mexican people… people with little helping those with even less. The cartonero community of Mexico certainly demonstrates this. In addition to maestros noted above, help has also come in from artisans in Monterrey, Tijuana, Guanajuato and San Luis Potosí artisans. Maestro Morales wants to express his gratitude to all those who have helped and continue to help.

Community cooperation such as this allows the work to go on.




Help for pottery and dogs

This story and plea was sent to me by an artisan friend Rita Resendiz of Mujeres Alfareros. In a cruel twist of irony, the workshop was founded because of the 1985 earthquake 32 years to the day before this latest tragedy. I simply decided to translate her words here. The original Spanish is down below.

Rita Resendiz at the potters wheel

September 14, 1:14 in the afternoon… I found myself cleaning the patio of our workshop which we have adapted into a shelter for abandoned dogs. This is our way of life. A loud sound like thunder had me look up to see my neighbor’s three story house in dance-like movements. I felt a kind of panic I never had before, not even 32 years ago when I lived through the 1985 earthquake and ran to a safe place we have. 12 dogs of ours here followed me all upset and after a few minutes, which felt like minutes, everything ended in a hurtful silence. My cooperative partner Rosalva came very afraid and nervious because she was in the street and a taxi had almost hit her.

When we could finally enter the workshop building we saw all the pieces that had broken, those which were ready for the kiln and those pieces ready for sale. We could no longer ship two orders that we had and although at this moment we did not realize the extent of the damage we as a city were experiencing, the next day we could see that although our home had not fallen down, without work we would have no way to maintain the 38 dogs we care for (20 inside and 18 which we feed on the street). And we would have no kilns for the lack of gas. And with no sales, no income for such a critical situation.

401px-MujeresArtesanasTlahuac034Likely our clients will understand out and will be willing to wait a month so that we can redo their orders, bu our major worry are the dogs who lack food.

It has been written on various social media that they have food and people can be directed to shelters but every time we called (to various places) they way that we have to register with the shelter. But they are too far. For this reason, there is little to no help for those in (the rural borough) of Tlahuac, as we lack public transportation.

As pottery craftswomen we feel sad and worried for the losses that keep us from continuing the work that we do for the dogs. As people we are grateful for life, being safe and sound, knowing the tragedy that other families are going through.

And as citizens we feel anger knowing that the same authorities block humanitarian aid from being delivered to this community.

We are asking for help and hop that it come, at least enough to bring our work back to normal…and get back to our day-to-day like we have always done.

You can contact Mujeres Alfareros directly on Facebook  or if you prefer, I can assist in getting dog food to the small shelter these women run. Contact me on Facebook or my personal email at


19 de Septiembre 1:14 de la tarde, me encontraba limpiando el patio que adaptamos como albergue para perritos abandonados dentro del mismo terreno del taller de alfarería, que es nuestra forma de vida, se escucha un tronido muy fuerte volteo hacia arriba y miro cómo la casa de 3 pisos de mi vecino hace un movimiento como bailando, siento una especie de pánico que nunca había sentido, ni siquiera hace 32 años cuando viví los sismos de 1985  y corro hacia el punto de seguridad que tenemos ,los 12 perros que tenemos en esa parte me siguen sumamente alterados y después de unos segundos que sentí como minutos, todo se detiene en un silencio que lastima, llega Rosalva mi compañera de la cooperativa muy asustada y nerviosa porque ella estaba en la calle y un taxista estuvo a punto de arrollarla .

Cuando al fin entramos al taller vimos la cantidad de piezas que se habían roto ,tanto las que estaban por entrar al horno como las que estaban listas para la venta, ya no podremos entregar los 2 pedidos que teníamos y aunque en ese momento no nos dimos cuenta de la dimensión del daño celebrando que estábamos vivas, al día siguiente que ya hubo luz vimos bien que aunque no se cayó nuestra vivienda, sin trabajo no tendríamos para mantener tanto a la manada de rescatados (20 perrit@s adentro y 18 afuera)  Y que no tendremos para poder hacer nuestras hornadas por falta de gas. Al no haber ventas no hay ingresos y por lo tanto estamos en situación crítica.

Probablemente nuestros clientes nos entiendan y hasta nos quieran esperar el mes que nos llevará volver a elaborar sus pedidos, pero nuestra mayor preocupación son los perritos por la falta de alimento.

Han publicado en redes que tienen alimento de más y que lo pueden canalizar a albergues sin embargo, cada vez que les llamamos (a varios lugares) nos dicen que tienen que verificar el albergue pero que como estamos muy lejos no pueden venir, por lo tanto no hay nada de apoyo para acá en Tláhuac además carecemos de transporte.

Como alfareras nos sentimos tristes y preocupadas por las pérdidas que nos impiden continuar con la labor que paralelamente realizamos por los perritos, como personas agradecemos a la vida estar sanas y salvas conociendo la tragedia que viven otras familias.

Y como ciudadanas sentimos enojo por saber que las mismas autoridades bloquean la ayuda humanitaria que está proporcionando el mismo pueblo.

Estamos solicitando ayuda y esperamos que si nos llegue por lo menos en lo que normalizamos nuestro trabajo que nos permita solventar todo como cotidianamente lo hemos hecho.


Just one of many, many damaged buildings in the city.
As you probably know, Mexico has had a major earthquake, which in a twist of cruel irony, comes 32 years to the day after the infamous 1985 event. Although “only” a 7.1 (the 1985 one was 8+), the epicenter was only a few hours drive away, not on the Pacific coast, which is the norm. This means that Mexico City, along with the states of Morelos, Puebla and parts of Guerrero experienced a major seismic event.

I will go into Mexico City first, summarizing briefly the days events. The major good news is that the death and damage is nothing close to that of 1985, principally because of building codes that were implemented starting that year. But there have been some serious events. The two that stand out is the collapse of a small factory in Colonia Obrera and the exceptionally sad case of the collapse of the Rébsamen Primary school with over 30 known dead so far. On a personal level, I am a professor at the Tec de Monterrey high school/university, which suffered major damage and the loss of five students. We do not yet know when we will be back on campus.

L: Cracked wall at the home of feather artist Eduardo Sanchez Rodriguez R: Pottery destroyed by the quake at Mujeres Alfareras

Of course, everyone here in central Mexico has been effected by the event, but I would like to share some experiences from the artisan world.

I will first mention that during the rest of the week after the quake, all museums and other public institutions in the affected areas were closed and will remain so at least until proper inspections are done to the facilities. This includes major folk art museums such as the Museo de Arte Popular, the Franz Mayer Museum, the Casa de Alfenique and Amparo Museums in Puebla and the Museum of Popular Culture in Toluca. There are reports of damage to buildings and collections but the extent is not yet known.

Damage to the Casa de Alfenique. Reports say the quaked “accordioned” the structure. (Credit: El Sol de Puebla)

Mexico City does have artisans, and the workshop of Mujeres Alfareras in Tlahuac is the home of 3 ceramicists as well as 20 some-odd rescue dogs at any given time. As would be expected, they have lost merchandise in the quake, in particular dried pieces waiting to be fired. Few things are more frustrating than having to make the same pieces over again. However, their focus has been lending support to the city’s pets, who can be hit as hard as humans, becoming trapped or lost when the quake strikes. They have been working in particular to collect animal food for the shelters in the city that provide services both to people with animals and lost/abandoned animals.

Ramon Espinoza Juarez of the Ultima Hora cartoneria collective in Jojutla to assist with rescue work (credit Alfonso Morales)

One shame of the coverage of this tragedy, and I admit I am guilty of this in what I write above, is the strong focus in the media and resources on Mexico City. As cartoneria artisan Rodolfo Villena of Puebla notes, Mexico has strong “centralismo” meaning that much of the country economy, politics and culture concentrates on the capital.


He also goes on to note that there is a story that has not yet been given the attention it deserves. The epicenter was between the states of Puebla and Morelos, which have a wealth of small colonial-era churches hundreds of years old. Many, many of these churches have been damaged or even destroyed, especially those closest to the epicenter.


Rubble and bell from the San Guillermo monastery (credit:Diario de Morelos)

They have have much longer cultural impact, as these churches are not just places of worship, but centers of local identity and their aesthetics still influence the local handcrafts, from the trees of life in Izucar de Matamoros, to the textiles of Hueyapan (Morelos), to the ceramics of various areas and the cartoneria (paper mache) associated with folk and religious events in Zacualpan and Jojutla. The Reforma newspaper reports 439 cultural heritage sites are damaged, most of which are in Morelos. The worst damage has been to churches and former monasteries Oaxtepec, Chalcatzingo, Jiutepec, Hueyapan, Ocuituco, Yautepec, Totolapan and Tepoztlán. There is also a report that the iconic Santa Prisca church in Taxco, Guerrero is in danger.

The effects of the quakes are most worrisome in this region. Despite its proximity to Mexico City, it is not well known. Many of the artisans’ lives here are even more precarious than is the norm as not only are the areas not near major tourist venues, but the state of Morelos in particular has serious problems with the drug trade. (Cuernavaca used to be an expat Mecca, but crime and uncontrolled urban sprawl has just about eliminated its former appeal).  With the exception of Taxco silver and to some extent, the lacquer of Olinalá, handcrafts here have mostly local appeal and often sold at dirt cheap prices for lack of markets and investment into the development of products that would have more national and international appeal.

Donations various charities involved in rescue work and meeting people’s immediate needs are of course important, but the effects of this quake in some of Mexico’s poorest areas will be long-lasting. Concern about these long-term needs has already been discussed among members of the Los Amigos de Arte Popular in Mexico City and efforts have begun to identfy artisans who have been exceptionally hard hit.

Featured image: Artistic plaque by Rosalva Francisco with skulls broken by the quake.

Trees of earth

Acatlán de Osorio is a dry, dusty town in the small desert that separates southern Puebla from Oaxaca. Calling itself the “Cradle of the Mixtec region” it is a good example of the hardscrabble and precarious life of these people.

Pedro Martinez comes from a pottery family with at least 4 generations of experience living and making pottery in Acatlán. The family’s pottery was basic and utilitarian, making itesm such as washtubs, water jugs, jars, plates, molcajetes (a type of mortar/pestle) etc. It was just one of various activities that the family did to survive, sometimes trading items just for basic foodstuffs.


Martinez began working very young, by age seven he was hired out to do farmwork and began to work with clay as well, making small figures of farm animals to sell in the local market. At first it was like play, and Martinez says he began by “crawling” in clay.

Tree with traditional Adam and Eve theme

The making of decorative “trees of life here is part of the larger tradition that extends into neighboring Izucar de Matamoros and even to Metepec, State of Mexico. While thier origins are from the making of candelabras, with those made in Puebla still having places for candles, even if they are rarely used. Today they are more folk sculptures, with the transformation coming from emphasis on the branches leading to the candleholders and their decoration to form a tree shape, holding various small elements in clay and with decorative painting that can be intricate. In all three towns, the trees had become a kind of wedding gift, although this association was weakest in Acatlán.  (See Trees in Puebla for more information)

In Matamoros and Acatlán the tradition of making and gifting these trees had nearly died out by the mid 20th century and was rescued with the construction of the highway connecting Mexico City and Oaxaca.  The highway brought tourists who stopped by for provisions along the small two-lane road and sometimes something of local color.

In the 1950s, potter Heron Martinez Mendoza (no relation) began to revive the local version of this tree in the 1950s. By the 1960s, Pedro Mendoza was a teenager who became attracted to the making of these trees and had even begun to make some of his own, very crudely, he admits. He went to Heron Martinez’s shop looking to apprentice but was told no.

Piece before the adding of colors

Undeterred, our Martinez continued experimenting on his own, reinventing techniques he was unaware of and a few that are completely his. Lacking equipment, he used local rocks, plastica, bottles and other throwaway items for purposes such as molding, injecting and burnishing. Some of his methods are distinct from other local potters’ because of this experimentation, such as the use of lead from old batteries to create black pigment instead of coal. (Today, his blacks are lead free because of market demand.)

Stores popped up along the highway, and one of these store owners, Don Nachito, took a liking to the teen, calling him “little cousin.” Martinez was permitted to sell the trees in the store on consignment to passing motorists, leaving trees Don Nachito liked and when they sold, returning to receive his share of the money.

AcatlanPuebla044This new market and the hard cash it could provide prompted the young Martinez to improve his trees and to experiment with new designs and themes. From then to the present, the most popular theme has been the traditional one depicting the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.  But he also makes those depicting the local fandango dance, the tree as a peacock, farmworkers and farmlife, Mexican historical figures and more. Soon he was selling through 4 or 5 stores in town, his pottery specialized in these trees.

Much of his work respects the traditional colors of Acatlán pottery, heavily dependent on browns, grays, orange made from pigments made from local minerals. He has expanded the palatte somewhat, added white, black and pink, but still keeping with materials found locally. (Pink is created by mixing red earth with kaolin.) His modifications are an expansion off of traditional pottery, rather than a break from it. He is aware of the trees from Matamoros and Metepec and respects both traditions, but has no interest in integrating aspects of these styles into his own.

About 25 years ago, Martinez began to experiment with other kinds of decorative pottery, even sculpture in the medium. This began with decorative bowl with animals and the like. Like his trees, these pieces are the result of experimentation, with no formal training, but more than a few show influence from modern art. They vary from reliefs to standing pieces often with images of women, the devil, monsters etc, with messages about cruelty and marginalization. Although very proud of these creations, they are side activity, with the trees remaining the mainstay of the business.

By the 1990s, the highway passing Acatlan had become outdated and a new, faster one was constructed through a different route. It has meant the end of selling directly to tourists stopping by for the most part, but fortunately, Martinez’s reputation was well-established by that time. He sells his work to various galleries and other intermediaries in Mexico and abroad, and in fairs mostly in central Mexico. However, he has had a few special commission, such as a tree depicting the life of Emiliano Zapata and one depicting the harvesting the sugar cane which is at the University of Chapingo in the State of Mexico.

He has been interviews on local and regional television, given pottery workshops in various locations and was even a visiting professor at a local tech school in neighboring Oaxaca. However, Martinez says his work is far better appreciated abraod, with his works selling in at least 15 countries, especially in the US and Japan, where he work has won awards. He even gets visitors from these countries, both art/cultural professional as well as curious collectors.

The Martinez family lives in a modest, but well-built house just outside the town center. There is no air conditioning, despite the brutal heat, but it is a long way from how he grew up, in a shack, sleeping on a woven mat on the floor. Martinez is grateful for the opportunity that the trees have afforded him to raise his family’s living, including sending his children to college. Most of the family is involved in clay, be it the making of trees and sculpture with his wife and some extent children, to the making of basic items, the specialty of his mother-in-law. Martinez hopes that the making of pottery will continue in the family. His highest hopes are in his 5-year-old granddaughter, who is showing both interest and talent in the medium.








Glass that was the base of an empire


As you might remember from your grade-school science classes, obsidian is naturally-occurring volcanic glass. Most is jet black but there are varieties in green, gray, golden and even “rainbow.”

One of the musts for any visitor to the Mexico City area is a jaunt up to the archeological site of Teotihuacan, 2nd most important touristically after Chichen Itza. Contrary to what many believe, it is neither in Mexico City nor is it Aztec, predating bot by centuries. In fact, its name means “birthplace of the gods” by the Nahuatl-speaking Aztecs, because of the awe they felt seeing the ruins.
Pyramid of the Sun (credit: Mario Roberto Durán Ortiz)
At its height Teotihuacan, was the most important city in Mesoamerica, whose power and wealth was based primarily on contol of area obsidian mines. The extremely sharp blades made from this glass were immensely important because metals such as bronze and steel were unknown. It also had importance in the making of religious items, masks, mirrors and jewelry. In fact, it was so highly prized that it worked as a kind of currency.
Small duality mask in progress by Efren Hernandez

Obsidian kept its importance until the conquest, but the introduction of various metal working techniques killed the value of obsidian and objects made from it.  However, in the 1920s, anthropologist Manuel Gamio founded a school in San Francisco Mazapa specifically to revive working with obsidian and other local stone. Today, it is the economic base for about 300 families working almost exclusively in home-based workshops in the municipalities around the Teotihuacan archeological zone. Most work exclusively in obsidian, still relying on the same deposits their ancestors did. Others, such as Efren Hernandez, have branched out into the working of other stones such as kaolinite-serpentine, opal, quartz, tiger’s eye and more, obtaining their raw materials from various parts of Mexico and sometimes from abroad.

But obsidian here rules supreme, as does the fashioning of this and other stone into replicas and near-replicas of pre-Hispanic imagery, mostly Aztec and Teotihuacan, but others such as those related to the Maya and other indigenous groups. Popular items include the Aztec calendar stone, jaguar heads, deities, duality masks and pyramids. Sometimes blades are made as well, but these are dulled. There has been movement to other kinds of items such as bowls, plates, pipes and other utilitarian items, but these are still rare.
 Three large obsidian works by the Itz Yollotzin cooperative in San Martin de las Pirámides
The reason for this is that most of the market for these goods is related to Teotihuacan, although it has been recently expanding. For example, the making of beads and other inlays for jewelry to sell to silver and macrame artisans (“hippies,” who create pieces on the street to sell to tourists in Mexican cities) is a mainstay for a number of artisans. On the other end of the spectrum are artisans such as those of th Itz Yollotzin cooperative who make finer replicas of pre Hispanic pieces with some movement towards more artistic works.
 Beads and other small items at the workshop of Efren Hernandez
The movement towards other and better-quality pieces comes from an increasing demand from foreign buyers. Fortunately, for these artisans, their proximity to Mexico City means good and reliable Internet and cell phone service, allowing online advertising, although as a community they have not taken advantage of this resource to the extent that Mexico City paper mache artisans have. Interestingly enough, the growth of tourism to Teotihuacan has not been a main driver of this simply because most visitors are still looking for cheap trinkets.
Sculpture of the legend of Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl in obsidian (in progress)

The overwhelming majority of artisans are those from families who have been doing this work for generations and many believe that the ability to work in stone, especially obsidian is “in the genes.” Obsidian today is neither a precious or semi precious stone, nor the second most common, serpentine. Its value comes almost entirely from the work put into the finished product. Depending on size and complexity, pieces can take from hours to months to make, with very few able to make large-sized objects. Chisels are used for the rough form but diamond-incrusted tools are needed for the fine details. Polishing is done with bands of cotton or wool making a paste from the obsidian powder by-product from sculpting.

Some artisans have been able to make a decent living with the craft, but most live in poverty, earning only a subsistance income. Lapidary work is labor intensive and requires specific, sometimes expensive tools such as diamond-incrusted drills. The craft is still obscure in Mexico and for that reason, does not receive much government support. There are local and some state efforts, including the annual “International Obsidian Fair” which takes advantage of the crowds that come to Teotihuacan for the spring equinox in March. It attracts dozens of artisans with hundreds of pieces vying for prizes,.
 All photos by Alejandro Linares Garcia








Stitching together connections

It is always satisfying to know when a Creative Hands article has made an impact for artisans.

South of the border quilting was published less than two weeks ago, and the Expo Quilting México Internacional was held this two weekends ago. As soon as I walked in the door, organizer Silvia Barba wanted to introduce me to a visitor from Mazatlan. Turns out this visitor has a fascinating story to tell.

Linda Hannawalt has been associated with Mazatlan for only three years and living there for one, but a quilting project she began here has already made an impressive impact.

The San Francisco Quilt Shop de Mazatlan is not your typical quilt shop. Although it sells quilting supplies and even finished products, much like any such business in the States, its purpose is not to make Hannawalt money, but rather to provide economic opportunities for local Mazatlan sewers.

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Hannawalt is an expert quilter, specializing in art quilts. She has made over 500 quilts since she began in 2006 with many winning prizes in contests in the States. She is also an entrepreneur, having started both for-profit and non-profit quilting ventures in San Francisco.

News report about Hannawalt and her work in San Francisco

In 2014, she was in Mazatlan visiting a friend and decided to do work on some projects during her time there. Interest from locals in her work and meeting a local women’s sewing cooperative resulted in a collaboration which is still ongoing. Hannawalt began to teach the women of the cooperative how to make quilted items, even bringing the group of 10 all the way to her then home in San Francisco with her own money. For 10 days the women concentrated on the US handcraft, then they went home each with a sewing machine, cotton fabric and quilting tools all as gifts to continue the project. (For seven of the 10, it was their first time outside of Mazatlan.)

One of Hannawalt’s art quilts

Meanwhile, she fell in love with this coastal city popular with Canadian and US expatsand has just completed tasks needed to live her full time indefinitely.

While it is impossible to leave out Hannawalt’s role in the founding of San Francisco Quilt Shop en Mazatlan (its name bears homage), she insists that the success and its future is in the hands of the cooperative women who have worked so hard. Together they moved the shop from Hannawalt’s house to a prominent spot on Mazatlan’s Blue Line, making it the first shop cruise ship tourists see when the get off and the last they see as they are leaving. Hannawalt’s art quilts hang in the shop to attract customers, but they come in the see the quilts and leave with items that the members of the cooperative make.  The women have been quick not only to learn quilting, but entrepreneurial skills as well, gaining confidence in themselves.

Long-arm machine working on a quilt

The shop sells varies products from small quilts, handbags, along with other locally-produced products such as jewelry. In-house products are tagged with the name of the artisan, who receives 80% of the price. The other 20% is for the maintenance of the shop. The shop also offer services such as quilting classes, repairs and a long-arm quilting (sewing) machine for fixing the three layers crucial to any quilt.

The cooperative is growing with each of the original ten women teaching one other to double the number of quilters. They have also reached out to local high school students to work the store and help them learn retailing before they graduate.

At the Expo Quilting México Internacional

Hannawalt and company admit that they thought they were the only quilters in Mexico until seeing the Creative Hands article, and in that short time, set up a trip for three of them to Mexico City to attend the Expo Quilt México Internacional. Here they have had a chance to interact with quilters from central Mexico, compare business practices and brainstorm projects with local quilters to continue the growth of this craft in Mexico. I look forward to the chance to report on these developments that are sure to come.

The cooperative has a web site at  and a Facebook page at