The (relatively) new José Vasconcelos Library is a fascinating structure. Entering it, one feels enveloped in a maze of cages, evoking curiosity rather than a sense of entrapment. It is a testament to Mexico’s visual acuity, even if (unfortunately) the expectations it raises are not matched by its book collection. The building itself is a work of art, and perhaps for this reason, the space is not loaded with various pieces. However, there is one important exception to be found on the ground floor.
From several sets of suspensions there is a whale skeleton hanging in mid air. One might assume that this is a life-sized representation, made with relatively light materials, but this is wrong. It is a real skeleton of a grey whale which weighs 1,696 kilos and 11.69 meters long. The installation is called Mobile Matrix (2006).
The story of these bones is interesting in and of itself, requiring incredible amounts of time, transport and travel, including air, boat, cars and ATVs. In the end, the skeleton traveled from Isla Arena in Baja California to the Valley of Mexico, thousands of kilometers to the east and over 2,000 km of altitude.
The concept was the brainchild of Mexican artist Gabriel Orozco who is famous for his installation and conceptual art. Obtaining special permission, he entered Isla Arena (part of El Viscaíno Reserve) specifically to find a whale skeleton in the right condition for the work. Orozco and his team traveled to island because it was known that fairly bare grey whale bones can be found in kilometers of nothing but sand dunes. Grey whales give birth in El Viscaíno’s bays and some will beach themselves and die here. Their remains are the property of the government, and trading in them is prohibited.
The team combed the shores of the island to find the right kind of whale carcass. The island is a natural cemetery, hosting all kinds of remains, not just that of whales, as well as vestiges of human activity. Essential in the search was the use of ATV’s, GPS and experts from various Mexican government agencies. They needed a whale carcass that was about two years old so that natural processes would eliminate some but not all of the animals soft tissue. In particular, the outer skin needed to be relatively intact because once that is lost, the bones begin to disperse.
Once the right carcass was found, it was clean with the help of specialists, but the artist and assistants had to also participate in the process to assure a clean surface for the graphite work to come later. Everything was recorded and classified.
The whale then “migrated” to Mexico City, making a stop in the great lobby of the Buenavista subway and commuter rail station. It provided enough space to work and is right next to the library. Orozco and his team spent months decorating the bones with graphite patterns. When this work was finished, it was hung in its current position, much like a mobile. This act, and the name, is meant to evoke mobiles in children’s rooms as well as the didactic decorations in the classroom.
The graphite work is an intricate blend line grids and circles, and cover the entire skeleton. This feat took over 6000 graphite pencils to complete. This work is best seen on viewed from the front but given its intricacy and position high in the air, most of the graphite designs are not visible. In fact, one needs to go to the piece and look for the graphite work specifically to see any of it.. The graphite patterns have various interpretations, but one is a reference to the decoration of bones (and bones as decoration) that has been practiced in Mexico since the pre Hispanic period. While it is definitely art, it is an artistic work with one foot firmly rooted in Mexico’s handcraft tradition.
Mexico had, and to some extent still has, a tradition of traveling theatre, especially puppet shows for children. It is not surprising that I have found a significant number of artisans today who have some kind of connection with this theatre.
Mariana Mayeb is one such artisan. She lives and works in a town called Tultitlán, one of Mexico City’s suburbs to the north. It is solidly middle class, filled with development houses built for commuters. Mayeb’s father had a theatre company some years ago that was dedicated to preserving and promoting Mexican traditions such as those related to Christmas and Day of the Dead. This company made its own puppets, marionettes, masks and scenery. Although the company disappeared before she could grow up with it, it was still part of family identity.
Mayeb’s creative bent took a different path, studying graphic communication, but the swing back to traditional art forms started even here. As part of her college community service, she worked with a program to introduce new design concepts into Mexican handcrafts. After graduating, Mayeb began a career with an optical company doing their publicity, starting her own family in the process. While steady employment, it was both demanding and not particularly satisfying. So she decided to work a bit with a local theatre group. This was very satisfying as the group was dedicated to bringing theatre to very poor rural communities, to people who often had never seen this kind of show before. But it was difficult to balance the needs of a traveling theatre with those of her children.
Mayeb simply decided that she needed to work for herself, doing something that she could do at home. She quit the job with the optical company and began working in book design, which lasted for about a year. At the same time, she worked on prototypes of various kinds of products, which led to her first doll, made around 2008. These first dolls were her take on the common Marias, with a somewhat updated look.
Soon, clients began to request other kinds of dolls: those representing mariachis, Adelitas (women soldiers during the Mexican Revolution), Frida Kahlo and more. These requests came from the desire to give such dolls to children and were not readily available. Mayeb realized that there was a niche market here to fill, dolls for children with traditional Mexican imagery.
In most cases, the new versions only required different dress. But one unusual product came from her then very young nieces and nephews and Day of the Dead. She wanted something for them, but decided that the traditional skeletal figures made from cartonería (paper mache) were not appropriate for very small children. So she made a cloth doll version. They were a hit not only with the family, but have since become a staple product of her business.
Mayeb’s inventory now include a wide variety of dolls and some other products. She still makes her version of Maria dolls, a few others in different types of indigenous dress. She makes other images from Mexico including Catrinas, China Poblana, lucha libre wrestlers and La Llorona as well as some that are not purely Mexican such as mermaids.
She cannot articulate just what her influences are, but the faces of her dolls are painted with a distinctive style. However, her workshop contains a good number of dolls she has collected from other Mexican and foreign craft doll makers, and some of their work is reflected in hers. Mayeb believes the attraction of her dolls lies in a combination of innovation and classic images, new takes on old imagery. She has more ideas for dolls than she can possibly develop herself. Some of these ideas include dolls as specialty items for quinceañeras and other major celebrations.
Some of her dolls are high-end with great detail. Most of these she makes herself. The rest of the inventory is more affordable, designed by her but made by employees. The dolls’ bodies are made with a muslin cloth that she orders special from Guadalajara to get the right skin tones. Most of the work goes on the in the Tultitlán workshop, in her parents’ former home. Four work here full time and a couple part time. A number of others work in their own homes as well. All the workers are housewives, often with small children. At the moment, all are contract workers, but one of her projects for the year is to find a way to make at least some of them full employees with the legal benefits.
Despite the fact that she initially designed the dolls for Mexican children, they have become most popular with tourists. Most are sold today through distributors, such as airport and museum shops and those in tourist towns in areas such as Los Cabos and Acapulco. Mayeb also has three stores in the United States that sell her dolls in Chicago, Los Angeles and San Antonio.
There is one online distributor here, and her Facebook page can be found here.
It is a strange sight, mermaid figures defining formerly small mountain town just west of Mexico City over 500 km from the nearest coast. They are locally called Tlanchanas, a name that comes from Nahuatl meaning “mother spirit from the water.”
Their origins are not the seas, but rather the shallow lakes that used to dominate this area in the Valley of Toluca marked by the giant, often snow-covered Nevado de Toluca volcano. The myth is from the Mazatlincan people and predates even the Aztec conquest of this region. The myth states that the waters of the valley were ruled by a creature that was half woman and half serpent. It was said that at times she could be glimpsed among the reeds and other aquatic vegetation, nude on an island. If she took a liking to a human, she could change her serpent lower half to legs to peruse him. If he refused her advances, she would drag him down to the depths of the water.
When the Spanish conquered the Valley of Toluca, they worked to eradicate all pre-Hispanic beliefs from the native peoples. But the Tlanchana persisted. So the Spanish changed tactics as well as the Tlanchana’s form to that of a European mermaid.
Metepec has a centuries-old tradition of pottery, making both utilitarian and decorative works since long before the conquest. One way to promote the new mermaid figure was to create them in clay. Over time, the disappearance of most of the lakes and wetlands, as well as the growth of the pottery industry, converted the Tlanchana into a symbol of this economic activity as well as local history.
Today, Metepec is no longer a small rural community but rather a suburb of the city of Toluca and even a bedroom community for western Mexico City. But in some parts of the municipality and surrounding towns, the tradition of pottery making not only still exists but has made the town a “Pueblo Mágico” part of the federal government’s efforts to promote tourism. It is best known for its Trees of Life, but clay mermaid figures are very common, along with plaque depicting the sun and moon. It is definitely worth a day trip from Mexico City to the historic center, both to see the mermaids and to bring home a piece of history.
Featured image by Octavio Alonso Maya CC by SA 3.0 – Tlanchana monument in the main square of Metepec, State of Mexico
Most of us envision Mexican handcrafts and folk art as a timeless tradition, representative of a quiet, dignified life free from the cacophony of much of human interaction. And certainly this can be found. However, there is one product that has had a controversial past.
Southern Europe originated a tradition of burning an effigy of Judas Iscariot on Holy Saturday, commemorating his suicide after betraying Christ. It is a kind of purification ritual, whereby the community “transfers its sins” to the effigy, then burns it. In most traditions of this sort, the effigy is crudely made human figure and set on fire.
But not in Mexico….
The Spanish brought this tradition and a related one, the Fallas de Valencia, to Mexico. The latter, consisted of making a wooden figure in the form of a devil or something related to current events, then burning it for the feast of Saint Joseph on March 19th. Over time, these two traditions fused. Modern paper mache was introduced to Mexico in the later colonial period/early 19th century, and it appears that one of its first uses was the making of these devil figures, allowing for much creativity. Somehow, they became intimately connected with the fireworks-making communities in Mexico, so instead of being “gently” set on fire, they are loaded up with firecrackers and ripped apart with a series of bangs.
But that is not the controversial part. The making of non-devil figures related to something that has the attention of the populace got embedded here as well. So on a day devoted to destroying evil, someone who the people are angry with, usually politicians/other authority figures, would appear in these effigies to receive the same treatment as a kind of catharsis… which would not sit well with many authorities. This led to the entire practice of the burning of Judas being restricted or banned at times over history, but always resurfacing.
The last banning occurred in Mexico City in the 1950s. In 1957, a warehouse near the Merced market exploded, leveling nearby buildings and causing deaths. Authorities blamed fireworks makers and sellers, but many believe that the warehouse was being used to store military ammunition. Fireworks making and almost all selling was banned from the city proper (making the suburb of Tultepec the new hub for this activity). Without fireworks, the tradition of the Burning of Judas almost died completely.
In later years, under the guise of safety, the Burning of Judas itself officially was banned, then allowed but only with special permits, not easy to get. What goes in Mexico City often goes in the provinces and many states/cities enacted similar laws. However, many cartoneros do not believe it is a safety issue but rather a political one, which very well could be the case as running around streets with bulls loaded with fireworks (which never had a political aspect) is still permitted.
With the weakening and fall of the single-party PRI system in the late 20th and early 21st century, the tradition of the Burning of Judas seems to be making a comeback. The Linares family in the east of the city has kept it alive this whole time, their fame allowing them to get the needed permissions. But other individuals and groups have had more luck in getting permits, especially in the last 10 years or so including the organizers of the annual Festival de la Cartonería in Mexico City and prominent artisans such as Alfonso Morales of southern Morelos state, who has reestablished the tradition there.
One change is that because of the restrictions, multiple Judases are burned/exploded at events, not just one. Devils make a mandatory appearance as per tradition,but perhaps the real draw is to see what other figures might appear. It is almost guaranteed that with the Linares, both the Mexican and US presidents will appear, no matter what the political party. One year an Italian singer was burned, basically for saying that he thought Mexican women were ugly. In a twist, sometimes the figure being burned is actually admired rather than scorned. This is the case with Judases in the form of figures from popular culture such as Cantinflas and El Chavo del Ocho. This means that any appearance this year by new Mexican president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador may be for either reason. It will depend on how the figure is depicted.
She was one of four girls, but she was the only one who took interest in the making of dolls.
Making dolls was a family tradition going back at least to her grandmother’s generation. At around 8 years of age she began to go over to her grandmother’s house to watch her make dolls. These dolls were very special, she says, because they were made for family and friends, with great care and artistry in each one. Not long after, she wanted to start making her own and her grandmother helped her make a plush swan. The making of that swan remains a strong memory of her grandmother to this day.
She left school after the fifth grade to help out her mother. Her mother also made dolls, but it was more of a commercial activity, a way for the family to earn money to make ends meet. Through this she began a career of making dolls, starting at age 12. She developed her various skills with her mother although she says that the dolls were much simpler than those her grandmother made. These dolls needed to be made more quickly and serially so that they could have enough to sell.
By age 17, she specialized in dolls that could stand and be manipulated into various positions. To achieve this, the arms, legs and torso are of rolled cloth over a wire frame. It was also at this time that the labor was divided such that her mother dedicated herself to selling and Concepción to making. Her mother acknowledged her talent and encouraged her to experiment with new forms, such as images of old people.
These were one of many kinds of images that Concepción had in her head. Over time her work has included images of saints, nativity scene figures, dancers, vendors, craftsmen and more based on life in and around Celaya. She began exhibiting and participating in state handcraft competitions successfully. Her dolls have also competed in other Mexican states such as Oaxaca, Chiapas, Puebla, Tlaxcala and Coahuila.
Over the years, she has taught many classes in Celaya on doll making, but her favorite student and heir is not a daughter, but her son, Luis Alberto Alvarado Balderas. He learned how to make dolls as well, but instead of making them as individuals, he concentrates in the making of elaborate scenes of the places and festivals of Celaya, with the dolls populating the squares, and streets. This is an outgrowth not only of Concepción’s addition of straw hats, miniature pots, bird cages and other accoutrements to her figures, but Luis’s love of various crafts, including wood working.
Unfortunately, Doña Concepción is no long making dolls as she began to have problems with her vision some years ago. However, her dolls can be found in the collections of various individuals and museums in Guanajuato. With luck, her legacy will continue with her students as well as with her son and grandchildren.
Most of us from north of the border associate beadwork with the indigenous peoples of the United States and Canada. If we are more aware of Mexico, we may know something about the Wixáritari (Huichol) who are probably most famous for this craft in this country. However, beadwork was an important activity in pre Hispanic Mexico and even continued to have significance from the Conquest to the late 19th century.
Bead painting at the Museo de Arte Popular in Mexico City
As in a number of parts of the world and at various times in history beads and their use played a significant cultural role. Although we think of them today mostly as cheap junk, this is only because they are now so easy to manufacture in great quantity. The value that beads had in pre-industrial cultures is not hard to understand when you consider that they were made one-at-a-time and very often without metal tools. In other words, the value of beads came not so much from the value of the materials, but rather the work that went into making them.
Olmec jade necklace (photo credit Vassil)
Taking Mesoamerica as the example, bead and bead-like objects were made from shell, bone, animal teeth, clay, gold and semi-precious stones like jade. The type and quantity of beads worn were often more than just decorative, they often indicated social rank. Aztec nobles wore beads made of jade. More common people would have beads of more common and took less time to shape and perforate. The easiest beads to make are simply seeds that have been pierced by a needles. Jewelry and other objects made of seeds can still be seen in Oaxaca, Guerrero and among various groups in Baja California.
Although Europe had not yet entered the Industrial Age, the continent had become adept at making glass beads. Glass is made with ordinary sand, which can be melted down and dripped in a an array of small molds, allowing for something akin to mass production in comparison. Glass was an unknown substance in the New World, so the value of beads remained high.
English trade beads circa 1740 (photo credit Uyvsdi)
It is known that glass beads arrived early in the colonial period, but because the material is fragile, very little physical evidence survives. According to records from the colonial period, Hernán Cortés took off a collar made with glass beads imitating precious stones off his own neck to give to Montezuma. It certainly was introduced by conquistadors and missionaries and native artisans quickly adopted them. From 1531 to 1591, the city of Culiacan excelled in the use of beads as soldiers traded them with the locals for gold nuggets found in this northern territory. The trade in glass beads in Mexico (and other parts of the world) created demand such that enterprises in Europe began manufacturing them specifically for this kind of export. They were followed by beads produced in India and China, brought over the the Manila Galleon. (For this reason, beads are are sometimes called “chinitas” (little Chinese ones).) It is interesting to note that a percentage of the beads produced in Europe found their way back as part of handcrafted items, applied to textiles, necklaces, religious objects, and many of these finely-made pieces can be found still in European museums. The Franz Mayer museum in Mexico City has a number of valuable pieces made with glass beads. Their value does not come from the materials but rather the skilled work needed to produce them.
Plate with glass beads in San Pablito, Puebla (Photo:Norma Ita Rosa)
The popularity of glass beads among the indigenous did not mean that beadwork in Mexico was limited to them. The Spanish brought over their own beadworking techniques and designs. These would make the greatest impact in central Mexico. Much of the beadwork in the colonial period by the non-indigenous was done nuns. The most important use of beads was in the making of rosaries. Nuns also made other finery, adorning the clothing for the statues of saints as well as altar cloths and with wire, making flower decorations as well as the crowns that were commonly seen on images of nuns. A popular bead used by the nuns was called the lentejuela (as they are roughly the size and shape of lentils. Nuns also taught girls from well-to-do families to decorate wth beads. Saddles and bridles could be decorated with them and speciality beads, such as those made from silver, adorned finely-made containers and clothing for the nobility.
The apogee of beadwork came in the 19th century, with beadwork commonly found on many women’s clothing, even those living in very rural areas. Almost all the beads used during this century came from what is now the Czech Republic, Italy or Asia. However, the supply of beads from Europe dropped after Independence with the end of the runs of the Manila Galleon. These were soon replaced by those brought by English traders generally from India and China. These new shipments also included cigarette cases decorated with beads, which the Mexicans quickly copied, adapting Mexican motifs.
However, the use of beads among the non-indigenous dropped permanently at the end of the 19th century/beginning of the 20th with the adoption of French fashions in Mexico.
Beadwork became relegated to handcrafts and to some extent, the decoration of bridal gowns (similar to beadwork’s fate in the US). The substitution of plastic for glass in most cases devalued beadwork even further.
Today, beadwork as a valued cultural handcraft is all but gone but with a number of important exceptions. They are found in areas where Spanish (and later Mexican criollo) had the least cultural dominance, especially in the colonial period. One such area is in eastern Mexico in parts of Puebla, Veracruz and Hidalgo. Here, the use of fine beadwork is found on traditional women’s blouses, especially the yoke. The blouses themselves are of Spanish origin, with Oriental influence. The beadwork motifs are a mix of Spanish colonial and indigenous designs and can be found among the Totonacs, Nahuas, Tepehuas and Otomi. The beadwork can indicate where the blouse is from, but this is not always the case. Although still found, the making of these blouses is waning due to the time and effort needed to apply the beads. These blouses used to be part of daily wear, but they are not reserved for special occasions or made for sale. It is a similar story with men’s shirts, although they never had the quantity of beadwork as the women’s blouses. Some beadwork blouses are also made in the Costa Chica region of Oaxaca and Guerrero by Mixtec women, but are mainly sold to mestizo women for the Chinelas dance.
L: Beaded blouse from Veracruz (photo:Poshmark) R: Beaded yoke ready for assembly (Photo:Clothroads)
Another important use of beadwork on clothing is the making of the dress of the Poblana China (lit. Chinese woman from Puebla). She was supposedly a noble women who was captured in India and sold as a slave. In the Philippines, she was baptized as Catarina de San Juan by the Jesuits, then brought to Mexico where she spent the rest of her life. (She is buried in one of the city’s churches.) Catarina is credited for the creation of this particular style of festive dress, distinguished particularly by the skirt, which contains a large number of flattened beads (and/or sequins today) sewn on for form images and patterns that cover nearly the entire front of the garment. The China Poblana’s outfit was banned in the latter colonial period, considered by Spanish authorities as politically provocative. When Mexico gained its independence, the dress reappeared and became a national symbol. Other articles of clothing adorned with the national seal of Mexico (an eagle with a snake, perched on a cactus) in beadwork also became very popular.
By far the most famous beadwork done in Mexico today is done by the Wixáritari. The reason for this is that the vast majority of items that they make with beads are for sale to both Mexican and foreigners (tourists). They and their work are a common sights not only in western Mexico where Wixáritari communities are found (Jalisco, Nayarit, Zacatecas and Durango) but in most of the popular tourist areas far from there.
L: Shaman mask at the Museo de Arte Popular R:Artisan applying beads to a jaguar head covered in wax
Authentic uses of beadwork is for ceremonial objects, such as the Kuka, a three-dimensional mask used by shamans. However, beads can be found covering a wide array of objects. The most common of these are small wood sculptures (often of animals) and beaded necklaces and earrings. The sculptures are covered in campeche wax, then the beads are applied one-by-one, after being arranged on a needle to make the process quicker and easier. Wixáritari beadwork is extremely popular in tourist markets and has even been applied to modern objects such as footwear (using glue instead of wax). For the 2010 Mexican Bicentennial of Independence, the Museo de Arte Popular in Mexico City commissioned four Wixáritari families to design and decorate a VW Beetle (known as a “vocho” in Mexico) with traditional and patriotic symbols. The resulting work of art is known as the Vochol (combination of vocho and huichol). It was originally made for auction as a fundraiser, but it was so popular that the museum kept it and uses it for promotional purposes.
Other traditional uses of beads can by found in northern and northwestern Mexico. The Tarahumara uses many strings of bead as necklaces. The Yaquis of Sonora during the Deer Dance will denote local elders with necklaces made of white beads and crosses made of shell. There remain some Kickapoo in a small area of Coahuila who conserve their traditional beadwork, such as those found on moccasins. However, even among the more traditional groups, traditional beadwork finds itself under pressure. aCucupa women used to wear a very large and elaborate beadwork collar that covered the chest instead of a blouse. This is no longer the case but examples of these collars can be found in museums in Baja California and other parts of Mexico.
Please forgive the obvious self-promotion here, but it is hard not to be jumping up and down!
Three-plus years ago, I began this blog as well as a book project. As noted my first blog article (Why?) I have worked voluntarily at Wikipedia for 11+ years but found it has limitations… I can publish there only information that has already been published in “reliable sources.” As many of you are very well aware of, there is so much wonderful stuff that has not been published about Mexico but really deserves attention. That is one of the functions of this blog. Interestingly enough, if its only in this blog, I cannot use the information on Wikipedia… but when the Vallarta Tribune re-publishes an article, it becomes “reliable” 😀
I will give Wikipedia credit, however. Without a place to put what I learned, I probably would never have gained the background knowledge to do what I do now. I also have had the pleasure of artisans thanking me for that work… how it has helped them.
I have a background in academic writing, teaching it for 25 some-odd years but I had never written a book. Having no idea what the end game would be, I started the project, with a bit of the information summarized in the book appearing in some blog posts here. After a year of trying to get a publisher, I had just about decided it was not going to happen, when of course it did. Schiffer, who publishes a lot of books on Mexican handcrafts and folk art, contacted me, asking if the project was available. Of course I said yes, with a mandatory pause for effect. 😀
The process is a very slow one and a little frustrating for this blogger and Wikipedian. Several weeks ago they sent me a proposal for the cover, and after a bit of give-and-take we agreed to a design. But I could not talk about the project publicly until yesterday.
It now feels so very real! I was literally jumping up and down. And what excites me the most is that already I am getting more interest from people I have been trying to collaborate with for years. Over this past weekend, I have been receiving many congratulations and many messages asking me when and how to get the book. The cartonería community is eager to get started promoting it.
The book traces the craft from its beginnings, but what I am really proud of is the documentation of the rapid changes that have occurred since the 1990s. Nothing of this has been documented anywhere before in either English or Spanish. Only a series of interviews with artisans and cultural institutions allowed me to get a first draft of this history put together.
Oh yes, I have thought about writing more books. In fact, more than that…. I have two projects started, one on cloth dolls in Mexico and the other on foreign artists in this country. But for these projects I have the honor of collaborating with Ana Karen Allende for the doll book and Helen Bickham for the artist book as experts. Stay tuned!
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.
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.
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
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.
The 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.
Gaxiola 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.
In 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.
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.
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.
Until 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.
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.
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.