When Artists Have Trouble Seeing – – Friends of Oaxacan Folk Art Offers Help

by Doris Friedensohn and Amy Mulvihill


In July, 2015 Maestro Carlomagno Pedro Martínez — Director of the Oaxaca State Museum of Folk Art and FOFA‘s long-time collaborator — hosted a meeting of women folk artists of the Central Valleys to address their common concerns. One group emphasized health issues that challenge the wellbeing of women whose crafts are visually challenging. Moved by their stories highlighting the absence of preventive care for what can develop into vexing visual problems, Maestro Carlomagno pledged to provide corrective lenses to 50 women especially in need of care. He asked FOFA to provide support and we gladly did so.


Silvia Xuana Fabián from the woodcarving village of San Martín Tilcajete paints fine designs on wooden sculptures. Day after day, as long as the light holds, she focuses on repeating a delicate, multi-colored design. There’s no room for error in this unforgiving work, as Silvia knows all too well. If the pattern isn’t perfectly maintained, the piece is worthless. She feels the strain in her back and hands. But the real problem is with Silvia’s eyes. The bright colors fight back; her eyes hurt whenever she works. The same is true for her mother, father and brothers who, like Silvia, are all folk artists.
Fortunately, Silvia and her family heard about Project Ita Tachii. Ita Tachii in Nahuatl (one of the many indigenous languages of the state of Oaxaca) means Flower of the Wind and is associated with creativity. The Project, conceived and led by Carlomagno Pedro Martínez provides glasses free of charge to artisan women who suffer from vision problems as a result of their craft. Among those commonly affected are women doing decorative painting, embroidery and woodworking; also those making gold and silver jewelry and working on backstrap looms.
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The Project offers free diagnostic exams by an optometrist at the Museum. Seventy artisans, including Silvia Xuana Fabián, her parents and two brothers have taken advantage of the opportunity. Following an examination, each was given a prescription and directed to the table where glasses of different strengths and styles were available. “We all needed these glasses so much, ” Silvia said. “Our eyes were really hurting. Now that I am used to my glasses,” she added, ” I can see very clearly.”
More testimonials
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Alba Noemí López Zárate (from the ceramic village of Ocotlán de Morelos) appreciates the help offered by FOFA because, from that day forward, the glasses provided to her enable her to tire much less rapidly when decoratively painting the ceramic figures she and her family create. “It is very important work which improves the quality of life of the elderly who wish to continue working.”
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Dulce Andrés Castillo, daughter of Irene Castillo (black ceramic pueblo of San Bartolo Coyotepec): “I really needed glasses. I have used glasses since I was very young. But my mother told me to go and have a new exam. At the appointment I learned I need a much stronger prescription than the one I have had. They took care of me and I feel much better working. It’s much easier for me to work now.”
Reprinted with permission from the Friends of Oaxacan Folk Art newsletter

A slightly darker, Baroque take on folk sculpture

Jose Juan Garcia Aguilar comes from the world-renowned Aguilar family from the small town of Ocotlán de Morelos in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. The family’s feat is no small thing given Oaxaca’s reputation for producing many of the best artisans Mexico has to offer in so many different fields. Ocotlán itself is home to a vibrant pottery tradition, as well as the making of fine knives and other blades.


The family’s fame began with Jose Juan’s grandmother, Isaura Alcantara Diaz. Although she died at the young age of 44, she managed to break from the town’s traditional utilitarian pottery to found her own tradition, the creation of decorative human figures, depicting life in rural Oaxaca with emotion. She was followed by her daughters including Jose Juan’s mother, Josefina Aguilar Alcantara, who reinterpreted these new figures. Josefina became known for creating sets depicting events such as baptisms and large female figures called “muñecas” (lit. dolls). These became famous after Nelson Rockefeller began adding them to his impressive collection of Mexican folk art.

Jose Juan at the Feria Maestros del Arte

The next generation continues to reinterpret the craft, but keeping with the idea of depicting life in and around Ocotlan. However, in this case the sons stand out, principally Demetrio and Jose Juan. Jose Juan is Josefina’s younger son, born in 1974. He began watching his mother as a child, and at age 8, began to work the clay himself. Initially, his work was influenced by Demetrio, but he has since gone on to create his own unique style, and is recognized as a premier folk artist in his own right.

Jose Juan generally works on his own, with only the help of his wife, who generally paints the primary colors. While Jose Juan does make some sets, most of his figures are solitary pieces. Much of his inspiration comes from religion, with images of saints, virgins and angels, but he is also known for creating almost grotesque insects and animals with skull heads. He states that much of his inspirations comes from his area of Oaxaca, but also from Mexican folklore such as naguals (a kind of animal spirit), alebrijes (fantasy creatures of different animals parts, with highly detailed painted designs) and his own imagination. His idea is to reinterpret the culture in his own way.

He works to make his works more fine, and less rustic than that of his mother and grandmother. He also works with watercolors and metallic paints (generally gold and silver) instead of acrylics. He also prefers darker colors and large quantities of details in his figures, giving them a Baroque effect.

Jose Juan’s work has been sold and exhibited widely in Mexico and the United States and can be found in a number of important public and private collections of Mexican folk art.





Perfection not within sight, but within reach

Sergio Alberto Ortega Álvarez is a 33-year-old musician and stringed instrument maker, who is located in the small community of Ajusco, in the far south of the Federal District of Mexico City. Although born and raised here, Sergio’s specialty is the traditional music of the state of Veracruz and the Huasteca region, which extends from the north of this state.


Sergio began playing music when he was a child, and quickly developed a preference for traditional music. He has family roots both in the Hidalgo state portion of the Huasteca on his father’s side and a connection with southern Veracruz through his mother’s father, home of Son Jarocho. He belongs to a Huasteca musical group which plays mostly in Mexico City, with invitations to other parts of Mexico, mostly to Huasteca festivals in the region.


To state that he is a blind musician who plays both the Huasteca and Veracruz jaranas, guitar and requinto (a small guitar) may not be impressive, as there are a number of famous blind musicians. However, it is another thing to state that he also makes and repairs these and other stringed instruments…

Sergio was born blind with music coming into his life early. He became a proficient musician but wanted to learn how the instruments he plays were made. He stated that people thought that it was not possible for a him to learn to make instruments because of the need for precise measurements. However, about eight years ago he found one of several instrument makers who were willing to teach him apprentice-style, adapting crafting methods to being touch-centered, rather than sight-centered. He has since continued to develop his craft, from buying specialized tools such as a tape measure that speaks the measurements to continuing to find new ways to make his works.


Sergio specializes in the same instruments that he plays, jaranas, requintos and guitars, selling most of his work through attendance at traditional music festivals in Mexico. He also uses these festivals to network with others interested in preserving and promoting traditional Mexican folk music to find long-term clients.

The craftsman’s work has been featured in the Mexico City newspaper La Jornada, and on the National Polytechnic Institute’s channel Canal 11.

He can be contacted on Facebook at Super Jaranas Ortega and reached by cell at +52 (55) 10 11 20 19


Photographs courtesy of Sergio Ortega

Continuing the Linares family tradition

Leonardo Linares prefers the term “artisan,” shunning the word “artist,” which has been applied to him by entities such as the British Museum. The reason is that he believes that as an artisan he has more creative freedom.


Leonardo Linares is a fifth generation “cartonero” or maker of paper mache folk art, which is called “cartonería” in Mexico.  He comes from Mexico’s most famous cartonería family, that of Pedro Linares.


Pedro’s father and grandfather also did cartonería but only on seasonal basis, making traditional objects, piñatas, nativity scenes, masks for Carnival, Judas figures for Holy Saturday and various decorative items for Day of the Dead. Pedro changed this for the family with the creation of “alebrijes,” brightly painted monsters, which could be made and sold year-round as they are not associated with any particular holiday.

Skeletal figure at the Dolores Olmedo Museum (credit:Luis Rojas)

Since then the family has been able to make cartonería a true profession, to the benefit of various members such as Leonardo.  Leonardo and his father, Felipe, have continued with Pedro’s work, but have modified it somewhat. The most important is that the figures are more fluid and detailed, giving them a more artistic feel than those of Pedro.


Leonardo began his career when he was ten years old, watching his father and grandfather working  in the patio of the family home, which served at the workshop for some time even before that. He began as an apprenticeship, learning to mix paste and paints from plant and mineral pigments. However, he was not obligated to do this. Leonardo initially did this as a game. Only later did it become a way of life.


Leonardo’s work is strongly tied to his father’s workshop, one of the two Linares family workshops in Mexico City. (The other is headed by Felipe’s brother Miguel.) The work is shared among four family members, Felipe (Sr.) and three sons, Leonardo, Felipe (Jr.) and David. However, of the sons, Leonardo is the most involved and the best known, giving talks and workshops on cartonería in central Mexico, the United States and Canada. The workshop strictly does pieces by order, with most of the work alternated between Leonardo and his father. For large commissions and exhibitions for museums, all the members work together.


Leonardo’s work is not significantly different in style from that of his father, just some minor differences in details and the sizes of same. Much of the reason for this is that he has always worked with his father by apprenticing with him. He has no preference in types of items to make (alebrijes, skeletal figures, Judas, etc) as he believes that a cartonero should be able to master all forms. The workshop does not specialize either and what they do can vary greatly year to year, depending on what is being ordered. Orders are generally worked on individually, with a 30cm alebrije taking from 20 to 25 days to make, start to finish. Almost all of their work comes to them now because of the family’s fame. Clients are generally those who are knowledgeable of their work such as museum gift shops and collectors. Almost all are foreign buyers, noting that in general foreigners are more knowledgeable and appreciative of the tradition. New clients generally come by way of learning about them in books and magazines, but except for Facebook and email, Leonardo generally shuns the Internet. There is no web site. One reason for this is that Leonardo does not want to put images of pieces online because he fears copying and poor copying of his work.

View of the workshop in Colonia Merced Balbuena

Leonardo has worked various major commissions such as those for several museums in the United Kingdom, Germany, France, the United States and the Museum of Modern Art in Japan. One particular piece was originally commissioned by the then Museo de Artes y Industriales in Mexico City. It was meant as an “ofrenda” (altar set up with offerings for Day of the Dead) with the name of Atomic Apocalypse. This was done in the 1980s, and the four horsemen of the Apocalypse were represented with images from that time period: Hunger with images of the famine in Africa, Disease with images related to AIDS and leprosy,  War with images of the Sandinista movement, Khomeni and more and for Death, and exploding atomic bomb and other weapons of mass destruction. The work caught the attention of the British Museum, who bought and has had it in their collection since. It is one of many Linares pieces in the institution, which call Leonardo and the rest of the family  “contemporary artists.” However, relatively few of their works are in permanent collections in Mexico, with exceptions being the Fomento Cultural Banamex with 80+ works, the Dolores Olmedo Museum and a couple of pieces in the Museo de Arte Popular.


Leonardo and the rest of the family held on to the cartonería tradition and promoted the alebrije innovation from the 1950s to the 1990s, when the craft was waning. However, since the 1990s, the popularity of cartonería has risen again, with many young people taking it up. Most have learned either through classes at schools or museums, but Leonardo believes that this leaves these young artisans without a sense of tradition, “trunco común” (lit. common trunk), or basis to understand and appreciate the history of cartonería or its relevance to Mexican culture.


For example, alebrijes are now widely made by many artisans and not only using traditional materials and methods. While Leonardo has papers indicating that the term belongs with the family, this idea has not been enforced legally or socially. Leonardo does not have problems with others making them, or using new materials or techniques, but the term should be reserved for their work, out of respect for the form’s origins.


For the most part, Leonardo is a traditionalist, strongly attached to traditional materials, construction techniques and in particular the apprenticeship system that molded him and his work. All of his creations are still made with wire (sometimes reed or cane) frames, with mixtures of newspaper, craft and other papers. Paper is meticulously layered over the frame  (no scrunching for volume) and no molds are used. The paste is only flour and water, no glue or preservatives used. Every piece is hand painted.

Father Felipe Linares

As for classes, Leonardo strongly believes that to be a true cartonero, one must work one’s way up, from simple pieces like masks to more complicated pieces such as alebrijes. As he put it “ You cannot build the fifth floor of a building until you have built the first, second, third….” He says that most learning cartonería are only learning techniques, from teachers who do not truly understand what they are teaching, with students only copying items instead of truly creating. The problem with this is that students then think they go on to innovate, but really wind up reinventing the wheel, not knowing that it was done before.


That does not mean that Leonardo does not innovate. The family used to make their pieces almost exclusively with recycled materials, but Leonard uses mostly new, principally to have expenses for tax purposes. He does use commercial paint as it adheres better, and poor weather does not inhibit their use. He does make a kind of varnish by chemically breaking down Styrofoam, continuing the “alchemist” tradition of the family that used to be applied to making paints. He also makes his own tools when there is nothing available commericially to do what he needs. However, he does not back pieces with plastic as some young cartoneros do, or use decorative elements such as glass, plastic, buttons or other items, nor does he create pieces with movable parts.


Leonardo does not like to be called an “artist.” He prefers “artisan,” believing that being such gives him more freedom to create, as artisans generally are not university trained as to what creativity is supposed to be, nor has to be concerned about his/her work being accepted by an “authority.” His main inspirations continue to be life in his section of Mexico City, where his family has lived since it was rural farmland, and before urban sprawl took it over.  He considers the local markets as a kind of “living museum, “ with its sights, sounds and smells. However, he also finds inspiration from his foreign contacts and trips abroad. However, his inspiration is mostly applied to the details and themes of his works, rather than to the basic figures.

(All photos by Alejandro Linares Garcia unless otherwise indicated)

Dolls out of prison

I had no idea how much working on the dolls affected the women’s self-esteem. I have had comments like “I’ve been told all my life that I’m good for nothing, but I can create something this beautiful. So I now know that that’s not true.” – Rebecca Roth


Sometimes treasures come out of unusual places and from unlikely circumstances. Such is the case of Original Friends Dolls, a program for making one-of-a-kind cloth dolls in the  Reclusorio Feminil of Puente Grande, just outside of Guadalajara, Mexico.

The story behind the dolls is a fascinating one. It started with Rebecca Roth, an American who moved to Mexico in 1998 and until early 2006, ran a business in Puerto Vallarta. In March of that year, she was taken by Mexican authorities for questioning about an incident in 2001. Unfortunately, there is no presumption of innocence in Mexico upon accusation, Rebecca had to go to prison while her case wound through the court system for four years. Her case was finally dismissed for lack of evidence.

Prison is hard for anyone, but especially when you don’t know the language well, and find yourself shared a 6-person cell dormitory with 13 women and one young child. Rebecca found a number of outlets to help her cope with prison life, but the good to come out of this bad situation came in relation to the little girl.

Edith Margarita Muñoz, who continues to work with the project

Lupita at time was only 15 months old, having been born in the prison after her mother became pregnant after a conjugal visit from her husband. Mexican prisons allow such babies to stay with their mothers until age 3, but there isn’t much for a young child in such a place. Lupita had only a couple of empty plastic Coke bottle to play with. Having had taken some basic sewing classes, Rebecca decided Lupita needed a doll. She asked for scraps and created a doll with orange yarn hair, purple eyes, a white blouse and multi-colored skirt. Lupita fell in love with it instantly, and named the doll “Mia” (mine in Spanish). That doll went everywhere with the girl, including to Islas Marias facility that her mother was transferred to later on.

Rebecca didnt think much more about the doll until a cellmate complained about the need to make better money than what the prison shops could afford. Mexican prisoners need to make money to pay for their basic supplies such as toilet paper, and the earning opportunities are pitiful. Rebecca thought about the doll and suggested that they make some for an upcoming prison art show to see if they could sell. So Esmeralda Hernández José joined Rebecca to makethe dolls and to their surprise, their first customer was the warden!  The prison still very much supports the project, taking no cut of the proceeds and making sure visitors to the facility see it, as Rebecca says, “… it gives them bragging rights.”

Before Rebecca’s release in 2010, the two women sold about one hundred dolls, to guards, visitors and others. Despite the unjust incarceration, Rebecca still loved Mexico and wanted to stay and continue the project, now called Original Friends Dolls, a name suggested by Esmeralda. The imprisoned women who participate made about one doll a week and are paid for their production every Friday. It is up to Rebecca, Esmeralda and others to get them sold on the outside. The program is so popular that is there is a waiting list.

The witch Rhielle by Esmeralda hanging around her new home

1,500 named, number and signed dolls later, Original Friends have evolved quite a bit since the creation of Mia, although they are still made almost entirely of scraps, ribbons, lace, buttons and more, most of which is donated from the outside of the prison. The dolls are no longer meant to be children’s playthings but rather collectibles.  Almost all are figures of women, with a few of men, and tend to be long and lithe, measuring about 60cm tall, with the exceptions of the mermaids which are “shorter” because of the curved tails. They have long extremities which are often movable. One interesting technique is with the legs , with bendable knees achieved by making the legs in two pieces and connecting them with a large wood bead “knee.” Almost all have some kind of lace or sequins, jewelry or other sparkly bits. Faces are painted on but any small elements such as sequins, chains, glasses, etc are sewn on, no glue guns used at all. Rebecca trains all the women that participate, and her basic design is influenced by the work of Elenor Peace Bailey and Patti Medaris Culea

As they are collectibles, they are not cheap trinkets. Almost all the dolls for sale at the 2015 Feria Maestros del Arte ran for 1,200 Mexican pesos (about $90 USD). The Feria is one of their main outlets, but the program is looking for more venues, as another prison, a small women’s facility in Ixtapa, has joined the program, allowing for much higher production.




One thing that captures the attention of many foreigners here in Mexico is the wide range and depth of Mexico’s handcrafts and folk art tradition, nicely distinguished in Spanish with the word “artesanías.”

This is not your primary school arts and crafts, or simple handmade decorations for a party. (Those are separated with the word “manualidades”) Instead, these are items whose value today are both historical and cultural as well as utilitarian and/or decorative, and have a far greater quality than most handcraft traditions. In the United States, perhaps the closest “artesania” tradition is quilt making. Many of these pieces are heirlooms, worthy of passing down, and there are many notable collections of Mexican handcrafts and folk art, such as that amassed by Nelson Rockefeller, who spent considerable time and money investigating and visiting notable artisans.

Lacquer plate with gold inlay by Mario Agustin Gaspar of Michoacan

Despite its greater appreciation outside of Mexico than within, so much of the wonderful work that is done here, both traditional and innovative, remains highly unknown to the average tourist who sees things like amate paintings of the Nahuas, beadwork by the Huichols, pieces of major pottery traditions such as barro negro of Oaxaca and Mata Ortiz of Chihuahua and the numerous textile traditions….


Do you know what a “huipil” is? If you have traveled Mexico or Guatemala, especially in indigenous communities, you have very likely seen one, or a takeoff of one without knowing it. You may have even bought one.

This is a Chintaneco huipil from Oaxaca

I have lived for over 12 years in Mexico, and have been captivated by various aspects of Mexican culture. I first began delving into it in 2008 by writing Wikipedia articles, reading almost exclusively Spanish language sources, but writing articles in English. Almost all Mexican artesania articles in English Wikipedia were developed by yours truly. I still believe Wikipedia is a very important way to spread knowledge about Mexican handcrafts. Artisans who have Wikipedia pages have told me that they, and others, have noticed them. Carlomagno Pedro Martinez told me that his Wikipedia article “impressed the kids” in his community.


But Wikipedia has limitations, the main one being that it requires that all information that remains in the encyclopedia be cited in a reliable source. This means that while it is a great way to get basic information about the subject out to the public, it can only repeat that which is already stated in traditional media sources.

Giant “alebrije” figure made from hard paper mache or “cartonería”

There is soooooo much important information that is NOT in traditional media sources because for the most part, they have to make money, and there is little money in covering artisans, even those who have won prestigious awards such as Mexico’s National Arts and Sciences Prize. Even that which has been printed is in primarily in traditional paper books, generally available in specialty or academic libraries, not (easily) accessible to the public.

Weaving an ixtle fiber belt


After almost disappearing in the early 20th century, Mexican handcrafts and folk art made a comeback, most recently because of the rise of the tourism industry. But if the common tourist does not know what s/he is looking at in the market, why is a pot, or a huipil, or a silver bracelet from Taxco more than just a shiny bauble? And why would they pay 2-5x the price for the genuine article, instead of the cheap (often Chinese) knock-off?


The overall principal goal of this blog is to made more information available online about Mexican handcrafts and folk art. It will profile various artisans from as many parts of the country as possible and not just the better known, but also those who are not known, but doing interesting work. It will also cover other developments in the field, including its relationship to fine art… as there is overlap and a gray area between the two.


This is a labor of love and completely non-profit. It is not meant to replace work in Wikipedia, but rather to supplement it.