Setting up miniatures in the city

20190909_160454Mexico City has long brought people from all over Mexico to live and work. This means that, if you know where to look, you can find food and handcrafts and even craftsmen from just about everywhere. However, the vast majority of these people and even the food is not available in tourist areas or even in the center of the city. Most of the people who migrate to Mexico City are poorer and live east and north edges of the urban area.

Craftsman Esteban Bautista lives in a community called Chicoloapan, State of Mexico. It is on the far eastern edge of the Mexico City metropolican area, very close to the border of the Mount Tlaloc natural reserve. East of that is the state of Puebla. It is barely metropolitan and not easy to get to. There are small vans that go there from a point in eastern Mexico City proper, but it takes about an hour in said van. The municipaly shows signs of both its rural and suburban history, with remnants of the old Costitlan Hacienda and various cookie cutter housing developments. But the traffic is becoming more and more like the rest of the Mexico City area.

Bautista’s family moved to Mexico City when he was just a boy, but he was born in the rural municipality of Tlalpujahua, Michoacan… today a noted former mining town that makes Christmas ornaments. However, the more traditional crafts of this area focus on clay. The village he is from, and still identifies with, is Santa Maria de los Angeles, locally known as “Jarrolandia” because most of the residents make pottery pitchers (jarros). Nearby is Estanzuela, which specializes in high-fire ceramics.  The family moved because it is not easy to make a living in here, although not all of the extended family moved. He still has aunts and uncles back “home,” maintaining his connection.

Bautista had a typical city upbringing, and handcrafts were not in the picture. He went to school and became an industrial electrician. However, this job sometimes has low periods when he needs to earn income from another source. Michoacan is not as well-known as Oaxaca and Chiapas, but it is one of Mexico’s major producer of traditional handcrafts. He became interested in this and began to research with the idea of bringing merchandise to Mexico City to sell. His hometown, as well as other areas, makes miniature versions of their traditional wares, originally as toys for children. Bautista found these attractive as they were relatively easy to transport and sell. He found they sold even better if he arranged the minatures in sets, even something as simple as putting dried flowers in a tiny flower vase.

He also began collaborating with number of his coworkers who came from various parts of Mexico. They formed a kind of club where they taught each other skills they knew to work on crafts such as wire animals and stone pieces to sell. They were successful enough to need a space to work and store merchandise.

About eight years ago, he began putting this all together to create small scenes in boxes. Almost all of these are of traditonal or historic Mexican kitchens. He began with what he remembered of his grandmother’s kitchen with its wood shelves, brick counters and wood fired stove. With research, he began making models of traditional kitchens from other parts of Mexico as well as those from the 19th century and earlier.

He says that this activity makes more sense than trying to recreate an activity that is done in Michoacan an elsewhere. It also allows him to give work to artisans who live in these rural areas. He began with miniatures from Michoacan and most of what he buys is from that state, followed by Guanajuato and some particular pieces from Tonalá, Jalisco. In Mexico City, he married a women from the Mixtec area of southern Puebla and through that connection has important suppliers, especially of miniature woven items, which can be hard to find.

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With the growth of his business, he has also been able to put in special orders for miniatures of things that have not been done on that scale before such as mats and crucifixes.  His miniatures are made with various materials. Most are from clay, which can be molded, but there are those made from cloth, straw, palm fronds, wood, glass and metal.  His scenes lack human and animal figures generally as these miniatures have not been done at such a small scale.

20190909_132259Most of his boxes scenes are about the size of a cigar box or a bit larger, but he has made some up to a meter in height with multiple compartments. These boxes he makes from scratch, along with the internal infrastructure (shelves, counters….) on which the miniatures will be organized and affixed. No two kitchens are the same as each is made individually, often determined by what miniatures he has available and his mood. The costs of the scenes vary widely depending on size and the cost of the pieces he uses. Some are made from relatively expensive material such as tin and copper, but the biggest cost for miniatures is that, despite their small size, they use many of the same processes that the larger pieces do.

He has started experimenting with setting up scenes in other enclosures. Those in pots used principally for making atole and “cazuelas” (a kind of wide, shallow clay pot) have been successful. The pots are either made with a side missing for this purpose, or at times he has to carefully cut a common pot. He is also working with using traditonal baskets and large gourds as backdrops. He has even done very small scenes nestled in the cup part of the huge wooden spoons traditionally used for making mole for large gatherings, with the rest of the spoon painted in bright colors and designs.

He also makes miniatures of the old fashioned wooden racks used to store dishes and pots in traditional kitchens, holding minature pots, plates, spoons and more.

Bautista has an online presence, but mostly sells through fairs and personal contacts as he much prefers to see and meet the buyer. He stated that he has done some distance selling and even has contacts in the United States that are interested in his work, but for both practical reasons and own personal comfort, he has been hesistant to pursue this. He especially appreciates buyers who are aware of what is involved in the making of miniatures and what they represent in Mexican culture. These include those adults who played with miniatures as children.

Bautista admits that most of his dedication to this activity is for the love of doing something creative. He is a fan of the work of late artisan Teresa Nava, who made similar works for Mexican writer Carlos Monsivais, and are on display at his museum in the historic center of Mexico City. It is very difficult to make any money making these scene, especially with the cumulative cost of the miniatures. Another problem is the strong tendency to bargain in Mexico as miniatures in particular are not valued. He will sell only at cultural events and the like where this tendency is somewhat ameliorated.

Thanks to the artisan for the majority of these photos.

You can contact the artisan directly on his Facebook page at












The art of lotería

320px-Gallo.svg“Se va y se corre con la vieja del pozole! ¡La dama! (She goes and runs with the old woman of the pozole!  The Lady!)

Pórtate bien amiguito, si no te lleva: ¡el diablito! (Behave yourself, my good little friend so that he doesn’t tak you: The Devil!)

Yo con mi elegancia y distinción: ¡el catrín!” (With elegance and distinction: The dandy!)

If you spend enough time in Mexico, you will run into a traditional board game for sale all over Mexico, from bookstores, to department stores to traditional markets. It is called La Lotería or The Lottery.

The game came to Mexico from Europe, but it probably has origins in China. The European version dates back to Italy in the 1400s and became popular all over the continent. By 1769, it had become part of Mexican culture, played by the upper classes, who had time for such diversions. Soldiers popularized it during the War of Independence, spreading it all over the country.

Wood block print by Alec Dempser depicting a kind of Huasteca tamale called zacahuil for the Lotería Huasteca board game

Lotería has always been a handcrafted game with huge variation in style and how finely the cards are made. Originally, the cards and the boards were hand painted, with content varying depending on the craftsman making the set.

A sort of a standardization occurred in the 19th century, when Frenchman Clemente Jacques started a business called Pasatiempos Gallo, registering a lotería set called Gallo Don Clemente with the 54 images seen on most lotería sets today. The images reflect Mexican traditional life and culture, from skulls representing Day of the Dead, to chalupa boats representing the canals of Xochimilco, to the rooster of farm life, the soldier, the nopal cactus…. Although the game has lost popularity in modern times, you would be very hard pressed to find a Mexican who has never put beans on board in a bingo-like fashion.

This does not mean that all lotería sets must look like those designed by Don Clemente. Often with a didactic or promotional purpose, sets with themes have been made over the years, such as a set that was produced by the Catholic Church with images related to religion and another with images from the fine arts.

The game lends itself extremely well to printing, which is recognized in Mexico as both a craft AND as an art form. Artist Alec Dempster’s work has included creating sets of lotería combining artistic printing processes to promote Mexican regional culture, principally that of the Huasteca region. Dempster has an interesting history and relationship to Mexico. He was born in Mexico City, but only because his foreign parents happened to be here at the time. He was raised in Canada, but his Mexican back story always stayed with him. As an adult, that part of his story drew him back here, not only to live, but also become an expert in Huasteca son music after an extended stay in Veracruz. In fact, he is a recognized expert and promoter of Huasteca music and culture in Canada and among the Huasteca son community in Mexico.

Alex Dempster with book at presentation in Mexico City

He is a graphic artist and author with many prints, books and other products to his credit, many of which can be seen at Much of his graphic work has classic themes and styles from traditional Mexican printing and more than a little in common with the printwork that proliferated in Mexico in the decades after the Revolution.

His most recent work is the Lotería Huasteca,  a book and a set of cards in artistic black-and-white done in wood block printing. Nothing digital about this design. Dempster cut blocks of wood by hand to create the original images. The “mass” production of cards and boards is done in offset printing.

The book serves to reinforce the didactic purpose of this lotería game, with detailed descriptions of each of the images used in his version, along with the meanings these have in Huasteca culture. Some are versions of those found in more typical lotería games such as the rooster, the sombrero, the mermaid and the drum. For these, the descriptions focus on the meanings these have specifically to the Huasteca, as part of the Mexican whole. But most of the images are specific to Huasteca culture from food to agricultural work, to handcrafts, musical instruments and celebrations. Often these have indigenous names rather than Spanish ones. These include La Acamaya (a kind of shellfish), (Carnaval) Carnival, (Caña) sugar cane, El Nukub (a kind of percussion instrument), La Curandera (healer) and many more. The boards simply have the images and the names, but the cards used to call out the images come with verses that describe the image in an poetic way, taking advantage of the tradition of calling to teach about the concept.

*** Update- the game is available in English and Spanish. The English version is available at The Porcupine Quill or you can contact Alec  for either the English or Spanish version.


The art and craft of printing is not something that is normally associated with Mexican handcrafts but the making of toys and games are. However, there is also a long tradition of handcrafts inspiring art and art inspiring handcrafts. This intermixing has been to the benefit of both and serves to keep both “Mexican” no matter the physical origin of the hands that make them.


Women in wool


The state of Veracruz is not one that is well-known for handcrafts. Except for the port city and perhaps son music (think La Bamba), very little is known of its culture outside of Mexico. The main reason for this is that, despite being on the coast, it does not have a major tourism industry.

Even less known are the rugged mountain areas away from the coast. The terrain juts up sharply as one travels west from the Gulf of Mexico. This makes for very rainy climates, and depending on the altitude, cool or even cold temperatures. However, it is these inland regions which are home to a wide variety in indigenous and other traditional communities and cultures, which include the Nahuas, Tepehuas, Otomis, Huastecas, Totonacas and Popolucas. Perhaps the most widespread and varied type of handcraft here is textiles. Depending on the climate of the region, the dominant fiber for these crafts is either cotton or wool.

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Fortunately, at least one area of the state is starting to get its due attention for its handcrafts and traditional culture. The Sierra de Zongolica is a rugged, mountainous areas in the southwest of the state, bordering the state of Puebla. It is an important center of Nahua peoples in the east of Mexico. 

The region is only 100km from the state capital, but it takes hours to get there because of the terrain and lack of highways. Isolation over its history has allowed it to maintain a traditional way of life. About 80% of the people here speak an indigenous language, principally Nahuatl. Subsistance agriculture is the main economic activity, although some cash crops such as coffee and oranges are grown in lower elevations. However, the price of this conservation has been severe economic marginalization.

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The women of Zongolica have woven clothing from wool grown on their own sheep, using spindles and backstrap looms, traditionally for home use. These women learn young, as children, working with their mothers and grandmothers in all aspects of the work from shearing sheep with hand scissors to cleaning, carding, dyeing, spinning and weaving. This means that many of the women here have decades of experience as weavers.

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The story of the commercialization of Zongolica textiles begins in 1992, when a number of women decided to work together to find ways to produce and sell what they make. They formed cooperatives such as Cihuamechikah (women who weave) which over time began to work with local and state cultural and economic authorities. Many of these women live in very small villages away from the “main” town of Zongolica, which itself has only thousands of people. Weavers are principally found in places such as Tlaquilpa, Mazetualla, Xoxocotla, Tequila and Alhuaca.

The women have worked with traditional techniques for centuries, making items such as rebozos,  jorongos (sarapes cut to fit like a loose shirt or jacket), sarapes and blankets. This area is one of the few in Veracruz that still grows, spins and weaves local wool, although commerically bought wool is also used. The use of local wool means that a natural gray can appear, which is unusual because many herders no longer raise gray-haired sheep. These women work the most number of weaving techniques (seven) and have the widest variety of designs in the region. Dyes are made with plants gathered from local forests, although this is something that has been resurrected in more recent years after the knowledge was all but forgotten. This resurgence was due to efforts between outsiders and some of the last of the women who knew the techniques to teach them to others and keep them alive.


The collaboration with outside entities has meant some innovation in products with an eye to what outside markets want. In addition to the traditional items, they have added scarves, backpacks, wool animals and dolls. The traditional hair ties called tlalpiales have been modified to make necklaces and earrings. There was even a project for the Xalapa Antropoligy Museum were monumental decorative pieces were made as works of art.

Much of the progress has occured in the past eight years or so. At this time, anthropology student Miguel Angel Sosme Campos came to study the women of Zongolica and their lives in the mountains. Sosme is not from here but rather from the southern Veracruz city of Coatzacoalcos. His involvement with the women came with the Proyecto Sierra Norte-Huasteca Sur, affiliated with Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History.

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One of Sosme’s first efforts was the publication of his research into the Zongolica region including the book  Tejedoras de esperanza. Empoderamiento de los grupos artesanales de la sierra de Zongolica. In Tejedoras de esperanza, Sosme tells these women’s stories, many of which had never been documented before. The book has won various awards such as the Fray Bernardino de Sahagun in 2014 and the Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, both national-level prices as well as a number of state-level recognitions.

Not content with simple research, his efforts have extended into advocacy for the Nahua women here. Of particular concern to the anthropologist was that the women’s efforts to organize and market their products were hampered by the men in their society. Women in traditional indigenous communities often have no economic, political or religious influence. Unfortunately, according to Sosme, domestic violence against them is not uncommon either. Efforts prior to 2011 were hampered because many husbands could not believe that the women could earn money from the work they did and assumed any money was earned through prostitiution or other immoral means. The backlash caused many women then, and even now, to not participate in such activities.

DSC09359However, for the women who have participated, the impact on their lives has been astouding, both economically and socially. They are able to contribute to practical needs such as medicines, school supplies and food stuffs either through sales or barter. This is particularly true with sales of smaller items such as belts and hair ties as they are sold more frequently. The sale of larger items allow women to support social and religious events, elevating their status in their communities. Because of this, women are traveling outside of their communities, learning Spanish and making long term contacts in parts of Mexico. They regularly travel to Xalapa, Veracruz (city), Mexico City, Monterrey, Oaxaca (city) and even Europe to sell and even receive invitation to present about their work and life.

Collaboration of these women’s cooperatives and outside organizastions has included conferences, exhibitions and fairs to not only promote textiles and other handcrafts, but also local culture and language. One of these events is the Festival Regional de Artes Textiles in Zongolica in December, which has only been around for the past 3 years or so. The purpose of the event is not only to showcase the textiles but also the region’s culture, with expositions related to art, music and photography. Sosme did not start this process, the women themselves did, but his advocacy and ability to network in Mexico and even beyond has allowed for Zongolica’s name to be recognized far more than it might have been otherwise. In 2018, Sosme was awarded the Premio Nacional de la Juventud (National Youth Prize) for his efforts.

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Sosme’s efforts are not done by any means. A more recent project as been the ambitious 30-minute documentary called Tlakimilolli: voces del telar, in Nahuatl with Spanish and English subtitles. It is the first documentary of its kind in the Nahuatl language were eleven women from the region talk about their knowledge and processes that have been transmitted over generations. Financed by the Fondo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes (FONCA), it was researched and produced by Sosme along with Belinda Contreras. It has been presented in film festivals and other events in Mexico, Spain and France, with a showing scheduled next year in the United States.

The recent efforts have caught the attention of international  organizations such as Amigos de Arte Popular in the United States and the Feria de Maestros de Arte, a prestigious handcraft exhibition and sale in Chapala, Jalisco.  A number of the women have even been invited to Europe to exhibit, sell and demonstrate how they work.

The viability of the women’s industry still faces challenges. These include low prices (even compared to similar items from other parts of Mexico), long trips to where products can be sold for good prices and and outlets limited to fairs and other events that can be months apart. There are still women afraid to participate, either because they are afraid to leave their home area or their husbands will not let them. The success of the weavers means some have been targets of crime, including kidnapping for ransom. Lastly, the future is in doubt because the younger generations are not interested in learning how to weave.

Sosme believes that anthropologists have a role in social change because simply gathering knowledge is useless if it does not result in better living conditions. The success of his and his organization’s work has led to similar efforts for women artisans in Chiapas, Puebla, Guerrero, Oaxaca, Morelos, State of Mexico and even Peru.

Photos used with permission from Miguel Angel Sosme Campos, from the documentary Tlakimilolli: voces del telar



Rescuing a grand collection

Green glazed candle holder (1970) from Patamban, Tangancicuaro, Michoacan at the Querétaro museum

In Mexico, the somewhat dramatic word “rescatar” (lit. rescue) is used to mean to write about something that has fallen into obscurity. But perhaps in this case, “rescue” may be accurate.

Until the 1985 earthquake, Mexico City’s main handcraft museum was the Museo de Artes e Industriales Populares, located on Juarez Street near the Torre Latinoamericana in the city’s historic center. This area was hard-hit by the quake and hosts a monument to it in a plaza at the site of the former Hotel Regis.

The museum’s building was heavily damaged by the earthquake, but it and its collection of handcrafts from all over Mexico, limped along until 1997, when a fire closed the building. The museum disappeared and seemingly, so did its collection.

What happened was the the collection was boxed up and put in storage under the official care of one federal agency or another. Today, it is under the auspices of the Instituto Nacional de Pueblos Indígenas (National Institute of Indigenous Peoples or INPI). The long storage means that the collection was not scattered among other museums or worse, vanished with no trace. However, that does not mean it did not suffer until 15 years ago.

Ceramic pieces at the INPI building in Mexico City

Coming in at over 24,000 pieces, the collection is one of the largest and most important in Mexico, but very few people know about it. Many of the items are jammed into a portion of INPI’s building  in Colonia Xoco in Mexico City… not even a warehouse, but rather a section of the building with the best temperature and humidity attributes for the purpose. With the lack of a warehouse INPI has done the next best thing, the purchase specialized shelving, drawers and packing materials about 4 years ago or so. And none too soon… as another major quake 32 years to the day, shook the city in 2017. Fortunately, the collection suffered only very minor damage.

Display of traditional Otomi garb at the Querétaro museum

By sheer numbers, the most important part of the collection is pottery, followed by textiles.  However, there are some speciality collections that distinguish it from others in the country. It has the most important collection of traditional lacquerware spanning centuries and four states: Chiapas, Guerrero and Michoacan… and even pieces from the state of Durango, which I did not know produced any lacquerware. The oldest piece in INPI’s entire collection is a small lacquerware cabinet from the 17th century. The lacquerware, until a few years ago, was housed in a museum dedicated to it in Chiapa de Corzo, but it was recalled to Mexico City because the facilities could not control temperature and humidity in a environment with extremes in both. Another important sub-collection is that of handcrafts made almost exclusively by indigenous peoples in the north of the country. This is a region that is notoriously ignored by most Mexican folk art collectors, mostly because the center and south have dominated fine handcraft making since before the Spanish arrived.

Musical instruments from the north of Mexico at the INPI building
Antique lacquered plate at the INPI building

That INPI has been tasked with the preservation, and since 2004, the cataloguing and “rescue” of the pieces and their documentation (much of which was lost starting from 1985), means that, ironically, they are taking care of heritage that is mostly made by mestizo hands, not indigenous ones. The task is laborious and extraordinarily slow. Experts are sought through INPI’s other work and contacts to identify where pieces come from and if at all possible, who made them. Such efforts mean that almost all pieces are labeled with what is known (not a given in Mexican museums) but still only 5 to 10% of the pieces have an identified author.

Lacquered gourds and other pieces when they were still at the Lacquerware Museum in Chiapa de Corzo

Despite the loss of pieces and documentation of old museum collection, the collection is important enough to have attracted a number of donations, including major ones from the family of former President Echeverria and one from the Rufino Tamayo family. This last donation is still being counted and catalogued.

Part of the mask collection

Because of its overall anthropological mission, INPI has good support services to go with the collection, including a library with books, sound files and video. These are in a different building in another part of town, but are readily accessible to the public. INPI lacks a major space to exhibit the collection, which is the main reason why it is unknown to the public. It does run some small museums called the Museo Indígena, Antigua Aduana de Peravillo in Mexico City, the Museo Indígena Huatapera in Uruapan, Michoacan and Museo Indígena Queretaro, which house various handcrafts from the collection. But these are institutions dedicated to Mexico’s indigenous heritage, not to handcrafts, per se.

Huipil from Oaxaca

A number of the mestizo pieces are on permanent loan to other museums such as the Museo de Ceramica in Tlaquepaque, and the Folk Art Museums at the University of Colima and in Merida. The rest of the collection is in Colonia Xoco, where it remains available mostly for professional study and for loans to major museums in Mexico and abroad for temporary exhibits. Not all pieces in the collection are available for lending. Those deemed too valuable or too fragile stay in the hands of the agency. Same for those which have not been adequately documented.

With a limited budget and an immense task, perhaps the most impressive part about INPI’s handcraft collection is the people who work with it. Director Octavio Murillo and his staff are the most accessible federal employees I have ever had the pleasure to meet. They answer emails and other communication promptly and are genuinely interested in working with those who care about the collection as they do.

Valuable tree sap in Chiapas

There are only a certain number of ambar mines in the world. They have come about because there are certain conditions that must be right in order to form deposits. First, it is necessary to have forests of trees the exude sap, often as a means of protecting themselves against parasites. This excess sap runs down the trees, gathers on the ground and though runoff, streams and rivers winds up in shallow oceans. This process means that ambar is never really pure tree sap; there will be impurities, but they often raise the value of the ambar, not diminish it. The globs of sap undergo a process of fossilization anywhere from 25 to 50 million years, meaning that the ambar is often from the sap of tree species long extinct. In the case the vast majority of Mexico’s ambar, that collection was in a shallow sea that eventually disappeared to create what is now the Yucatan penninsula, which extends into parts of the state of Chiapas.

Raw and partially worked ambar at the Ambar Museum in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas

Mexico mines a fairly large quanity of ambar but it is not the most productive. That title is for a mine located east of Kaliningrad, Russia, in the Baltic region. It provides 80 to 90% of the world’s ambar, about 300 tons a year. Baltic ambar is also found in Lithuania, Estonia, Poland and occasionally on the shores of Denmark, Norway and the UK.  In the Americas, Chiapas is the largest producer, coming in at about 5 tons per year. However, the largest piece of ambar in the world came from Mexico, weighing 11.7 kilos.

In Mesoamerica, ambar was known and prized in  rituals related to health as well as the funeral rites of nobles and warriors. Pieces have found in tombs in Oaxaca and Chiapas. From that time to the present in Chiapas, ambar has been considered to have protective qualities. It is not unusual today to see newborns with small bracelets of ambar to “protect them from the evil eye.” The fossil is also believed to be effective against asthma, ear and throat infections as well as a means to increase fertility.

Ambar worked into Mesoamerican ear jewelry in San Cristobal.
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Location of Simojovel, Chiapas

Almost all of Chiapas’s ambar is from  mines located in the rural municipality of Simojovel, accounting for 90% of Mexico’s production. The rest is from adjoining municipalities with a minicule amount from other places. The extraction and sale of raw ambar is the main economic activitiy of the Simojovel, especially since the rise of mass tourism in the 20th century. Mining is still done by hand using picks, axes and hammers as the ground is sandy. Chiapas ambar has its own particular qualities and for this reason, it as received a legal denomination of origin status, the same that tequila has. This is to protect the ambar from that of other places in the world, but also that mined outside of Chiapas. The story of Simojovel’s ambar production has had a downside. There was a major boom in demand for Chiapas ambar from 2012 to 2015, which led to careless exploitation of mines. Although demand has since eased, the municipality is still dealing with the social and environmental fallout from those years.

Ambar necklace Maria Elizabeth Mendoza Estrada of Simojovel, Chiapas

Chiapas ambar comes in a variety of colors ranging from a transparent yellow to a near-black. There are varieties such as red, brown, blue and green, all produced by different impurities. Just about all of Chiapas’s ambar is destined for workshops in the state, and almost all of that is used to make jewelry to sell in the state’s major tourist centers, especially San Cristobal de las Casas, with some going to fine jewelry outlets in other parts of Mexico. One of this ambar’s advantages is that it is one of the world’s hardest, registering between 2.5 and 3 on the Mohs scale. This allows for more precise and complex work and designs. The price of finished ambar pieces depends on a number of factors, including, size, color, age, its working and last, but least, what kinds of foreign matter is trapped within it. Pieces with well-preserved (entire) and/or rare insects or plant matter can raise the value of a piece considerably. Ambar can even contain other animals such as small amphibians. One significant find was that of a frog found in a 25-million year old piece in Simojovel which belongs to the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

Because ambar jewelry is extremely popular among both locals and tourists, there is, unfortunately, a significant problem with the sale of fakes. The counterfeits are made either with glass or plastic. Just about all of the “ambar” sold on the streets of San Cristobal is fake. If the price is low, it is most definitely fake as the working of ambar requires specialized training. It is simply not possible to sell finished products at street prices. Some vendors manage to trick the unaware, often by showing that the piece is “authentic” by showing that it does not burn, therefore not of plastic. However, not only does glass not burn, true ambar will burn slightly. One of Chiapas ambar’s unique qualities is that it gives off a pine resin like smell when subjected to flame.

Other ways to tell that an ambar piece is real are to 1) put it in salt water to see if it floats, 2) test it under black light to see if it close or 3) to rub the piece vigourously between the hands to see if its smell appears. However, most of these tests are either impractical or impossible to do before one buys. At point of sale, the best protection is a reputable dealer. In San Cristobal, a visit to the Ambar Museum is highly recommended. They have an amazing collection of over 300 jewelry and other pieces, prize winners from the annual Ambar Competition for the state’s artisans. Inaugurated in 2000, it is the only one of its kind in the Americas and one of very few in the world. It also gives talks and literature about how to buy authentic ambar from reputable outlets (including the museum itself), some of which is in English. Another recommendation is the annual Feria de Ambar, usually held in August or September.

Fossilized leaves in an ambar piece in the Ambar Museum in San Cristobal


All images by Alejandro Linares Garcia except the map by Battroid


The joy of painting Virgins

San Miguel Allende has become globally famous for its huge expat community… one that began with a private art school started in the town that attracted US soldiers with GI Bill money to spend. What is not well known is that the local population is very traditional, and in fact, the whole state of Guanajuato has the reputation of being “mocho”  (stodgy and religious). In San Miguel, tradition translates into a plethora of local festivals, processions and more. This makes the town even more attractive to foreigners, but that is far from the reason why locals preserve public spectacles.

Chichimeca dancers for the feast of Saint Michael (credit:Nan.P.182)

Over the past months, I have been researching a book on foreign artists in Mexico. Not being an art expert, I have done a ton of reading both general and specific. It seems to me that artists are looking for something meaningful and sometimes get quite convoluted in that search, to say the least.



I may have seen in a small group of housewives what many of these artists are looking for. Tucked in a house just off the beaten path of touristy San Miguel Allende is a group of local women (and one gringo), who for 20 yars have met regularly to paint.

The painting in the back is done by the group. The doll is really a cake.


All of the women are traditional housewives ranging in age from 30 to 70-something. They are also joined by one expat, tour guide operator Joseph Toone, who introduced me to them. The group started getting together to do handcrafts and share time together. Then they met an artist named Esperanza Orvañanos from Jalisco whose work they really liked and she began to teach them how to paint on canvas. Originally their work was purely traditional religious imagery. Today, all but one have a strong preference for religious imagery.  Their religious imagery is heavily focused on the Virgin Mary in various aparitions, but images of Jesus (especially as a child) and those of saints appear as well. However, members of the group branch out into other themes, such as flowers, landscapes and other folkloric imagery. In fact, they have done a number of María doll themed book covers for local resident Joseph Toone’s books on San Miguel Allende.

65027129_340527739918619_1914910224028794880_nThey call the oldest member of the group, Lupita Reyes, “Speedy Gonzalez” for her prolific output of paintings. Of the roughly 500 they have produced in all sizes over the years, they are convinced she has produced about 80%. They primarily work in oil, but work in other media such as pastels and acrylics, even mixed media, The mixed media works typically incorporate textiles, a throwback to their handcrafting days.

They spend about 6 or so hours a week painting together, but do not consider themselves commerical artists.  Their religous work is not for sale, instead most are given away and have gone as far as the United States and Europe because of all the international contacts the women have living in San Miguel Allende. After all this time, they still consider themselves students of art using it as a kind of therapy. They have had only one formal exhibition of their work, but this is not a priority for the group. I noticed looking at the paintings in the workshop that there were a variety of styles and levels of talent, but I did not ask who did what. The main reason for this is that there is a comaraderie among the women which leaves no room for competition, and I did not want to intrude on that. In fact, some of the women did not want to be mentioned in this article at all by name.

Images of Maria and Jose dolls  with the parish of Saint Michael

I came away from my visit with these women impressed by the joy they have for their lives, their faith and their painting. It may be a lot to say, and an overeducated cynic like myself feels awkward saying it, but there really is no other way to express it. These women are a great example of religion at its best… providing happiness and a sense of purpose. They are traditional women, but not “mochas”… they have no sense of superiority and are really happy with their lives. It is something those of us who wander spirtually lack, and I admire them for it.



All photos except one are courtesy of Joseph Toone



Black glass of the gods

Monkey drinking vessel from the Museum of Antropology in Mexico City (credit: Dennis Jarvis)

If you have studied anything about Mesoamerican cultures, you probably know what obsidian is. Simply put, it is volcanic glass formed at the end of an eruption when lava cools suddenly. Most finished pieces made of the substance are an opaque and shiny black, but its chemical composition, purity and how it is handled can produce different colors and finishes. Obsidian can appear in dark brown, gold, violet, certain tones of blue, red and some can even been rainbow-colored, white or translucent. In Mexico, one area is noted for producting a green obsidian.

Obsidian has a long history in Mexico and was instrumental in the development a various civilizations here. It main value stemmed from its ability to be flaked into extremely sharp points and blades. These points and blades were used to make weapons of war, such as daggers and a kind of war club called a macuahuitl – wood impregnated with blades of obsidian. Daggers and knives were also used in ritual sacrifices and the mundane task of preparing food.

Mayan spearheads from Palenque at  the Museum of the Americas in Madrid (credit:Simon Burchell)

In the Mesoamerican period, there were two main sources of obsidian. By far the most important was the region north of Mexico City. Control and trade of obsidian was the economic basis of the Teotihuacan civilization, which worked two sites, One was smaller located what is now Otumba, State of Mexico. The most important site, the Sierra de Navajas, is near the city of Pachuca, Hidalgo, and noted for green obsidian.

Teotihuacan’s trade in obsidian extended as far as Maya territory and made the city wealthy. It was not only important for making cutting implements, but was also used to for jewelry and religious objects, many of which have been found in the graves of rulers and warriors.

Obsidian mirror embedded in the atrium cross in San José parish church in Cd. Hidalgo, Michoacan. it was a symbol of the god Tezcatlipoca

Another area that was important as a source of obsidian is Teuchitlan, in the modern state of Jalisco. Through knowledge of this obsidian’s particular properties, it is known that this obsidian was traded to what are now Sinaloa, Nayarit, Guanajuato, Zacatecas, Colima and Michoacan.

With the introduction of steel and other metals, the use of obsidian fell, as it could not compare in durability. Working the material did not resurge here until about 60 or so years ago, prompted by the opening and popularity of the Teotihuacan archeological site. By far, most obsidian work is done in two of the adjoining municipalities, San Juan Teotihuacan and San Martin de las Piramides. There are almost 1,000 artisans in this valley and about a third work in obsidian. Although San Marcos, Jalisco held an obsidian workshop a few years ago, its working has not resurged in western Mexico.

First and second place pieces at the 2019 Obsidian Fair in Teotihuacan. L: by Humberto Hernandez Nieto and R: by Zenaido Joel Ortega Moreno

Interestingly, the most important source of obsidian in the Mesoamerican period continues to be the most important source today. The Sierra de las Navajas (Mountains of the Knives) is still heavily mined and its importance is such that this mountain chain appears on the state seal of Hidalgo. Nearly everyone in the nearby towns such as El Nopalillo work in mining, producing 20 tons of obsidian each month. However, 3/4 of this is exported raw, mostly to China. The remaining quarter supplies artisans in Hidalgo and Teotihuacan.

Mayan mask by Joel Rufino Oliva Olvera using golden obsidian at the Obsidian Fair in Teotihuacan

In Teotihuacan and other ancient cultures, obsidian was considered magical and sacred. It is still considered to have esoteric qualities, with different energies ascribed to the different variants of color. This has made obsidian popular with spas and new age healing centers, creating a market for hand-sized rounded stones for use in massages. However, the vast majority of the obsidian is destined for the souvenir market in the area around Teotihuacan. While this tourism has created a market where none existed before, obsidian is made into cheap trinkets, mostly imitations of pre-Hispanic artifiacts, animal figures and mini-pyramids. It can even include ashtrays. All these tend to be small, mere centimeters in width or height, with the execption of masks, which are of other materials tiled over in obsidian. In many pieces, the obsidian is paired with other stones and mother-of-pearl, making the objects look even more kitsch. However, the great demand has prompted many in the area to change their occupations as making these trinkets pays better than most other manual labor in the area.

L: Untitled sculpture by Silvia Flores Perez and R: “El Sacrificio” by Manuel Sarabia at the Obsidian Fair in Teotihuacan

The tourist means that obsidian work is spreading, primarily northward back toward the main source of obsidian in Hidalgo state. The first to work it in El Nopalillo was Juan Castlan Mata, who began his workshop 1987 after learning the craft in Teotihuacan. He has since gone on to teach others in Nopalillo, and neighboring Santa Monica and Epazoyucan. Today, about half of El Nopalillo makes finished products of obsidian. In addition, the Otomi in El Pañhe, Hidalgo have begun to work with red and black obsidian, taking advantage of visitors to the local El Pañhu archeological site and 16th century monastery.

K'ima Síihil Gold (Article) (1)
-From K’imā with design by David Mendez Sanchez

Obsidian is not an inexpensive material, difficult to mine and handle. Almost always motorized tools are used, with fingers milimeters from spinning saw blades and polishers. Its strong association with souvenirs and the low prices tourist pay has devalued the material. Added to this is the fact that the modern working of the material only goes back a little more than half-a-century with families having no more experience than two or three generations.  New workshops keep appearing, which also impedes the development of finer crafts that take advantage of the stone’s qualities. For this reason, obsidian handcrafts have not become popular in Mexico in general nor with collectors. The dependence on the souvenir market also means that the craft is vulnerable to imitations. A number of aristans in Teotihuacan have complained to authorities about the existence and sale of fake obsidian objects, made with black commerical glass, which they say come from China. It is difficult to distingush between real obsidian and colored glass, but one way to tell is to see that the pieces for sale are too perfectly made and identical. The most common false pieces are bracelets which sell for only 30 pesos, where the real obsidian ones sell for between 50 and 70. Other pieces commonly faked are small pyramids. Artisans state that about 15% of the pieces sold at the archeological site are fake.

Using ancient knapping technique

Using modern tools

Fortunately, there have been efforts to raise the cultural, artistic and economic status of obsidian. These include a registration of the origin of Mexican obsidian and recognition of the craft by federal authorities. Both Teotihuacan and El Nopalillo have begun annual Obsidian Fairs to promote their products, fine piees from the towns of Tecozaulta and Epazoyuan were exhibited in New York in 2018.

More importantly, there have been artisans and others willing to experiment with obsidian to create innovative and finer pieces. Although the Obsidian Fair in Teotihuacan is still disappointing as to the quality of the general vendors (and most venders were NOT of obsidian), the pieces entered for the annual contest show promise. Daniel Juarez of Artesanias Ra Xedí in Hidalgo has gone from pre-Hispanic imitations to those of minimalist design, focusing on the beauty of the material. David Mendez Sanchez, a UNAM design student, created a company k’imā’ which works to create fine products made with obsidian. The idea is to create products that are both innovative but also reflect Mexico’s identity. One innovation is the creation of pieces of obsidian paired with stainless steel. Mendez Sanchez principally works with design and with a number of artisans in the State of Mexico and Hidalgo to produce the finished pieces.  Instagram (@kimadesign). Students from the industrial design program at the Tec de Monterrey in Queretaro have also worked on projects related to obsidian. The project was prompted by the experience that one student had in Cancun, noticing that obsidian artisan could not sell their wares there. They began with tableware such as napkin holders and bowls as part of the school’s annual event dedicated to innovation.

Perhaps the most interesting use of obsidian and the skills of obisidian artisans was the Vochos (Beetles) de Obsidiana de Ecatepec, two old Volkswagon Beetles which have been tiled over in more than 50,000 obisidan pieces and semi-precious stones.  The two vehicles have been named Teotihuacano and Maya and are the brainchild of Hector Garnelo, from Ecatepec just outside of Mexico City. His initial goals with the cars were to get into the Guiness Book of World Records and to show that the talent of local obsidian craftspeople.  The cars are not simply covered black, but they have also pre Hispanic designs on them including Quetzalcoatl, the Sun and Moon Pyramids of Teotihuacan and a funeral mask. The work was done by six master craftsmen and each took about 3 years to do.  Teotihuacano was exhibited in Germany in 2017, on display at the main Volkswagon plant in Wolfsburg and then in Berlin. More tours for the cars are planned in Mexico and the United States.

Featured image: Plate and pestle by Victor Lopez Pelcastre of Nopalillo, Hidalgo for the “Hidalgo, Rituales, Usos y Creaciones” exhibit at the Museo de Arte Popular, Mexico City

Obsidian “disco” ball at the at the ARTESANO 3.0 event at the Museo de Arte Popular in Mexico City

Paper and cloth in the north

This piece was created using pages from an old book found in the trash

Noted dollmaker Mayra René calls Bertha Garcia the “queen” of cartonería in northeastern Mexico.

Garcia began working with paper in 1989. At that time, she and other women in her family decided to do something with the stacks of old newspaper that her grandmother had in her house. Their first idea was to roll strips of this paper and weave them to make decorative baskets, painting/dying them with a mixture of Elmer’s glue and coffee. For some time, grandma’s house smelled quite strongly of coffee.

Her grandmother also made and sold cookies, so it was natural to put the two together and sell small baskets filled with cookies and other treats. They branched out into making other items, such as tortilla holders, picture frames, and more. Even one of her uncles became involved in the activity, eventually figuring out how to make an image of Christ with the technique.



L:Bride doll that Garcia made for a friend using a piece of her wedding dress. R: Catrina doll viewed from behind

Garcia became intrigued with the possibilities of working with old paper, and despite her young age (and lack of Internet) began looking for other techniques. She discovered cartonería even though this Mexican paper mache had not been traditional in the north of the country. With no one to teach her, she taught herself, starting by making the skeletal figures called Catrinas. Later she went on to making articulated dolls known as Lupitas, but she simply calls them dolls. When she entered college to study psychology, she began selling her creations at school. During her school years, she also studied dramatic arts for a time. In this program, she learned paper mache technique for the making of puppets.

Experimental mask

Since then, Garcia has worked to integrate everything she has learned as she continues to develop and refine her craft. Her repertoire has expanded to include masks, dragons, alebrijes and more to complement her dolls and Catrinas, which continue to become more refined and more adapted to the North’s distinct regional culture. To this end, she has even made contact with Leonardo Linares, of the Pedro Linares family in Mexico City.

Initially, the craft was a part-time vocation for Garcia, working a more mundane job to pay the bills, but eventually Garcia was able to shift to doing what she loves full-time Galería 44 Creaciones , founded in Apodaca (just outside Monterrey) specifically to teach cartonería in the Monterrey area and educate people here about its history, its traditions and the innovations that are possible with this technique. It is important to note here that the only long-term use of paper-and-paste work in the north has been the making of piñatas and there has been some innovation here, such as painting the piñatas in various designs instead of using crepe paper. However, Garcia admits that there is not yet any serious organization of these artisans as it happening in the center and south of the country.

Hipster dolls created as part of a workshop given with doll maker Mayra René

But Garcia’s creativity has not stopped there. Some years ago, Garcia met and allied with dollmaker Mayra René of Reynosa, Tamaulipas and began to work with her. About 3 or 4 years ago, she also began to make cloth dolls. There is some tradition of this in the north of Mexico. Her mother, aunts and grandmother all made dolls in styles called Lúlu and Negrita using crocheted yarn and styrofoam balls to sell. However, she did not participate in this activity. Her (and René’s) work goes way beyond this to much more sophisticated techniques generally using poplin and other commercial fabric. In both media, the aim is to make fantastic creatures or images from traditional Mexican culture such as Catrinas.



L:One of Garcia’s takes on “Lupita” dolls, note the button usually seen on cloth dolls C:doll made in 1990s with craft and newspaper, most of coloring is Nescafe dissolved in Elmer’s glue R: Another Lupita variation

Today, the making of cloth dolls accounts for about a third of the Galería’s activities. The gallery hosts workshops and other events related to cartoneria and cloth both on their own and with René. One such event is this years “summer camp” (using the English expression) to introduce children to the tradition of transforming mound of paper and glue into puppets, dinosaurs and anything else they can imagine. With René, the Galería hosted a workshop dedicated to making art dolls with a hipster theme.

One of Garcia’s first cloth mermaids

I will note here with great embarassment that I did not find out about Garcia’s work until well after the deadline for my book Mexican Cartonería: Paper, Paste and Fiesta. If we are fortunate to have a second edition, she will definitely be included.


All photos and creations by Bertha Garcia, used with permission.







Tenango embroideries as canvases

Since the early 20th century, there has been an exchange between the handcraft and fine arts worlds in Mexico. Although at times there are drawbacks to this exchange, it has mostly been to the benefit of both worlds.

20190621_141155One recent and unusual example of this is an exhibiton that was at the Museo Internacional del Barroco in Puebla called Bordados (Embroideries) by Chilean-born Mexican artist, Carlos Arias. Arias has a long career in Mexico, both an a fine artist and as a art professor at the Universidad de las Américas Puebla. He has worked in traditional media such as sculpture and painting and has done a number of works in textiles as well. However, he is only the second artist I have ever met who has worked with embroidery. He began doing so in the mid 1990s, working with modern embroidery techniques to create images both rustic  and extremely fine. His magnum opus is an ongoing project called Jornadas (Journeys) which is essentially an autobiography from that time to the present.


The show had this piece in it, but its focus was a series of Tenango embroideries that the artist acquired in the tiny town of San Pablito Pahuatlán, Puebla (just across the border from Tenango, Hidalgo), which he subsequently modified. The artist stated during the opening of the show that one of the aims of the work was to “to play with the disjunctives (mutually exclusive possibilities) of putting on cloth the judgements of fine and popular art.” Arias believes that art should be understandable to the region in which it is produced but at the same time needs to be universal.

Pahuatlán: tapado

He calls his Tenango embroideries “mestizo interventions,” with the idea of non-indigenous elements are added to something that is indigenous. It is not his first experience with modifying cultural artifacts. A number of years ago, he participated in a collective project where artists modified the traditional gourd cups that were used for drinking pulque in Puebla.

The interventions that Arias presents in the show vary in type and technique. A few have minimal intervention, and others change the visual effect of the traditional piece almost completely.  In those pieces that work best, neither the traditonal pattern nor the “intervention” dominate the other, but rather work together.

One of the least dramatic of the interventions is Pahuatlán: tapado (Pahuatlán: uncovered) where Arias adds a number of falling leaves in various shades of green. The leaves themselves are not a significantly different addition as leaves appear in Tenango embroideries. Their main change is that they are falling, add movement into what is usually a highly stagnant design. It compliments rather than clashes because there is a link between old and new, using plant matter.

Pahuatlán: Pareja en sombra

Another interesting piece adding movement is Pahuatlán: Pareja en sombra (Pahuatlán: Couple in shadow). Here the canvas is a Tenango that is simply filled with the same flower design placed somewhat randomly on the cloth. In this work, Arias adds the silhouettes of two moving figures in the background, “hiding” behind the flowers. The idea is interesting but it does not seem to work as well as the falling leaves. Something seems to be missing here, but I cannot place my finger on it. But again, the intervention does not clash with the original work, but rather adds to it.

Pahuatlán Boogie Woogie

In several pieces, Arias adds modern visual techniques, usually of a geometric nature. These are interesting because they add a kind of unification to the piece. Elements in Tenango embroideries are, at most, tied together visually either through left-right symmetry, the use of the same color or the elements ever so slighly touch each other. The separateness of the elements is clearest in large embroideries, such as the ones Arias chose for this series. The intervention here is much more striking than in the first two examples. The traditional and modern elements combine to create an entirely new visual experience, rich and vibrant. Perhaps there are even ideas here for artisans to consider to update the tradition.

200 pintores

Arias chose as his canvases, cloths that had already been worked on. In doing so, he purposefully brings in a centuries-old tradition. He is not working with a clean slate. Choosing such a canvas means that there are limitations to his creativity. Many of his interventions succeeded, but not all did. In some cases, the added elements distorted or even obscured the traditional elements, making it seem almost like vandalism. In one piece, he embroidered the names of Western fine artists in the white spaces among the traditional elements. This left me wondering why as there is no connection between these artists and Tenango embroidery. Lastly, he had a couple of pieces in which he added very explicit sexual elements. This seemed to be quite an imposition of a modern cultural obsession into one that is simply trying to survive in said modern world.

One other small critique is that there are no credits to the original embroiderers. To be fair, this is difficult to impossible to do. Large projects are often worked on by various people, but more problematically, there is not yesa culture in Mexico of crediting handcraft pieces. Arias bought the pieces in the markets of Pahuatlán with no way of knowing who did what piece. It is highly unlikely that even the vendors knew this. He does give credit to the town of Pahuatlán in which they were bought. Hopefully, in the future, it will be easier to trace the authorship of individual pieces.

Featured image Pahuatlán: Camuflajeado (Pahuatlán: Camouflaged)

Beyond copying

Souvenir seller in Teotihuacan (Credit Ralf Roletschek)

In the United States, handcrafts are few but those that exist are done by those who are enamoured by the process and/or the product (think quilting). The vast majority of craftspeople in Mexico do not have this luxury. They create in order to sell and pay the bills. That is not to say that other factors do not come into play, but the need to produce something that will sell means that markets have a huge say in what gets made.

Perhaps one of the most glaring examples of this the handcraft work done around the archeological site of Teotihuacan, just north of Mexico City. This huge site is one of Mexico’s major attractions, not only for international tourists but for many day trippers from Mexico City. Most of the local economy is related to the site in one way or another, which includes a huge trade in souvenirs.

This area in the State of Mexico has centuries-old tradition in clay and stone work (especially obsidian), which still exist, but you might never know that with a day visit to the pyramids. After being hounded during the visit by wandering vendors, and perhaps getting ripped off by the eateries outside the main gate, most people never think to visit the neighboring towns such as San Juan Teotihuacan, even though it is designated as a Pueblo Mágico.

So it comes as no surprise that the vast majority of handcrafts that are produced locally skew almost exclusively to the making replicas of pre Hispanic artifacts. Whatever other products were made before Teotihuacan’s current fame have all but died out. In fact, the only things tying what is done now and then are the location/people and the local clay used in manufacture. In one way this is good in that workshops have not disappeared despite Mexico City’s urban sprawl creeping ever nearer. The negative is that most local creativity is stifled by the need to produce souvenirs. Even these souvenirs are mostly limited to those with human and/or animal faces rather than ancient utilitarian pottery.

Clay minatures by Amauri Galicia of San Juan Teotihuacan

However, there are some signs that at least some local artisans are looking beyond making copies. The Galicia brothers are descended from one father whose family has been involved in pottery for many generations in San Juan Teotihuacan. Like other potters, their work shifted to making figures and other pieces for the tourist market. This market is still absolutely dominates their work. What makes their work stand out is a subtle but very notiable shift from exact copies to those which some level of interpretation. All learned their techniques from the family and eventually most opened up their own workshops, with each over time developing slight differences in the appearance of their work.


While the template of most of their pieces are archeologial artifacts, The resulting pieces for sale can vary from a relatively faithful piece to one that is obviously an interpretation. Not all of their designs are from Teotihuacan, but can be from other sites in Mexico. For example, a stand by brother Amauri Galicia has several variations off of the funeral mask of King Pakal from Palenque, Chiapas, adding or taking off ornaments and painting in different color schemes.

Two versions of a King Pakal mask

Santiago and Eziquio Galicia’s work has been recognized by publications such as Mexico Desconocido and others such as Amauri are regularly invited to regional fairs and other events where their wares stand out, even among at the San Juan Teotihuacan Obsidian Fair Amauri and his wife, Francisca Aguilar, have been running their workshop for over 30 years, and have traveled to fairs in the state of Mexico, Mexico City, Hidalgo and Puebla to sell their wares. However, despite the moderate recognition the family has, Galicia’s and Aguilar’s children have no interest in continuing it after them.


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Whether or not Teotihuacan’s clay crafts can realy get beyond the making of souvenirs will heavily depend on finding and developing markets outside of the around around Teotihuacan. A reinterpretation of ancient designs is not impossible. One needs to see the work of Guillermo Spratling and the silver industry that it sparked in Taxco. Let’s hope that something similar can happen here.

Amauri Galicia and Francisca Aguilar can be contacted at 55 1955 6545 or at

All works by Amauri Galica and Francisca Aguilar. Photographed and published with permission.