Banding together at the Red House

It’s no secret that artisans and artists struggle to make a living from their work. Necessity, being the mother of invention, prompted some to come up with creative ideas for marketing.

The Casa Roja (Red House) is a cooperative located in the Centro Historico of Chilpancingo, the capital the state of Guerrero (better known for Acapulco and Taxco). That it is a cooperative is not what is most interesting; many artisans and artists have discovered the benefits of coming together to share marketing and promotional duties. But Casa Roja has taken the concept to another level.

Scences of the shop and one of the workshops at Casa Roja

First of all, it is a cooperative of young people dedicated to different creative activities from traditional handcrafts of the state, modern ones as well as fine art. These creators have banded together along with a coffee shop cooperative to taked over a house (which is red of course) to not only sell coffee, art and handcrafts … the upper floor of house is dedicated workshop space, giving classes in leather, embroidery, other textile crafts, jewelry making, filigree, painting, photography, and even music.

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All of the participants are from Guerrero state and most are from the Chilpancingo area. Each artist/artisan has dediced space for their wares in the former living room of the house, which functions as a reception area/store/place to drink coffee.

One important thing about this handcrafts store is that all pieces are labeled with the information about the artisan. This almost never happens with handcrafts sold in private  or government stores and galleries, cheating artisans the opportunity to become known for their work.

Casa Roja opened its doors only four months ago. It is the joining of two cooperatives, one of artists and artisans who were looking to find an economical means to rent a storefront in Chilpancingo, along with the cooperative that runs the coffee shop end of things. By the way, the coffee cooperative makes one of the best café de olla I have ever had, not too sweet allowing the flavor of the coffee and spices to come through. The artists and artisans come from different backgrounds. Some studied art but most come from areas completely unrelated to what they do now.

There are 15 members now working in different capacities in the organization. The house serves mostly as a gathering place and directly generates the most revenue through classes, coffee and special events. Most sales still occur off-site, but the grouping has allowed for more invitations to more events at further distances from Chilpancingo than before.

Left: hoop work by Narval Violeta Right: Sign on textile and jewelry workshop

The entire arrangement is well thought out and well-executed. The only drawback to the location is that it is not accessible to the casual visitor to Chilpancingo, but the city is not really a tourist attraction. The classes and cultural event do serve to engage the local community. However, the success of Casa Roja is not assured. When asked what the future plans of the Casa were, the immediate response was “pay the rent.”

Artwork by R Froster consisting of needlework by Casa Roja members

What is most impressive about Casa Roja is that this is an effort by creators, for creators, relying on zero help from government agencies (and the strings that often come attached with such). It is also doing what it is doing in a very tough market. I see no reason why a similar organization would not have success in a larger city, especially ones with areas known for cultural activities.

Casa Roja is located a Altamirano 34, in downtown Chilpancingo. It has a Facebook page here.

Featured image is a filigree and drawing by Ariday


Pine needles

The craft is called ocoxal. Baskets are made of all kinds of materials in Mexico, based on the plants that are locally available. Many are similar to those made in other parts of the world: others, like the coiled baskets of northern Mexico are recognizable to that region. But those made of pine needles are an equally localized phenonenon, not readily associated with Mexico.

Mexico has millions of acres of pine forests, generally mixed in with other species such as holm oak. These are most prevalent in central Mexico into the north and at higher altitudes. Those in central Mexico, such as the border area between the State of Mexico and Michoacan, have an environment that those of us from the Appalachian and some Rocky Mountain states would feel right at home in.

Old mine near the town of El Oro, State of Mexico

These pine trees tend to grow very long needles, making baskets a viable product. They have been woven by the Mazahua of this region as well as in some other parts of Mexico (parts of Jalisco, northern Queretaro and Durango). It is the work of the Mazahua which is the best-known and best-marketed.

Closeup of pinus moctezumae needles (cruiser)

One of these Mazahua areas is the El Oro municipality, right on the State of Mexico side of the border. It is a former mining area, now best known as a Pueblo Magico and for its proximity to the monarch wintering sites.

Pine needed wares for sale at the Tianguis de Domingo de Ramos in Uruapan, Michoacan

The making and marketing of the baskets has been somewhat successful because of the abundance of raw material, as well as their uniqueness. The process of making the baskets begins with the collection of needles. This is limited to the beginning of the dry season, when needles fall off trees and dry out. (Needles are not harvested green or from the tree.) Two species of pine are favored: pinus michoacana and pinus montesume, colloquially called pino teocote and pino chino respectively.

The dependence on naturally falling needles presents some challenges. Pine needles, even from the same species of tree, do not grow the same. Soil conditions and other factors can result is a wide variety of colors and quality. Colors range from rust, to dark brown to an almost blonde. The main challenge is gathering enough quality needles. Most are broken, discolored or otherwise damaged by the elements, requiring the sort to occur on the forest floor. Eight hours of this work yields only about 400 grams of usable material per person. Artisan cooperatives can scour up to 80km2 of forest to collect enough.

Pieces for sale at the Feria de Esfera in Tlalpujahua, Michoacan

Once the appropriate needles are selected, they are cleaned and disinfected with soap and/or bleach. They are then sorted by tone so that finished products can have uniformity. Pine needles baskets and other items are made principally with the coil method. Needles are laid out in a loose roll and then tied together and onto the previous circle to stablize the structure. Flexibility of the pine needles is an issue principally in the tightest of circles, when needles need to be bent the most. These needles are usually soaked in water, but the effect of cold temperatures on the needles’ naturally-occuring resin is also a concern. In outer circles or straight lines, needles can be worked dry without breaking. The string used to tie the coils together can be of various materials, but in most places, the most common is commerical hemp twine because of its strength and resistance. The cord is worked using metal needles and these needles, as well as the pine needles, can and often do piece hands. The time needed to complete a piece depends on size and complexity, but a basic tortilla holder with lid generally takes two people about two days to make. This include cleaning, disinfecting, moistening and the actual weaving. There are various families and cooperatives in El Oro and other locations which make the pieces. Most sell to intermediaries, but some have been able to organize representation at craft and other fairs to sell more direct to the public. However, the craft is very poorly paid for the amount of work it requires. These craftspeople must do other things, including subsistence agricutlture, to make ends meet.

Decorative piece by the Xihuatl collective of El Oro

Of all the materials available to these craftspeople the pine needle baskets have had the most success. They are unique and can emit a pleasant smell, especially when moist and recently made. The craft originated for purely utilitarian purposes for auto-consumption. Purely traditional objects and designs are still made and sold, but commercialization has had an effect on this craft like so many others.

The vast majority of artisans’ inventory is modifed traditional items or those which are completely new, which is the case in purely decorative works. The most important innovation has been the addition of metal accents. This is recent, probably about 15 or 20 years old. The metal is almost always polished stainless steel, which as been commerically-made specifically for this craft. The accent are found on edges and other parts where wear is strongest, so it has a practical as well as an aesthetic appeal. It is interesting to note that the addition of this cheap, industrial material does not detract from the handcrafted pieces but rather enhances them, especially those made with darker pine needles.

If a piece is used frequently, it can last about 5 years or so. Purely decorative pieces last much longer.


Completely new products include lamp bases, carrying bags, serving trays, storage boxes of all sizes, banks, fruit bowls and even Christmas decorations. Many are made to order. The range of popularity of these basketry items is limited mainly to inland tourist centers such as Michoacan, Mexico City, Tlaxcala and Moreloes.

Gerardo Castro

Gerardo Castro is a pine needle worker from the small community of Santiago Oxtempan in El Oro. He belongs to the Xihuatl (pine) Mazahuart organization. He and the organization are Mazahua, one of six core members, employing up to ten more during peak seasons. He is at least the third generation in his family to do this work commercially, but does not feel that it is viable for those generations after him. Central Mexico offers more economic opportunities, which parents want their children to take advantage of. However, Castro hopes the craft can be preserved as a cultural activity.














Lights, acrylic and stripes

The artist

One reason this column is named “Creative Hands of Mexico” is because I regularly run into creative work that spans outside of the traditional notion of “handcrafts” into design, art and other disciplines. The work crosses lines because it either has a “popular” aspect (as in popular culture) and/or objects of a utilitarian nature. I also run into foreigners who have made important contributions to Mexico’s creative culture.

Laura (or Lao) Gabrielli was born in Buenos Aires in 1971.  She is absolutely a visual artist rather than an artisan, but some of her life and works share aspects with fine handcrafts and their makers.

She did not initially train as an artist, rather studying architecture, design and urbanism at the University of Buenos Aires. As a creative endeavor, architecture has both aesthetic and practical considerations, much like a good craftsman does. Later, she studied painting and painting restoration in her home country,  then participated in art seminars in Argentina and New York.

SKULL I 2018
Image from the series Skulls (2018)

Gabrielli came to Mexico in 2009 with her family. It was decided that Mexico could provide better economic opportunities for the family, in part because her husband already had a brother with a business here. Since negotiated compromise to come, the move left her disconnected and unsure of what path she should take. She knew absolutely no one here. She had some background working in fashion design, especially traditional Argentinian clothing, and furniture restoration, but all that stopped when she moved to Mexico.  It was an abrupt change, and she found herself with little to do, as 9-to-5 jobs held no interest.

Restored table by the artist

Her story began to change when Gabrielli decided to study Italian, meeting Italian-Mexican artist Luciano Spano and museographer Mercedes Auteri. With them and others, she began to connect with Mexico’s fine artists community… a move that allowed her to find her niche here in this country.

Project IV 2013
Project IV (2013, based off traditional Mexican textile design)


Project Abstract Light Acrylic

Although Gabrielli had some traditional artistic training, she began to question her work, she decided that she needed to draw upon all of her previous experience, being drawn to design, functionality and structure of the Bauhaus tradition.  She experiments with both two and three dimensional works and with various kinds of materials, from the traditional canvas to those not ordinarily associated with artwork such as acrylic and mirrors. Today, her work is heavily abstract and geometric.

Much of the artist’s work is heavily dominated by the placement of lines, with the idea that the movement of the onlooker creates changes in the piece and completes the experience.  Gabrielli wants her work to draw in the spectator… to participate in it. Vivid colors are an essential part of her work, an aspect she credits to Mexican influence.  This influence can be traced back to one of her first exhibitions, featuring canvases inspired the designs of traditional Mexican textiles, especially weaving on backstrap looms.   She has also been fascinated by Mexico’s seeming obsession with skulls in both fine and popular art.

Project Abstract Light Acrylic

Gabrielli finds Mexico to be an extremely creative country, although the art scene can be very competitive.  Although her Mexico stay started off rough, she now has no plans to return to Argentina as she has a career and is comfortable here.  She has had three individual exhibitions: two in 2017 in Miami, Florida and the Alianza Francesa in Mexico City and an upcoming exhibition in 2019 at the Argentine embassy of Mexico.

Gabrielli’s canvas works are most definitely abstract art in the classic sense of the word. But it is the mirror and acrylic light works that are more interesting from a handcraft fan’s point-of-view. These works really show her penchant for design. They also seem far better suited to home or office space rather than to a museum. Like fine handcrafts, one must spend more time understanding the piece to fully appreciate it. Both require that the onlooker check the craftsmanship of how the work is put together. Both require that the onlooker spend significant time checking it out from various perspectives.. not just once the way most museum visitors are limited to, but in multiple occasions. These pieces are best appreciated taking short looks at them passing by on different days on the way to do different things, as one would do in a home or home office.

All photos courtesy of the artist, featured image of skull for the Mexicraneo project 2017




The struggle of Mazahuas in Mexico City

Mazahua street vendor in Mexico City

The Flor de Mazahua (Mazahua Flower) workshop has it roots in a government program which is the likely origin of the ubiquitous María doll. Unfortunately, the phenomenal success of this doll has not translated into success for the Mazahua (and Otomi) women who stitched thousands of them in Mexico City. In fact, while the Mazahua as a people have been fairly well documented, along with their presence in Mexico City, their handcrafts have not.

Many indigenous peoples from all over Mexico have made their way at one time or another to the capital, but the Mazahua are one of the largest here. Their home area is based in ten municipalities in northwest State of Mexico and one (Zitácuaro) in far eastern Michoacan. Despite the State of Mexico’s overall strong economy, this area of the state is one of the poorest and most marginalized in Mexico. Much of the farmland here is seriously eroded and most of the forests have been cut. The industry that fuels much of the state’s economy has barely touched this region, and where it has, has caused problems of its own.

Migration of Mazahua and Otomi (whose territory overlaps that of the Mazahuas) to Mexico City began in the 1930s and 1940s because of economic conditions and social unrest. They congregated in and around the Merced Market on the eastern edge of the historic downtown. The men took menial jobs in factories and commerce, but their incomes were not enough to meet families’ needs. Women took jobs as well, but were most visible in the market selling agricultural products and handcrafts.

Mazahua vendor in Tlalnepantla (credit: Marrovi)

Migration of Mazahua surged in the early 1970s, especially from the areas around San Felipe del Progreso in the State of Mexico due to a number of crop failures from late frosts. These new migrants followed the footsteps of the generation before adapting to a way of life that is very different from the one they left. Mazahua women’s lives in particular were changed. Although they took jobs doing what they knew: childcare, cooking and handcrafts, they were no longer bound to their own houses and much of the time not directing attending to their families’ needs. Despite this, family ties remained extremely important as a way to cope economically and culturally.

Mondragon with doll and great-granddaughter

Antonia Mondragon was only fourteen when she arrived to Mexico City with her parents in the mid 1970s. Their aim was not only to support themselves but also family still in the State of Mexico. At that time, mass migration of Mazahua to the United States did not exist. (That has since changed, and for this reason, mass migration of Mazahua and Otomi to Mexico City has ended.) At first, Mondragon worked taking care of smaller children as well as doing embroidery and sewing.

Mexicans’ attitude towards the indigenous is mixed at best. Indigenous women found themselves shut out of most types of employment due to language, appearance and dress. Many resorted to selling on the streets, which brought its own problems. Authorities restricted the selling of handcrafts in the city only to those indigenous who would wear traditional clothing. This led to Mazahua and Otomi women being more visible, but also stereotyped. These women became known collectively as “Marias.” The stereotype was the base of a well-known comic actress’s persona “La India Maria” (Maria, the Indian) in numerous movies and on television. It is important to note that even to this day, Mazahua/Otomi traditional women’s dress has really caught on among folk art collectors or those looking for “something Mexican” to add to their wardrobes. Their distinctive appearance made them easy targets for discrimination and abuse by local authorities and vendors’ groups with whom they competed.

Maria dolls based on the techniques taught at the Centro de Capacitación Mazahua-Otomi

One of the city’s answers to this problem was the founding of the Centro de Capacitación Mazahua-Otomi (Mazahua-Otomi Training Center) in 1972. It was initially founded in a building near the La Merced market and supervised by Guadalupe Rivera Marin. Rivera worked with city official and well as the governors of the states of State of Mexico and Queretaro (where most of the Mazahua and Otomi were from) to research the situation.

One conclusion of the study was that it was important to get the Marias off the street and into a safer work situation. This was the main focus of the Centro. It was open only to women, and these women were required to speak Mazahua or Otomi and know how to embroider. Very soon after starting, the program moved into larger facilities in the Merced Market proper, prompting resistance from other market vendors. The program shifted the women’s focus from the selling of handcrafts to their production, capitalizing what the women already knew, but the city also employed people to train the women in the making of dolls and the working of modern sewing machines. According to the program, women worked four-hour shifts, with the rest of the work day dedicated to literary classes, meal preparation, child care. The program was also designed to provide medical attention. The city bought the raw materials in bulk and every fifteen days, took loads of finished products to be sold in various parts of Mexico and even abroad. The earnings from sales was destined to support the program costs. The program started with over 300 women, but the numbers shot up to 800 after word got out about it. Interestingly, the program triggered even more migration of women to Mexico City.

Examples of traditional Mazahua embroidery

By far, the most successful product of this program were “Maria” dolls, based on the Mazahua/Otomi street vendors. Longtime Mazahua leader Antonia Mondragón credits the program with the design and training of the women in the making of the doll and their dress. Originally, the program created various types of dolls, from those in modern outfits and regional dress. This work was divided among five workshops, each dedicated to a different aspect of fabrication such as design, cutting, stitching pieces, stuffing and embroidery. The women working at the center, either making dolls, clothing or other items, were not considered artisans but rather employees.

The program had problems from the beginning, but the main one was that the pay for participants was very low. The city refused to pay the women the legal minimum wage. Nor did it have the usual benefits of government employment.  However, the program worked adequately for about two year, more or less providing what was promised. It was safer than selling on the street and the women formed informal mutual help networks. This informal system of mutual help has remained intact in successive organizations.

Traditional embroidery on non-traditional items, a coat and a toilet-seat cover

However, the situation rapidly deteriorated. Most of the women remained illiterate, and medical care became nothing more than doctors notes for missing school or work. Pay remained low and became difficult to collect. By 1978, a group of women from the Centro made a formal complaint for lack of payment but were threatened with jail time. Opposition to the Centro from the rest of the Merced Market grew. Many women began to abandon the project, returning to street vending, but the program limped along until 1986, when its administration was transferred to the Venustiano Carranza borough, which decided to discontinue it. In addition, the 1985 earthquake damaged the Merced Market, which served as a pretext to shut the Centro premises down.

After the Centro’s demise, between 40 and 50 Mazahua women worked to keep the only livelihood they knew. The women were unable and did not  to return to the State of Mexico, as they had no land rights as women.  Their plight at that time was the focus of a documentary called Rehje (“water” in the Mazahua language). The Centro’s premises in Merced were padlocked but women took over empty spaces in the same market and got a court order blocking removal. They took their case to various organizations to ask for help. The first institution to do so was the Escuela Nacional de Antropología e Historia (National School of Anthropology and History-ENAH), which gave them space to organize businesses selling food and washing clothes. From there, they gained advocates among the city’s artists, intellectuals and journalists.

Embroidery in the Mazahua flower pattern

Nevertheless, membership in the group dwindled to between seven and fifteen. Many of those that left went back to the streets, but also formed organization of Mazahua street vendors. Finally, the Venustiano Carranza borough decided to help the women form a tax-exempt organization under the name of Centro Mazahua. It began with 25 women, which its first tasks the recuperation of machinery, materials and products lost then the Centro was padlocked. This center worked with ENAH, adding handcrafts to the other activities. The new organization received support from press, and material support from local and even international non-profits. The lack of women and time meant suspension of many of the handcraft activities, especially doll-making because of its complicated nature. There were also internal political and organizational issues as well as regulatory issues with the borough.

Throw pillow that folds to imitate a stuffed animal

Those last demands led to a reorganization as a cooperative in 1989 with the name of Sociedad Cooperativa de Producción Artesanal Flor de Mazahua with thirteen members. Internal and external struggles put the organization into the red, and they had to give up the fight to keep what space they still had in the Merced Market. They moved east to an area called Colonia Viaducto as it was cheaper. When that move was completed, the cooperative had 28 members. They also abandoned their cooking and laundry businesses along with the facilities in ENAH. Financial problems continued and membership dropped to five. In 2002, the cooperative subsumed itself under the Asociación Civil Cihuatl, which works to see that government funds destined for indigenous persons are spent as directed. They had representation in the organization, but lost the facilities in Colonia Viaducto.

A “baby Maria”

The thirteen founding members of the Cooperative have since physically split up, each with home-based workshops working with family members in eastern Mexico City as well as suburbs east and north of the city. The workshop of Antonia Mondragon, who was president of the cooperative for many years still uses the name Flor de Mazahua and employs about ten people in two interrelated families. They live in Arenal Puerto Aerea, just south of the Mexico City airport. Four generations are associated with this workshop, all of whom except her born in Mexico City.

Although simplified to reflect the lack of hands, the organization and focus of the workshop is much the same as that of the old Centro. This is problematic because the Centro’s mission was simply to get the women off the streets, not to teach them to create viable businesses. Generations later, these craftspeople do no know how to market. Despite being in an urban area, they have not even taken to social media (like many paper mache artisans have), instead still looking to government agencies to somehow fill in the marketing gap.

The products made are very similar to those made back in the 1970s. The embroidery work and doll-making are top notch, and thanks to Centro Nacional para el Desarrollo de Pueblos Indígenas (CDI), the family has industrial sewing machines and support through some annual fairs. One innovation off the dolls is the making of a kind of throw pillow, which folds into a kind of stylized stuffed animal and is well-made. Attempts to modernize traditional clothing has run into problems. The workshop understands the need to adapt traditional Mazahua clothing to modern markets, but fashion design and construction requires training that they do not have. Clothing other than the most traditional  are not yet ready for market. It remains to be seen if Flor de Mazahua can survive and evolve into something viable for future generations of Mexico City Mazahua.



El trabajo artesanal: Una estrategia de reproducción de los mazahuas en la ciudad de México Norma Juliana Lazcano Arce October 2005 Instituto Nacional de la Mujeres Mexico City

Cooperativa Flor de Mazahua cumple 40 años La Coperacha April 22, 2015

Interview with Antonia Mondragon April 2019

To a job well done

I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate the Cartoneros de la Ciudad de México organization for its staging of the 7th Festival de Cartonería during Holy Week in the Santa Maria la Ribera neighborhood of Mexico City. The event not only shows how far the annual event has come, but also how far the craft has come in its recent development.  It also shows political changes happening in Mexico.

Judas figures in devil form, which is traditional, but in miniature, which is not.

It started as the Feria de Cartoneria by collector Juan Jimenez Izquierdo in 2012 with modest ambitions. Having worked with the Secretariat of Culture, and being an avid toy collector, he was aware of the lack of networking among cartoneros, those who work in paper and paste to create festival paraphernalia and increasingly, other art as well. His goal was to get Mexico City artisans together and give them a chance to sell some of their work. The event got off to a rocky start. From the beginning, it was decided to have the event during Holy Week, as Holy Saturday historically was very important for cartoneros. For this holiday, they made effigies of Judas Iscariot in devil for to be burned (really exploded), and problems with authorities worried about safety caused the event to change location several times.


Judas being exploded at the Festival

However it should be noted that, the Judases could also be made to represent authority figures or others who might have caused ire among the populace, inviting restrictions and outright bans. The end of the PRI monopoly on political power has meant a comeback for Judases. There is still a lot of bureaucracy to get permits to burn Judases, but community organizations have stepped up to navigate it. The Festival is probably the second best-known Burning event aside from that of the Linares family. I went to the 3rd event after hearing about it, and learned the hard (on my ears) way what “burning” means in Mexico. (The video of that Judas is in the Wikipedia article on the Burning of Judas.)

Back then, the event was small and only two Judases were burned. Each year has had more and in 2016, they added a kind of parade/procession of Judas figures. This year, there were over 16 or 17 Judases competing for prizes, with one representing Attila the Hun winning first place. All eventually sacrificed except for the top three. Current Mexican president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador made an appearance among the Judases, a welcome change from the days when the government made sure that no effigies of presidents were made.

Attila the Hun spared th wrath of the fireworks

But some of the old restrictions have not completely gone away. Licenses must be sought, making it impossible for ordinary families to burn Judases as in times past. Organizations that do manage to get the permits are required to perform a kind of “safety theatre,” cordoning off the area where the Judases are hung and exploded, with an “emergency exit” (although outside) and various warnings about the dangers of exploding Judases. This might just sound precautionary, but nothing of this sort is required of the paper mache bulls, which are loaded with many more fireworks and run through crowds as they are set off. But then, the bulls never represented anything but bulls.





While the Burning of Judas is by far the highlight of the annual Festival of Cartonería, the vending area has become an impressive display of the skills and inventiveness of Mexico’s cartoneria community. The vast majority of artisans are local, but increasingly those from other parts of the country have invited to participate, such as Rosita Lemus, from the distinguished family of the same name in Celaya, Guanajuato, and Alejandro La Blu, a talented artist from Aguascalientes. This year it seems that new versions of traditional products and completely new products and imagery have taken over, and the variety is breathtaking. Although cartonería pieces can be large and even monumentally-sized, smaller pieces dominate the Festival as it caters to those who need to carry their purchases home easily. Masks were an easy favorite this year, followed by various kinds of decorative figures, skeletons, animal figures, alebrijes and dolls. Imagery based off of popular movies (especially Groot) and medieval-style dragons and other fantasy figures are finding their way into the fold as well. Still, all vendors are producers and hopefully this will remain the case as this important festival continues to grow and evolve.


L to R Carlos “Torito” Arredondo, the same artistan as a “calaca”; and Alejandra La Blu, Leigh Thelmadatter and Torito

The Festival de Cartonería is one a growing number of reasons to be in Mexico City during the Holy Week holidays.


A whale’s migration to Mexico City

Interior of the library with Mobile Matrix in the lower center (Luis Alvaz CC-by-SA 4.0)

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.

Vista_frontal_de_Mátrix_Móvil_(Gabriel_Orozco)_en_la_Biblioteca_Vasconcelos_03The 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.

All images by Luis Alvaz  (CC-by-SA 4.0)





Children’s dolls for tourists

DSC_0045Mexico 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.

An early version of a doll in indigenous dress

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.

DSC_0010She 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.










Mountain mermaids

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.”

Tlanchana3Their 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.

Tlanchana figure at the Museo de la Casa del Risco in Mexico City (credit: Mexicano 101)

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.

Tlanchana figure at the Centro Cultural Isidro Fabela in Atlacomulco, State of Mexico (credit Mexicano101)

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

Making a comeback with a bang

4FeriaCartoneria061Most 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.

Small Judas figures in the toy collection of Juan Jimenez Izquierdo at his home in Mexico City
Image of former Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto with donkey ears, a bag of money and no pants

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.

Giant Judas being paraded as part of the Festival de la Cartonería in Mexico City

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.

2016BurningLinares060With 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.

A grandmother’s gift


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.