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Can a Colonial Crafts Town Survive Modern Mexico?

Can a Colonial Crafts Town Survive Modern Mexico?

In the 1500s, a Spanish bishop turned a collection of pueblos around the Mexican town of Pátzcuaro into a center for craftsmanship. The people here are still making and marketing their wares in much the same way as they did hundreds of years ago. Now they have to overcome tourists’ fears about drug traffickers, real or not.

A CRAFTSMANSHIP photo essay

By LAURA FRASER
Photography by JANET JARMAN

When Toys Get Real | Craftsmanship Magazine, Winter 2016

On Friday mornings in the colonial town of Pátzcuaro, Mexico, there is a flea market where indigenous people barter their wares the way they’ve done since before the Spaniards set foot in this region. Squat, weathered women in long braids and woven rebozos carry baskets of dried fish, avocados, or wood scraps, which they trade for the used clothing, pots, or medicinal herbs that other natives have spread out on blankets.

The local crafts traded or sold around Pátzcuaro date back much earlier; copper-smithing, for one, has been traced to 600 AD. The native Tarascans, whose vast empire was seated in Pátzcuaro and nearby Tzintzuntzan, had the resources to develop a variety of sophisticated crafts, and the emperor surrounded himself with artisans who created textiles, arms, feather adornments, and copper and clay vessels. Clay was abundant in the hills around Pátzcuaro, which led to many different approaches to the ceramic arts. One reason the Tarascans were never conquered by their fierce Aztec enemies was their superior metallurgy. They were no match for the Spanish conquistadors, however, who arrived in 1522, plundered those treasures, and killed any Tarascans who stood in their way.

When Toys Get Real | Craftsmanship Magazine, Winter 2016

Sixteen years later, in 1538, a more benevolent Spaniard, Bishop Vasco de Quiroga, traveled to the area, determined to stop the slaughter of the Tarascans, or Purépecha, and to focus on converting them instead. Inspired by the writings of Sir Thomas More, Quiroga, whose statue stands in the middle of the main plaza of Pátzcuaro, set out to create a spiritual and economic utopia. Surveying the richness of the local crafts, and the informal barter system already in place, he decided to use these traditions as the basis of a networked trading economy in what is now the state of Michoacán in southwestern Mexico. (See map.)

Quiroga gathered the scattered indigenous people into pueblos (the better to convert them), and assigned each village its own craft: fishing nets to the island of Janitzio, leather to Ocumicho, musical instruments to Paracho, lacquer to Pátzcuaro, wool to Aranza, pottery to Capula, wooden chests to Quiroga, and so on. (See our sidebar, “An artisanal tour of Michoacán.”). To strengthen the region’s craftsmanship, the bishop imported experts, tools, and techniques from Spain, and built workshops in many pueblos. Pátzcuaro, with its spread of white houses, red tile roofs, and expansive main plaza, became the trading hub for these crafts, which strengthened the economies of all the villages in Michoacán.

When Toys Get Real | Craftsmanship Magazine, Winter 2016

Five hundred years later, artisans still flock to Pátzcuaro with their wares, especially at fairs during the Semana Santa (Easter week) and Night of the Dead (November 1-2). The olive trees that Quiroga planted in the town of Tzintzuntzan, about ten miles from Pátzcuaro, still grow. And most of the pueblos still maintain their artesania (craft) traditions. Some of these crafts have changed over the years, becoming more decorative than utilitarian–copper vases rather than weapons, for instance, or fantastic pineapple-shaped pots instead of cooking vessels. These transformations have accelerated since the 1970s, when more tourists discovered the area, and more craftspeople were educated and exposed to the art of the outside world.

When Toys Get Real | Craftsmanship Magazine, Winter 2016

During the past 15 years, however, the craft economy has been struggling to survive. Drug-related violence in Michoacán has made tourists afraid to visit, even though most of the skirmishes have been hours away from Pátzcuaro. In some pueblos, finely skilled craftspeople have had to turn to construction work instead, or head north to the U.S. to find jobs. In other villages, the crafts have been so undervalued that younger people leave to find easier, more lucrative ways of making money, and may only create crafts for fairs or competitions. Tourists have become used to paying rock-bottom prices for crafts–which, when bought directly from the artisans, cost about a third of the price you’d pay in a commercial gallery. That price difference, and the willingness of many artisans to bargain, can skew a buyer’s sense of the work that goes into these crafts—and disguise the hidden reality: Usually, the artisans are simply desperate for cash. If you do buy in galleries, ask if they are commited to giving a precio justo. The term means nothing more than a “just price,” but galleries who subscribe to it seem to honor it. (One such gallery is Casa Michoacána in San Miguel de Allende).

Despite these economic pressures, an astonishing array of artesanias still exists for visitors to explore in the region—relatively safely. “It’s a big state,” as the town’s new mayor, Victor Baez, told me, “and it’s peaceful here.” As people are realizing that Pátzcuaro is a safe town, they are also discovering the many dimensions of its culture.

Santa Fe de la Laguna: black clay

When Toys Get Real | Craftsmanship Magazine, Winter 2016

Santa Fe de la Laguna was the first utopian pueblo that Bishop Quiroga set up. Much of the town is still communal, including the central “hospital,” which is a place of hospitality, not medicine. On the day I visited Nicolas Fabian Fermin, he wasn’t in his studio; my guide had to track him down on narrow dirt side streets, where he and his wife, Maria del Rosario Lucas Buatista, were doing their monthly duty of delivering food to the elderly and infirm in the town. Collective efforts like these are part of the legacy of Quiroga’s communal pueblos.

Behind the simple wooden doors to Nicolas and Maria’s home is an entryway with shelves of award-winning pots. The courtyard is strewn with laundry lines hung with T-shirts, jeans, and indigo blue rebozos. The kitchen has open shelves with handmade crockery, and the smell of dried chilis and wet clay hangs in the air. In the back room of the house is the workshop and kiln, with a newer, bigger kiln outside. Nicolas’s great-grandfather made pottery in the pueblo, and his grandfather was well-known for his chocolate pitchers. The traditional pottery in the pueblo is black–created with molds, not on a wheel–often with intricate designs. Nicolas, who began playing with clay as a child, noticed that the black-glazed pottery chipped easily, and the designs wore off. Over time, he developed his own style of embedding designs into the clay itself. He covers the dark clay that’s traditional to the region with a red clay called engobe, then sketches fish, hummingbirds, blossoms, and other designs from nature, creating designs that have won competitions in both Mexico and the U.S.

When Toys Get Real | Craftsmanship Magazine, Winter 2016

While Nicolas has passed down his pottery-making skills to his daughter (“Apart from her father’s good looks, she has inherited a craft,” he joked), this tradition is fast becoming unusual. “In general, kids don’t want to work so hard to make 50 pesos,” Nicolas says. “They’re thinking of their cell phones and the Internet, like everywhere else.” Nicolas and his wife, also an artist, sell their work to galleries that promote “precio justo.” They also plan to organize a workshop, school, and competitions to teach pottery-making in Santa Fe de la Laguna, one of the region’s villages where Purépecha traditions—dress, language, crafts, and ceremonies—remain strongest.

When Toys Get Real | Craftsmanship Magazine, Winter 2016

Santa Clara de Cobre: copper vases

Santa Clara de Cobre, about twenty minutes above Pátzcuaro, is a colonial town with a copper sheen. The street lamps are copper, shops sell dangling copper cooking pots, and one of the main plazas has a kiosk with a copper roof and benches and garbage cans painted copper. As you walk down the streets, you can hear the faint tapping of metal upon metal from the town’s 250 copper workshops. Vasco de Quiroga gave this town, officially founded in 1553, the exclusive right to make copper cazos, or cooking cauldrons; it also produced coins, church bells, stills, and arms and armaments that were sent to Spain. At the time, the smelting techniques in the village were considered better than those in Spain. Of all the crafts in the Pátzcuaro area, this is one of the oldest, and most firmly established: More than 80% of the town is employed in making or selling copper, and there is a Museo del Cobre (a copper museum) in the center, as well as a coppersmithing school and a yearly competition.

When Toys Get Real | Craftsmanship Magazine, Winter 2016

The brothers Napolean (left) and Jose Perez are two of the town’s upcoming masters; their late father, Jesus Perez Ornelas, made the candlesticks for the local church, and was renowned for his work with intricate bird and human faces on his copper pots.

Copper was originally mined in mountains near Pátzcuaro, but that resource has long been exhausted. Today, all the copper is recycled from industrial copper wire and pipes. The coppersmiths pick over the copper scrap for impurities and place it in a forge—a wide, shallow depression in the floor for the fire, which is fed by traditional bellows. The bellows are typically worked by apprentices, called “zorrillos,” or little foxes.

When Toys Get Real | Craftsmanship Magazine, Winter 2016

The copper is heated in the pine wood fire until it is red-hot. The air is thick with smoke and the tangy smell of copper. Here, Sergio steadies the hot glowing ingot with tongs, preparing for Napolean to break it apart with a sledgehammer.

When Toys Get Real | Craftsmanship Magazine, Winter 2016

The result is a lemon slice-shaped ingot, which will eventually be hammered into a vase. Once the ingot cools down, Sergio puts it back in the fire for another round. “Heat and hammer, heat and hammer, that’s the process,” says Napolean.

When Toys Get Real | Craftsmanship Magazine, Winter 2016

“The first thing is to flatten it like a tortilla,” says Sergio. Just doing this took the two men an hour of wielding a heavy sledgehammer, over and over. The finished piece will take two to three days’ work. Some of the shops in town avoid all this trouble by using pre-manufactured disks, which these men would never consider. “Always buy from a casa de plancha,” says Napolean, meaning a workshop that starts with an ingot. “Not a casa de disco,” he adds, with a clear note of disdain.

When Toys Get Real | Craftsmanship Magazine, Winter 2016

After the copper is shaped into a basic vessel, it gets hammered on an anvil to develop texture and various designs. The Perez brothers’ copper vases are somewhat more ornate than most, and in their open-air workshop there are dozens of anvils, most of them made by their father. He created his birds and other adornments as a response to mechanization, to better distinguish his handcrafted pieces from ones made by machine. Their grandfather, on his deathbed, warned the elder Perez about departing from the tradition of making simple cauldrons, but his ornamented vases have become among the most prized in the region. I fell in love with one their father had made, with delicate birds. When Jose said he could copy it for me, I happily commissioned him, for the 2500 pesos he asked. That’s about $150, which seemed like little for so much time and skill. (Note to buyers: If you want to keep your copper shiny without using chemical cleaners, treat it like a margarita glass: rub it with salt and lime—or lemon.)

The brothers have very different styles from each other. Jose’s pots are more ornate, Napolean’s more regular. “Copper is our inheritance, and our cultural identity,” says Napolean. “But we’re individual artists.”

Tzintzuntzan: geometric ceramics

When Toys Get Real | Craftsmanship Magazine, Winter 2016

The principal seat of the Tarascan Empire was Tzintzuntzan, a pueblo a few miles around the lake from Pátzcuaro where the Spanish forced the indigenous Puréphecha to dismantle their pyramids in order to erect churches and other buildings; you can still see petroglyphs etched in the stones on the church facades. There is a long tradition of pottery-making (alfareria) in Tzintzuntzan, where clay is abundant, and some artisans continue to use prehispanic geometric designs.

Manuel Morales, whose studio is on the church grounds, is one of the region’s best-known ceramicists—his family has worked in clay for five generations. None of the potters in the town had an electric-powered wheel and a gas-fired kiln until his father, Miguel, bought one in 1982. Miguel popularized the white and brown pottery style that’s characteristic of the pottery in Tzintzuntzán, decorated with animals, fish from Lake Pátzcuaro, and other local scenes. His daughter Angelica continues his style, but leans to the feminine in her designs. (I couldn’t resist a bowl decorated with a cheerful mermaid for about 400 pesos, a mere $32.)

When Toys Get Real | Craftsmanship Magazine, Winter 2016

Manuel became interested in fine art in college, and his work took a different direction from the traditional designs. He studied painting at the University of Michoacán, and developed a style of geometric designs influenced by painters, such as Rodolfo Tamayo, Diego Rivera, and Pablo Picasso. He also found inspiration in the ancient symbols found on the pyramid remains outside of town.

Unlike most potters in Tzintzuntzán, Manuel uses a very high temperature kiln, which makes the ceramics shinier and more durable. His work is mainly sold in galleries, for upwards of $500, but if you stop by his studio, you can buy modestly priced pieces with imperfections (I took home a half-glazed mug for about $25). His studio is open when his bicycle is outside, unlocked. “Some people have a guard dog,” he said. “I have this old bicycle.”

When Toys Get Real | Craftsmanship Magazine, Winter 2016

Ihuatzio: woven reeds

When Toys Get Real | Craftsmanship Magazine, Winter 2016

Like the clay in the surrounding mountains, the reeds in Lake Pátzcuaro have served as the raw material for the region’s crafts for centuries. Quiroga assigned the pre-hispanic craft of basket-weaving, or chuspata, to the pueblo of Ihuatzio. The town, near Tzintzuntzan, is still known for its wicker weavings–baskets, boxes, tables, and furniture—all made from bullrushes gathered from the lake.

When Toys Get Real | Craftsmanship Magazine, Winter 2016

Florencia and Samuel Morales and their three sons, along with many other families in the pueblo, cut their reeds from the nearby lake. They then sprinkle them with water to make them pliable, sit on low benches in their home, and weave. Their workshop has the clean, sweet green smell of reeds. Since the 1970s, artisans have expanded their repertoire of baskets by weaving onto metal forms; this monkey table, an example of this style, took about eight days to make. The price: $6,000 pesos, or about $365.

When Toys Get Real | Craftsmanship Magazine, Winter 2016

Mario Lopez, originally from Mexico City, was the first in the pueblo to begin weaving on metal frames. “For 14 years, everyone thought I was crazy,” he says. “Then they began to copy me.” Several years ago, Mario employed 60 workers to weave the tables, lamps, and furniture, which he sold all over Mexico and exported to the United States. Now there are only ten. “Many artisans are having to leave the trade,” he says, mainly due to the media’s sensational reports of narco violence. But little by little, he says, poco a poco, business is picking up. While most Michoacan artisans don’t use, or have access to, the Internet, Lopez does. His wicker animals and furniture are available through his website, tzumindi.com.

Sanabria: embroidery

When Toys Get Real | Craftsmanship Magazine, Winter 2016

Teófila Servin Barriga, from the tiny village of Sanabria, between Tzintzuntzán and Pátzcuaro, belongs to an embroidery cooperative with fifty other women, whose shawls and tablecloths are displayed in her modest house. “We base our embroidery on our customs, our traditions, and our dances,” she says. “Each tells a story.” One tablecloth, with tiny, colorful figures, illustrates a Night of the Dead procession; another, a fishing scene with butterfly nets on Lake Pátzcuaro. Donkeys and trees are scattered across napkins, and a shawl depicts the circle of life, from birth and baptism to marriage and the birth of a grandchild.

For many of the women, whose husbands went north to the States to find work, embroidery became “a type of therapy.” Teófila, who worked as a domestic servant to pay for school in Pátzcuaro, now travels throughout Mexico to give embroidery classes, and attended the Santa Fe, New Mexico International Folk Art Market. When she was working as a maid, she never dreamed she’d fly in an airplane. “We women can make our dreams come true together.”

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Barriga and her two sisters learned embroidery from their mother, Consuelo Barriga, 91. Yet Doña Consuelo isn’t the oldest in the family, whose members tend to live into their 100s. “We’ve had poverty, but good food and exercise,” said Teófila. “We eat cactus, squash–everything natural, without chemicals.” I was tempted by an exquisite indigo shawl Barriga had embroidered with abstract designs; it seemed expensive at 3500 pesos, or about $210, but now I am kicking myself for leaving it behind.

San Jose de la Gracia: “pineapples”

When Toys Get Real | Craftsmanship Magazine, Winter 2016

The icon perhaps most associated with the Pátzcuaro region is the fantastical “pineapple,” or “piña,” crafted in the mountains about two hours from town. These appliqued ceramics, often dark green, can be either simple or extravagantly ornate, sprouting candelabra, cups, or flower tops. Pedro Hernández is one of the masters of the “piñas,” which evolved from utilitarian pots in the 1970s. There’s only one problem, though. There are no pineapples grown in the region. Odd, then, that this fruit should be its most famous icon.

“It’s not a pineapple,” Pedro explained. “It’s a pinecone.” The confusion occurred because the Spanish term for both are “piña,” and both have spiny forms.

To add to the misunderstanding, says Carlos Hernández Cruz, who represents a collection of 25 Michoacán artists at the Casa Michoacána gallery in San Miguel de Allende, artisans began to make the pinecones look more like pineapples simply because tourists thought they were pineapples. The pineapple is also a universal symbol of hospitality, which boosts the pinecones’ morph into pineapples still further.

When Toys Get Real | Craftsmanship Magazine, Winter 2016

About 60 families make the piñas in this town, which is nicknamed San Jose de las Piñas because there is another pueblo nearby, also named San Jose de la Gracia, that specializes in cheese (thus nicknamed San Jose del Queso). To commemorate his town’s craft, Pedro started a community museum in the courtyard of his family home to display the piñas; every year craftsmen from the village compete for the best dozen pieces. His grandson, who is just now starting to play with clay, will be the fifth generation ceramicist in the family. I bought a small pineapple for about 180 pesos (about $10), and had to insist he keep the change when he cheerfully replaced a top I’d shattered.

When Toys Get Real | Craftsmanship Magazine, Winter 2016

In the Purépecha tradition, it seems, hospitality is constant, whether its symbol is a pinecone or a pineapple. Before we left, Hernández’s wife, Isabel, put down her clay and insisted on making us lunch before we left. We sat on benches around the open-air kitchen, and had the richest, most savory chili pork stew I’ve ever eaten. As soon as we mopped some up with a tortilla, Isabel piled on more tortillas, hot from the grill.

Ocumicho: little devils

When Toys Get Real | Craftsmanship Magazine, Winter 2016

Ocumicho, high in the mountains, is a drab mountain town, but behind the doors of many of the houses are fantastic, colorful, otherworldly characters. Bishop Quiroga originally designated Ocumicho as the leatherworks town, but after the cattle were stolen during the Mexican Revolution, the women began to create ceramic objects to sell, many of them devil masks and figurines. The devils play a role in festivals and dances during Holy Week, when they represent the Romans who wanted to kill the baby Jesus. Over time, the devils took on a life of their own, and the pueblo and its artisans began creating wicked characters and surreal tableaux of devils, mermaids, dragons, spotted dogs, flying fish, saints and drunken caballeros, winged serpents, and all manner of hallucinogenic insects and animals. Some of the assemblages seem like Hieronymus Bosch paintings in three dimensions.

Octavio Esteban Reyes has been making these ceramic diablitos for 30 years. His mother-in-law made them, but none of her six children was interested in carrying on the tradition. “I loved the artesanias,” he says. “Thanks to my family and God, I found my calling.” He makes the figurines using only clay, a thread to cut it, and a knife. Then he fires them in a kiln that sits in his backyard. His wife and children finish his creations by decorating them with paintbrushes made of human hair.

When Toys Get Real | Craftsmanship Magazine, Winter 2016

Octavio seems to be constantly amused by his crazy diablitos, which lighten the somber atmosphere of religion and poverty that pervades this and many of the region’s pueblos. (For a taste of the other whimsical toys made by Mexican artisans, see our sidebar, “The traditional toys of Mexico.”) When we visited, he had just finished about 300 pieces to take to a Night of the Dead market in Pátzcuaro– devils, skulls, skeletons, and figures from the underworld–and is on to making Christmas crèches. I couldn’t resist taking home one of his creations—a collection of surreal animals standing in for the wise men, with the whole Nativity scene loaded onto the back of a flying green armadillo–which cost 500 pesos, or about $30. Unlike some Ocumicho figurines, Octavio’s are mostly rated PG (aside from some topless mermaids). One of the first and most famous of the artists, Marcelino Vicente was known for his scenes of sexual debauchery, with lustful demons, bosomy sirens, and other well-endowed creatures, in all their colorful clay glory. Vicente was murdered in a local bar in 1968 for being a transvestite.

Octavio has been one of the most successful of the diablito makers. Still, his house has no plumbing. It wasn’t decorated with his crazy devils; the girls’ rooms were princess pink and the decorations were subdued crosses and photos of the Virgin Mary, like you’d find in a Bible study book.

As in San Jose de la Gracia, our artist hosts offered us food and drink. Although we’d just eaten, we ate again. Our guide explained that it’s important to partake of the hospitality offered; to refuse would be bad manners.

San Bartolomé Cocucho: giant pots

When Toys Get Real | Craftsmanship Magazine, Winter 2016

In the village of San Bartolomé Cocucho, the ceramicists specialize in enormous, graceful, burnished pots that bear the same name as the town: cocuchos. These are the simplest of ceramics, shaped by hand, dried, and oxidized in a fire. While they are mostly decorative these days, the cocuchos are large because they were originally made to store grain and water.

Doña Juanita Santos Joaquin is 72, and has been making the cocuchos for nearly 60 years, since she was 15. At that age, she had just married, and since her husband was an orphan, he had no money or property for the family. “We had nothing, so I started the pots,” she explains. They had to travel high into the mountains to bring back the clay and the wood to fire it with burros. “It was very hard work,” she says. “Especially when the burros didn’t behave.”

Doña Juana now has gnarled, arthritic hands and can’t make pottery any more. Her daughters now do it. These days, Doña Juana spends most of her time in her kitchen, which is doll-sized, like she is, with hand-made pottery on the open shelves. Squat stools surround a cooking fire on an earthen floor. Doña Juana can still demonstrate how she made her giant pots, which she did for us that afternoon with swift, efficient movements, despite her obviously pained hands. After shaping the rough clay into a vessel, she smoothed it with a corncob. “You do this by feel,” she says. After an initial firing to oxidize the surface, the pots go into a hotter fire of corncobs to darken the cocuchos in abstract designs. Each piece, some as tall as six feet, must then be rubbed for days to get just the right burnished surface, so it shines with a subtle gleam. I only had space in my suitcase for a small pot, which Dona Juana tried to sell me for 50 pesos, or $3; it took some time for her to accept 100.

When Toys Get Real | Craftsmanship Magazine, Winter 2016

These pots were sold for a pittance until an architect passed through the village one day and began buying them to decorate houses and gardens. Since then, business has been fairly brisk, though the size of the pots makes them a little difficult for tourists to bring home. “You need a truck,” says Doña Juana, “Or a strong burro.”

Laura Fraser is a journalist, the author of three works of non-fiction, and the editorial director and cofounder of Shebooks.net. She divides her time between Mexico and San Francisco. Janet Jarman is a Mexico-based photojournalist and multimedia producer. Her work, which has won an American Photography first prize, has appeared in The New York Times and a range of other publications.

© 2017 Laura Fraser, all rights reserved. Under exclusive license to Craftsmanship, LLC. Unauthorized copying or republication of this article is prohibited by law.

Published: December 6, 2015

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