May 022016
 

This little 77-page gem only recently came to my attention, but is sufficiently interesting, for lots of different reasons, to make it well worth reading if you have the chance.

Written in straightforward, non-academic language, Stanislawski sets about unpacking the factors explaining the land use patterns for eleven towns in the western Mexico state of Michoacán. Stanislawski knows the land use patterns of these town, because he painstakingly compiled them, with the help of multiple informants in each town, in the 1940s.

Aria de Rosales. (Stanislawski, 1950)

Aria de Rosales. (Stanislawski, 1950)

Stanislawski explains that his purpose was to find a method that would reliably identify the “personality differences” that he had intuitively recognized, during earlier fieldwork, for towns in Michoacán. He set out to map the four distinct categories of land use – stores, crafts, administrative offices and services – that he thought would likely reveal the “distributional aspects that might indicate differences between towns.”

Pichátaro. (Stanislawski, 1950)

Pichátaro. (Stanislawski, 1950)

He assumed that each town would be influenced by its geographic area, and therefore chose eleven towns that he thought would be a systematic sample: one in the coastal lowlands, three in the low Balsas valley, two in the upper Balsas valley (close to the temperate slopes), four within the mountain ranges of the volcanic area of Michoacán, and one at an elevation of 2400 m (8000 ft).

The maps he produced revealed that “the geographical region could not explain the differences between the towns except in part.” At least as important, Stanislawski decided, was which of the two basic cultural groups – Hispanic or Indian – was predominant in the town. He proposed a threefold classification: Hispanic, Indian or dual-character.

On this basis, Aria de Rosales (upper map), with its imposing plaza the focus of most commercial activity, is an Hispanic town. On the other hand, Pichátaro (lower map), where the plaza is unimportant, is Indian. Of course, these differences, identified by Stanislawski in the 1940s, do not necessarily apply today. Since the 1940s, transport systems have changed, there have been waves of migration out of many Michoacán towns, and the range of economic activities in towns has increased significantly, with a trend away from primary activities and a sharp rise in tertiary 9service) activities.

In the 1980s (sadly ignorant at the time of Stanislawski’s work), I employed a small army of geography students to undertake a somewhat similar mapping exercise in various Michoacán settlements, ranging in size from the small village of Jungapeo to the mining town of Angangueo and the large city of Zitácuaro. For an example of this kind of work, see The distribution of retail activities in the city of Zitácuaro, Michoácan, Mexico. Sadly, those 1980s maps were later discarded during a clean-out of the department map cabinet by a well-intentioned, if ill-informed, successor.

Source:

  • The Anatomy of Eleven Towns in Michoacán (review) by Dan Stanislawski (University of Texas, Institute of Latin American Studies, Latin American Studies X, 1950); reprinted by Greenwood Press, New York, 1969.

Dec 142015
 

The Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Canada, continues to showcase Mexican textiles in a major exhibition entitled Viva México! Clothing and Culture.

The exhibition opened in May this year and closes 23 May 3, 2016. It occupies the museum’s Patricia Harris Gallery of Textiles & Costume. Even though the museum’s collection of Mexican textiles is one of the largest and most important collections of its kind in the world, very few items from the collection have ever been publicly displayed previously.

“Vibrant expressions of creativity, the pieces in this exhibition combine remarkable technical skill with exquisite artistry. Over 150 stunning historic and contemporary pieces are on display, including complete costume ensembles, sarapesrebozos, textiles, embroidery, beadwork and more.”

Rebozo (detail), Ikat-patterned silk, Mexico, 1825-1875. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. W.K. Newcomb.

Rebozo (detail), Ikat-patterned silk, Mexico, 1825-1875. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. W.K. Newcomb.

As the promotional material claims, “The evolution of Mexican fashion reflects the history of Mexico, where the textile arts reach back over many centuries. After the Spanish Conquest of 1521, European styles influenced the distinctive clothing of the Maya, the Aztec and other great civilizations. Contemporary Mexican textiles owe their vitality to the fusion of traditions. ¡Viva Mexico! celebrates this rich and enduring cultural legacy.”

The guest curator for this exhibition is Chloë Sayer, a specialist in Mexican popular art and author of numerous works on the subject, including Costumes of Mexico (1985); Arts and Crafts of Mexico (1990); Mexican Patterns: A Design Source Book (1990); Mexico: The Day of the Dead: An Anthology (1993); Mexican Textile Techniques (1999); Textiles from Mexico (2002); and Fiesta: Days of the Dead & Other Mexican Festivals (2009).

Sayer believes, with good reason, that Mexican textile handcrafts should be named a UNESCO cultural heritage, due to their centuries-old history, and because they are still worn by Mexico’s indigenous peoples. She sees the challenge as being how to ensure that “new generations of Mexicans continue to learn how to make these textiles”

The exhibition comprises about 200 pieces, some dating back to the nineteenth century. “The collection tells the story of Mexican textiles through centuries, and that’s why it’s so valuable,” Sayer said. Sessions when visitors to the exhibition can watch Mexican artists hand-crafting traditional textiles are also scheduled on a regular basis.

There are significant regional differences in the “typical” traditional textiles in Mexico. This exhibition delves into the geography of Mexican textiles and brings long-overdue attention to their extraordinary diversity.

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Mexican products with denomination of origin status

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Oct 012015
 

Denomination of origin status (aka designation of origin, appellation of origin) has been awarded over the years to numerous Mexican products (see image). The status provides some legal protection to the use of the name and sets geographic limits on the areas where the items can be produced. The general declarations of denominations of origin are issued by the Mexican Institute of Industrial Property and published in the official federal broadsheet Diario Oficial de la Federación (DOF).

mexico-denomiation-of-origin-poster

Three products are related to art and handicrafts:

  • Olinalá (laquer work from Olinalá in the state of Guerrero)
  • Talavera ceramics
  • Ambar from Chiapas

Most, however, are related to food and drink:

  • Tequila (Jalisco, Nayarit, Tamaulipas, Michoacán and Guanajuato);
  • Mezcal (Guerrero, Oaxaca, Durango, Zacatecas and San Luis Potosí);
  • Bacanora (Sonora);
  • Coffee from Veracruz (Veracruz);
  • Sotol (Chihuahua, Coahuila y Durango);
  • Coffee from Chiapas (Chiapas)
  • Charanda (Michoacán);
  • Mango Ataulfo from the Soconusco region (Chiapas);
  • Vanilla from Papantla (Veracruz)
  • Chile habanero (Yucatán Peninsula)
  • Rice from Morelos

Perhaps, therefore, it is not surprising that Mexican cuisine has been acclaimed as one of the most varied in the world. In 2010, the traditional Mexican cuisine of Michoacán was added to the UNESCO List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Mexican cuisine was up for more international awards this week when 10 of the country’s restaurants made the list of the top 50 in Latin America.

The World’s 50 Best organization named eight restaurants in Mexico City and one each from Nuevo León and the State of México among the 50 best in Latin America. Three of them — Quintonil which placed sixth, Pujol ninth and Biko 10thalso made the list of the world’s top 50 this year.

They were followed by the only restaurants outside the Federal District: Pangea in Monterrey, Nuevo León, which placed 13th, and Amaranta in Toluca which was 22nd.

The other winners were Sud 777 (27th), Máximo Bistrot (41), Rosetta (44), Nicos (47) and Dulce Patria (49).

Other aspects of Mexican life and culture on the UNESCO list include the Indigenous Festivity dedicated to the Dead (added in 2003); Places of memory and living traditions of the Otomí-Chichimecas people of Tolimán: the Peña de Bernal (2009); the Ritual ceremony of the Voladores in Veracruz (2009); Parachicos in the January fiesta in Chiapa de Corzo, Chiapas (2010); Pirekua, the traditional song of the Purépecha, Michoacán (2010); and mariachi music (2011).

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Nov 232014
 

Many of the arts and crafts found in Michoacán date back to pre-Columbian times, but now incorporate techniques and materials that were brought from Europe and elsewhere. Many of the introductions occurred during the time of Vasco de Quiroga (ca 1470-1565), after whom the town of Quiroga, at the eastern extremity of Lake Pátzcuaro, is named.

Visitors to Michoacán area often amazed to discover that towns even only a few kilometers apart have developed completely different handicrafts, and that all the handicraft workshops in any one town seem to focus on making precisely the same items. If one workshop in a town specializes in wooden items, all the neighboring workshops appear to do the same. Just how did these very distinctive spatial patterns come about?

Craft market in Tzintzuntzan, Michoacan

Craft market in Tzintzuntzan, Michoacan

The answer to the oft-asked question, “Why does each town in Michoacán have its own handicrafts?”lies in the history of this area and, in particular, of the efforts almost five hundred years ago of one Spanish priest.

Who was Vasco de Quiroga?

Vasco de Quiroga trained originally as a lawyer. He later took holy orders and arrived in the New World in 1531, already in his sixties. He gained rapid promotion and six years later was appointed Bishop of Michoacán, with the express purpose of trying to clear up the mess left by Nuño Beltrán de Guzmán’s rampage through western Mexico, and to placate the bad feelings of the indigenous Purépecha populace.

Vasco de Quiroga based his approach on the Utopian principles espoused by Thomas More. He established a series of communities in the vicinity of Lake Pátzcuaro, the heart of Purépecha country, improved security, and set up hospitals and schools serving the local people.

Agricultural improvements

Recognizing the importance of agriculture, Vasco de Quiroga introduced European implements and methods as well as new crops, including wheat and other cereals, fruits and vegetables. Perhaps his most noteworthy introduction was the banana. The first bananas to be grown anywhere in Mexico were brought by Vasco de Quiroga from Santo Domingo in the Caribbean and planted in Tzintzuntzan.

Handicrafts

Alongside religious instruction, Vasco de Quiroga organized training in arts and crafts. His efforts quickly won over many of the local people who came to acknowledge that the hostility they had experienced from their first contacts with Europeans was not typical of all the newcomers. The kindly Bishop came to be sufficiently respected by them to be awarded the honorific title of “Tata” (“Father”) Vasco.

The local indigenous Indians had already developed the skills needed for varied ceramics, wood and leather products, copper items, and woven cotton and agave fiber textiles. They also used the local lake bulrushes (tule). Vasco de Quiroga introduced new techniques which allowed the artisans to multiply their production.

To encourage specialization, and limit direct competition between villages, “Tata” Vasco allocated specific crafts to specific places, a pattern that continues to the present. The particular handicraft developed in each village also reflects the availability of local raw materials such as bulrushes needed for mats, or clay for pottery. On account of the fine quality of local clays, the making of ceramics was encouraged in the villages of Tzintzuntzan, Patamban, Santa Fe de la Laguna, Capula and Pinícuaro. Ironworking and locksmithing were introduced in San Felipe de los Hereros; quilting and embroidery in San Juan de las Colcahas, and so on.

Section of tourist map showing some of handicraft towns near Lake Patzcuaro

Section of tourist map showing some of handicraft towns near Lake Patzcuaro

The arts and crafts skills in the villages around Lake Pátzcuaro and elsewhere in Michoacán have been passed down to this day, becoming more finely honed with each successive generation, producing craftsmen who are among the finest in the country. They are responsible for a truly amazing variety of handicrafts, fine art and furniture items.

Among the better known places to seek out particular handicrafts are:

  • Angangueo: woolen items
  • Cuanajo: wooden chests and furniture
  • Erongarícuaro: wooden furniture, earthenware
  • Ihuatzio: petate mats
  • Jarácuaro: palm hats (woven)
  • Paracho: guitars and stringed instruments
  • Pátzcuaro: wool, lacquer work, silver jewelry, toys, etc
  • Quiroga: painted trays and bowls, leather goods, wooden toys
  • Santa Fe de la Laguna: pottery
  • Santa Clara del Cobre: copper items (housewares, miniatures)
  • Tzintzuntzan: wood, pottery, straw decorations and toys
  • Uruapan: lacquer work
  • Zirahuén: wood and cloth dolls

Given this partial listing, is it any wonder that Michoacán is one of the best states in Mexico for finding interesting handicrafts? Happy shopping!

Oct 272014
 

The following account of Mexico’s traditional (folkloric) and introduced musical instruments consists of extracts from an article by Andrea Teter. [1]

Pre-Columbian instruments

Archaeologists have noted the existence of more than 1,400 musical instruments used in pre-Columbian Mexico and Central America. These were used primarily for religious, and healing rituals and for ceremonies, but also for war, dances, fiestas and entertainment. Some of these instruments, primarily the huehuetl, and teponaztli, both percussion, and the tlapitzalli, a four-hole flute, were considered divine or endowed with supernatural powers, say Mexican archeologists, and were worshiped as idols.

Teponaztli

Teponaztli

The Mexica (Aztecs) used flutes and trumpets made of clay, bamboo and metal. Drums, including the ayotl, made of tortoise shells, and other percussion instruments were used extensively. The huehuetl was the principal drum used by the Mexica and was made from animal skin stretched over a hollowed-out tree trunk. The teponaztli was made from hollowed-out trees or dried gourds, and sometimes gold and silver, with grooves or tongues cut into the top. Rich and varied tones are produced when played with small mallets. Pre-Columbian musicians also used cymbals, maracas, bells and even stones to produce their music.

The Youtube clip below is one interpretation of what some of Mexico’s indigenous musical instruments may have sounded like when played:

Europeans arrive

With the invasion of the Spanish, these musical instruments were immediately used to help convert the indigenous population to Christianity, while the Conquistadors began introducing European musical methods and instruments. A Franciscan missionary, Pedro de Gante, established the first music school in Mexico in 1523 and trained students in the construction and playing of European instruments.

Little by little, all of the European instruments were introduced to Latin America, starting in the 16th century with organs, guitars, harps and flutes, and later followed by the violins, trumpets, mandolins and accordions. Especially important and influential were guitars, which rose to prominence in the seventeenth century, as an easier-to-play alternative to the lute.

Six-string guitars, viheulas, became extremely popular in Mexico with other instruments of the same family also put into general use: five-string charangos, tiples, or treble guitars, and a large 12-string guitar similar to a bass, the bajo sexto.

Another string instrument that became popular in Mexico was the mandolin. The mandolin, which comes from Southern Italy, is the most recent development of the lute family. It was popularized in Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” and Verdi’s “Othello”.

The salterio, originally from Egypt, is a stringed instrument a little larger than a briefcase with a sound resembling a harpsichord and a playing method resembling a steel guitar or autoharp. The musician plucks the 97 strings while it rests on his knees; the sound is unique and quite beautiful.

Once the Spanish began importing slaves from Africa, these blacks began constructing marimbas, which imitated the African xylophone. As early as 1545, a Spanish scribe in the state of Chiapas wrote of an instrument of eight wood bars played with heavy sticks by the local natives at tribal ceremonies. The modern sophisticated Mexican marimbas was developed by Chiapas musician Corazon Borraz, who in 1896 brilliantly added a second row of half-tone bars to the common single row (like a piano’s black keys) adding to the musical scope of the original instrument, allowing it to play more complex music.

marimba

A marimba band: two marimbas plus guitar and drums

Today, a concert marimba can be three meters long, have 70 keys and weigh more than 55 kilos. This grand instrument demands four musicians; the bass man at the wide end with two sticks or baguetas having small rubber balls on the striking tips. This end has long resonance boxes hanging below the sound keys. Then the harmonics man with one or two sticks in each hand above shorter resonance boxes. Then comes the melody maker and leader, wielding two sticks per hand; then the narrow end controlled by the treble master, a stick in each hand producing counterpoint to the melody. Talk about a compact orchestra!

The variety of instruments Mexican musicians and composers have access to has resulted in a distinctive music for this country. At least one Mexican composer, Carlos Chavez, has gained international fame with his integration of Mexican pre-Hispanic instruments in his works such as “Sinfonia India,” “Xochipilli” and “Macuilxochitl.”

Some Mexican composers have been even more innovative. For example, Julián Carrillo (nominated for the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1950), one of Mexico’s top violinists, invented a microtonal music system known as Sonido 13. The system became sufficiently famous that Carrillo’s birthplace in the state of San Luis Potosí felt obliged to rename itself Ahualulco del Sonido 13: an interesting place to visit for any geographers interested in microtonal music! Ahualulco del Sonido 13 is located 39 kilometers northwest of the city of San Luis Potosí. Leaving that city, first follow federal highway 49 towards Zacatecas and then turn north on the road signed Charcas.

Note:

[1] The bibliographic details for Andrea Teter’s article are currently unknown. Please contact us if you are able to supply any further information about these extracts, so that we can update to include the full reference.

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Sep 212013
 

Silver working in Mexico

The center of Mexico’s silver craftsmen and silver making industry is the city of Taxco, in the state of Guerrero. Several pre-colonial groups had developed the technical skills needed to fashion elaborate and complex silver items, especially jewelry, but knowledge of these techniques had largely died out by the start of the 20th century. Somewhat surprisingly, the silver-making industry was reignited in Taxco by an American, William Spratling.

taxco silver

Credit: ~ Artesanas Campesinas de Tecalpulco, Taxco, Guerrero

Spratling (1900-1967) was an American-born silversmith and artist, best remembered today for having reinvigorated 20th century Mexican silver design. Spratling started a small silver industry in the picturesque town of Taxco in the state of Guerrero in 1931, with the intention of benefiting local people. Taxco was one of the earliest silver-mining areas exploited during colonial times. Local silver mines were still important in Spratling’s day, but have since closed, with silver brought in to Taxco from elsewhere in Mexico.

William Spratling’s designes were based on pre-colonial motifs and he trained local craftsmen to produce them in his workshop Taller de las Delicias. He gained a reputation for fine designs and excellent workmanship. Many of his apprentices went on to found their own silver workshops. Silver working became very popular in Taxco and the town gradually transformed itself into Mexico’s premier showcase for high quality silver work of all kinds, from jewelry to tableware. Over the years, the town attracted shoppers and has also become a very important tourist destination.

Taxco, Mexico's city of silversmiths

Taxco, Mexico’s city of silversmiths

Sometimes called the “Father of Mexican Silver”, Spratling not only sold silver locally in Taxco, but also supplied silver items to stores such as Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue in New York and elsewhere. Some of his earliest work was inspired by stonework reliefs in nearby archaeological sites such as Xochicalco. The William Spratling Museum near Taxco’s main plaza showcases his personal collection of archeological pieces as well as his original silver-work designs and workshops.

Silver-working exists in many other Mexican towns and cities, but Taxco is the premier place in Mexico for tourists interested in seeing or purchasing fine silver. The town celebrates the National Silver Fair (Feria Nacional de La Plata) in late November each year. The 76th annual Silver Fair runs from Saturday 30 November to Saturday, 7 December 2013.

Many of Spratling’s original designs are still being made today. For example, Spratling Renaissance (which sells silver from Taxco via its online store) proudly proclaims that, “The legacy of William Spratling is the powerful motivator of a collaboration between the last of the generation of Taxco master silversmiths and the rural women artisans of Tecalpulco, a village in the Municipio of Taxco de Alarcón, Guerrero. The jewelry employs old-fashioned jewelry-making arts to fashion ornamental esthetic objects worthy of a museum. Every piece coming from this shop is a perfect reproduction of the unique original masterworks of William Spratling.”

Of several books about Spratling, Sandraline Cederwall’s Spratling Silver stands out. Cederwall is a pre-eminent collectector-dealer of Spratling silver. The latest edition of this work includes an expanded text, many new photographs, and a biographical essay by Barnaby Conrad, a friend and contemporary of the noted silver designer. The book features dramatic black-and-white photographs of silver artworks, underscoring the “intelligent, simple, restrained” yet appealing style that makes Spratling’s designs so collectible.

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Ever wondered how ropes are made? A photo essay about Villa Progreso, Querétaro

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Jun 282012
 

This account of the rope-making industry in the small village of Villa Progreso in the state of Querétaro, is based on information collected during numerous student interviews conducted in the village in the 1980s.

Villa Progreso in the 1980s

Preparing to start. Rope-maker starts to twist the strands.

Preparing to start. Rope-maker starts to twist the strands.

Villa Progreso is nestled in the hills at the end of a road, east of the town of Ezequiel Montes. The rocky soil is not very fertile, and water is in short supply, so agricultural production is limited, though maguey plants grow well here, even when neglected. The local maguey plants used to supply the raw material for rope-making, the main “secondary” occupation in the village.

However, as the village’s population increased, and as more and more families became dependent on rope-making, another maguey product, ixtle de henequen (henequen fibers), had to be trucked in as the raw material from other states, in particular from Yucatán and Tamaulipas.

The trucks are either rented by the villagers or supplied by the village “distributors” (who eventually buy the finished ropes from the village). About 40 metric tons of henequen are needed each week to keep the rope-makers supplied.

In the 1980s (all monetary figures are from that time), raw henequen was bought by the distributors for about 50 pesos a kilo, and then resold to the villagers at about 95 pesos a kilo. The distributors are “middle men” who, in the words of one student, “make a lot of money doing nothing” and “live in the largest, most expensive homes in the village.”

Once the villagers have purchased a supply of henequen, they perform the various tasks to turn it into ropes. The first step is to “comb” it to make fine fibers and to clean the henequen.

The fibers are then shaken in the wind to further separate them before being stored in a large sack. The ends of the top fibers are then tied onto three wires (see first photo). These wires are made to spin by a wheel.

This is often an old bicycle wheel. Some villagers turn the wheel themselves as they walk backwards feeding fibers onto the wires, via a rope that is wound over the wheel; others rely on children or family members to turn the wheel.

The rope gets longer... and thicker...

The rope gets longer… and thicker…

As the person carrying the sack walks backwards, they continue to feed the three strands of fiber, gradually creating three fine strands of rope. The spinning process is repeated, using the fine strands as the basis, and the rope can be made as thick as you like by successive spins.

The entire family helps

The entire family helps (note cloth tied as sunshade)

The main output from this system is strands of rope of various thicknesses, used for things such as clothes lines. Short strands of henequen are not wasted, but formed into natural cleaning pads.

The work is done by the entire family. One worker pointed out that “it is better to have a large family as like this all can work for each other”. Any workers who have no family have to hire extra workers and are unlikely to make any profit.

On a good day, one family can produce about 72 ropes, each about 5 meters long, which can be sold for around 1800 pesos. However, it takes about 1 kilo of henequen to make 7 or 8 ropes, so the family only makes about 800 pesos [about 5 dollars at the then exchange rate] a day after they have paid for the “raw” henequen. The average family size, including children, in the village was between 5 and 6 individuals. 800 pesos a day is not much income to support the entire family!

The finished ropes are bought by the distributors, who in turn sell it on to other distributors in other places, and so on. The main markets are Mexico City, where about 90% of these ropes are eventually sold.

The workers in the rope-making industry in Villa Progreso have tried to organize themselves, but with only limited success. For example, three years before the interviews, they had formed a cooperative, but decided to quit the group when they realized that the managers of the cooperative also wanted part of the profits. So, at the time of the interviews, they had returned to working independently without any outside help.

Sales of rope fluctuate with the economy, and also seasonally, with the highest demand during the rainy season, partly because these natural fiber ropes tend to disintegrate more quickly during damp conditions.

The final stage, with finished ropes

The final stage, with finished ropes

As one student concluded, “It is very visible here how the middle men (distributors) take advantage of the cheap labor available and make a large profit by only buying and selling raw materials and by buying and selling finished products. thus, the distributors are getting richer by exploiting the workers and the workers are remaining as poor or getting poorer than before. The workers have been pulled into a situation that they can not easily escape from.”

How have things changed since the 1980s?

Sadly, I haven’t had the chance to return to Villa Progreso since then, but things appear to have changed considerably. Newspaper accounts such as “Artesanos dan nuevo aire al ixtle” (“Artisans give new life to Ixtle”), which appeared in the national daily El Universal in 2008, suggest that the residents of Villa Progreso are now emerging from some very hard times.

The price of natural fiber ropes could not compete with cheaper plastic alternatives and the rope-making industry went into near-terminal decline. Many of the able-bodied young men left to look for work north of the border. A small number (mainly the older inhabitants) remained home and continued to make ropes by hand for the limited market that remained for their products.

Now, though, a new industry has arisen based on the henequen fibers (usually known simply as ixtle). Enterprising villagers have turned their hands to fashioning nativity scenes and decorative items out of ixtle. Isaías Mendoza Guzmán is described in the article as making pieces that are more than two meters tall and take three months to complete, clearly indicating a high level of sophistication in the final product.

Villa Progreso now holds an Ixtle and Nopal Fair (Feria del Ixtle y el Nopal) towards the end of April each year in the La Canoa “ecotourism park”.

Villa Progreso is by no means the only place in Mexico where rope-making is an important activity. Similar rope-making methods are used elsewhere in Mexico. For example, John Pint describes in “Mexican artisans of Lake Cajititlán” how rodeo-quality lariats are made in the village of San Miguel Cuyutlán, near Guadalajara. Demand for these high-end products apparently remains strong.

Photo credit:

All photos in this post are by Tony Burton; all rights reserved.

How to get there:

Villa Progreso is about 10 km east of the town of Ezequiel Montes in Querétaro. From Mexico City, take the Querétaro highway (Hwy 57D) north-west to San Juan del Río. Then take Highway 120 past Tequisquiapan to Ezequiel Montes. Once in the town, turn right for the road to Villa Progreso. Allow 2.0 to 2.5 hours for the drive.

Related posts about the same general area:

 

Aug 072010
 

The copper industry in Mexico embraces two extremes: from a major Mexican multinational, Grupo México, to hundreds of dedicated, but poorly remunerated coppersmiths living in a small town in Michoacán.

Large-scale copper mining in Mexico

Grupo México is the largest mining corporation in Mexico, and the world’s third largest copper producer. The company has faced a series of financial and labor issues over the years, which have sometimes restricted its output. It operates two major mines in Mexico, both in the northern part of the state of Sonora:

  • Cananea – this mine, which dates back to 1899, produced 163,804 tons of copper in 2006. It has some of the largest reserves in the world.
  • La Caridad – proven reserves of 600 million metric tons.

Grupo Peñoles started extracting copper from the Milpillas copper deposit, also in Sonora, in 2006. Copper miens in Sonora account for 83% of national output. Other states where copper is mined include:

  • Zacatecas (6%), where copper is one of several metals obtained from Industrial Minera México’s mine at Sombrerete
  • Chihuahua (4%), where copper is mined at Santa Bárbara and Naica.
  • San Luis Potosí (6%), where copper comes from the polymetallic mine of Charcas (also Industrial Minera México)
  • minor amounts are also obtained in Durango, Hidalgo, Michoacán, the State of México and Sinaloa.

335,000 tons of copper were mined in 2007

Mexico Exporta - CopperSanta Clara del Cobre

The artisans of Santa Clara del Cobre are justly world-famous for their coppersmithing skills.

A great time to visit the town, one of Mexico’s Magical Towns, is during the annual Copper Fair. The XLV National Copper Fair and LXV Hammered Copper Competition run from 7-17 August 2010. The competition offers 89 prizes with a total prize fund of 414,000 pesos (33,000 dollars).

How did Santa Clara, in Michoacán, come to be associated with copper working?

In pre-colonial times, local Indians mined for copper in various regions of Mexico including the state of Michoacan in Central Mexico, where the local P’urhepecha Indian group produced magnificent copper, gold and silver jewelry. They also made copper handaxes, used as currency throughout MesoAmerica.

In 1538, the Spanish missionary, Vasco de Quiroga, the first Bishop of Michoacan, helped develop local crafts. To avoid competition between villages, he encouraged each village to specialize in a particular craft. Coppersmithing was the craft allocated to Santa Clara (now Santa Clara del Cobre).

Santa Clara became the most prominent copper-producing town in colonial New Spain. During the 17th century, the town was the main source for hand-hammered copper kettles.In the 20th century, when demand for these collapsed, the townspeople, supported by government programs, started making a variety of other objects.

A National Copper Fair was started, and state-sponsored coppersmithing competitions began. Santa Clara de Cobre has a museum dedicated to copper working, where many of the prize-winning entries from previous years are displayed.

Further artistic and commercial impetus to Santa Clara copper came in the 1970s from American James Metcalf and his Mexican wife Ana Pellicer. Metcalf created the Olympic torch for the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games.

While most copper pieces are designed to be utilitarian, the number of decorative items has increased in recent decades, with many items incorporating other metals, stone and ceramics. Many of the workshops continue to employ traditional techniques; a single hand-crafted piece may take an entire month to make.

The economy of coppersmithing

About 82% of households in Santa Clara depend on copper working for their livelihood. The town has more than 300 workshops. Between them, they transform 450 tons of copper a year. In an average year, sales of copper items reach about 4 million dollars.

Smelting the copper in colonial times required large quantities of charcoal. Charcoal production contributed greatly to the region’s deforestation.

The industry depends on recycled copper wire and cable, which in some years includes imports from the USA. One of the great ironies of this is that American tourists now visit Santa Clara to buy back (admittedly at a much higher price and in a more artistic form) the same copper they once threw away.

When electricity was first brought to Santa Clara, it is said that the electric company had a hard time keeping the lines functioning as they were often stolen to be hammered into copper posts and pans for the next market day.

Curiosity

Perhaps Santa Clara’s most famous son is J. Jesús Pérez Gaona, better known as “Pito Pérez”. Born in 1867, he began studying to be a priest, but never completed his studies. He then became a clerk, a drunkard and—mainly—a wonderful dreamer. He was immortalized in Rubén Romero’s great work, “La vida inútil de Pito Pérez” (The useless life of Pito Pérez), later turned into a movie.

Mexico’s mining sector is analyzed in chapter15 of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico. Buy your copy of this invaluable reference guide today!