Saturday, March 24, 2007

MORELIA - Casa de las Artesanias - Story

If you want to get a feel for Michoacan's diversity, take a stroll through the Casa De Las Artesanias - House of the Artisans.

Walking in, you feel like you're shopping in a museum. Located in the Church of St. Francis on the Plaza Valladolid, its rooms are filled with copper ware from Santa Clara de Cobre, pottery from Ocumicho, guitars from Paracho, carved tables and chairs, dresses and wooden chests carved with flowers, all in bright shades of sea-green, ruby red and sky blue, a perfect reflection of Mexico's rich color. Obviously, some villages have defined themselves by developing their own particular technique.

When I first visited the Casa De Las Artesanias in October 2001, I was dazzled by rooms filled with silver bird jewelry from Lake Patzcuaro, red masks with snakes and horns from Uruapan, Tocuaro and other regions of Michoacan, and shiny black plates with leaves, flowers and birds in bold colors of red, green and blue.

Skeletons were dressed in vivid color, bringing life to the specter of death in recognition of Dia De Los Muertos, one of Mexico's most important holidays. Later visits to this marvelous place evealed numerous changes, indicating that it is a progressive enterprise, not stationary by any means.

To get to the Casa De Las Artesanias, I cross Plaza Valladolid, a spacious plaza of large rectangular blocks with rough steps and smooth stone benches. A large, three-tiered fountain with a cross at the top spews water into a large pool while children feed pigeons or snack on cotton candy from a vendor.

A young man squinting in the dim light carries an enormous stick with balloons shaped like Winnie-the-Pooh and other figures. A woman with the look of a young child in her eyes buys a green balloon; the vendor gets change from a nearby stand selling lottery tickets. "Gracias," says the woman with the green balloon as she takes her change and rushes to a waiting car.

The Church of St. Francis provides a soothing backdrop to the scene, providing a pastel of cast shadow that moves like the ripples of a quiet lake across the plaza.

The church was founded as a monastery in 1531 in the Valley of Guayangareo before Valladolid was founded 10 years later; the monastery covered several city blocks. The area of the plaza at the time was the churchyard and served as a cemetery until the late 1800s. The cemetery has since been moved.

On this particular trip in March 2005, I pass a woman selling Oaxacan tamales outside the door to the Casa; inside the store, surrounded by the distinctive craftsmanship from throughout the state, I become rather intrigued by their stories. Some of the glazed pottery has a peculiar beaded quality I can't recall seeing before, and the shop has plates with floral and animal designs made in the maque technique, a pre-Columbian craft which uses a mixture of oil from the axe insect and dolomia just spread over a wooden surface such as a bowl. Colored patterns are then placed on the surface in successive layers; each applied color takes a week to dry.

I'd like to know more about these crafts. Who made them? Where were they made? And how? After inquiring at the front desk of the visitors center, where they sell cassette tapes, videos and other items, I am directed upstairs where I meet Trinidad Martinez Garcia. Trinidad lived for several years in Sacramento, and I am thankful to meet someone who could explain, in English, the arts and crafts of Michoacan.

The pineapples, she says, referring to the strange beaded pots, are made in San Jose de Gracia. The artisans have a mold and they sort of pinch the pots to create the beaded pattern. It's a pre-Hispanic tradition.

Each of the towns have their own artisans. The Casa, she says, was founded about 36 years ago to support Michoacan's native craftsmanship; many of the villages around Lake Patzcuaro and other areas of this state were giving up their crafts because there was no money in it, and they were moving to the cities where many were forgetting their culture.

Casa de las Artesanias now promotes the survival of these ancient traditions by purchasing native crafts and selling them either here or in other shops in the United States, South America, and other parts of Mexico.

These are ancient Indian traditions, just a few of the many practices that define Michoacan's diversity, and that diversity is celebrated at Casa de las Artesanias. Numerous festivals are held throughout the year in numerous villages; the two main events are held in Patzcuaro for Day of the Dead in late October and early November, and on Palm Sunday in Uruapan.

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