TRAVELSWITHTRAVIS – MICHOACAN – DOMINGO DE RAMOS CRAFTS FAIR
By Travis M. Whitehead
Monitor Staff Writer
URUAPAN – Marsha Burns couldn't get enough of the images surrounding her at the Domingo de Ramos Crafts Fair.
''It's so outstanding! It just makes you feel good. We just love it!''
The 50-year-old Huntington Beach, Calif., resident and her neighbor, Frances Bauer, had stopped in front of some glistening ''pineapple'' pottery produced by an artisan from San Jose de Gracia, but that was just one of the numerous crafts awaiting her discovery at the fair in Plaza Morelos in Uruapan. With the crafts fair, competition, parade of artisans, Purhepecha Food Show, and numerous musical performances, the Domingo de Ramos celebration in Michoacan’s second largest city is reputed to be one of the biggest – if not the biggest – in Latin America; it is Michoacan’s biggest crafts fair and competition, with the Dia de los Muertos fair in Patzcuaro running a close second.
Burns’ enthusiasm for the arts and crafts set up across the plaza was understandable. The images throughout the fair, reflections of fragmented dreams struggling for identity, materialized on clay pots, danced across cotton dresses, and crashed into plates, pitchers, and bowls in a glorious playground of creativity.
There were clay pots from Huancito with Doberman, bulldog and parrots heads; cotton dresses with elaborate needlepoint from Cheran; from Uruapan came the famous maque, or lacquerware, with bright red flowers dancing across black backgrounds; shining vessels from Santa Clara del Cobre forged from discarded scrap copper; toys and wooden trucks from Pamatacuaro.
The crafts fair was an awakening of the senses, a rebirth of identity, a rediscovery of hidden recesses of the soul where the powerful incense of imagination transmitted a wave of tangible passion into the physical world. A color, a stitch of fabric, earth metamorphosed into art, opened doorways where the fragrance of forgotten memory spilled into the sunlight of consciousness; it was a pupated monarch butterfly curled up in the cave of its iridescent chrysalis suddenly released into the Savage Garden of enlightened senses.
Locked away in the shadowy realms of the subconscious, they now became flavors with taste, smells christened with fragrance, pictures radiating with color. The artisans had spent endless hours in their workshops deciphering the language of their souls, and the revelations of their own discoveries revealed a consciousness stripped clean of the illusions of memory, free to explore the boundless ranges of their visual dialect. Now they had gathered to show what they’d learned, and how they’d used that knowledge.
I found myself at once a refugee from the dissipating rages of deliberate action, struggling to unravel my own shifting dreams that yearned for realization. I began to relax as I shook off the burdens of mediocrity, the passion of the crafts fair invading my own worn-out longings, exhausted routines, and spent hopes.
I was delighted to find so many people who also appreciated the intoxicating power of the crafts show, people like Sandie Alden of London who currently lives in nearby Patzcuaro. She had just been looking at the pottery from Ocumicho and was now admiring the goods from Huancito across the aisle.
''Because I live here, I have an idea of what will be here,'' she said, explaining that she, her Mexican husband, and several other Patzcuaro residents endeavour to support local artisans.''We look for quality,'' she said. ''There's something from Ocumicho I quite like, which is a dragon with a mermaid on the top.''She looked over the goods from Huancito, with its distinctive red clay appearance, and smiled.''I like these very much,'' she said. ''I love straightforward barro.''
Carlos Magana Lorenzo, one of the Huancito artisans, looked intently at a clay vase as he gently ran a brush over its surface, the stroke exuding a treasure of sparkling maroon that took the form of an apple. His wife Juana Aparicio Cipriano, 24, worked on another piece beside him, stopping occasionally to cradle their infant who lolled about her lap in a blue jumper; the 25-year-old Magana, his short black hair looking as though it were spiked, daubed his magic wand into a bowl of yellow and showered golden leaves onto the vase around a cluster of grapes poised between two watermelon slices; they joined the juicy mangoes and strawberries in the cornucopia of fruit parading across the piece.
He grasped the neck of the pitcher a moment and scratched his head before setting the piece aside, then removed the paint-stained shirt he used for a rag to protect his black slacks. He picked up a cup and began painting again, leaning carefully over as he became more absorbed in his work, his loose-fitting blue shirt well clear of the danger.
''I have been doing this since I was 10 years old,” he said. “I can make six in one day. My grandparents taught me. I like everything about it.''
Carlos said he and his wife heat their pots between 8 a.m. and 11 a.m.
''We take them out and clean them, check them to make sure they don't have any defects.''
Surprisingly, Carlos didn’t really know how hot he heated his kiln. ''I just keep putting more wood until it's hot enough,'' he says. ''I can just tell when it's hot enough.''
At the end of the aisle from where Carlos and Juan worked, Florentina Rafael, of Ocumicho, and her family had set up their own creations on a tarp near the busy street; red and blue devil masks with delirious eyes and piercing horns stared at the passing crowds, along with birds, men on horseback and a two-tailed mermaid in a basket.
Nearby, the sound of a scraper slicing shards of ice for cold drinks cut through the wet sound of rubber chewing on asphalt. Vendors throughout the plaza sold nance fruit, garbanzos, mame fruit, and macadamia nuts, while children rushed up to sell “palmas” the woven palm leaves so popular on Palm Sunday. A man in a beige guayabera bought potato chips from a young woman pushing a blue cart. She also sold twisting slices of chicharrones and curling snaky charritos, while a row of men do a brisk business shining shoes.
Florentina's daughter, Antonia, leaned her head against her hands and spoke to her mother, her droopy eyes revealing a moment of fatigue while her son sat in Florentina's lap playing a video game, the grandmother’s finger’s interlocked about his waist. Antonia's teenage daughter, Lupita Estrella, sat nearby doing homework, knocking her knuckles against her head before suddenly knodding emphatically and writing a stubborn answer on paper.
Florentina seemed to be at an admirable peace as she watched the crowds go by. She sat beside the clay images of maidens in flowered dresses, black-faced birds, images of the Virgin Mary, crucifixes, and devils driving cars her family have created.
Sitting directly in front of a red devil – with teeth bared and pink tongue hanging viciously out while riding a delirious elephant – was a depiction of The Last Supper. Only in this particular account, the twelve disciples were topless mermaids, each holding a banana. The Christ figure was also a topless mermaid but wore a crown and held a cup.
Antonia said it took her two days to mold the entire work.
“The hardest part was the bodies around the table. We made the base first.”
The charge was about $35.
The smells of grilling chicken, bistek, and nopalitos emanated from a vendor a few feet away, floated down the alley past Carlos Magana, and collided with the eggs and steaming menudo emboldened with chile ancho, onions and garlic prepared by Jaime Leon and his family.
Jaime and his family own and operate a café a couple of blocks away; however, he frequently turns the business over to a his sister-in-law and moves his wife Sylvia Lepe, and their two boys, Marvin and Matthew, frequently to California where he works in a factory building air conditioning systems.
They had set up their operations this morning next to a small stall where the family of Angel Cuin Juarez of Cuanajo sold colorful hand-carved furniture. Cuin wasn’t there, but his two daughters were manning the station, and Marvin, 9, jumped in to translate at every opportunity. He exhibited an infectious enthusiasm for language, as well as for the chance to spend time with the two girls, Blanca Margarita, 12, and Cintia Hiridion, 9.
Blanca Margarita, with a complexion of deep roasted coffee beans burned into her skin by the sun of her heritage, had busied herself around her station. She had already stepped around the corner to the Leons’ food stand to purchase a bowl of menudo in a Styrofoam cup. Taking her sat back at her small station, she’d leaned over to scoop a spoonful into her mouth, then rolled up a tortilla, dipped it into the watery, spicy mixture, then bit off a mouthful. She’d looked frequently at the 3 or four year old lingering nearby before finally handing him a tortilla.
Now Blanca was finished eating, and with Marvin’s eager help she explained that she had painted many of the items for sale.
''It was hard to paint this because it has a lot of little things,'' he translated for her as she pointed to a colgador of cantaloupe, papaya, and grapes spilling from a basket.
But this was just one of many treasures waiting to pass on a delightful new personality to any home. More colgadores depicted sunflowers rushing from a basket and kissing parrots, and napkin holders – servilleteras – were aptly carved with images of apples and watermelons. The wood had been caressed into an image of polished stone worn smooth by hours of relentless labor. A sun, with bold unblinking eyes, creeped out of the face of a demure, unblinking moon, its thick yellow rays, speckled with faint suggestions of orange, radiating toward a ribbon of moonlight wrapping itself around the image like a protective embrace.
These pieces combining art and utility covered a carved table I couldn’t see, but the chairs lingering around the table gave me a good idea of its appearance; a captivating cobalt blue glistens on the frames, and a woman’s sweeping curves cast waves that echo through the cluster of calla lilies rising like a fountain, the red and yellow stamens lit like a fire against the snow white blooms. The woman sits with her back to the viewer, her braids falling across a blouse whose striking blue matches the frames.
''This is a lot easier, it takes like an hour,'' she said, referring to the napkin holders. Pointing to another piece, this time of a parrot with bold red head and tranquil splashes of deep blue across its shoulders, with fleeting streamers of red, green and blue cascading toward the ground, she said, ''I like this the best. It has bigger things.''
Blanca's nine-year-old niece, Cintia Hiridian, had left for a moment, and now returned with a red-eared turtle she'd bought at a nearby market. All three children and the youngster from the next stall over made quite a fuss over the turtle. Cintia brought a cup of water to replace the plastic bag. The girls' father, Juan, came by a little later and said his son did most of the carving work.
''Juan carved just about everything here, and she painted it,” said Juan Sr., a short, stocky powerful man with a severe jaw line and sharp features, looking at Blanca who sat with quiet reservation in a chair. He knodded enthusiastically, speaking with a biting energy as he spoke about his children's work. Cintia has also been getting involved in the activity, painting some of the napkin holders.
''I am very proud they are carrying on the tradition,'' he said.
They all work together in a small shop at the family home in Cuanajo, and he remembered with precision how long each child spent on a piece. ''It took Juan five hours to carve the calla lilies in the basket,” he said. “It took her (Blanca) four hours to paint it. It took me four days to carve the table, and it took her five days to paint the table. It took her one day to paint each chair.''
I found Florentina later sitting in a chair doing needlepoint. Her thick fingers carefully pushed the needle into the cloth, then pulled the thread out and away. She looked down at her work, heavy eye pockets shadowing her eyes as her heavy lips slowly opened and then closed.
Meanwhile, a little girl stopped, knelt down and gazed in wonder at a clay girl hanging from the mouth of a horned oxen, a brown smiling devil herding sheep, and the clay lizards on the ground. Florentina got up, put the chair away and placed some cardboard on the ground where she sat back down, carefully folding the green dresses and butterscotch apron around her before continuing with her needlepoint. She leaned over and her face broke into a big smile, the thin wrinkles playing a hidden melody as she spoke in Purepecha to her daughter and granddaughter. I asked if she’d sold much.
She shrugged as she broke into a huge smile and said, ''Sometimes yes, sometimes no.''
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