Saturday, December 5, 2009



By Travis M. Whitehead
PATZCUARO - The crucified Christ figure, smooth as marble over its fragile frame of corn stalks, looked tragically through distant eyes, dismal ripples of blood dripping from the wounds crafted into the pasta de caña de maiz image by Beatriz Ortega Ruiz. The emerald plumes of a quetzal, painted by Beatriz with the lacas perfilada en oro process into a red batea, sailed through a flowered jungle radiant with cobalt blue flowers, violet blossoms, and arched verdant leaves lined with ribbons of gold. Blue and pink flowers surrounded a group of Viejitos waiting for the next song, their story inscribed into the wooden plate by Beatriz's husband, Mario Augustin Gaspar Rodriguez, who created the piece through a pre-Hispanic process called maque.

This husband and wife team has labored for years to keep a part of Michoacan's artistic heritage alive. They both know how to do maque, a pre-Hispanic form of lacquer ware; lacas perfilada en oro (roughly translated as lacquer ware trimmed in gold), a contemporary method using industrial oil paints to create images on wooden plates; and pasta de caña, another technique in use when the Spaniards arrived about 500 years ago. Beatriz, 57, and her husband have each found their niche in one of the three techniques.

Beatriz, a thick mound of hair rolling away from a friendly, resolute face, devotes most of her time to creating laca pieces to support the family while she does pasta de caña on the side and Mario works on his maque projects. Beatriz, who won first place for her pasta de caña at Patzcuaro's Concurso de Noche de Muerto (Day of the Dead Crafts Competition) in 2000 and second place at the same contest in 2008, helps Mario by collecting and formulating the natural dyes for the maque, and he helps prepare her materials for the corn stalk art.

"I married him, and I started helping him in the workshop. This kind of work, it has to be a family work. It's so hard to do that the whole family is involved, crushing the earth, getting the oil."

Maque work requires the use of oil extracted from seeds of the chia plant. That oil is mixed with a substance extracted from aje, an insect found throughout Mexico and Central America. Locally, aje is found in Michoacan's Tierra Caliente region.

Mario's and Beatriz's four children have learned the family traditions by helping their parents. "They are learning because they are helping. They know how to do it, but for me and my husband, we want them to study something else. We want our family to study what we couldn't."

Mario's and Beatriz's 22-year-old daughter, Erandi Gaspar Ortega, spends a great deal of time in the family workshop learning her parents' secrets and building her own legacy.

"I like to be here watching them work. When I was little, I came here and I was bored," said Erandi, dressed in jeans and a tasseled top. The boredom obviously subsided long ago. After studying cultural tourism for a year at the University of Morelia, a private university, she returned to Patzcuaro to study art and cultural patrimony at the Universidad Indigena Intercultural de Michoacan, a free public institution.

"They will teach me the culture of Michoacan, the sculpture of the indigenous pueblos, their handcrafts. It will take four years and we will study everyday from 8 to 2. I will dedicate myself to doing this kind of work." She also studies Purepecha on Saturdays.

Beatriz, originally from Erongaricuaro, has spent much of her life learning the state's cultural legacy.

“It has helped me to live better. The fact that I didn’t study anything, and I learned to make this, gives me the opportunity to have an income and have enough money for my kids and family.”

On another day, she fastidiously placed golden flourishes through a spray of wings rushing from a lustrous peacock, one of her many original laca designs, in the workshop where she and Mario create their crafts; this visual delicatessen was one of many in the Casa de los Once Patios around the corner from Plaza de Vasco de Quiroga. Brushes dangled from a cup on a desk cluttered with polished wooden plates the color of cherry and warm honey; a window with wooden doors near Mario's work area opened onto a street trimmed with terracotta roofs and cobblestone streets. The smell of wet streets from the afternoon rain drifted into the shop and insinuated themselves into the acrid tang of paint emanating from Beatriz's work.

Mario, his thick salt and pepper hair falling toward the blue denim enshrouding his robust frame, worked on the wine-colored underside of a three-foot-wide batea nearing completion after almost two years of scrupulous, patient labor.

Mario's maque and Beatriz's pasta de caña would not be possible without Beatriz's laca.

"I have to do another job besides the pasta de caña. We have to do other work because we can't live from this work (pasta de caña and maque)," Beatriz said. Her colorful laca images, crafted onto wooden plates, burst into the store adjoining the workshop, cutting the shadowy light with images of a red cardinal perched on pink-thronged branches; delicate red roses and white calla lilies firing a radiant luminescence across black landscapes; a hummingbird with outstretched wings diving into a red hibiscus.

Her passion for pasta de caña de maiz, a lost art for many years until rediscovered in the early 1990s, showed throughout her shop. A blank face forged in the ancient technique stared up from a glass counter next to a box full of hands and a woman's body with the flutes of corn stalks flowing down like the folds of an elegant dress. Two other polished faces lay nearby with the individual stalks cut off at the neck like ruptured tendons and jugulars. The craft gives her a welcome reprieve from the laca.


Beatriz spends long tedious hours stamping glimpses of her imagination into polished wooden plates using industrial oil colors. "When I work, I just imagine them. I am doing little flowers, then I have another idea and put something else. I don't keep drawings." She had walked into the store now and looked up at a large batea with a wilderness of colorful blooms arranged in artistic disorder.

"These are very traditional designs. These designs everybody does. It has been done for many years."

However, artisans also create their own designs. "For example," she said. "This design -" She looked at a plate with steep golden triangles spinning around a center of diamonds and gilded drapes. "I designed it. I am the only one who does it."

Her husband learned to do laca after studying the maque process, and that's how she picked up the art. From that initiation, she has developed her own style; she continuously strives to extend the boundaries of her imaginary landscape.

"I don't like to repeat the designs. I like to invent, to think. I like to think freely. Even if I try doing something alike, I can't." This sometimes collides with the realities of running a business and abiding by the requests of her customers. "Sometimes they ask me to do 20 of the same thing, and then I feel bored. I do it, but it feels boring."

Such painfully detailed work can take its toll, and pasta de caña provides a welcome diversion. "With laca, my eyes get tired."


Pasta de caña has an intriguing history. When the Spaniards arrived in this area of Mexico, they encountered the local Purepecha Indians using the technique to create images of their gods; they used human or animal blood and other natural pigments, and they also decorated their pieces with natural human hair.

"By order of Don Vasco (Vasco de Quiroga), they made the first Virgins (images of the Virgin Mary)," Beatriz explained. "They wanted so many virgins, because there were so many churches." While the Purepechas used the maque technique to decorate their pasta de caña images, the Spaniards started painting them with oils. "They made wigs for the Christ figures. They say the Purepechas put their gods inside the Christs or Virgins. So they cheated the Spanish people, because they thought they were adoring the Christ figures but they were adoring the god hidden inside. When the Spanish discovered that, they asked the Indian people to leave a space inside for their treasures, so they hid treasure in there."

The specifics of pasta de caña de maiz, named for the paste used in one of the steps, had evaporated from common memory until a project was launched to rescue the technique. Beatriz explained that researchers from the University of Michoacan analyzed a piece of old pasta de caña sculpture in the 1990s to determine the ingredients used to create the images. Once they discovered the substances involved, Beatriz and other artisans interested in reviving the technique learned the process, and she has practiced the craft ever since. She and her husband maintain their own cornfield from which they harvest the cornstalks for the pasta de caña de maiz. They use only the criollo strain of corn, because that is the variety used traditionally in this area.

"First we cut it, peel it, make a selection, put it in the order by size," Beatriz said. "When we peel it, we select the pieces and stick them together with the juice of the nopal for glue, and put the string around it."

This initial step merely binds the number of corn stalks necessary for the sculpture. The collective piece is then allowed to dry, and the length of time necessary varies according to the climate. After the grouping of stalks has dried, Beatriz carves the piece into the desired form.After carving the image, she makes the pasta de caña, a paste of ground corn stalk, fig leaves, orchid bulbs, and other natural ingredients. Historically, some elements differed according to the plants in various Indian communities, Beatriz said. She covers the images with her mixture, which also includes plants such as the Santa Maria and the chipiri (chupiri) that act as natural repellents against animals and insects.

Afterwards, she uses an additional paste if she's going to paint the piece with oils. The paste, called pasta estuco, is made of rabbit skin and blanco de España, a light, porous material composed primarily of dolomite chalk. She washes the fur, and once it has decomposed to a certain degree she grinds it and turns the substance into a glue that she adds to the blanco de España. The mixture is then placed over the image before she paints the piece with oil colors. Once again, after applying the paste, Beatriz must allow the substance to dry before she can apply the paint.

"When I put the paste, you can't touch it for awhile. If I use industrial glue, it will dry in a day. With natural glue, you have to wait awhile. It depends on the climate. If it's in the rainy seas6n, because of the humidity, it takes longer. If it's hot, it's quicker. Right now, I have many pieces I have started. I have to wait because of the humidity." She prefers using the natural glue to maintain the integrity of the pre-Hispanic process.

Beatriz was currently working on an image of the Virgen de la Salud - Virgin of Health, Patzcuaro's patron saint; the image wore a long blue cape and would eventually take its place on a mount against the wall. Beatriz was decorating her with maque.

"The maque lasts longer. Maque was used 500 years before Christ. We try to do it just the way the people in pre-Hispanic times did. We are trying to keep doing it this way, like in pre-Hispanic times, to preserve the technique. These are the roots of the Purepecha people."For Beatriz, the most difficult part of this technique is keeping the proportions of human anatomy correct. "Maybe if I had studied sculpture - " she commented with wistful resignation. "Sometimes I have to do it over."

Erandi, she said, shows promise of pursuing the family's artistic heritage.

"She's learning sculpture and she's learning how to do the pasta de caña. I think my daughter likes it a lot."

Erandi had the workshop to herself late one morning as she painstakingly applied bits of clay to a figure braced against two sticks; the image slowly materialized into a crouching ball player.

"This is just the practice to do the pasta de caña,”she said, the sounds of traffic drifting through the window, the thin scent of aje and chia oil hovering in the workshop.

“I like to do the sculpture, like my parents,” continued Erandi. “I feel very fortunate to have parents that know how to do handcrafts. All my life I have done little things, heads, little dishes. I would like to do the same religious figures."

She recently sold a piece before it was even finished, a pasta de caña image of the Virgin's head looking up from a plate; she didn't even get a chance to paint the work.

"I didn't have time," said the young artisan, her smoothly contoured bronze face breaking into a smile that revealed braces.

"I was making it and a client came and loved it."

Erandi's involvement in pasta de caña will certainly require great diligence and commitment - this craft is no small affair. On a previous visit, Beatriz looked up at the tall, commanding figure of the crucified Christ with his head falling over his chest, thorns gouging his bloodied forehead. She spent two years completing the work, and she had no plans of selling it.

"That Christ is the first one I did. They will never pay what I put into it. It takes time to do Christ figures."


Her husband, Mario, also spends long tedious hours on his maque projects, which include both maque with incrustations - pieces with intricate designs carved into the surface and filled with color, aje and chia - and maque with gold, like the luminous flourishes surrounding a plate with a ship sailing across a sea of blue, its red banners billowing so vividly viewers could almost hear their flap-flap-flapping in the wind.

His maque work filled their workshop and store. Flowers showered over the side of a blue pot; a bright green batea was bedecked with yellow flourishes suggesting a flurry of untamed leaves and flowers diving in all directions.

"My husband makes wonderful bateas with different earths," Beatriz said. "He's won lots of awards. He's been to Spain, Venezuela, Guatemala and Chicago."

Mario, 58, has had a love affair with maque most of his life and has also won numerous awards. "When I was a little boy, I learned to do maque. My primary teacher knew how to do it. I began to go to his house to work with him, help him, whatever he asked me to do. So little by little, I began to learn."

As a child, he didn’t at first value the importance of his work.

“Now as time has passed by I realized my work is very unique, very different from others because I can create things and it’s a job I have here every day. I don’t have to check in at a certain hour. If I want to work 7 a.m. – 11 p.m., it’s OK. Or two or three hours, it’s alright. The work I think is very different. I love my work.”

His mother, a teacher, wanted Mario to enter the same profession. He tried it for awhile but it didn’t appeal to him. “I worked in a school for awhile and it felt like a jail because it was small. I didn’t want to go so long. This work I can work until two or three in the morning, and it doesn’t seem like I am working that much because I like what I am doing.”

Three sisters did become teachers; his youngest sister married an artisan in Santa Clara del Cobre. Mario’s brother used to help him with his maque but he eventually studied to become a dentist. However, the equipment for opening a practice was prohibitively expensive, so he moved to the United States and now works in a post office.

A project begins with Mario mixing oil extracted from the seeds of the chia plant with oil from the aje insect and rubbing the mixture into the base of a gourd or of wood, usually aile or cirimo. Wood is boiled to remove resins that could warp the wood.

One early afternoon, he rummaged through a serious of containers before finding one filled with a blue anil powder that he placed on a table. He poured aje and chia oil into a small bowl and began the slow process of rubbing the oil into the inside of a ribbed gourd, then dipping a wad of cloth into the anil and tapping it lightly on the surface. He then used his palm and fingers to rub the anil into the surface. After a few minutes, he added more of the blue powder, daubed small amounts of oil, and rubbed it all together, the rich indigo blue spreading like a royal blanket across the gourd. He would spend about two hours working on the underside of the gourd, and then he would let it dry for 22 days before repeating the process on the outside.

Some people use linseed oil, he said, but this doesn’t work as well.

“Linseed, it’s not the same quality,” Mario said. “Chia oil has the properties of making the piece that you can put water on it and nothing will happen. Linseed oil doesn’t have that. The chia oil has been used since pre-Hispanic ages. Chia is the inheritance. It’s the importance of giving the piece the quality it deserves.”

He’s developed his own style through the years.

"Each one has his particular style of work. When we learn, we learn what the teacher tells, but when the time passes, you get your own style. I can tell by looking at the piece who made it because I know how every artisan makes the maque."

Some designs he puts on a piece of paper and pulls them out as needed. Others simply reveal themselves in his imagination.

The artisan works slowly through each step, abiding time's deliberate pace as his art slowly awakens on the large bateas, some of which can take years to complete. He had worked on another three-foot batea with red scalloped edges for three years, during which time he'd adorned the piece with dashes of brown and yellow that now fired in all directions - dark purple and cherry red flourishes appeared and dissipated across the piece. Stylized flowers with sharp edges cut into the work with ecstatic shades of violet and geranium pink. He still needed to carve images from the outlines of Lake Patzcuaro and Isla Janitzio residing in three circles across the middle of the batea. When he finished, he planned to charge 50,000 pesos, about $5,000 USD.

The piece with the wine-colored underside on which he currently labored still required some small herons that would join the serrated outlines of black and burnt red flowers, willowy black lines with leaflets cutting away, and deer prancing across a light, cream-colored surface. This was the second time he'd made a batea with this composition. "The first one, I was asked to do it. That one was oil painted. This one has incrustations. I am just doing it for pleasure. Now the people that see it, they are interested. I have two people who want it. I am almost finished." This one will have a price tag of about $4,000 USD.

Mario has done pasta de caña in the past and he enjoyed the craft, but maque exerted a stronger pull on his soul.

"I have so much work in maque, and I don't have the ability to do pasta de caña like my wife. I am very slow to do the proportions and figures. She does it quick. It's easy for her to do that work. I have done Christs in maque, and it's a wonderful experience. When it's finished, it's warm, it's like a real person."

His maque work would never have had a chance to reveal itself if not for the laborious attention from Beatriz who helps obtain the colors, all of which are natural. The blue anil he spread into the gourd is found in many areas of the world, including Michoacan's Tierra Caliente region.

"That plant has to be fermented to get its color," Beatriz said. "When you want to ferment it, you have to put it in a big tank. They put it in water, and afterwards they pay people to chew cheese and spit it into the water. Thirty people chew the cheese, and it stays there for many days to ferment well."

An alternate method of obtaining the natural dye from añil entails fermenting the plant with chicken feet and banana peelings, she said.

"When the plant is fermented, they take out the sticks and twigs from the plant, and they put it on a manta and hang it to drain. When it's dry, it's like this." She picked up a compacted chunk of dark indigo lying beneath a glass cover with other natural colors for visitors' inspection. "It's a very dark color, so you can put different kinds of white to get different blues." She acquires green by adding zempasuchitl, an orange flower placed around graves during Day of the Dead. That flower also gives up its yellow colorations for use in maque. Soil from Tocuaro, a town distinguished for its wooden mask makers, turns a brilliant orange when it comes into contact with chia oil.

"This oil they don't sell it, I have to do it. When we have 20 kilos of seed, you make one liter of oil. When the seed is old, we have to grind 40 kilos to get one liter of oil."

She picked up a small bowl of chia oil mixed with aje sitting on her husband's workbench next to a larger bowl of light orange powder from the Cerro Colorado region of Michoacan. A fine mist of purple powder blanketed a metate where it had been ground from cochinilla, obtained from an insect found on the nopal. The extract yields a rainbow of tones ranging from bright red to lavender and ponderous purple, depending on the addition of other colors. She pointed to a gourd with a milky wine color.

"To get this color, you add cow urine to the cochinilla."


Cochineal and cow urine are just two of the many curious pairings that comprise the Michoacan experience. The state's diversity has bestowed a notable legacy on the lives of its many inhabitants, and people like Mario and Beatriz have absorbed that legacy and developed it into a powerful inheritance which they bequeath to their many admirers; through their industrious creativity, that legacy has evolved into a multitude of intense manifestations through which their art communicates itself. Their journeys through the world of pasta de caña and maque, financed by Beatriz's laca work, help insure that Michoacan will continue for many years its own odyssey through the universe of the imagination.

Saturday, July 4, 2009



By Travis M. Whitehead
COCUCHO - Her bold hands coaxed the thread through the cotton, relinquishing a fragment of the kaleidoscopic hues within her soul to cavort freely across the white landscape. The joints of her fingers moving with a tender dexterity, 84-year-old Hermelinda Reyes Ascencio pulled the filament through the material surrounding a needlepoint flower radiant with shades of violet, magenta, and lavender. She looked closely at the aqua and maroon forms stirring on the empty background, the seasons of her life written in artful prose across her face.

"I enjoy all of it from start to finish," said Hermelinda in her granddaughter Elena's yard as she worked on a guanengo. Her face occasionally broke into a thin, placid smile as she nudged the flowers into existence, courageously bringing the field of nothingness to the edge of a sheer cliff where it dove into a delicious exuberance of color. "The flowers are the most difficult. When I make the flowers, I can put the leaves in place. I make the flowers, and then I can fill the rest in." She spoke with the soft consonants and pinched whispers of her native Purepecha as her grandson Heraclio Reyes Remigio, 35, translated into English. Hermelinda doesn't speak Spanish, only Purepecha.

Cocucho, noted for its elegant clay pots, has also earned a reputation for its needlepoint artisans. I discovered this additional aspect of the town during a visit to Paracho a few days before the annual guitar festival in August 2008 when I ran into Juana Alonso Hernandez. She was doing some needlepoint with her comadre, Catalina Blas, after they had set up a station in the patio of the Casa de la Cultura to sell their Cocuchas. Elena Reyes Remigio, 26, had already set up her station nearby to sell her needlepoint. They invited me to visit them after the feria, and I eagerly accepted.

Arriving in Cocucho on a late Thursday morning, I first visited Juana's house, then went up the street a few blocks to the main square around noon where I purchased much-needed batteries for my digital camera at a small store. A stone cross stood on the main road through town, facing Templo de San Bartolome. The church wore a stone facade and scalloped parapet and loudspeakers clustered around a smaller cross on top; a road led away from the church toward Nurio.

A line of buildings wrapped around two sides of the plaza enclosing raised planting areas with
benches and leafy trees. The entrance to Elena's home stood recessed against a stone wall beneath brick arches. Elena met me at the door, and I entered a wooden entryway into a long vestibule of concrete-covered brick. A girl shouted commands from a nearby home, a muffled voice blared from a loudspeaker. Ears of corn hung from a long rope across the top of the left wall to dry before being ground into nixtamal for the upcoming Fiesta de San Bartolome in late August. Elena's six-year-old boy, Jesus Adain, dashed about in a pair of camouflage jeans.

Elena had several projects in the midst of completion, one of them a camisa de hombre - men's shirt, with panels of light blue and swirling black lines ending in bulbous Xs. She was also working on a guanengo adorned with violet blooms and green stems trailing across a reddish orange background. A needle dragging a length of thread in its wake lay impaled in mid-flight through a section of the fabric ensconced in an aro, - hoop.

The greatest challenge in the craft, Elena said, presents itself when she forms the borders for the different panels of color. "You have to count how many lines, and then you start making the flowers," said Elena, who prefers making guanengos, although she does make aprons, servilletas, and rebozos.

"That's what we're used to making," said Elena. "I enjoy putting the colors together."

Like many artisans, she prefers not using the same design twice. "We just make one design and then start with a new one. No two are alike, unless someone comesand asks for it."

Her brother, a husky fellow in dusty jeans and black jersey, had now arrived at the house, taking a break from his construction job to translate the interview and explain the needlepoint technique; he even showed some drawings of designs he made for his family to transform into needlepoint. He'd learned English while living in Portland, Oregon for 10 years, where he'd eventually worked as a line cook and earned his GED before returning to Mexico, now fluent in English as well as Spanish and Purepecha.

His grandmother, Hermelinda, soon entered the vestibule, moving with a tranquil grace in her pink lace-trimmed dress. She took a seat in the sun-drenched garden where her hands, defying the pestilence of time, awakened another piece of fabric from its slumber. The early afternoon sun skipped across the thick gray braids diving across her back; she wore a blouse rife with an ecstatic wonder of purple and lime green panels riddled with spinning wheels bathed in yellow stars and flame-tinted diamonds.

Typically, Heraclio explained, artisans purchase books of needlepoint designs that give the stitch
count so that they can follow the pattern. "She makes her own designs. A lot of people can't make their own designs, but she can. My grandmother, she started this when my mother was 18 years old."

Hermelinda learned to do needlepoint when her daughter decided to perform in a regional dance
competition. Her own mother, who had not pursued the craft as a livelihood, taught her the technique, and from that singular influence Hermelinda built a family legacy that has extended to her grandchildren.

"I am happy to do this," said his grandmother, looking up from the guanengo alive with flowers in fluttering tones of purple and blue romping about the material. "I feel more happy because I am the one who started this. I started making them in 1966."

What happened next provided the impetus to develop her skill into a livelihood. Her sister-in-law asked her to make some guanengos, then she sold them as her own in Uruapan and kept the money. Some of Hermelinda's friends saw this and reported back to her. Apparently, the woman had even won a contest with a guanengo made by Hermelinda.

Was Hermelinda especially angry? Was there a confrontation?

"No," Heraclio said. "She's my grandmother. She doesn't do like that."

Instead, Hermelinda made more guanengos and sold them herself in Uruapan and Guadalajara,
selling sometimes 20 at a time.

Guanengos are the most popular items for her customers. One guanengo, Heraclio said, requires three or four months to complete, and she'll only earn about $30 or $40.

"People here don't pay that much. Some American people come and pay a little bit more than people here."

Although Hermelinda still endows her pieces with a youthful energy, the years have prevented her from working the way she once did. She doesn't make rebozos anymore because the tassels, or rebasejos, around the hem have become too difficult. While she used to labor eight or nine hours a day, she now works only one or two hours.

While copious flourishes of orange, mauve, violet, magenta, deep ocean blue and opulent green rush in torrents across the guanengos of today, they haven't always commanded such a visual prominence.

"It was just like this," said Heraclio, holding up a miniature rebozo with simple black key work.

The more colorful designs arrived on the scene in the 1980s. "Things are changing, making flowers, having more color."

Heraclio's grandmother reached into her plastic bag and pulled out wads of purple, green, and aqua blue thread. Selecting some butterscotch that glistened in the sun, she began another leg of her journey through a patch of flowers that danced to the melody played by her fingers across the white meadow.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Beauty Amid Danger in Michoacan

Dear readers:
This is a column that ran in The Brownsville Herald on April 12.

By Travis M. Whitehead
The Brownsville Herald
URUAPAN — Francisco Barocio Jacobo and his wife, Maria, were having a good run.
On the second day of the Domingo de Ramos Crafts Fair in Uruapan, the second-largest city in the Mexican state of Michoacan, the young couple from the village of Capula had already made some significant sales of their clay Catrines and Catrinas, images of skeletons adorned in a variety of clothing. Their garb ranged from elegant evening gowns to sombreros and ammo belts. One image depicted a skeleton weeping as he held his dead fighting rooster.

I was glad Francisco and his lovely wife were enjoying good sales; I had wondered if some of the artisans would even show up for the fair this year after the media and native Michoacanos told me things were getting even more dangerous there. I had planned to drive from Brownsville to Michoacan, which is west of Mexico City, but I heeded their warnings and took a bus.

At one point I wondered if I should even go at all. Just before I left, a friend told me that more than six people had been killed in a shootout near the home where I had lived last year with a local family, and I now imagined a repeat of the Sept. 15 attack in downtown Morelia that had killed eight people and wounded more than 100.

However, my host family said no one had been killed in this more recent incident, and I learned later that the incident had involved an attack on a police officer’s house and had wounded four people, but no one had died. There had also been recent shootouts in other areas of the city with which I was familiar, and along nearby highways, and some native Michoacanos told me Uruapan was very dangerous, while some American expatriates told me it was no more dangerous than any other time.

None of the problems seemed to be on anyone’s mind as I strolled through the fair, and I felt charmed by the burst of colorful images arising all around me: textiles from Cocucho embroidered with colorful flowers; copperware from Santa Clara del Cobre; handcarved wooden furniture from Cuanajo; woven baskets and furniture from Ihuatzio — just to name a few.

Furthermore, there were plenty of shoppers strolling through the fair. Perhaps not as many as the artisans and I would have liked, but I did see some Americans, although I suspect many of them were expatriates living in Mexico. After I relaxed and began to enjoy myself, I regretted not driving my car. I would like to have purchased some larger Catrinas from Francisco and Maria, but I felt that returning by bus with anything larger than the two smaller figures I bought would risk breakage.

I was delighted to see my friends, David, his wife, and their two small boys, from the village of Cocucho. I had visited them last year in their home on several occasions and observed them making their elegant clay pots. He had a station at the fair, as did his mother, whom I met a little later.

"When did you get here?" asked his mother, Juana Alonso Hernandez, a delightful and inspiring Purepecha woman who makes pots, decorates blouses with needlepoint, and raises her own fighting roosters.

"This morning about 8 a.m.," I answered her.

"And you didn’t come by and visit me?" she chided good naturedly.

I then explained that I had arrived in Morelia at 8 a.m., and after arriving in Uruapan in mid-afternoon, I had passed through her area and had not see her. I came by and visited with her a little later and bought a guanengo, a cotton blouse with colorful needlepoint, which I planned to sell.

When I visited Juana again the following day, she didn’t look so good. Was she concerned about the violence in Michoacan? I wondered. I asked her how she was doing, and she pointed to her right cheek to indicate a throbbing toothache, which explained the small box of Ibuprofen next to her. Was the Ibuprofen doing any good?

She shook her head. I told her I was sorry she was feeling so poorly and hoped she felt better. I purchased one of her Cocucha pots, wishing I could have purchased more from her. Because I was traveling by bus, I couldn’t buy as much from Juana. I feared I would be one of many examples of lost sales, and I wondered if the lack of sales would add a cranky headache to Juana’s ills.

It's a pity that the criminal elements are causing such economic hardship to the artisans through lost sales. I would like to have purchased some reed baskets from my friend, Santiago, who lives in the village of Ihuatzio. I had visited him in his workshop last year, where he and his family make not only reed baskets but also rebozos and key chains. They also make gladiolus flowers from dyed corn husks.

Santiago looked strong and healthy as always, but just a few months ago he had been beaten so badly in Morelia that he had landed in the hospital. His attackers had stolen his day pack and the cell phone I’d bought him. I was saddened to hear of this attack on such a proud soul; although he’s in his 60s, he still has the thick stoutness of a younger man. He’s not someone I would expect to be a target of violence.

Santiago, however, appeared unfazed by the incident. We talked awhile about his family, about the fair. Everyone seemed to be doing fine; he invited me to dinner, but I had just eaten, and I vowed to take him up on his offer on another one of my many visits to fabulous Michoacan.

The reality is, yes, there is some danger, and visitors must be careful. It’s also the reality that many wonderful things are happening in Michoacan and the rest of Mexico, and I hear the same stories about muggings and shootings in the United States every day while I go about my business.

In my opinion, those who are creating problems in Mexico are receiving a great deal of attention, and it’s important that we also give publicity to those who are creating positive experiences in that grand nation. They outnumber by far the criminal elements there.

Monday, January 26, 2009


Dear readers:
Martin passed away suddenly on Jan. 27, 2009. I feel privileged to have known him and spent time with his family before he left us. Please keep his family in your thoughts and prayers.


Travis M. Whitehead

Martin works on a large laca plate with the
image of a droopy-eyed sun for a client from Spain.


Martin Andrade paints designs in mordente into a
laca plate.

Palm trees, a deer, and colorful flowers embellish
this small plate.

Martin painted a scene of Los Viejitos into this
batea. Isla Janitzio rises over Lake Patzcuaro in
the background.

Sunday, January 25, 2009


By Travis M. Whitehead
PATZCUARO - The droopy-eyed sun, shrouded in a golden mane of tempestuous fire, stares from the wine-tinted wooden laca (lacquerware) plate as butterflies traced in Italian gold struggle through a tangle of sunflowers and water lilies. They wait desperately, suspended in mid-transformation, for the paint to rush from Martin Andrade Rodriguez's brush and saturate them with the metallic technicolor fury adorning his plates, jewelry boxes, and lockets. Golden rays shoot from the delicate lips of fuschia-petaled blooms, bulbous flowers shimmer with warmth, monarch butterflies flutter above cobalt blue flowers and violet buds.

"I do it with my imagination. I don't draw my designs on paper like some people do," said the 52-year-old artisan, thick folds of flesh around his jawline broadening into frequent smiles, a powerful nose reaching toward his cheeks.

Lacas perfiladas en oro (roughly translated as lacquerware trimmed in gold), first arrived in Mexico from the Orient in the 1600s on ships making port calls in Acapulco. While those pieces were covered with motifs from the East, local artisans adapted the skill to their surroundings, covering the pieces with monarch butterflies, calla lilies, sunflowers, images of Los Viejitos, traditional foliage, and other impressions.

Martin, who began studying the craft at age 17, immediately impressed me with the liquid professionalism of his explanations. He spoke with the articulate flourishes of one who had given numerous presentations of his art. Martin's explorations with laca have taken him to Guatemala, Venezuela, Chicago, Sacramento, and New York. "I just do the drawing using a very fine brush. If I had the drawings, it would be easier and faster. But I think handicrafts should be more spontaneous. I have changed my designs, but I just see what the people like and try to improve. Every artisan has a different style, different colors, different designs. In the work of the artisan, they shouldn't steal the way they do it."

His wife Maria brought cold glasses of tangerine juice for myself and my companions, who included Trinidad Martinez Garcia from the Casa de las Artesanias - House of Handcrafts, returning to her kitchen where she prepared a mid-afternoon meal of beef, beans, and minced squash with onions and cream cheese; her skillfull compositions sent a chorus of delicious smells frolicking down the hall, heightening my senses as I explored the riotous jungle of images that had escaped from Martin's imagination into his work. Outside the door, Yeri the family dog dozed beneath an arbor covered with yellow campanitas flowers, red arteries of color reaching around bell-shaped blooms. Yeri's sidekick Tomas (Tom and Jerry?) was nowhere to be seen, possibly exploring the pine woods surrounding the home on the outskirts of Patzcuaro.

The power of Martin's work, springing from the thermal hot spring in his soul where new forms of life continuously evolved, conjured visions incomprehensible to the physical eye. The vibrations of a tropical bird's wings radiated from dishes, gusts of air were tossed into the room by the pounding of colorful jewels in mid-flight. A hummingbird darted from a saucer, then dove back into the glistening darkness; butterflies caressed flowers with their graceful touch while the very music of this luxurious wilderness flew into the room.

Martin's apprenticeship began at age 17 when he went to work at a store in Casa de Once Patios, a collection of shops near Plaza Vasco de Quiroga in Patzcuaro. The business sold plates decorated in the laca technique, and Martin, through careful observation, meticulously pieced the process together on his own. "Everybody that does this kind of work is very jealous, so it's very difficult to get someone to teach you. When I wanted to learn, nobody wanted to teach me, because they were afraid of the competition, that someone will make better work than you."

After five years of patient study, he had finally acquired enough skill to produce his own pieces, embarking on a career that now spans decades and has earned him numerous awards that include the Galardon Nacional del Arte Popular Mexicana 1988, and first place in the laca division of the Day of the Dead crafts competition in Patzcuaro in 2008. He feels a great deal of gratitude toward the talented practitioners from whom he learned the craft. "It doesn't matter they didn't want to teach me. I think of them as my teachers."

When I first visited Martin, he had already completed much of the design work on the plate with the droopy-eyed sun, destined for a Spanish client who saw his work in a hotel and commissioned the piece. I had watched closely as he painted sharp-peaked onion domes around the perimeter with the mordente, a glue made of copper oxide, garlic, azarcon (an orange pigment), linseed oil, and other ingredients that he boils together so the gold laminate, which comes in delicate thin sheets, will adhere to the plate.

A laca piece begins surrendering the colorful wilderness huddling in its shadows when Martin boils the wood to prevent its breakage later in the process. This step draws out the resin from the wood and seals any cracks. Artisans can also achieve this by allowing the wood to simply soak in cool water for four or five days, but Martin prefers the quicker method through boiling. After this step, he allows the wood to dry outside, but not in direct sunlight. After sanding, he applies seven or eight layers of laca (lacquer), an industrial substance, which he described as "like a car wax. It's called laca automotiva."

He allows each layer of laca to dry and then sands the piece before applying the next coat. After Martin has applied all the laca, he paints the designs in mordente. Each ingredient of this glue serves a specific purpose: garlic as a natural insect repellent, copper oxide to give it body, and greta, a substance that gives the gold its shine. After laying the mordente, he places delicate sheets of gold on top, rubbing lightly to make the thin layer adhere to the glue.

"The importance of putting the mordente is, for some reason, if you don't put that base it's very dull. It won't have the same shine. We have tried it before with other substances and it doesn't work. It doesn't have the same shine."

We broke for lunch, moving to a kitchen wrapped in orange stucco and taking our places at a lengthy tile counter that separated a larger room from the kitchen area. Maria, dressed in jeans and a white shirt with beige flowers, moved with the frenzied energy of a hummingbird as she made final preparations; she quickly served up clay bowls filled with the delicious meal, a glorious medley of flavors that also included a long pale green chile stuffed with ham and cheese.

"Is it very spicy?" I asked as she tended tortillas on a plate heated by a whispering gas flame.

"Not very," she answered, plopping the tortillas into a napkin with needlepoint flowers on the counter. I indulged myself in the delicious beans and the beef, taking a second helping of the chopped squash, and somewhere in the midst of the exuberant conversation sallying through the kitchen, I learned that the chile was quite hot. I cautiously sampled the ham and cheese inside, and found that the chile had christened the filling with an invigorating zip that I thoroughly enjoyed. I tried a piece of the chile and found it much too overpowering, and Triny took over, wrapping it in a tortilla and devouring the fiery bullet with ease.

The meal was delicious, which did not surprise me. On my first visit, Maria had served another meal of soup swimming with generous chunks of fish. They had told me then that they had moved to this home eight years before from Martin's native Tzurumutaro, where they protested their neighbors illegally cutting trees."We were against it," said Martin. "The people that were chopping down the trees didn't like us because we were against it. So we moved."

After we'd finished the mid-day banquet of beans and carne (and frightening chiles) we returned to the work area where Martin explained that he spends a great deal of time passing on his knowledge to others, teaching schoolchildren, university students, even the handicapped so they can support themselves. He cherishes the opportunity to stimulate the interest of young people.

"Sometimes in the afternoon I teach children how to do the work. Some of them can't walk. I teach them because I want them to learn so they can have a way to live."

Many of his and Maria's nine children have shown interest in the craft. Martin Jr., age 27, does laca work and clothing design. His daughter, Itzel (A Mejica name meaning "eternal flower along the way"), 17, paints some of the images, and then Martin puts in the shadows; 16-year-old Yuritzquiri ("little girl" in Purepecha) also paints, and so does 15-year-old Victor.

Young Jesus, who'd just turned 11, began studying the designs about two months ago. "He's interested in learning," said Martin. "I give him little chores, not too difficult. How to draw. I have himpracticing on a piece of paper."

Jesus, a thick frock of hair crowning his jowly face, fidgeted in his chair as he talked about the trade in which he had just begun his own apprenticeship. He expressed a deep admiration for his father's work. "I'm very proud," he said, his grubby hands twisting the tail of his black T-shirt.
"I would like to travel like my father," he continued, adding that he draws maybe an hour a day after finishing his homework. "I practice how to make flowers."

He already has some ideas about what he'd like to put on his own laca plates when he's older."I would like to put birds instead of butterflies, when I have learned enough to do it right, maybe when I am 17."

Sometimes, young students become Martin's teachers. He recalled a children's class he taught in which a boy began to erase something he'd drawn. "I told him 'No, leave it alone.' He said it was a flower but it was not perfect. I said, 'Nature is not always perfect.'" He chuckled a moment as he recalled the lesson he'd learned from this encounter. "You learn from everyone, sometimes kids. Even some of the people you teach."

That's a crucial lesson in the life of an artisan, that craftsmanship is a voyage of discovery without end. "I am always learning. In this kind of work, we are always learning."

Older, more traditional designs, such as paisley tear drops splashing from simple flowers suspended from curvilinear vines, sometimes compete with his more original works: sparks of gold exploding from rum-colored blooms with curved petals, bands of white swirling through violet pools, amber-colored monarchs fluttering through leaves cloaked in prismatic emerald.

"Sometimes people will ask us to make Oriental designs, like dragons. But I don't want to go out of the normal designs of the region."

He turned now to the project at hand, the droopy-eyed sun on its way to Spain. "I like to experiment. Like this little sun, this is a new design. There are some other people that have done it, but I try to do my sun curvy. Each one has his own style, own color. Like this one, I put colors that look like sun colors, and that's what we do. It's what tradition is made of."

His own tradition has provided a wellspring from which the human imagination can express itself across his plates, where fresh young minds oblivious to limitations can colonize their lives with vivid images lurking in their dreams. Martin's creativity, festering, pulsating, heaving, rushes across the plates reclining restlessly in the shadows, providing a fountain of inventiveness. From that jungle-shrouded wellspring arises a river that flows into deserts of atrophied perceptions, beckoning their stalled visions to pursue again their own emerging dreams.


Maria de los Angeles works on a small hand-sized

Maria, left, and her husband, Francisco Barocio
Jacobo, work in their shop.

Francisco puts the final touches on a husband and
wife pair of clay figures.

And elegant Catrina with flowers
on her fancy dress.

Francisco Barocio Jacobo places
Catrinas in his oven for firing.


By Travis M. Whitehead
CAPULA – From a lump of clay, Maria de los Angeles created a being of morose elegance: a foot-tall skeleton called a Catrina enraptured in an elegant evening gown covered with flowers. As Maria cut out the Catrina’s chest cavity to make room for the ribs, her husband, Francisco Barocio Jacobo, busily molded the parrots that would crawl up the figure’s dress. The Catrina was part of an order of 15 “Frida” Catrinas dressed to resemble Mexican artist Frida Kahlo for a store here in town. She would soon join the others on a shelf, some with monkeys perched on hips or shoulders, where they waited for their appointment with the round brick oven outside the workshop. Just a few hours before, these exquisite figures had been lost in a bag of dry dust but they had been transformed in the workshop of these two artisans into tangible apparitions of death's Gothic comedy.

Outside the workshop, Manchas the pit bull, who had demanded a perfunctory sniff of my hand before allowing entrance to the yard, dozed next to the round brick oven, about 3 1/2 feet across, where Francisco would fire the Catrinas. A bicycle rested in front of pink geraniums growing next to the house, clothes dried in the sun, and a mound of lumber and pine logs lay like splinters gouging the air. A stack of neatly-placed firewood waited near a much larger oven – about 10 feet in diameter – in which Francisco’s father Antonio and his mother Sara placed large jarros upside down.

Francisco and Maria had first captured my attention at the Domingo de Ramos Crafts Fair in Uruapan where their pieces portrayed a broad spectrum of existence, showing the narrow impasse that lies between the grotesque humor of life and a boundless gulf on the other side. A group of thoroughly intoxicated male Catrines sat spread-eagled against a saguaro pouring beer down their skeletal mouths; richly-dressed Catrinas sat with legs folded beneath them on boats with baskets of fruit and flowers. Other Catrinas danced about joyfully, while a pot-bellied Catrine with an ammo belt and a rifle wore a wide smile and commanding moustache. Another, much more reserved Catrine wore a black and white tuxedo. Perhaps they all represented different aspects of the physical world’s tug-of-war with its own demise, seeking to replenish itself with the pristine humor that offers a retreat from the shores of eternity.

Making Catrinas requires many years of practice. “I learned from watching other artisans around town,” said Francisco, 34. “It’s a tradition. I get ideas from the Revolution. I try to make something comical, like a guy trying to hug a girl and she’s pushing him away.”

“Frida,” interjected Maria, 32, pointing to a black clay figure with Mexican artist Frida Kahlo’s distinctive hair piece around her head. She had been painting a dancing Catrina – a bailarina, still headless – endowing her with hands holding out voluminous skirts adorned with a sea of vines and dappled with red or yellow flowers. Maria chewed slowly on a piece of gum and leaned close to the Catrina she was painting.

“It takes me two hours to do the one like the man in the tux. Then I let it dry for a day or two. Then I put it in the oven for five hours at 450 degrees. It takes me one hour to paint.”

In their shop a few weeks later, Francisco and Maria gave a much more detailed explanation of their craft. The small workshop next to their orange stucco house in Capula, constructed of corrugated tin over a frame of wooden boards and crooked branches, was a hive of activity by two solitary workers who had an instinct for the clay, massaging it with a deliberate precision until it released the images locked within its grasp.

The calm demeanor with which Maria and Francisco labored concealed the speed with which they worked. Maria’s crescent lashes veiled the warm glow of her sparkling brown eyes as she pressed tiny florets into slivers of wet dough with a home-made clay pattern. Francisco, in baggy brown corduroys, used small make-shift tools to cut lines of feathers and eyes into the parrots he pinned on the Catrina’s dress. He and his wife had an intimate connection with the clay, as if they knew exactly what the material needed to release the energy within its formless mass.

From their meticulous, tedious activity emanated a sweet nectar spilling from the quiet river pouring through their souls; it was a primal luxury of invention, this opportunity to reach into the very marrow of the collective human consciousness and extract at least a shadow of its reality, softening the hot hunger of death with a moment of ridicule at its most sinister visage, the human frame stripped of its pulse and dressed for a dinner party. In the world of the Catrina, nothing can stop the festival of life, not even the specter of permanent decay.

They worked quietly at a table near a wall of porous cinder brick and chipped mortar; plaster molds for the dresses lay on a lower shelf. Porous rock protruded through the dirt floor littered with shards from discarded projects. Behind Francisco stood two stone slabs resting on cinder blocks; two gleaming spools of wire lay curled on a wooden shelf nailed to the cinder brick wall and supported with more wire.

Maria and Francisco seemed suddenly masters of anatomy, creators of new personalities, or perhaps benefactors of restless lives dormant in the clay. Maria, dressed in a pair of rolled-up jeans and red Skecher shoes, rolled out long ribbons of clay and cut them in sections, placing them in the chest to form ribs. The flowers she had pressed into the clay now blossomed across the Catrina’s dress. She draped a thin line of dough around the waist and then pressed small scallops to match the gentle ripples of the dress.

Francisco pushed a wad of clay into a mold and out popped a skull. He carefully cut away at the piece to define the eye sockets, mouth, and teeth, then fit jagged clay sticks together to form the hands and connected them to arms that he attached after moistening the shoulder. The hands rested on small pieces of wire placed in the waist and hip to keep them in place until they dried.

“The first thing I started making were little bulls and horses, small things,” said Francisco, a moustache spilling over the corners of his mouth. “I started making the Catrinas when I was 13, maybe a year after I started working.”

That’s exactly how their children, William Antonio, 9, and Viridian, 12, have begun. When they come home from school, they make small leaves and feathers and flowers, simple objects to give them the feel of the clay.

Suddenly, William Antonio poked his head through a window between the workshop and their well-furnished home. Maria stopped for a moment to speak with him, then went back to her work, a craft that she also began practicing at about age 12. Although she began working in clay at that young age, she didn’t start making Catrinas until about 12 years ago when she married Francisco.

“Before I got married, at my house we used to work at making flower pots. We didn’t make the Catrinas.” She enjoys making the figures, although they require substantially more work. “It’s more tiring. Before I got married, it was 6 o’clock when I stopped. Now it’s more like 10.”

“We start at 7 a.m.,” added Francisco.

If their children decide to approach the Catrina challenge they will have their work cut out for them. Making Catrinas is not something you learn to do overnight; Francisco learned the craft through many difficult attempts.

“It was all hard. When I made my first Catrina, they came out to be not so fine.” They come out fine now. The newest member of the Frida Catrinas, now crowned with her own exquisite wreath about her head, was set aside to dry, while several of the others were placed in the oven.

Manchas still dozed just outside the opening where Francisco now needed to put the wood.
“He doesn’t want to move,” Francisco said with a laugh. He splintered a piece of wood with a loud crack that finally roused Manchas, who moved about six feet away and plopped onto the ground.
Francisco placed sheets of tin over the oven, anchored them with a brick, then lit a single piece of wood on the bottom. He would keep a very low fire for the first two hours – anything hotter and the Catrinas would break – then increase the heat for another three hours. The process would turn them a much brighter orange, and they would be painted before delivery.

By now a good fire had started in his parents' bigger oven, sunk halfway into the ground except for an excavated area for the opening where the wood was placed. Thick smoke filled the yard with a sweet pine flavor while roosters crowed from distant yards and birds sang in the trees. Hot sunshine burrowed into the yard and Manchas moved into some shade under a truck to continue his nap.

There would be no sleep for Francisco and Maria. They still had to finish another order: 30 hand-sized pairs of Catrinas depicting a bride and groom, complete in wedding dress and a tuxedo, for a business in Uruapan.

“These are harder to make,” said Maria, undaunted as she began the new task.



Jesus Lucas Barajas pounds sheets of copper
at Cobre El Porton.

A young apprentice heats a pot in the furnace
at Cobre El Porton.

Monarch butterflies, flowers, and other images
erupt across copper plates.

A worker demonstrates coppersmithing.

A visitor gets to try his hand at the craft.


This pitcher is one of many sparkling beauties at Cobre El Porton.

A worker at Cobre El Porton gives a demonstration for visitors.


By Travis M. Whitehead
SANTA CLARA DEL COBRE - Monarch butterflies crowd a polished pitcher like glitter dancing in a ray of sunlight. Baby sea turtles swim freely through the copper frozen solid by the heat of the workshop's furnace, hogs with teeth bared charge across the sides of a bowl the color of charred ebony, and calla lilies rush like streams of water up the sides of a jar at Cobre El Porton, one of many copper shops in Santa Clara del Cobre.

The coppersmiths of this community about 45 minutes from Morelia have established the town's reputation as a mecca of copper pieces popular throughout the world. Indigenous tribes in pre-Colombian times discovered ample deposits of copper coarsing through Michoacan's fervent landscape and had developed a vibrant coppersmithing tradition when Christopher Columbus arrived in the Americas.

Spanish Bishop Vasco de Quiroga, who found indigenous people engaged in a variety of crafts upon his arrival in the 1500s and introduced new trades, is often credited with introducing the copper industry to this area. However, Juan Jose Paz, owner of Cobre El Porton, said Quiroga simply introduced new techniques to an already flourishing tradition. One of Quiroga's most important contributions, Paz said, was the use of the bellows.

"They started to do this kind of process, it changed the whole thing," Paz said. "They not only developed arms and weapons, but also some other things."

The area's copper deposits dried up years ago, and now the coppersmiths transpose their exquisite creations with scrap copper purchased from sources throughout the world. Paz's store was filled with glistening pitchers shiny as glass, objects endowed with a liquid grace that soothed the troubled soul and delighted the senses. Flowered charolas, containers riddled with minute indentations or blooming with sunflowers, and exquisite designs etched into glistening surfaces crowded the shelves, beckoning the vulnerable eye to yield beneath their spell. Diamonds deeply cut into copper pieces ruptured their surfaces with a noble intensity that rendered mute the power of uncultivated metal.

The copper objects clustering the shelves of Paz's store were born in a lab in a sort of absurd foray into the struggling imaginations of the artisans. In the workshop behind Paz's store, the "ding-ding-ding" and vacuous booms of mallets puncture the air as workers extract shapes and images from their copper cloister. Glittery accordion music playfully teases plumes of growling red ash rising like a genie from a coal fire, now hovering in anticipation of an artisan's command.

A worker removes a plate from the fire and places it on a table; more artisans crowd together and hammer the piece to demonstrate how they work copper for a group visiting the workshop, arms lifting mallets high into the air, pounding the work into submission.
"After we shape it," says Jesus Barajas Lucas, 28, "we put it in water, then use a smaller hammer to give it the shine."

Barajas Lucas began working in copper at age 9; the trade has passed from generation to generation in his family. "We used to work in our own house. Now, we work here. All the people who work here already know the work. I like making all the pieces. There is the fair, we design a piece that should be the best one. That is the most difficult work." His 10-year-old son began studying the copper industry two years ago. "I feel proud that he will learn. I want him to learn faster."

A bottle of blackberry liquor sits next to the tip jar, along with more spirits brewed from peaches, guayaba, nance, and sugar cane. Helmets left over from an order for the movie "Troy" starring Brad Pitt sit on a shelf - artisans throughout the town shared an order for 1,000, Barajas Lucas says. Pots and sinks browned with age hang on the wall, fused with the discoloration of neglect. Discarded bowls, pitchers, and jars, bent and gouged and warped by the confusion of mistakes and armed with jagged mouths, await their next opportunity at transformation.

Many of the shiny copper pieces are adorned with eloquent white floral and leaf designs, which are inscribed by first covering the objects with tar, Barajas Lucas said. The workers then scrape out the designs, place them in nitric acid, and fill the areas cleaned by the acid with silver by dipping them in a solution for about 15 minutes, he said. Then it's removed and covered with bicarbonate of soda to turn the silver areas white. The entire process from hammering out the piece to the completion of the designs takes seven days. "The design takes one day," says Barajas Lucas. "This (the design and decoration) is all done by women and children."

The artisans' use of lemon and salt to give the pieces their shine intrigue Ashley Fish, 19, a chemical engineering student at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, Col., who was visiting Mexico with friends and family. "It's neat how they use simple materials to do different little designs. Now we're so dependent on chemicals that are so harmful to the environment. I think I've never seen so much copper in my life. The only copper I see is in a lab."

Even to an artist's eye, the work is something to admire. Jorge Alberto Gonzalez, an oil painter from Baltimore, appreciated the work of the artisans. "I did enjoy it a lot, especially the demonstration, how they make the pieces," said Gonzalez, 59, originally from Cuba. "I had no idea it was so labor intensive. You see them and buy them and never realize how much work they have to put into it."


Anita Ziranda traces designs in the tar covering a plate, then removes sections of the substance
to reveal the shiny copper.

After Anita finishes a plate, the piece is put through
a chemical process to reveal the final product.


By Travis M. Whitehead
SANTA CLARA DEL COBRE - The tar yielded before the onslaught of the knife, setting free the intricate flowers and leaves hibernating within the black emptiness spread over the copper plate like dark winter embracing withered landscapes. As Anita Ziranda's hands cut the delicate lines of the petals, the copper broke through like sunshine clawing its way through dead clouds, illuminating the garden erupting to across the piece.

"I started doing this because I was a widow; I had a daughter," said the 46-year-old Anita, lines like starlight radiating from the corners of her eyes as she spoke, generous wisps of hair falling across her full cheeks.

Anita has worked for Cobre el Porton for about 20 years; after the workers at Cobre El Porton pound the pieces into shape, Anita instills them with their glowing personalities, etching their faces with refined and eloquent expressions that reveal the joy she derives from the experiences while creating them.

Dressed in a blue top and white skirt, she spoke exuberantly of her trade. She has a number of designs she likes to imprint into her pieces. "I especially like the woven flowers. When I do this I'm thinking, 'How is it going to come out?' The emotion. In the moment it's done, I say, 'Wow! This is going to work!'"

She's won several awards for her work; often, Rosie Paz, the wife of owner Juan Jose Paz, creates special designs for her to create. Ziranda has a thorough understanding of the copper trade, having taken classes at a local school. "I don't have the tools to do everything, but I know how to do it. I started learning how to make jewelry. I got bored because it was just tiny pieces I had to weld together."

She's created a tranquil artistic grotto where she can cultivate the peace necessary for the liberation of her talent. Cola de borrego - sheep's tail, plants with clusters of juicy pale green pods, hung from coffee cans attached to the eaves over her back porch. Her young grandson shoveled dirt into a toy truck; clothing hung from twisted twine wound around two large poles leaning away from the house; oleander and a small avocado tree lingered near clumps of lantana adorned with burnt orange blooms. Hibiscus with delicate pink blooms, and fuschia-colored arete flowers whose fragile filaments dangled from bulbous blossoms, crowded a brick wall.

She's passed the skill on to her daughter, Maria, who took a drawing course and now approaches the decoration of copper pieces from a different direction. Departing from the more popular floral designs, she prefers adorning herpieces with abstract medievel motifs, twisting and turning lines, gently flowing waves flipping back on themselves, sharp angles and downward spirals. These are details, Anita said, that insist on great skill and concentration.

"It takes more time. You have to be very careful not to go into small parts. She just does it with a needle. It has to be a special order."


Julio Zepeda tends a pot in the furnace.


By Travis M. Whitehead
SANTA CLARA DEL COBRE - Fire bellowed from the edges of the round copper sheet that Julio Zepeda had just shifted on the furnace. Agitated coals coughed thick gusts of smoke that fled toward openings in the corrugated tin ceiling. Now the sheet began to warp as the 19-year-old Zepeda, in tattered jeans and emerald green shirt, used a pair of tongs to shift the piece on the fire at Cobre El Porton.

A threatening glow spread from the center, the heat endowing the sheet with the freedom to express itself in some new shape. Zepeda, with jewelry piercing both ears, was making a table, one of many he'd crafted since he began working in copper four years ago. "I learned here in the workshop," he said, as his brother, Gustavo, worked on another table nearby, on the second level of the workshop.

Julio and Gustavo both preferred making table tops to some of the other more elaborate pieces; they can complete a top in one day. He pulled the plate from the fire and placed it on the floor where it turned a cool gray before a spackled gold color spread like a fungus across the surface.

Julio, with a cigarette tucked behind either ear, took a brush and swept some debris away from the table, revealing more of the fiery golden color underneath the bleak facade. Only a few minutes after leaving the fire, the plate was cool enough to touch; he used a rope to pull the piece to the second floor where he continued working at it. He flattened the top with a board, then a smaller piece of wood to straighten tighter indentations. "Jesus invited me to work here," added Gustavo, 21, who's been here a little longer. "I liked it, and that's how I started to learn."

While they both enjoy the work, they don't plan to stay here in the copper industry forever. They'd like to opentheir own bakery.
"I used to work for a bakery," Gustavo says. "This takes a lot of time and it's a lot of work, and making bread is easier and you can make more money."

Saturday, January 24, 2009



Emilio Alejos Madrigal applies pasta blanca on
a candelabra.
Emilio Alejos Madrigal and an assistant load
pottery covered with pasta blanca into an
oven for firing.

Emilio's wife, Juana, applies pasta blanca to clay


Juana, Emilio's wife, applies pasta blanca to
pottery with her daughter Diana, right, and
niece Juana Blas, center.

Diana, above, and her cousin Juana Blas apply pasta blanca to
clay pots.

Some large pinas and candelabras bake in the sun
before getting a coat of pasta blanca.



By Travis M. Whitehead

SAN JOSE DE GRACIA - Emilio Alejos Madrigal dipped the brush into a bowl of pasta blanca, then ran the squirrel-hair instrument along the arms of the candelabra standing majestically before him, the white paste forming a base for the paint that would soon follow.

A rooster's braggadocious "ERRR!-errRRRR!-errRRRR!" exploded into the yard, the blast immediately followed by a screechy imitation from Diana, Emilio's 10-year-old daughter who sat grinning from the back of a truck. The precocious girl had earlier demonstrated her adoration of animals, cradling Saro the kitten who hissed at her cinnamon-colored dog, Glovis.

Diana soon joined her mother, Juana, at the concrete water tank, called a pila, and the ribbed lavadero (wash board) to clean fresh chicken legs and chunks of pork; her mother painfully remembered washing clothes there by hand before purchasing a cylindrical washing machine eight years ago that now stood nearby awaiting the next load of laundry.
"I like it a lot better," Juana said, then added, "It was a lot of work."

Meanwhile, Emilio diligently caressed the ribs of leaves flowing over the candelabra with the pasta blanca that would form the foundation for a luminous frock of green paint. Pushing the mixture around tiny corners and sharp curves while leaving other areas dark, the piece gradually became more alive with panels of light and shadow; he planned to fire the piece later that day and then paint it tomorrow.

"Mine and my brother's techniques are very similar, but I have my own way," Emilio had said two days earlier in his laboratory of visual experimentation a block away from his brother Jose Maria's house. "I work with pico fino," he said, referring to the pointed tick marks cutting their way across many of his pieces. "My mother taught us how to do pico fino. I like everything, especially my pico fino because it's the best quality, the real traditional."

On my first visit, I didn't arrive in San Jose until early afternoon, having left Morelia at 10:30 a.m. for the three-hour journey. I dropped by his brother's place first, and by the time I made it to Emilio's he'd left to get his car repaired in Tangancicuaro. His wife Juana, 47, selling snacks on the small street outside their home, said he would return a little later.

I drove into Ocumicho a few miles away where crowds of teenagers in formal attire thronged a home for a big quinceanera, then into Patamban where I asked how to get to Cocucho. A woman in a store explained I would need to go to Ocumicho and from there drive to Cocucho. I remembered then the ride I had taken from a street corner the previous year to Cocucho. I drove back to Ocumicho and found the turn easily. After passing through Cocucho, I drove leisurely through the towns, familiarizing myself with the area and the roads, passing by Emilio's place a couple of times before catching him as rain began to fall.

He eagerly welcomed me to his home as the clouds fussed and quarreled overhead and flung bits of rain; the simple and elaborate complex of rooms and workshops and outdoor cooking areas impressed me with their comfortable personalities and their austere directness. Passing through the front door, I walked across a broad tiled floor past bedrooms on either side, then past yellow walls decorated with pink birds, drowsy quarter moons, pictures of Snow White, The Little Mermaid, and other Disney princesses, and paintings of jungles and oceans and pine-covered mountains.

The long seat from a van served as a couch placed between the living area and the hallway next to a wooden waist-high swinging door that led to the yard. Yellow and red tissue flowers surrounded a wooden image of the Virgin of Guadalupe that had been in Emilio's family for 260 years. A rocking chair faced plastic plants rising from a couple of yellow ceramic pinas; the living room was separated from the garden only by a three-foot-high wall that invited the fresh air of the yard - filled with pink roses, geraniums, avocado, and citrus trees - to perfume the cool air of the house.

Emilio readily showed me his workshop. Two clay munecas with paunchy cheeks and pencil noses burst from the vases on the dirt floor; sunflowers erupted across aprons draped over the clay cloisters from which they sprang, ropy braids falling across their backs as they held large plates over their heads.

"I made them this past week," he said on this stormy Saturday afternoon. The rain did a tap-dance across the pitched tin roof as it escaped from the grumbling clouds. "A place in San Miguel de Allende ordered them. I'll put the white on in the morning. It dries in a few minutes. I'll put the green esmalte on Tuesday."

The munecas stared wondrously around the workshop filled with cactuses trimmed in diagonal ribs laced with flowers, vases blooming with scallops, pineapples riddled with starbursts, conical jars with an armada of diamonds sailing up the sides. I would sum it up as a sort of visual jazz, this spontaneous dance of the imagination, in which Emilio Alejos Madrigal, like the other artisans around town, could take an idea and run with it in any direction.

A pine wood bench sat against a brick wall. White pasta covered pineapple leaves rising from tapas bristling with espigas - short stalks bubbling with luscious berries. Ruffled molds sat on a wooden shelf clothed in shredded bark, a huancipo hung on the brick wall, stacks of pine wood sat at one end of the workshop. Wads of newspaper, a styrofoam cappuccino cup, and clay calla lilies cluttered the work area.

Catty corner to his workshop sat his ovens and the small fogon where his family makes tortillas over a comal. Lamps with dark beads swimming up ridges of cactus; stately pineapple pitchers; and tall vases sat on the rim of the largest oven. Patches of cream-hued paint scratched through the coffee-colored veneer of some pots dappled with shells on a board over a smaller oven.

"They need more greta and more heat," he said, referring to the substance used in the paint to give his pieces their lustrous shine. He picked up a small vase with dark frustrated green struggling against lighter shades. "This green is very pretty, but the greta is not thick enough." The pieces would all get another trip to the oven and a fresh dose of greta.

While artisans in Tzintzuntzan are trying to find a lead-free paint that shines with the same luminescence as the leaded variety, San Jose de Gracia's artisans don't have that problem; their pieces aren't used for cooking or serving food. However, they're still exploring the possibilities of leadless paint.

Emilio picked up a small pitcher covered with a dry white paste. "This is esmalte sin plomo. It will come out very dark. Customers prefer leaded paint because they are decorative pieces."
Withdrawing a brush from a bowl of pasta blanca, he explained the preferred material comes from a squirrel's tail. "It's smooth and strong, very flexible. It's good for us."Picking up a thick stubby brush, he continued, "We use this for the peiscos, but very carefully. This is not very good, it's very tough." The peiscos are similar to pico fino but they have a separate ridge with flattened sides.

With the dark sky intruding ever more rudely on our conversation, I decided it was time to leave. Not so fast.

"Have you eaten?" he asked. Not since very early that day, I answered.
He invited me to have dinner with him and his family, a generous and priceless opportunity I couldn't bear to refuse. We sat in the warmth of their kitchen and dining room at a plain table while his wife prepared a delicious meal with hearty servings of chicken in a tasty broth, with sides of bread and fresh, finger-sized avocados.

"The Purepechas had an advanced civilization before Columbus came," he explained proudly while we ate. "They were never defeated, even by the Aztecs." He didn't know when San Jose de Gracia was founded, but he did say that the Purepechas used to pass through the area in pre-Hispanic times while traveling between the state of Mexico and Colima.

"I had this guy from Germany, he was studying some ruins near here, Purepecha ruins. He lived with me for three months."

We talked about the Purepecha language. I told him about the few words I knew, such as Kumanchekua, which means house. I was surprised the word is actually spoken much more softly than its written form indicates. The consonants "ch" and "k" are actually spoken very delicately, as are the consonants in the word "jucheti", the word for "my" that I had picked up from the title of a favorite Purepecha song, Jucheti Consuelito. John Williams had taken part in a performance of this song at the Paracho Guitar Festival in 2006, and it had stuck with. Purepecha songsare also called "Pirekuas".

This was perhaps the highlight of my trip, sitting in Emilio's kitchen, visiting his family, listening to the storm outside while the cool wet air slipped in through the open doorway, and forging a new friendship and a new direction in my exploration of Michoacan.

I looked forward to my next visit, which came a couple of weeks later when I was back in the area to follow up an interview with Cecilia Bautista Caballero (whom Emilio identified as his cousin - she makes rebozos) in Ahuiran and to speak with an artisan in Ocumicho.
On this particular afternoon, he was spreading pasta blanca on yet another candelabra with swollen bands of pico fino and flowered serpentine braces.

His cousin's wife, in a blue velour top and a soiled rebozo of cream and maroon, poured water into a wheelbarrow full of saw dust that she and Emilio's niece then mixed together; the concoction became clods and then masses of clay that were stored in plastic bags. Juana, Diana, and Juana's niece, also named Juana Blas, applied pasta blanca onto small jars rippling with waves, florets, diamonds, and cactus ribs.

I told them I was excited about having met an artisan friend of mine (Juana Alonso Hernandez) from Cocucho selling her clay pots in Paracho a couple of days before the annual guitar festival. I had spotted her there late one evening doing needlepoint with a couple of friends. I hadn't realized Cocucho is also famous for this craft, called punto de cruz in Spanish; we made arrangements for me to visit them after they returned home so I could do some stories about their needlepoint.

"My grandmother's in Cocucho," said Juana. "She does punto de cruz, without glasses, and she's 90." Juana, it turns out, is from Cocucho, but she never learned how to make the famous Cocuchas. However, her niece, Juana Blas, 11, was getting experience in both the Cocucha trade and the pineapple pottery of San Jose de Gracia. "She kneads the clay with her feet in Cocucho. Here she just paints. She's my brother's daughter. She lives in thesame house as my grandmother. She comes here a lot."

The younger Juana Blas, grinning as she painted the conchitas (little shells) on a small jar, said she liked both types of barro the same. But, she added, "I like working here better."
Meanwhile, as Emilio and a couple of friends placed some pieces in the oven, one of the candelabras broke. Emilio sat down to perform surgery on the piece.

"I am going to try to fix it," he said, placing wet clay on the gaping nub where a candle holder was supposed to be and then re-attaching the serpentine limb.

His wife shook her head seriously and said, "It's too much work to just throw out."