Sunday, January 4, 2009


By Travis M. Whitehead
COCUCHO - The needle, beckoning the thread to follow its lead, sent shimmering bands of emerald and jungle green fluttering from the orange blossom in the guanengo, a white cotton blouse. A rush of color spread slowly across the garment, spilling from the dexterous hands of Juana Alonso Hernandez. Freshly-picked corn on the cob boiled over an open fire in the wooden kitchen area behind her; several of her recently-fired clay Cocuchas lay on the ground beneath the muddy sky. They waited with mute resignation for Juana to scrub them down in preparation for the upcoming Day of the Dead Crafts Fair and Competition in Patzcuaro in late October and early November.

"I was playing with munecas," said Juana, 69, explaining how she learned needlepoint while endowing a piece of cloth with some colorful stitchwork. "I learned to make the blouses and the aprons. I taught myself. My aunt made dresses. When I started making them, she gave me little pieces. I just get the ideas from my memory. I do pajaritos, grecas (geometric keywork), and flowers. Flowers are the most difficult. I have won 15 awards. I make servilletas, and shirts for men. I like both Cocuchas and needlepoint, but I prefer doing Cocuchas."

This versatile artisan, who also raises fighting roosters, is usually associated with her Cocuchas, which have also won numerous awards; she's a common sight at crafts fairs, sitting next to her pots, laughing with her fellow Cocucho artisans and making huancipos, the round corn leaf wreaths on which the pots are placed.

I had wanted to visit Juana ever since I met her at the Domingo de Ramos Crafts Fair and Competition in Uruapan in 2006. She charmed me with her acceptance of my questions and was completely at ease with my camera. I loved her refreshing spontaneity, her genuine warmth, and the consuming smile that easily overtook a stormy and vibrant face textured by the many roads she'd traveled.

Juana's husband, Juan, had been an industrious maker of trojes, a traditional wooden shelter, before dying 35 years earlier from liver ailments caused by excessive drinking; 12 years ago she lost a son, Salvador, in Oregon. He'd traveled there for work with his two brothers, David and Guadalupe, and one evening he stepped away from the dinner table for a moment and fell, hitting his head. He died later at the hospital. At about the same time, Juana's daughter Maria had been struck by lightning in Cocucho while washing clothes and died instantly, leaving four young children to be raised by relatives. I discerned later these tragedies had provided the well-spring for her powerful sense of joy, a contagious vitality that inspired me.

On my first visit to her home in Cocucho, her intense, gleaming black eyes, complemented by an enchanting smile, greeted me at the door. She motioned for me to follow her across the yard; she moved like a cat past sand drying in the sun for use in the clay, her mud-caked feet gripping the concrete that spread through the living quarters of 12 relatives, including a son, two daughters-in-law, numerous grandchildren and even a cherub-faced great-granddaughter named Maria del Carmen.

This was the power plant of Juana's industry, the multi-chambered heart that fired a vibrant pulse into her work. The laughter of her grandchildren at play - chattering in Purepecha, racing down the alleways, dodging wet Cocuchas and her cranky fighting roosters, or jumping into the matriarch's arms - invigorated what might otherwise become an exhausted soul with the exuberance of youth. That energy continually awakened her with a renewed vitality and flowed into her Cocuchas, her needlepoint, her laughter, love, and joy.

We stepped into her kitchen, a sanctuary of exhilarating simplicity made of wood and a steeply-pitched roof. Her skirt of burnt gold waved around her slightly bowed legs as she stepped through the open doorway into a darkened room where cheese and blue corn tortillas sizzled on a comal over a fogon built into the concrete floor; a bowl of churipu simmered on sticks of wood jutting from the side of the fogon over glowing coals. Bunches of corn leaves hung like thick untamed hair from a low smoke-stained beam against a wall, blue corn tortillas lay in a woven reed basket. Bowls decorated with animated floral designs sat on shelves with glasses and clay pots. A metate leaned against a wall. Her daughter-in-law, Prudenciana, sat next to her and popped open a large bottle of Pepsi and poured herself a glass.

"She made those two Cocuchas," said Juana, pointing at two tall pots standing beneath a tarp just beyond the door. "My granddaughter made the two smaller ones."

The smoke rising from the fogon spit frustrated whispers into the room, wrestling with my senses, alerting me that another doorway had cracked open to awaken some spent and atrophied perception, like a fallen sundial awakened to the reemergence of time's meticulous crawl. Juana sat on the floor, her vise-like hands placing cheese and quelites (a local plant used as a salad green) and red salsa on a blue tortilla.

I enjoyed generous chunks of cheese with quelites wrapped in tortillas, eagerly partaking of a rapturous cultural experience; the light flavor of the cheese, crouching within the earthy relish of the blue tortilla and paired with the capricious crunch of the quelites offered a scrumptious culinary excursion as I absorbed the wealth of sensations approaching me from every direction. Juana chatted with Prudenciana in Purepecha, finishing up her meal and then sitting on a wooden stump (doubling as a chair in the kitchen) for a nice long smoke from an unfiltered cigarette.

"I like Alas," she said, referring to the brand. "I don't like Del Prado. They aren't strong enough for me. Alas are strong enough."

We finished eating and Juana gave me a tour of her place. We walked past bags of barro against a brick wall and a group of children sitting on some stone steps, a closed geography book laying nearby. I trailed behind her down a narrow alleyway and into her work area where two bare wet Cocuchas stood and a third sat covered by an apron and a black and blue rebozo. She'd worked on this project for a week.

"It's waiting to dry," she said. "Probably tomorrow I will add some more. I worked on it some yesterday."

Her fighting roosters fidgeted in their cages. She took up the fighting rooster trade after she married at age 14. Her husband, 22, had a couple of roosters.

"That's how I learned," she said. "He got a lot of money for that."

I had come to Cocucho to meet not only with Juana but with Elena Reyes Remigio, whose family makes beautiful needlepoint. I'd told Elena I would stop by her home at about 11 a.m. and I was already late, so I decided I neededto see her quickly. Juana said she would be home for awhile but then she would have to go tend her corn field. I figured I could finish up at Elena's in time to return before she left.

I stayed at Elena's place longer than expected, visiting with her grandmother through the afternoon, and by the time I returned, Juana had left. However, her family filled the yard with an industrious energy that enthralled me through the afternoon.

Prudenciana had already rubbed down a wet olla with a purple scrub pad; now she used shredded plastic the color of Easter grass to smooth out the boisterous lip, her gray skirt dancing around her slender, powerful legs as she worked. Her daughter, Jovita, with ecstatic magenta flowers falling across her black blouse, worked on her own piece next to her. Maria Dolores, Prudenciana's other daughter, sifted black sand on a sheet of plastic before moving to the kitchen where she began splitting and grinding anise on a metate for atole.

Music bounced from a radio inside a troje where a young woman folded clothes. It swung around ears of corn hangingon a rafter over clusters of pots gathered around the wooden porch and the huancipos laying beneath piles of cardboard. One of Juana's fighting roosters strutted about the yard, golden plumes falling down its rippling neck over russet and turquoise plumes, kaleidoscopic emerald tail feathers showering past his back.

Prudenciana carried some wood into the kitchen to indulge the fire's impetuous appetite, then spread some sand over a tarp, tossed in some clay, poured more sand and splashed water on the mixture before stepping into the medley and kneading it all together with her nimble feet; she suddenly appeared juxtaposed with the classic scene of Lucille Ball stomping through a vat of grapes. Prudenciana's feet and toes squish-squish-squished through the mixture, authoritatively insisting the sand and clay submit to her demands. They slowly, hesitantly gave in to the pressure and fused their talents. The artisan's diligent labor burned the mixture's complexion into the deep roasted reddish color distinctive of Cocucha clay.

The gray skirt flipping around her legs reflected the pesky afternoon clouds that threatened to spoil the afternoon. Undaunted, she squatted next to the mixture and kneaded the hot-tinted dough by hand. Jessica, one of Juana's granddaughters (not Prudenciana's child) joined her, breaking off tiny bits of the substance with her elfin hands, leaning her vivacious body toward the clay as she worked. After a few minutes, however, she became bored and trotted off, seeking some new adventure in the maze of trails and stone walls spreading through her extended family's home.

Suddenly, big raindrops crashed into the tarp, sending doltish wallops of metallic sound into the air. Jovita, whohad been washing clothes, hung them on a line over the covered porch of the troje to dry. The day was drawing to a close; Juana still had not returned, but I knew I would be back to experience more of the laughter and persistent energy abounding in this family.


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