Saturday, January 24, 2009



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."

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