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.