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.


Michael Scott said...

hope that "Michoacan will continue for many years its own odyssey through the universe of the imagination... " nice post to read

Anonymous said...

I had ice cream just the other day in Patzcuaro. On the way home I stopped at El Tigre for a meal. A fine meal despite the rain. The restaurant servers came out with their umbrellas to shelter us in.

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