Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Mexican Crafts 101

There really is no good translation for the Spanish word artesania. I buy and sell artesania and I still don't know what to call it in English. Some people use the term handicrafts, which I don't like because it sounds like housewives making doilies. I often use the word folk art, but that only describes some of what I am talking about (see my post about Milagros). Is a perfectly exquisite hammered copper vase that takes years of experience, a lot of talent and two months to make really "folk art"? In Mexico they sometimes use the term "arte popular", as in the Banamex collection and book, Maestros Grandes del Arte Popular or Great Masters of Mexican Folk Art, a great book if you can find it. If you want a nice overview of Mexican folk art and enjoy looking at beautiful photographs, this is a good place to start. The other thing is that when you travel in Mexico you might see signs advertising "artesania" but you need to be aware that sometimes the word is referring to what we would call souvenirs. Souvenirs are NOT what we are talking about here. And you can usually tell that's what is meant as soon as you take a look. Anything that is mass-produced with the name of the place written on it is a souvenir. What I'm talking about are handmade items that reflect the culture and traditions of a village. Usually one person makes the piece from start to finish, and he or she learned the process from a parent or other family member. The colors or form might evolve over the years, but the basic technique or style comes from the village or tribe's tradition, like the clay plates from the village of Capula in Michoacán in the photos below. The plate on the left features a traditional border pattern and a technique where the artist paints hundreds of tiny dots called punteado or "pointillism". On the right you can see the traditional border design, but this contemporary "folk art" piece features the artist, Fidel Avalos' interpretation of a Jose Guadalupe Posada drawing of Don Quixote.

Okay, so you want to be sure that the piece you're thinking about buying is quality handmade folk art. You should start by asking who made it. If they tell you they did and they give you their name, and there aren't dozens of the same thing at every other stall in the market, then it's probably true. Better yet, go watch the artisans working in their workshops. It is so special to be able to see the creation of a piece of art that you bring home and can later look at years after your trip. It's like bringing a piece of the artist and his culture home with you. Don't be picky and expect a piece of handmade art to be perfect either. That's the charm of buying something that was made by a human being rather than by a machine. If you love it, if it brings you joy and makes you smile, then you should bring it home to live with you so it can continue to give you pleasure.
Now, it is perfectly legitimate to buy Mexican crafts or folk art in a gallery or store, or even from a website (like mine) but how do you determine what is a quality piece and what isn't? Well to start, if the vendor can tell you what pueblo or state it came from and how it was made, that's important information. It's even better if you can see some photos. Sometimes, but not always, you'll find an artist's signature, but in Michoacán, most artists don't sign their work because it goes against the Purepecha Indian view that their traditional art is a community effort. If you are buying a piece of pottery you will use to serve food, make sure that it is sin plomo or lead-free. If the vendor doesn't say so, then assume it has lead. Usually the cheap stuff at the markets in Mexico and often things sold on eBay contain lead. Buying textiles, which I love, is a whole other subject and we'll have to talk about that another time.

I bought the oval clay plate on the right many years ago-- and it still makes me happy when I see it hanging on my kitchen wall! It was the first piece we bought from Fernando Arroyo, award- winning artist from Capula. You can see more of Fernando's recent work on our website: www.mexicobyhand.com...where you can also find out more about how to visit his and other artisan workshops in Michoacán on our Mexico By Hand Art and Culture Tour.

Fernando Arroyo (right) is now working with lead-free glazes, thanks to the work of Barro Sin Plomo, a wonderful group that is helping Mexican artisans produce and market lead-free pottery. You can find out more about them and check out their catalog at: www.echerypottery.com.

Purepecha artists Elena Felix and Bernardina Rivera make burnished clay pots at their home workshop in the village of Huancito. They learned their art from their mother (top photo) and are featured in the book, Great Masters of Mexican Folk Art.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

"Does Anybody Here Speak English?"... Studying Language Abroad

I am often asked about where to go to learn Spanish. I wish I was asked more often, before good people go off and make bad decisions. There are a lot of language schools out there, and not all of them know what they're doing. But first, before I continue with my advice I need to get something out of the way--and this is VERY IMPORTANT-- do NOT go to Cuernavaca. You've heard that thing about location, location, location? Well it matters. Believe me, you do not want to Cuernavaca-- or "Cuernacaca"-- as my family calls it. Why do so many people continue to go there? Because they don't know better, because there are a lot of schools there, because their school principal advised it, because they read that Cuernavaca is the "city of eternal Spring", and who doesn't like Spring? At one time it was a pretty town, popular among Mexico City residents who wanted to get away for a peaceful weekend. But ever since the Mexico City earthquake, Cuernavaca has grown into a sprawling, large city with very little charm. Really. I had to spend a month there, and it sucked. There's no real culture and very little to do except go "clubbing" at night. That means that it's still very popular among the college set who convince their parents to fork over the money for them to "study Spanish" and spend their time instead studying cheap tequila shots and local hangover cures. Actually, I personally love tequila, but when I drink it, it's 100% agave and there IS no hangover. But we'll talk about that on a later post. So unless you are into the club i.e. the disco scene, don't go to Cuernavaca.
So, you want to study Spanish.... That's great! As a teacher with a specialty in second language teaching, I can tell you that learning a language is not easy and can take years.But that said, it is extremely rewarding and well worth the effort. So if you want to do it, I applaud you, and suggest that the best way is to go study abroad in a place where you would like to spend time. So research both the place and the school. I strongly recommend living with a family, which is called a "homestay", and don't share a room with another English speaker. You want to be forced to use your Spanish, even if you don't know how. Trust me on this. If you room with a friend, you guys will just talk to each other and you will lose most of the benefit of studying in a foreign country. I also suggest going to a city or town where there aren't a lot of English speaking tourists for the same reason as above.
As to the school, if you are not an expert in language teaching then it's difficult to figure out what is a good program and what isn't. There should be both grammar and conversation classes, and hands-on activities like cooking or dancing are nice too. Just make sure the classes are done in Spanish, otherwise what's the point? The high school student above is being taught to make a clay plate by an artisan who is speaking to her only in Spanish. A natural way to learn some new vocabulary! If you can, ask them about their philosophy or methodology. If they say something about the Natural or Communicative Approach, that's a good thing. If students spend all their time reading literature or working through a grammar textbook, I would look elsewhere.
So, where should you go? Morelia is a great place to learn Spanish; it's real Mexico, with few foreign tourists, and there's much to do. Plus there are two good language schools there. I recommend the Centro Cultural de Lenguas or CCL, because I know it personally. Excellent teachers, good program, and it's located in a lovely building that was originally a house, smack in the middle of the Centro Historico, the historic downtown area. They even have a small courtyard where you can hang out and enjoy a cappuchino. Yes, Morelia has great coffee too, which is another plus in my book. Both individual and group classes are available for any length of time. I recommend doing a 2 or 3 week program. You can check out the school at www.ccl.com.mx and feel free to write if you have questions. Andale!

Thursday, January 8, 2009

The Amazing Copper of Santa Clara del Cobre

Hundreds of people make their living as copper artisans in the town of Santa Clara del Cobre in Michoacán, Mexico. Every step of the process of transforming the raw copper material to a finished piece is done entirely by hand. Not only is each piece made by hand, but the process is extremely laborious, in many cases requiring a full month or more of daily work. The process consists of repeated heating and hammering the raw copper first into a mass, and then into the desired shape, finally ending with the process of a hammered finish. The work requires “talento y esfuerza”--not only skill, but great strength and endurance, as it may take hundreds of thousands of hammer blows in order to complete one large piece.

The indigenous people of Michoacán were working with copper long before the arrival of the Spanish. The revered archbishop Vasco de Quiroga, attempting to foment commerce in the region, urged the coppersmiths of Santa Clara to make cazos, or large cooking pots. These pots are still used for cooking today all over Mexico. Below is a picture of a huge one that is being used for making a special atole at the festival of Corpus Christi in the village of Tzintzuntzan.

The copper mines played out about fifty years ago, and today most of the 10,000 tons of copper that comes into Santa Clara each week arrives in the form of recycled copper wire and cable from electric and telephone companies. The price has been going up and up, and it is getting harder to find the raw material. This past summer, my husband Doug and I brought down some wire and leftover pieces of copper pipe, donated by a friend of ours. Roberto, our favorite copper artisan, was thrilled.
In 1946 a group of local artisans in Santa Clara del Cobre organized the first Copper Fair, which continues to be held every year in August. The fair, which features numerous cash prizes to winning artisans, has helped to revitalize the industry by encouraging the production of decorative pieces such as jugs, vases and centerpieces. The copper artisans and their work are celebrated as the center of this community's economic and cultural life, and the feria features music, really fun parades (with the copper princesses as pictured below) and the awarding of prizes by Michoacán's governor. Winning pieces are on display in the town's copper museum and are available for purchase. If you like copper art, this is a good time to visit.
Fine quality decorative copper pieces as well as copper cooking pots (cazos) are personally selected by us and can be purchased in the United States from Mexico By Hand. We also lead small tours to visit artisan workshops, so people can see the copper process, and then buy directly from the artisan.

photo below: Tour visits workshop of copper artisan, Ignacio Punzo, who is featured in the Banamex collection,"Great Masters of Mexican Folk Art".

But if you aren’t able to go to Mexico, Doug produced a 10 minute video for Michoacán’s
Casa de las Artesanias on the copper artisans of Santa Clara del Cobre, which is available on DVD and can be purchased for cost on our website: http://mexicobyhand.com/item.jsp?category=5004

Sunday, January 4, 2009


This wooden jaguar mask is encrusted with little milagros-- or miracles in English. We all need to believe in miracles. Maybe you don't believe in the virgin birth of Jesus or the Hanukah legend that tells us that the temple oil lasted eight days instead of just one, but let's face it, there are miracles all around us if we allow ourselves to see them. The birth of a baby is a miracle. The fact that Barack Obama was elected President of the United States is a miracle. And it is going to take a miracle for the Israelis and Palestinians to stop fighting each other. What the heck, nothing else is working right now.

The Patzcuaro artisan who made this mask also makes crosses, hearts, and picture frames all covered in milagros...which are really nice examples of quality contemporary Mexican folk art. More milagro art can be seen on www.mexicobyhand.com.

So here's the scoop on milagros:
A believer will make a vow to a saint or to a sacred object, and later they will make a pilgrimage to the site of a shrine or church and take a milagro there and leave it as a sign of gratitude and devotion. People also carry milagros for protection and good luck. Milagros can represent specific objects, persons, or even animals, or they might represent concepts that might be symbolized by the object represented in the milagro. For example, a head might represent a person, the mind or the spirit, or a physical condition such a headache. A milagro of a leg might be used to cure some condition associated with a leg - such as arthritis. Or, it might refer to travel, the leg implying walking. Similarly, a heart might represent a heart condition that one is praying for a cure, or as a thank you for answering the prayers of the lovelorn.
If you go to the basilica in Patzcuaro, as in other churches in Mexico, you will see milagros being used and the evidence of something called a "manda”. This is where a person will ask a favor of a saint, and then, in order to repay the favor after it has been granted, he or she makes a pilgrimage to the shrine of that saint, and and leaves a milagro pinned to an object of devotion. If you go to Patzcuaro, look for them just after you enter the basilica on the left side, plus look at the little messages of thanks people have written on a piece of paper. Really interesting, especially if you can read Spanish. You can buy some milagros for a few pesos at one of the stalls right outside where they sell quite a fun assortment of kitchy religious objects. You can stock up on your Jesus night-lights there too.
Try to go in the morning--for breakfast-- when the corundas are hot and fresh. Corundas are the Michoacán tamales that are made in corn leaves, rather than the usual husk. They bathe them with green salsa and crema (yes, you should get it) and they are VERY filling. A corunda and a cup of hot atole (a corn-based hot drink) flavored with canela (cinnamon), tamarindo or guayaba (guava) to go with, will cost you 20 pesos, or about $2. I like the guayaba best and I usually go to Angela's table pictured here. If you're lucky, as you eat your food and take in the sights and sounds of this wonderful town around you, you'll be serenaded by an old street musician who plays a funky, well-worn guitar and sings old Spanish love songs with an amazing soulful voice. There's nothing like it.