Hecho en Mexico

by Mildred Boyd

      The Mexican people have been likened to “new shoots of a plant that has its roots in the past, leaves and flowers in the present, and seeds for the future.”
      Nowhere is this comparison more apt than in the field of craftsmanship. Almost everything produced today has an echo of the past as far back as pre-Colombian times. Potters turn out graceful vessels exactly like those found in the midden heaps of the Olmeca. Women weave the motifs of the ancient religions into their huipiles and wood carvers produce whole pantheons of the animal avatars of prehistoric deities. Yet they are not hidebound by tradition and are always quick to adopt new materials, motifs and techniques, from Mickey Mouse, to thermoplastics, as they become available.
      Mexican craftsmen can make something beautiful, clever, amusing or just plain useful out of almost anything. A stroll through any market will reveal items made from clay, wood, stone, tin, textiles and paper in many forms, as well as materials that most people consider fit only for the garbage heap. Gourds, shells, bones, used tin or plastic containers, old flour or feed sacks, straw, reeds, palm leaves, all take on new and useful identities under the skilled fmgers of Mexican artisans.


     Those who work with wood produce purely utilitarian items like bowls, spoons and trivets, elaborately carved furniture and doors, and figurines of animals and people in endless array. Possibly the most artistically demanding, however, are the wooden masks that have been an integral part of religious ceremonies from time immemorial. Whoever wore such a mask was believed to become the person or animal it represented and to be endowed with all its powers. Perhaps the magic has faded, but masks like the one shown here are still worn for the story-telling dances that are an important part of all fiestas. This 7-1/2 inch example is used in a dance called Los Negritos and comes from Michoacan.


     The lowly calabaza, with flesh and seeds removed and properly dried, has long provided bowls, spoons, strainers, water bottles and containers for foods and liquids. In ancient times they were used to cook stews by dropping heated stones into the liquid until it boiled. Small ones are filled with pebbles to make rattles and maracas or painted to make dolls’ heads. The women of Michoacan wear tiny, lacquered gourds as earrings. Most articles are decorated in some way but few are as extravagant as the striking example shown here. Gold leaf has been applied to the entire surface and covered with several coats of lacquer. The design was then carefully incised to reveal the desired color. The irregular zigzag cut around the neck makes this a useful container as well as a work of art.



     With a few simple tools, tinsmiths create a wide variety of useful and ornamental objects from cheap, easily worked and lightweight tinplate. A wooden mallet, metal shears, a soldering iron, a few punches, chisels and stamps plus a suitable work surface are all that is required to turn out everything from simple tin cups to elegantly robed figures of the Virgin Mary. Candlesticks, lampshades, picture or mirror frames, boxes, trunks and canisters for storing practically anything, funnels, toys, tin whistles and those delightfully colorful Christmas ornaments are only a few of their creations. Serious artists use tinplate worked in the low relief called repousse to create masterpieces and elaborate crowns, like the one shown here, are worn in the narrative Dance of the Moors.


     Bone, tortoise shell, deer antlers and horn, plus a lot of ingenuity, provided many useful items in ancient times, drinking and cooking vessels, tools, digging sticks, spindle whorls, beads, musical instruments and small carved figures, to name just a few. Modern artisans still use many of the same materials. Huave and Lacandon women still make their necklaces of polished fish vertebrae, small bones and toucan beaks, and miniature figures carved from bone are often seen in native markets. The artisans of San Antonio de la Isla in the state of Mexico are known for their work with carved and painted cow’s horn. The finny fellow shown here is actually a very efficient comb.



     In ancient times, paper was made from the pounded inner bark of trees, particularly that of the strangler fig. Coated with gesso, it made an excellent surface for recording astronomical observations, myths, prophesies and histories. Strips of paper or cut figures, soaked in the blood of the donor and scented with incense, were burned as sacrificial offerings to the gods. Today, most bark paper paintings record colorful snippets of village life and are produced mainly for the tourist trade, but the Otomi of Puebla still use cutouts of “seed spirits” sprouting mature fruits or vegetables from their bodies in rituals to insure good crop yields. Our example is typical of the fine detail that goes into such work.



     Palm trees have proved a veritable cornucopia of useful gifts throughout history. In addition to being lovely to look at, they have provided mankind with shelter, clothing, tools, utensils, containers and food. Palm-thatched houses with woven palm walls, floors and ceilings can still be seen in many tropical areas and such delicious treats as coconuts and dates still delight us while modern artisans use palm leaves and fibers in many ingenious ways. Hats, woven mats (petates), fans, trays, furniture and toys are only a few. Basket makers produce an array of baskets, trays, boxes and mats in an astonishing variety of colors, shapes and techniques. Our example is done by wrapping brilliantly dyed strands of palm around grass cores and sewing the resulting coils into the desired shape. It is 10-1/2 inches in diameter and comes from Santa Ana Tepatitlan.


     Pottery-making is possibly the most ancient of all crafts. No one knows when the first man or, more probably, woman noticed that clay became stronger, more durable and virtually waterproof after exposure to high heat, but even the most primitive cultures produced enough potsherds to provide a time line for modern archaeologists. Skilled Mexican ceramicists use modern techniques and sophisticated kilns to produce fine dinnerware, vases and figurines, but the village housewife can still make whatever she needs from the local clay fired in a simple pit. This seemingly whimsical, purple-striped group is used in the equally ancient rites of shamanistic healing. The figures represent the sick person, the shaman and his helper, and a number of animals and insects that are both witnesses to and instruments of the healing process.