The Crafts of Michoacan

by Mildred Boyd

      When the first Bishop arrived in Michoacan he found his new diocese in chaos—the people demoralized, their rulers dead, their fields and shops destroyed and their trade disrupted. Nuno de Guzman, self styled King of the Tarascans, had indulged in a rampage of torturing and killing before fleeing to spread his particular brand of devastation further in Jalisco.
      Don Vasco de Quiroga faced the formidable task of trying to pacify, to say nothing of convert, a sullen populace utterly disenchanted with anything Spanish. He began by feeding the hungry, founding schools and hospitals and, more important, shoring up the shattered economy. It is said that he defied his king and risked a death penalty by importing young olive trees from Spain to provide a new industry. He also supported reestablishment of old crafts and brought European artisans to teach new and improved ones. To avoid competition for the same limited markets, he encouraged each village to specialize in one particular craft or product. Weavers and stone carvers, potters and metal workers—all the skilled craftsmen answered his call.
      The love and reverence in which the people hold Don Vasco’ memory and the stunning variety of crafts they still produce are ample evidence of his success.


     This village with the singing name that means “where the butterflies are” was once the capital of the great Purepecha empire and the site of the first cathedral, though that was later moved to Patzcuaro. It specializes in pottery with a creamy white glaze decorated with simple line drawings in black. The drawings, often crudely done but always charming, reflect the major local industry and show fish, boats or fishermen wielding the graceful butterfly nets that have become the trademark of Lake Patzcuaro.


     Capula’s artisans are also ceramicists but their products bear little resemblance to the simple wares of Tzintzuntzan. Again, the subject is often fish but the execution is far more sophisticated. Against a warm brown background, usually with a scrolled border of bright blue or green, very lifelike fish swim vigourously. The whole central motif is then stippled with thousands of tiny dots in a creamy beige much like a pointillist painting.

 Santa Clara del Cobre  

     The craftsmen of the Purepecha were already noted for metallurgical skills far in advance of their neighbors. There is even speculation that their remote ancestors brought the knowledge with them from far-away Peru. Naturally, a village called Saint Clara of the Copper (now a National Historical Monument) chose working with that metal as its specialty. Today, the sound of metal being hammered into shape reverberates through streets lined with shops selling a profusion of gleaming ornamental and utilitarian articles that will, with age, acquire the lovely mellow patina shown here.


     In the mountainous areas of Michoacan there are unexpected villages of wooden houses with steep roofs and sweeping eaves that would look more at home in Switzerland than in Mexico. Paracho is just such a village and its craft specialty is equally surprising. If you have ever wondered where all those fancy guitars come from, this is the place. The lovingly crafted instruments produced here have earned an international reputation for both quality of workmanship and musical tone.


     Craftsmen here are skilled in the exacting art of lacquer ware. This requires the application of many coats of brilliant lacquer ending with the background color. The design is then developed by carefully cutting away overlying layers to reveal the desired color. Though the final product is well worth the effort, the process is so delicate and time consuming that it is in danger of dying out. Much of the work found in Uruapan today is simply painted. Only a few craftsmen cling to the old ways to produce masterpieces of color and texture such as this hexagonal tray.

 San Jose de Gracias  

     This is where skilled potters specialize in pineapple pots, so called because in shape and texture they vaguely resemble that fruit. A few of these very elaborate pots even wear a golden brown glaze. Traditionally, however, they are a vivid green. The texture is achieved by appliqueing thin bits of clay to the basic form and lids are often in the shape of spiked foliage. Designed to serve pulque, they were originally quite large and were often equipped with matching cups hung on hooks. The collection shown here is only a sample of the many sizes and shapes produced today.


     Tarascan women are noted for their fine needlework. Their ancient costume of falda and huipile, still widely worn, is lavishly embroidered in a brilliant array of colors. Since each village has its own special patterns and motifs, the expert can not only tell at a glance where a garment came from, but, quite often, name the family of the woman who produced it. Many earn extra money by producing items like this handsome rebozo which, though traditional in execution, are specifically designed for the tourist trade.

     Masks have always played an important part in Mexican life and the artisans of Tocuaro have long been noted for their skill in carving and painting the wooden likenesses of saints and demons, heroes and villains used in the historical dramas, morality plays and comic shenanigans which enliven every fiesta. Especially popular in Michoacan is the Los Viejitos dance in which boys don wrinkled, toothless masks and act the part of little old men whose shuffling antics always include a great deal of hilarious horseplay.

     Many village craftsmen work with wood, producing beautifully carved furniture, doors and screens as well as hand turned wooden bowls and statues of everything from horses to saints. Erongaricuaro, once known for its textiles, now boasts a small factory and does a thriving business making fine furniture for export to the States. The elaborate mirror frame shown here, though actually from Patzcuaro is typical of the lovely pieces produced in obscure back yard workshops all over Michoacan.


     Though the villagers of Ocumicho practice a ancient craft, their subject matter is definitely post conquest. Local legend has it that one of the local potters wryly remarked that, since, according to the priests, they were all going to hell anyway, they might as well choose devils as their specialty. And devils it is; devils alone brandishing pitchforks, devils in groups engaged in various extremely unlikely activities, even diabolic nativities with everyone, including the decidedly “unholy” family, sporting horns instead of halos. These delightfully demonic motor-cyclists, cruising along with expressions of fiendish glee, are typical of the whimsical humor displayed in their work.