Craft Centers in Mexico

Screen Shot 2016-04-21 at 8.53.13 AMBy Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken

A fascinating part of our trips in Mexico has been the opportunity to visit villages known for having artisans who create distinctive crafts utilizing locally available materials. In many of these villages, techniques for producing these handicrafts have been passed down from generation to generation, but the final creations vary over time and from one artisan to the next. The shopper’s challenge is to identify the most appealing ones, as no two are identical.

For many years, we simply enjoyed learning about the crafts and occasionally purchasing items for our home in the U.S. We have a treasured pair of beautiful candlesticks from a village specializing in silverware outside of Taxco and a piece of black pottery from San Bartolo Coyotepec, 8 miles from Oaxaca City.

As a kind of family tradition, every year we buy a small alebrije from Arrazola or one of the other villages near Oaxaca City where artisans specialize in carving these whimsical creatures (see the article by Alvin Starkman in this issue for more about alebrijes). Our youngest granddaughter has started her own alebrije collection and sends us on an annual hunt for a specific type of alebrije on her wish list – last year a peacock.

We had concluded that we were finished buying “stuff,” as much as we loved these mementos from Mexico. But at the time when we purchased our condo in Huatulco, our interest in handicrafts became more pragmatic. We had many rooms to furnish and decorate and had decided to appoint our Oaxacan home with Mexican goods.

Puebla, the only home of talavera pottery and tiles, was one of the first centers we explored.   Fewer than ten workshops in Puebla still use the techniques brought by colonial Spanish settlers to produce the highly distinctive clay objects with colorful patterns that seem to float on the white underglaze. The oldest existing workshop is Uriarte Talavera, founded by the Uriarte family. Many of their designs are traditional, but others are created every day by artists, often one of the Uriarte family members, and even can be custom designed to order.

There is no mistaking the Uriarte building, since the facade is covered with magnificent tiles made onsite. We were fortunate enough during our first visit to the workshop to be given a tour by the eldest Señor Uriarte, who, although long retired, frequently visits to be sure that the business now running the production is still staying true to the 16th century techniques.

All pottery and tiles are produced by hand, from the mixing of the exact proportions of local clay, the shaping on potters wheels or with wood or metal implements, to the drying on pallets, the application of the white glaze, firing in kilns, and then application of designs in colorful paints. Because of the meticulous labor involved and the cost of obtaining the best materials and talented artists, talavera prices are high by Mexico standards but will seem remarkably cheap if you have looked at similar products in other countries.

The brilliance of the colors is heightened, in part by lead. When we asked Señor Uriarte about possible health problems due to lead, he just laughed and pointed out that generations of his family ate and drank from talavera plates and cups, and he was the living proof of the longevity of the Uriarte family. Still, it is good to know that the addition of lead is kept to the lowest practical level. For the cautious shopper, some workshops are producing lead-free talavera. But the visitor should at least take some time to view the leaded originals.

Hundreds of shops in the historic area of Puebla carry talavera, or other pottery and tiles resembling talavera but not certified as the real product. We often browse in these shops and buy a few items. But our most prized possessions, serving platters, plates, jars and covers, and cups come right from the Uriarte shop. We usually stop by every year and covet many of the items on display, taking an hour or so to select our annual purchase. In our view, the very best talavera in our lives is our custom-made Uriarte tile mural recessed in a wall on our patio, positioned so that we can see it not only from our dining table but also from our bed. The cost of this handmade mural was actually less than just buying high-quality exterior tiles, paints, and mortar in the US, and shipping them to Mexico.

Tzintzuntzan, a small village on the northeast side of Lake Patzcuaro in the State of Michoacán attracts tourists interested in its archeological site and a colonial monastery. We go for baskets and other woven items in the market in the shade of the monastery. The village was thriving centuries before the conquistadors invaded “New Spain.”   Close to a millennium of weaving reeds from the lake and straw has resulted in perfect baskets, large and small, for many purposes.

Unlike the highly colored dyed straw baskets from other parts of the country, Tzintzuntzan weavers select materials that naturally have different hues of greens, browns and yellows. Although at first glance the baskets produced by different families seem the same, a closer examination makes clear that the patterns differ from artisan to artisan. As the baskets age, the colors change; however they maintain their integrity and charm.

How many Tzintzuntzan baskets can two people buy? Well, when you furnish a home in Mexico – eschewing plastic and going green – the answer is enough to fill the back of an SUV.   The largest with a cover is the perfect clothes hamper in our master bath. Each room has a medium size basket for recycling paper. Our kitchen has a delightful tortilla basket. And we use small baskets for odds and ends. Other woven articles available are wall hangings, fanciful animals, and fans.

Amatenango del Valle in the state of Chiapas is painted-pottery heaven. The primary potters are women who still dress in their traditional brightly colored skirts and blouses, The pieces they produce range from charming little pots and covers in the shapes of chickens or other animals, to statues of jaguars in various sizes, to huge chimineas – free-standing fire places.

The pottery is made of local clay, fired at relatively low temperatures in ground-level ovens. Some of the pottery is painted in brilliant colors, although the canonical colors of the jaguars are the natural terra cotta red spotted with black. The artisans produce a variety of macetas or flower pots that seem to be infinitely diverse in their sizes, shapes, colors and designs.

In the last few years, tour buses have been making a stop at a pottery cooperative off the main road between Comitan and San Cristóbal. Prices have increased accordingly in that store. However, other artisans in Amatenango del Valle still provide pottery at cost well below similar items sold in nearby San Cristóbal.

Over the years, we’ve equipped our terraces with large plain macetas in which our plants flourish. Bright large colored peacocks stand guard in our guest room. And roosters have found a home on the top of our kitchen cabinets. We’re still debating over whether a Chiapas jaguar would enhance our Oaxacan home.

Most artisans in these and other villages we have visited are justifiably proud of their craft. They welcome visitors to their workshops. And often they are more than willing to explain the processes they use. But you should ask before taking photos, unless you see other shoppers are taking photos without resistance. You don’t have to buy items for your own home – keep in mind friends and relatives who would be pleasantly surprised by a gift from a Mexican craft center.

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