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Mexican artisans of Lake Cajititlan

John Pint

Halfway between Guadalajara and Lake Chapala in Western Mexico, lies little Lake Cajititlan. Although the lake produces great quantities of fish, you'll have a hard time finding a seafood restaurant along its shores. In fact, most of the fish caught here end up being served to hungry customers of the many restaurants on nearby Lake Valencia. Why do the people around Cajititlán show so little interest in the restaurant business? I contend that their minds are on higher things, because every community around this lake is home to artists of one sort or another, many of them following traditions that go back to pre-Columbian times.

Lake Cajititlan in the Mexican state of Jalisco
© John Pint, 2012
Lake Cajititlan in the Mexican state of Jalisco
© John Pint, 2012

Touring the pueblitos strung along the shore of Lake Cajititlan is like visiting a kind of live-in art gallery, a truly remarkable one because both the art and the artisans are — at first glance — nowhere to be seen. Let's begin our tour at the northwest corner of the lake and then continue in a counter-clockwise direction.

The traditional rope makers of San Miguel

The town of San Miguel Cuyutlan is famous throughout Mexico and even known in the USA for its rodeo-quality lariats, hand-made in the traditional manner. I first visited San Miguel hoping to watch its famed rope makers practicing their craft in their own backyards, so to speak.

First, we drove a few blocks to the church and, eighty meters west of it, came to the town plaza, which we expected to be surrounded by shops selling those famous lariats, but, we discovered to our surprise that there was not a single rope shop in town, much less any sort of establishment catering to tourists.

Undaunted, I asked, "But you do make ropes here, don't you?"

"Sí que sí, everyone replied, "lots of people here make ropes."

So we began to look for rope makers and eventually ended up in the casa of 72-year old master rope maker Don Isidro Díaz, a kindly, soft-spoken old gent who now uses a cane to get around. "How long have you been making riatas, I asked him?

"Riatas?" I don't make riatas," he replied. "I make sogas."

I had used the wrong word. Riata is the origin of the English word lariat, an interesting corruption of "la riata," but Don Isidro quickly pointed out that his ropes were much stronger than a mere riata and were referred to by rope makers as sogas.

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Well, it turned out that Don Isidro learned his trade at the tender age of 15 and after making ropes for over half a century, has gained the fame of a master craftsman. "You won't believe it," he told me, "but people call me now from places like Chicago and Nevada and they come all the way here to buy their sogas."

I asked Don Isidro if I could get a picture of him standing next to a heap of what I assumed were coils of rope in a corner of his living room. "Those aren't ropes, they're just strands — see how thin they are? They need five more months of work before they'll be incorporated into sogas. They have to be just perfect because charros (cowboys) won't buy them unless I give them my guarantee."

I asked for how many months he guaranteed them.

"Months? My guarantee is for the life of the rope!"

Of course, I wanted to see the place where the ropes are made, but Don Isidro warned me, "Foreigners have come here expecting to see a factory full of machines. I hope you won't be disappointed, because we have no machines — we do everything by hand."

I was not at all disappointed. The soga-making works are located only a few blocks from Don Isidro's house. Nothing like a factory, it's an open-air operation — a flat place where strands of rope up to 100 meters long are stretched between stakes, only a few inches above the ground. The strands are made of twisted ixtle (sisal) fiber which comes from a wild maguey, a relative of the one used for making tequila.

It was a Saturday afternoon and no one was working in the "non-factory." We were about to leave when one of the rope makers appeared. His name was Fernando Romero and he told us that different procedures in soga-making are carried out at different times of the work day, which begins at 5 a.m. This afternoon, he would be "twisting."

How in the world he was going to twist those already tightly stretched cords, I couldn't imagine, but Romero plucked one of them and said, "See, this one is a little slack." With brute strength, he then slipped the looped end of the rope off the stake and, maintaining tension, walked over to an axle with a handle mounted on a sturdy pole. He slipped the loop over a pin at the end of the axle and turned the handle vigorously for about a minute. Again, straining mightily, he transferred the loop back to the stake.

This procedure of tightening the strands goes on for many months, Romero told us.

Next came a curious procedure. Romero grabbed a thick wad of loose sisal fibers and wrapped it around one of the stretched cords which he then lifted up to shoulder level. He now began to walk forward — against great resistance — sliding the rope through the loofa-like wad of fibers, another operation requiring strength and endurance. "I do this 30 times in each direction, for each cord… every day," he shouted over his shoulder as he disappeared off into the distance.

By then I was convinced that the pre-nylon manner of making rope was a difficult and meticulous business indeed and only by rising before dawn and watching all day long would I ever be able to understand and appreciate it.

If you'd like to take a look at a completed soga de charro (only natural fiber ropes are allowed in official competitions of charrería), it's easy to do because Don Isidro Díaz's home is also a toy shop and a beauty parlor as well, open to the public. Should you want to buy a soga, I learned that the price of a 14-meter-long piece (about 50 feet) is around 1,100 pesos (about 86 US dollars). You'll probably agree they are worth a whole lot more if you also spend some time at the soga-making works, only 400 meters up the street.

Just in case you are one of those people in Nevada searching for an authentic rodeo rope made the good old way, you can contact Don Isidro Díaz at (52) 333 772-4364.

The basalt sculptors of San Lucas

Following the edge of Lake Cajititlán south, we next come to San Lucas Evangelista. If you wander into its plaza, you may get the impression that the whole town is asleep, but don't be deceived by appearances. There's plenty of activity going on behind the scenes in almost every backyard, for this little town has been home to makers of metates and molcajetes for at least 600 years and probably a lot more. Metates, of course, are flat slabs of volcanic rock for grinding lime-softened corn, while molcajetes are round mortars traditionally with three legs, used for pulverizing chili peppers, tomatoes and other ingredients used in salsas. Today, as in the past, each of these kitchen tools is hand-made from appropriate native rock which, as you might suspect, can be found in great abundance only minutes from the village.

When we first wandered into San Lucas Evangelista, we had no idea where to find the basalt sculptors, but after knocking on a few doors, we were welcomed into the home of Victor Cocula, who told us he was one of some 300 local people who follow the long standing tradition of transforming the hard local rock into practical appliances as well as works of art.

Basalt sculptures in San Lucas, Jalisco
© John Pint, 2012
Basalt sculptures in San Lucas, Jalisco
© John Pint, 2012

Such items, in fact, can be found in every corner of Cocula's living room and included busts, commemorative plaques and clever water filters along with the traditional mortars. "My ancestors have been making things like these for a very long time," Cocula told me. "In fact, only recently a neighbor dug up a metate in the local cemetery which amazed all the craftsmen of the village. It appears to be some 600 years old, decorated with the head of a dog. The quality of workmanship is extraordinary. There are no tell-tale chisel marks on it anywhere — in fact, it's so smooth it appears to have been machined. We can't explain how it was done, but it's proof positive that sculptors have been at work here for a long, long time."

By now, of course, I was dying to observe the process by which these items had been made and I immediately accepted Victor Cocula's offer to take me to the nearby basalt mines where the rock is extracted.

It turned out the mines — quarries really — were only a half hour's walk from the village, just up the hill on the way to El Cerro Viejo, which looms on the horizon.

We climbed down into a long, deep man-made gully which seemed to go on forever. The steep walls on either side consist of basalt boulders undermined by decades of digging, and are anything but stable. "Over the years," said Victor's father, "we've lost five people to rock falls in these mines. Two of them died quite recently."

We arrived at the family's favorite spot along the trench and — while his father deftly turned out a dozen "manos" (pestles), Victor walked me through the process of converting a rock into a sculpture.

"We are fortunate people here," he told me as he tapped several rocks with a short hand pick. "If we need 100 pesos for something, we just walk up the hill to the mine and look for a rock that could be turned into a molcajete."

He went over to a bowling-ball sized rock embedded in the wall of the trench, knocked the dirt off one spot and tapped the rock with the pointy end of his pick, producing small pits in the surface. "This rock is fine-grained but not too hard. See? All the holes are very tiny. Besides that, it has no sand embedded in it. The last thing people want is to find grains of sand in their salsa."

He lifted the rock and, like a true Mexican Michelangelo, said: "I see a molcajete inside. I could turn this into a five-inch-diameter round one or a heart-shaped one. Now, the round one would bring me 70 pesos while the heart-shape will be worth 150 pesos, so I'll go for the latter. OK, it looks like there's enough rock here to put three legs on this mortar, but first I have to check if there are any natural faults."

A few swift blows revealed just such a fault and the craftsman removed a one-inch layer, leaving the rock flat on the bottom. "Oops, not enough room for legs anymore, but it'll still make a fine piece. Now I have to see if this rock has "hilo."

This, he explained, means that the rock will fracture in the direction the sculptor intends, rather than "doing its own thing."

"Qué bueno," said Victor. "It has hilo," and he deftly used the flat end of his pick to quickly give the rock the external shape he wanted. Then he turned the pick around and used the pointed end to begin hollowing it out. "These blows must be neither too heavy nor too light," he commented as tiny chips flew everywhere.

"Don't you ever get a piece in your eye? I asked, noting that neither he nor his father was wearing goggles. "Ha! All the time," he said laughing.

"Sí sí," chimed in his father: "Chips in the eye siempre!"

The rock now looked like a heart-shaped mortar and would be carried back down to Victor's back yard for some two to three hours of fine tuning and smoothing. But before we left the mine, my companions walked me over to an enormous boulder.

"My family, the Coculas, have a project. We want to create the world's largest molcajete. A year ago, we made one 1.7 meters in diameter and 64 centimeters high, decorated with chiles and tomatoes. It weighs between 800 and 850 kilos and is on permanent display at the original Burritos de Moyahua restaurant in Zacatecas. This year we hope to break our record and make one over two meters long, if, of course, this big rock has all the right characteristics."

Just moving the giant rock will involve expenses and the Coculas are looking for all the sponsors they can find… and the first steps have already been taken to try registering their giant mortar in the Guinness Book of Records.

The ceramics master of San Juan

While it is quite difficult to locate the artisans in the two above-mentioned towns, the pueblo of San Juan Evangelista actually boasts a Plaza de los Artesanos, which is surrounded by workshops where lumps of clay are turned into works of art.

In one of these talleres, we walked in on Martín Navarro Ibarra, who was intently working on a beautiful figure of an owl which — when he turned it — proved to be a pencil holder as well. Several other unfinished pieces lay on his desk, each one demonstrating the extraordinary imagination, skill and attention to detail of this master sculptor.

When we asked him about the tradition of ceramic-making in San Juan, Navarro Ibarra told us that in his town, three generations have been developing their skills in this medium, all of them inspired by his great uncle, Don Sixto Ibarra (1928-2001) who, it seems, became interested in ceramics when he found figurines in a shaft tomb near the town. "My great uncle started out trying to duplicate the ancient pieces he had found, but ended up founding a school of creative sculpting, especially in the medium of burnished clay."

Not knowing much about pottery, I asked what burnishing means. Martín explained that it involves rubbing the outside of the pot with a hard (often metal) tool which rearranges and compresses the surface particles of clay, resulting in a smooth, even texture which almost looks like a glaze. Martín then showed us his favorite burnishing tool: a stainless steel valve taken from a car's engine. "It's the very best thing I've found for doing the job," he swears.

Having discovered that the basalt sculpting of nearby San Lucas probably goes back to pre-Hispanic times due to the abundance of natural raw material just outside the town, I asked Martín Ibarra whether there happened to be a source of modeling clay near San Juan.

"Actually, there is very good clay just a 40-minute walk from here," he told us, "and this is what I always use. I suspect the same clay was also used to make many of the ancient figurines found in this area."

Ceramist Martín Navarro Ibarra of San Juan, Jalisco
© John Pint, 2012
Ceramist Martín Navarro Ibarra of San Juan, Jalisco © John Pint, 2012

This added strength to my theory that the tradition of arts and crafts around Lake Cajititlán preceded the arrival of the Spaniards and this supposition was again confirmed when Martín took us inside the church of San Juan, completed by the Franciscans in 1617. "I think all the sculpting and carving was done by local people," he told us, "and you'll notice that most of the angels look like natives of San Juan."

To my wife and me, several of those faces look very much like Martín's, as a matter of fact.

The church of San Juan is definitely curious. First of all, it is right behind the town's cemetery, "an old Franciscan tradition," explained Martín. Those same friars, it seems, also decided that the church would incorporate both pre-Hispanic and Christian motifs. "The very design of the front of the building is a huge representation of Tlaloc, god of rain," said Martín, "and everywhere you see the motif of flowers, a reminder that the town was originally called Xochitlán (the place of the flowers). You can also see serpents in several places, even a few plumed serpents. And long chains of symbols representing "Olin," the wind, cover the outside walls."

Getting back to the subject of pottery, Martín told us that about once a month he puts a sledgehammer and a pick into a wheelbarrow which he pushes out to the place where his great-uncle discovered the best sort of clay for modeling. We asked if we could tag along sometime and, in fact, one fine day in February, we joined him as he started out from the Plaza. After a few minutes, we left the sounds and sights of the town behind and headed into a wooded plain. Soon the track we were walking on turned into a long ribbon of churned-up dried mud.

"There are still plenty of wild animals out here," Martín told us as we walked along, our feet producing a loud crunching sound. "Right there you can see coyote droppings and we have mountain lions, deer, possum, badgers, rabbits… you name it."

Soon we arrived at a shady spot under the branches of a large tree. Here we left our picnic fixings, which we would have to earn by becoming miners for a while. Just next to the shade tree was an embankment and here Martín began to swing his pick, chipping away at the hard clay wall. I took my turn and soon we had produced a heap of hard, thin, clay wedges. "Now we have to break up the pieces," he announced, "and the easiest way to do it is to dance on top of them." We enthusiastically took turns rhythmically stomping until no big clumps were left, at which point we began pulverizing the clay with the small sledgehammer. As we did this, Martín told us about good and bad clay.

"What we have here is called barro canelo and it's ideal for pottery, with good elasticity. My great uncle looked all over the place before he found this spot. Other kinds of clay were too sandy or had no consistency or would break after being baked."

Having crushed the clay to the best of our ability, we sifted it through a fine mesh screen into a sturdy bag. The result was a very fine powder which Martín said was perfect. "At home I will add water to a little of this powder to make a ball and then I work it like dough, adding more and more powder until I get just the right consistency."

Having fulfilled our mission, we had a picnic under the big shade tree and carried our load back to San Juan where we had expected to say our goodbyes and be on our way. "Oh no," said Martín's mother, "you have to try my tostadas first… and have a cup of this mango juice, made from the first fruits of the season."

No sooner had we sat down to feast on these delights, than the door burst open and in came about seven people, a mix of Mexicans and Americans, carrying armfuls of food and drink. After exchanging greetings, we whispered to Martín: "We'll be on our way now, to make room for your relatives."

"Oh, they're not relatives;" he replied, "they're friends… like you."

This is a price of fame and talent I had never thought about and I admire Martín Navarro even more for his ability to produce masterpiece after masterpiece in between visits by well-meaning journalists and admirers.

If you are not only an admirer, but also a customer, most days you can find Martín in his workshop at the north end of the Plaza de Artesanos, across from the church. He can be reached at (52) 333 753-0018 (a Guadalajara number).

Consuelo's creations in Cajititlan

Horse hair strands for weaving
© John Pint, 2012
Horse hair strands for weaving
© John Pint, 2012

I had been told that in the town of Cajititlán at the eastern end of the lake of the same name, we could find people who know how to turn the hair from the manes and tails of horses into elegant belts, bracelets, ornaments and even jewelry. Of course we started out looking for a shop announcing "Horsehair Creations" but found no such establishment. So, as in the other towns around the lake, we began chatting with everyone we met and were eventually led to a private home where we were welcomed by Consuelo Cervantes and her son Diego, who — upon discovering how curious we were about their craft — began to show us all kinds of beautiful and ingenious handicrafts made from long strands of hand-woven horsehair. "We normally go to rodeos and similar events where we sell our products to charros and other people who love horses," they explained. "So our customers don't come to us… we go to them."

It was hard to believe the elegant belts they were selling were actually made of horsehair until they took us to a back room and Consuelo showed us how easily she could weave a few long strands of a horse's mane into tresses which were again interwoven with others, eventually resulting in a belt or bracelet displaying beautiful patterns.

"But how did you learn to do all this?" we asked.

"You won't believe it, but it was actually thanks to a gringo from Ajijic. His name was Jim Marthai and thirty years ago he taught me these skills… and I, in turn, have taught others." Jim Marthai, we were told, died several years ago, but his legacy lives on in Cajititlán.

In case you would like to see these marvelous horsehair creations for yourself, you don't have to head for the nearest rodeo. All you have to do is call (52) 333 161-5199 and ask for David (who speaks English). The family can also be contacted by email: kraccris@hotmail.com.

Published or Updated on: May 18, 2012 by John Pint © 2012
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