Juan Mata Ortíz is a small village of potters, farmers and cowboys in Northern Chihuahua. About 30 years ago, an unschooled artistic genius, Juan Quezada, taught himself how to make earthenware jars in a method used hundreds of years ago by the prehistoric inhabitants. Now, his works are known worldwide and over 300 men, women and children in the village of less than 2000 make decorative wares. Much of the polychrome and blackware is feather light and exquisitely painted.
Many of the potters are also cowboys and farmers. These stories serve to document the art and the people in this unassuming pueblo, which is often called “magical” by the relative handful of tourists who visit. Enjoy this other view of Mexico.
Armando Rodriguez is a wiry young cowboy with a ready smile wrapped in a face of tanned leather. He and his wife, Olivia, are also potters and they live with their three children in a barrio just outside the central part of Mata Ortíz. Both Armando and Olivia make earthenware bowls, usually of an orange or dark red clay. His designs often involve a fine patchwork of black squares covering the pot and are the result of painstaking hours hunched and squinting over the vessel. Olivia originally was just her husband’s helper, but now she also builds and paints her own pieces with designs similar to Armando’s. Their home is a pleasure to visit, filled with happy children and the two parents, who always warmly greet visitors with wide smiles.
Pottery-making has helped Armando build a small herd of cattle, which runs the range on the west side of the valley. One day, he invited me to go with him to tend a calf which had been bitten the week before by a black widow spider.
I arrived the next morning, cowboy boots in place, sombrero on my head. Armando’s horse was a gleaming chestnut. My steed was a dusty bay which looked at me, an amateur, with disdain. Armando warned, ‘When we’re on a narrow path, stay back. My horse doesn’t like yours.” During the day, two or three attempted kicks with a hind hoof from his horse, underscored his advice.
We set off up the road, thorugh his brother’s property and soon we had crossed the road into the llano, or plain. The search was on for the cow and her injured calf. We trotted through the dry scrub, past the stunted mesquite trees and over parched grass. Cattle mottled the landscape in small groups. Not only Armando’s herd ran here. He and 20 others had formed an association to lease land from the ejido. Each rancher’s animals were distinguished from the others by brands and ear nicks. Finally, after about an hour, Armando spotted the calf, nibbling at a ragged patch of grass. “Wait her until I lasso her,” he ordered, and I reined in my bay.
Armando was immediately transformed. No longer the mild-mannered, laughing potter, as he urged his horse into a gallop, Armando leaned forward, low over the saddle horn and melded himself into the steed. The two were one as they streaked across the plain, zigzagging back and forth until he could get the calf within range of his lasso. Once that rope snaked out, it was all over. Armando and partner jerked to a halt and the hapless calf was flipped onto its side. Nearby, the worried mama cow bellowed uselessly.
I trotted over to document the scene with my camera as Armando expertly injected a large syringe of penicillin into the haunch and freed the calf that galloped off with his mother.
Back in the saddle, we began the trek homeward. The mission was accomplished and there were pots to polish in his cramped studio. The valley spread around us, golden under a cloudless, blue July sky. A hawk was a black silhouette circling on a thermal. The only sound was the soft clump of the horses’ hooves. The moment seemed timeless. I felt the world could end everywhere else and we wouldn’t know it.
I asked Armando a question, but the answer was already self-evident.
“Which do I prefer?” he replied. “Well, the potterymaking feeds the family and has helped me improve my house. I’ve added rooms and now we have indoor plumbing, so the pottery is necessary. But I’d rather be riding, I’d rather be tending my cattle.”