Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Mexico's Tarasco Indians

MEXICO’S CRAFT VILLAGES WORTH THE TIME AND EFFORT


       Everywhere in Mexico, you will find folk art and handmade crafts for sale - in the streets, in markets and galleries and from vendors who approach people reading on a bench or drinking coffee in a sidewalk cafe.
       I saw some of the best of these crafts when I was spending a sabbatical semester in Morelia, Mexico, a historic city on the high mesa between Mexico City and Guadalajara. I lived with a physician and his family who spoke only Spanish, giving me an opportunity to inflict my attempts at conversation on a compassionate audience.
       At one point after my wife, Carla, had visited me, the master of the casa took me aside to caution me that my marriage would get into trouble if I didn’t learn to use the command voice necessary in talking to women and children. Later, my psychologist wife wryly informed me that some well-intended advice is better not taken.
       Besides taking courses in Spanish language and Mexican cooking, I also was studying Mexican anthropology. As part of the latter course, the class visited a number of the craft villages within easy driving distance of Morelia.
       Craft villages? The concept had been completely new to me. These were towns or villages specializing in one handicraft. For example, Capula, a small town near Morelia, produces a low-fired pottery with designs formed with many tiny dots. Aranza made lace; Huetamo, gold objects; Paracho, guitars and chess sets; Tzintzuntzan, pottery; Santa Clara copper products; and Nurio, woven woolen goods. At least a dozen of these villages exist. How had this come to be? What had caused them to decide to specialize?
       For hundreds of years, the area now called Michoacan had been the home of the Tarasco Indians. They had developed an advanced society, successfully resisting being dominated by the Aztecs. They had developed a number of methods of working with the copper, silver and gold in the area and were already masters of pottery and weaving.
       The Tarascos, however, were no match for the Spanish and were not only conquered but subjected to a reign of terror under Nuno Beltran de Guzman. Many of the Tarascos were tortured, worked to death in the fields and mines or simply hunted down and killed before word got back to Spain about what was happening. Guzman was arrested and spent the rest of his life in prison.
       Salvation for the Tarascos came in the form of Vasco de Quiroga, appointed bishop of the province in 1537. He was interested in developing a utopia and saw this area as the place to establish it.
       Besides religious education, he brought them additional instruction in arts and crafts that built on the skills they had already developed. The bishop then assigned a craft to each village. Those assignments endure.
       The skills they developed in the 1500s have been passed down, and the members of these villages are considered among the most skillful crafters in Mexico. The work is still done with hand tools and techniques handed down through the centuries.
       As I watched them work in various villages, I wondered how often someone who had the natural talent to be a great goldsmith had been born in a guitar-making village or, even worse, one that made only objects of straw.
        To my knowledge, none of these crafters became rich, but it was a living. Now, however, there are problems. Chinese factories can easily make pots, guitars and woven fabrics much cheaper than the Mexicans can with their traditional hand methods. I’m told we might not be able to take advantage of these centuries-old traditions much longer, as many artisans are closing shop and moving to the large cities.
       For those who don’t have time to see the villages, the state-run Casa de Las Artesanías in Morelia has a great collection of reasonably priced pottery and folk art.

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