Most of us who get hooked on Mexican handcrafts and folk art begin with the typical tourist markets selling trinkets to tourists, with the colors and novel forms as the attraction. As we learn more, we become more interested in the processes, culture and people behind the items that we admire.
Tours specifically to bring people into contact with artisans and the places they live are a growing but still niche business. So many of these towns are still neglected, in part because of tourist’s fears and in part because artisans do not know how to market themselves to a global audience. But the extra effort is worth it. Buying in the small crafts towns is that it is much more likely to buy locally-made items and even buying directly from the artisans themselves.
Michoacán is one of three major producers of Mexican handcrafts, but knowledge of this lags behind the reputations of Oaxaca and Chiapas. One reason for this is that it has no major resorts. Its major tourist attraction is Patzcuaro, along the lake with the same name. Most of its tourism is national, with the exception of the Day of the Dead, when it is insanely crowded with people coming to see the marvelous traditions relating to this holiday.
Although the rest of Michoacán has a number of notable crafts towns, the highest concentration of these are around this small lake. The reason is historical. In the early colonial period, authorities sent a man by the name of Vasco de Quiroga to Michoacán to bring order to the chaos created by the first conquistadores. Atrocities by Nuño de Guzman and others forced native populations to flee. Working from Patzcuaro, Quiroga not only put an end to slaughter, he also laid the groundwork for the establishment of trades to entice the native population to return. Different towns specializing in different trades, such as the working of various textiles, metals, wood, etc. carry on much of this old system.
The cultural and economic heart of the lake region is the small city of Patzcuaro, on the south shore. However, the city’s economy is based on tourism, not handcrafts. It does serve has the main outlet for much of the handcraft production of the area, with many shops and street vendors making merchandise easily accessible to the casual visitor. The quality and authenticity of this merchandise varies quite a bit and a little knowledge goes a long way in a country that truly believes in “buyer beware.”
One exception in the sea of resellers is the workshop and store of Mario Gaspar, located in the first portal of the Casa de las Once Patios. Gaspar specializes in the making wood items and gourds covered in a lacquer technique that dates back to the pre Hispanic period. Lacquering is a very labor-intensive process, as is the application of extremely fine gold leaf that can be found on most pieces. Unlike the vast majority of shops, Gaspar has informative signs (in Spanish) among his wares and visitors are encouraged to see the family at work in the back and talk to them about what they are doing. Gaspar has won numerous awards over the decades, and says he is the only person doing the work in Patzcuaro. That does not mean his is the only outlet, but you will be buying what you pay good money for.
Various towns work with wood, including Cuanajo, Erongaricuaro, Quiroga and Pichataro, but Cuanajo is the best-known and most-accessible for tourists, with the others having little or absolutely no indications for visitors that any handcraft activity goes on here. Cuanajo is best known for furniture in which flowers, plants, some animals and even people are carved relief-style and painted in bright colors. This furniture is easily found in Patzcuaro and is prominent in handcraft fairs such as the Tianguis and Competition held in conjunction with the Day of the Dead festival. But despite the numerous shops/workshops in Cuanajo lining the only road entering the town, few sell this iconic furniture.
Today, most of the furniture made and sold here is a generic rustic or even modern design, a change that came about a decade ago or less. The reason for this is that most who come to Cuanajo are locals, whose taste in furniture has changed. Most of the carpenters can still make the “old” furniture but the few who do regularly, do so for foreign customers.
Wood masks are the specialty of the small town of Tocuaro, located a short distance west of Patzcuaro. It has about fifteen blocks tops, with about five or six families dedicated to this craft and some other woodwork. The best-known name here is that of the Horta family. Wood masks are a necessity for several traditional dances, but they were not always made here. Juan Horta learned the craft in Pichataro and Quiroga and brought it back to his hometown, established a workshop on Morelos Street. The workshop still bears his name, today run by his sons. It, and the nearby workshop of Felipe Horta, are open to passing visitors. Just ring the bell.
More in line with expectations is Santa Clara del Cobre, just southeast of Patzcuaro and away from the lake proper. This town specializes in the making of copper, with many of the town’s residents dedicated to it. Individual workshops may or may not advertise their presence to visitors, but the town has a small but decent copper museum, various stores on the main plaza and the main parish church is very tastefully decorated with elements made from this metal.
Ihuatzio is on the eastern shore and best known for the working of reeds and rushes gathered from the lakeshore. Traditional items include baskets of varying sizes and shapes as well as sombreros. It is also home to the Tzumindi workshop, which specializes in the making of surprisingly heavy and sturdy furniture covered in the twisted dried leaves of bullrushes. The sturdiness comes from the frame, which is soldered metal over which the rushes are woven. The town center does not have shops, but there are a few on the main road that lead to the town from the highway that connects Patzcuaro to Quiroga.
The next major crafts town is Tzintzuntzan. The main tourist attraction here is the local archeological site, with its unusual round pyramid/platforms. The added traffic supports a number of shops in town focusing on (mostly) locally-produced pottery and various decorative items made from straw. It is home to the Morales family. Angelica Morales is noted low fire pottery with unique line designs. These were initially developed by her father, but she has since perfected them. Her brother Luis Manuel has gone in a different direction, introducing the production of high-fire wares with modern designs based on traditional and pre Hispanic motifs. The best-known family working with straw is that of Faustino Guzman, which can make very large and very elaborate scenes with this very simple material.
North of Tzintzuntzan is Quiroga, which does have shops and stalls selling handcrafts, but the goods here are of dubious quality and origin. It is a small, crowded city, not conducive to wandering tourists. On the north shore is the very, very small community of Santa Fe de la Laguna. The area facing the highway is filled with shops selling mostly pottery to passing traffic, but there is nothing here that cannot be found anywhere else. What is worth a stop in the area is around the town plaza. Most women here still wear traditional dress (all or in part) and there are several interesting shops selling blouses, skirts and aprons, some of which are heavily embroidered and/or covered in sequins. Also recommended are the local breads that are sold on the square.
The little towns around the lake are worth the visit, even if they do not have the tourist amenities that Patzcuaro has. They are real towns with real people living real lives, and pleasant surprises wait in store. In Ihuatzio, my husband and I were invited off the street to partake in atole being served in honor of the local image of the Virgin Mary and I had the best tortilla I have ever had… hand pressed and cooked over a comal on a wood fire, of course.
Artisans are heavily dependent on tourism to survive. A common refrain we heard is how sales are down because of the drop in visitors to the region. Unfortunately, Michoacán has a reputation for being dangerous as it is the home of one of Mexico’s drug cartels, La Familia Michoacana. This keeps many tourists away, both Mexican and foreign. I strongly believe that any danger they may pose is way overblown. The reality is that it is the people who live in Michoacán who have far more to risk from organized crime than any tourist there visiting for a few days. I should also note that the dangerous areas are near drug trafficking routes, which are in the mountains/coast significantly west of the Patzcuaro area. It is perfectly safe to rent a car and go exploring around this beautiful countryside…. the biggest “danger” we encounter here is stray cattle crossing the road.
All photos by Alejandro Linares Garcia unless otherwise noted