One of the most amazing things about finely worked handcrafts is both the talent and patience needed to create them. Unfortunately, that talent and patience is not always rewarded with respect.
Popotillo (lit. little straw) is the craft of creating colorful images using the thin stalks of various grasses. The art is not well known in Mexico and virtually unknown among ethnic Mexicans living in the United States, even though there are some people living in California and other places who do it.
Mexican handcrafts experts make a distinction among handcrafted items that do not exist in English. “Artesanía” refers to a “higher caste” of decorative or utilitarian items created using pre-industrial methods but are not fine art. “Manualidad” also refers to handcrafted items, but of a less-respected sort. The distinction is loosely based on whether or not the making of the item has a history and/or significance in the culture of the place(s) where it is made. All indigenous pottery traditions which can trace their origins unbroken from the pre Hispanic period are unquestionably artesanía, and party favors made with foam rubber bought at crafts store following pre-printed instructions would be manualidades.
But the line isn’t always so clear. Mata Ortiz pottery is considered to be artesanía even though the pieces produced in this Chihuahua village have only a glimmer of resemblance to the Pakime pottery Juan Quesada worked to reconstruct from shards in the 20th century.
Popotillo runs into a similar lineage problem, which for some categorizes it as a manualidad. Although many artisans claim pre-Hispanic origins, there are no written or oral records to back this up. Nor is it documented in colonial works. There are some indications that there may be a historical/cultural component to the craft.
One problem with the pre-Hispanic claim is that the craft can be and is done with material we know of as “straw,” either wheat, oat, rye and barley, all introduced by the Spanish in the colonial period. Another issue is the images that are created with the technique. These tend to be geometric designs, Catholic religious images, landscapes and folkloric generic Mexican images and scenes. There is an element of kitsch in vast majority of what is produced.
On the other hand, the production of the craft seems to be limited to and area extending from far eastern Michoacan, into the State of Mexico, Mexico City and into Puebla and parts of Hidalgo state. All areas which were either the heart of the old Aztec empire or strongly affected by it. The techniques have been transmitted across generations, and in some areas, straw is not used at all, but rather the use of certain native plants are required. For example, in the areas around the Popocatepetl Volcano (Puebla and State of Mexico), the grass called zacatón which grows on the slopes, is harvested by locals and sold to artisans in communities lower down. In Hidalgo and some other places the plant is cambray, in the flax family, called “mijo” in the vernacular.
The craft remains popular particularly in Michoacan where about 200 families are known to make “paintings” and use it to decorate other objects. Most of the artisans who do this in the US have roots in the state. Its popularity straddles the border area between Michoacan and State of Mexico, in particular Tlalpujahua (Michoacan) and El Oro (State of Mexico), which share a number of handcraft traditions. El Oro is known for making large, intricate paintings that can command high prices.
Artisans can also be found in several of the suburbs of Mexico City and it is regularly taught in community centers here and in the city proper. The Mexico City suburbs include Nicolas Romero, Huixquilucan and Los Reyes/La Paz. Huixquilucan specializes in items such as bookmarks and Christmas cards. In Los Reyes/La Paz, artisan Roberto Domingo has developed techniques for using the straw decoration on various wood items including boxes, key holders and more. Similarly in Puebla, including Santa Maria Tonanzintla, the poptillos is applied to various three dimensional objects. There are a few communities that produce paintings in Hidalgo as well.
The craft is labor intensive. An 8×10 image can take 2 or 3 days, depending on complexity and all the space must be covered in straw… no bare patches. The use of the hands, or in the case of very tiny pieces, tweezers to place the bits of colored lines has not changed, but there has been some modernization.
Traditionally, the straw or grass is collected, dried and colored either by the craftsperson proper or by another person. Originally, vegetable dyes were used and straw colored this way still can be found, but most are now colored using aniline dyes, as the color lasts longer.
The straw pieces are applied on paper, posterboard or other surfaces, not by cutting the straw first, but rather applying the straw and snapping it where the artisan wants the line to end. The traditional adhesive is beeswax or Campeche wax, but other glues are sometimes used. After the image is completed, it is usually coated to make it shine. In the past, this was done using egg whites, but today commercial varnish is used.
Popotillo’s “questionable” status as a handcraft shows how often classification is not a clear-cut process, but a subjective one, much the way of classifying fine art from popular art or even good from bad work. There is no doubt that the people dedicated to this put in long hours and need a fine, creative eye, especially in the creation of unique pieces.
Find it in Puerto Vallarta
There are a couple young artists creating popotillo art along the Isla Cuale in Puerto Vallarta’s centro neighbourhood. You can stop and watch them as they meticulously lay each piece, you can purchase pictures and other souvenir items directly and they also offer classes if you want hands-on experience.