Mexico’s artisans have combined foreign materials and processes with their own native designs and exacting labor to produce standard-bearing handmade goods worth traveling for.
Throughout the month of March, Mexico pays homage to the 12 million women and men — from the weavers of Baja California to the embroiderers of Yucatán — who make a living by crafting wonders with their hands. It’s no coincidence the Mexico’s Día del Artesano y las Artesanas (March 19th) is the same day the Catholic church celebrates Saint Joseph: the patron saint of many things, among them, carpenters. The day honors the skilled trades that bring us Mexico’s best handicrafts and folk art, but is primarily a salute to the country’s talented artisans themselves who pour their heart into their vocation.
The work of Mexican artisans is vast, including everything from artwork to jewelry, textiles, and clay work. Some can be found throughout the country, and others are specific to states (and in some cases, cities and villages referred to as “craft capitals”) that have become so specialized, product and place are almost synonymous with each other (like Talavera poblana). What makes artisans’ collective work unique is that it is the prime example of cultural syncretism at play: Mexican art is a product of materials, processes and designs from all over the world that entered the Mexican stage and never left it. Rather, it emerged renewed and revitalized with Mexico’s own native method and motifs. Did you know that, for example, Talavera is essentially an amalgamation of European, Asian and Arabic styles that were then refined and popularized in Mexico?
The recognition of these distinctively Mexican handmade goods as a national source pride is relatively new. Art and handicrafts have characterized Mexico’s diverse regions and communities since before colonization, but it wasn’t until the early 20th century that it came to intentionally define the country on the global stage. This is because pre-revolutionary Mexico grappled with its indigenous identity (even more than it does today), and thus the indigenous art and imagery that is so celebrated today used to be considered at odds with the national image of “progress”. After the Revolution, however, Mexico came to depend on the indigenous communities’ knack for artisanry to roll out its nation-building project. Mexico needed something tangible to substantiate the Mexican identity, and art, in its many forms, was the frontrunner. Paired with the tourism industry’s high demand for pieces of “authentic Mexico”, artesanías or artesanal goods became and continue to be one of the country’s defining features.
In Mexico you might hear artisans referred to as “maestro” or “maestra”, which is Spanish for “teacher”. In the case of most artisans, instruction goes hand in hand with the creative process, as trades are often passed down from generation to generation within a single family. And along with them, so are the values, rites, and rich history of the regions they inhabit. In this way, artisans are the unofficial promoters of Mexico’s national and regional traditions, art and cultural heritage. Their skill and knowledge, in addition to preserving all of this, also plays a key role in sharing the gifts of Mexico with other countries. Artisans quite literally carve a portal into the world of Mexican history and culture for all those who visit it.
Here are some of the most popular and representative artesanías:
The Rebozo: This colorful shawl-like garment originally served uniquely as a head covering for women at churches and temples. Its use has evolved, now commonly worn by women for aesthetic or everyday use, and produced in Santa María del Río (San Luis Potosí), Tenancingo and Calimaya (Toluca), La Piedad (Michoacán), and Moroleón (Guanajuato).
These festive tissue paper banners with elaborate designs originated in Puebla (in places like San Salvador Huixcolotla and San Pablito Pahuatlán) for the use of rituals. Today, it is primarily associated with fiesta decor, especially for widely celebrated holidays like Día de los Muertos and special events such as weddings. Although it is now mass produced, some families (like this one in Metepec, continue to do the intricate work by hand. Check out our mini banners and other papel picado themed items, like the popular earrings and greeting cards.
Pottery and Ceramics
Since prehispanic times, Mesoamerican civilizations and cultures were experts at working with mineral muds that, when mixed with water, were the raw material for magnificent earthenware. Today, states like Guanajuato are key production centers for pots, vases, and flowerpots, while others like Oaxaca and Puebla are known for making masterpieces of their own (barro negro and Talavera, respectively). The different products are the result of different methods and processes, which involve varying temperatures and mediums. Our collection of Talavera stoneware planters, vases, plates, and mugs is a kitchen decor favorite!
Similarly, the inhabitants of modern day Michoacán, Oaxaca and Guerrero states perfected the art of silversmithing well before colonization. Their techniques gave life to the metal in the form of jewelry such as earrings, necklaces, pendants, bracelets, and rings that became a status symbol for the upper classes. One of the best places to admire the work is Taxco, Guerrero, one of Mexico’s official “pueblos mágicos” or “magic towns” where dozens of galleries and workshops offer some the best silver work in the world.
Just east of Mexico City, the state of Tlaxcala is the cradle of this patterned and vibrantly colored cloak turned blanket — and everything in between. The word “Sarape” is a combination of two Nahuatl words that evolved into “Tzalape” (meaning “wearing blanket”), which is why the “Zarape” spelling is also common (as is “Serape”, which is likely an adaptation to the English pronunciation). Originally weaved with a waist loom and using jute as primary material, with time the sarape became primarily cotton-based. Even with its mass production today, it is one of those artisanal goods that remains both practical (especially in the cold and windy season!), versatile, and one of the most beloved designs in Mexican imagery. You can find them in Tlaxcala, Coahuila, and just about any state and market in the country. At Artelexia, we love the versatility of the design and carry serape blankets, watch bands, dog collars, totes, bunny ears, and a variety of other accessories!
The Linares family of Mexico City is known for being the first to elaborate papier-mâché sculptures of fantastical creatures and animals they named alebrijes. It is said that the creatures are inspired in Pedro Linares’s dreams. Once discovered, they started to be made with wood (since this was more durable), and since then, the popularity and artistic repertoire of this craft has grown exponentially. Today, they are mainly handcrafted in Oaxaca, in the towns of San Antonio Arrazola and San Martín Tilcajete.
But this is far from a comprehensive list. Mexico’s artisans are also making sombreros de charro, handblown glassware, other papier-mâché sculptures, wood art, baskets, arboles de vida, arte huichol, embroidery, and much much more. And while it is easy to find all of this in major destinations, one should use a discerning eye, as many things are now made in China only to fill up store space at tourist hotspots. Some artisans who still make things with their bare hands don’t have galleries or storefronts, they usually make their product at home. This is why it is important to ask where, how and by whom goods are created; it may cost you more, but you’ll be supporting the individuals (and in many cases, families) who preserve the authenticity of Mexico’s artisan trades.
Check out the links provided above to shop our favorite handicrafts at Artelexia! You might also want to read our related blog about Enrique Castro of D’Casa, who gives us insider access to his studio in Tlaquepaque and keeps our shelves stocked with the finest Talavera.