Mexican Folk Art

Beaded mask, 'Blue Deer with Corn'
Beaded mask
'Blue Deer with Corn'
From the moment you step off the plane in Mexico City, Mexican folk art is everywhere. You can't miss it. The colors, the variety and the imagination of the artisans are are almost overwhelming. The trick is finding your way to "the good stuff," the really fine work that stands out from the cheap trinkets in tourist shops.


The tradition of Mexican handcrafts, or artesanias, was already ancient when Cortez arrived in the 1520s. The letters he sent back to Charles V of Spain, and also the memoirs of many other of his Spanish contemporaries, are filled with amazed account of what he found.

The following extract from one of those letters describes the marketplace in Tenochtitlan, the capital of Moctezuma's empire.

This city has many public squares, in which are situated the markets and other places for buying and selling. There is one square twice as large as that of the city of Salamanca, surrounded by porticoes, where are daily assembled more than sixty thousand souls, engaged in buying and selling; and where are found all kinds of merchandise that the world affords, embracing the necessaries of life, as for instance articles of food, as well as jewels of gold and silver, lead, brass, copper, tin, precious stones, bones, shells, snails, and feathers...

Different kinds of cotton thread of all colors in skeins are exposed for sale in one quarter of the market, which has the appearance of the silk-market at Granada, although the former is supplied more abundantly. Painters' colors, as numerous as can be found in Spain, and as fine shades; deerskins dressed and undressed, dyed different colors; earthen-ware of a large size and excellent quality; large and small jars, jugs, pots, bricks, and endless variety of vessels, all made of fine clay, and all or most of them glazed and painted...

[F]inally, everything that can be found throughout the whole country is sold in the markets, comprising articles so numerous that to avoid prolixity, and because their names are not retained in my memory, or are unknown to me, I shall not attempt to enumerate them.

In the years since the conquest, the tradition of Mexican folk art continued, in spite of recurring periods of repression of native peoples, their languages and traditions. It survived by adapting to changing circumstances: Christian / Catholic imagery replacing the gods and goddesses of the pre-conquest population.

Native crafts survived also simply because of their utility, as most of the work of the artesanos are for daily, hosehold use.

Today, Mexican folk art is widely celebrated throughout the county. It is an essential element of the Mexican identity, a source of pride and patriotism.

And, of course, it brings in mucho dinero!

Where to Find the Good Stuff

Well, to begin, not the airport.

Finding the best Mexican folk art does require a little knowledge and some travel. Here are a few of our favorite places to visit.


Ceramic vase, 'Summer Lilacs'
Ceramic vase
'Summer Lilacs'
Founded by one of Cortez's lieutenants, Puebla is one of the original Spanish cities in Mexico. Situated about two hours south of Mexico City, the city lies on the overland route from Acapulco on the Pacific Coast to the Gulf Coast ports of Veracruz and Campeche.

Spanish galleons would depart from the Far East and stip in Acapulco. The cargoes would be unloaded and carried overland across the waist of Mexico to the Gulf side for transport back to Spain.

Small wonder then that Puebla's most famous craft, Talavera pottery, reveals the influence of Chinese design in both shape and pattern. A good example of this is the Talavera spice jar.

The term "Talavera" is now controlled by the Mexican board of trade. Real talavera can only come from Puebla, where only a small number of fabricas are entitled to brand their products and the genuine article.

Puebla's tourist markets are filled with, well, junk that is painted from approximately the same palette as talavera, but to find high quality pieces, we recommend visiting two place: Talavera Uriarte and Talavera Armando. In both places you will find pieces for everyday use and pieces that should be displayed as works of art.


Zapotec wool rug, 'Oaxaca Sun' (2.5x5)
Zapotec wool rug
'Oaxaca Sun' (2.5x5)

Far to the south of Mexico City, about half way to the Guatemala border, the city of Oaxaca lies in a broad valley that was once home to the Zapotecs, one of the great cultures of ancient Mesoamerica.

The city is the capital of the state of Oaxaca, but retains a quiet colonial charm. Recent political strife between the unions and the state governor has settled down, and the city is once again a popular tourist destination.

Oaxaca City and the surrounding area are well known for two distinctive types of Mexican folk art: woven rugs and Oaxacan blackware.

Woven RugsThe center of the rug weaving industry-or collection of cottage industries-is the small town of Teotitlan del Valle. This is the home of one of the great masters of Mexican folk art, Arnulfo Mendoza, whose works are sold in the upscale galleries in the city. But there are many others in the village whose work is very fine and definitely worth collecting.

Oaxacan Blackware There is nothing like the black, delicate, feather light, pottery from Oaxaca. These pieces are normally suitable just for display as the elaborate incised floral patterns actually pierce the surface. Vases come in all sizes, but the most popular style is nearly round with a simple neckless opening at the top.

We have not found a particular fabrica to recommend, but the municipan government does maintain a gallery in the city center with a few good pieces. A better selection can be found in the better shops just off the Zocalo.


Sterling silver link bracelet<br>'Blue Moon'
Sterling silver link bracelet
'Blue Moon'
The Spanish came looking for gold. They were largely disappointed. What they did find was silver, and lots of it. Two hundred years ago the silver mines in Taxco and Zacatecas further north accounted for 40% of the entire world's production. Today most of the silver itself is imported from Asia, but the ancient Mexican folk art tradition of silversmithing continues unabated.

Taxco is a fascinating town, spread across the faces of a series of steep hillsides in the state of Guerrero two hours or so southwest of Mexico City. Taxco retains a strong colonial atmosphere with beautifully maintained spanish style buildings and cobblestone streets.

Note: For those who have some trouble getting around on foot, Taxco present some difficulty. First of all, the town's elevation is over 4,200 feet. Second, the streets are narrow, winding and steep. Be sure to wear comfortable shoes and plan to take your time.

On Saturdays from early in the morning until 4pm, the silver market at the bottom of the town is a bustling chaos. Crowds aside, this is unquestionably the best time to make your purchases, especially if you are buying in any quantity. Your other option is to visit the regular shops which remain open throughout the week. In the better shops-many of which are near the Zocalo-you'll find really exquisite pieces made by some of Taxco's master silversmiths. If you are a collector, this is where you want to be.


Wood jewelry box, 'Mexican Bouquet'
Wood jewelry box
'Mexican Bouquet'
The mountainous region of Guerrero stretches from just west of Mexico City all the way down to the plains and beaches of the Pacific coast. The topography in this part of Mexico is spectacular, and the highway which are generally well constructed and maintained, offer some of the best scenic driving anywhere.

Guerrero includes the towns of Taxco, and the beach resort cities of Acapulco and Zihuatanejo.

One particularly beaufiful type of Mexican folk art appears on the incised boxes, plates, decorative items, even furniture made in this region. The item pictured here is typical. Working on lacquer, artist Adelina Rendon demonstrates her mastery of traditional this Olinala form. She carves it of fragrant linaloe wood and paints the meticulous motifs entirely by hand.

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