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Fighting to Preserve Tradition in a Suburban Sea

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Large tree of life in Metepec, Mexico
Credit: César Suárez Hernández

Like everywhere else in the world, Mexico has many former small towns and villages that have been overrun by urban sprawl and are fighting to preserve tradition in a suburban sea.

This phenomenon is particularly pronounced in the areas between the capital and what have become four satellite cities: Toluca, Cuernavaca, Puebla and Querétaro. Toluca has been especially hard hit. One reason is that the eastern side of the valley is close enough to Mexico City’s western edge to be commutable. About 25 years ago, the area became overrun with housing developments, and today, it is hard to believe that Metepec was once a sleepy little farming and pottery town.

But if you wade past the sea of cookie-cutter homes, you will get to what was once the entire town, now the historic center. Here the houses are traditional to the area, a colonial era church and pottery.

Pottery is still made in Metepec, mostly by families that have been doing it there for generations. There are several forms unique to the town, but perhaps the most important of them is the “tree of life” sculpture.

These trees are a form of folk sculpture that developed in the colonial period from the making of candelabras. The basic shape of the candelabra is analogous to a tree, and decorations were added to reflect the Adam and Eve story. Over time, the Metepec version became appreciated purely as a decorative piece, becoming more ornate and in many cases far larger than any candelabra needs to be. The trees also lost their places to hold candles.

The best of these trees are true works of art, and today, many have themes aside from the biblical story.

One particularly noteworthy family is the Sotenos, with four generations of experience. The original matriarch was Modesta Fernández Mata, who began experimenting with decorative pottery. Today, various branches of the family have workshops in Metepec, winning national and international recognition for their work.

Soteno family tree Metepec, Mexico
Credit: Alejandro Linares Garcia

The biblical version in tabletop size is still the backbone of their business, but the family has made sizes ranging from miniature to colossal, and with themes such as Day of the Dead, the birth of Christ, courtship/marriage and even the pottery of Metepec.

Today the patriarch of the family is Tiburcio Soteno, whose work has been exhibited all over Mexico, various locations in the United States and even Europe. He is followed by Oscar Soteno for his artistic ability, who created a tree to honor Modesta when she died.  His works have been exhibited to about the same scale as Tiburcio’s.

Although the forms and decoration of the trees have become more sophisticated, their making has changed little. Each is molded by hand from local clays, working in small, often poor lighted workshops in family homes. But the speed in which Tiburcio and Oscar can shape arms, faces, flowers, animals, and more is amazing, especially considering how lifelike these touches are.

 

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Leigh Thelmadatter
Leigh Thelmadatter has lived in central Mexico for 17 years. Initially she came to teach English, but fell in love with the land and the culture, so she did what any good writer does... document. With her photographer-husband Alejandro Linares Garcia, she has traveled extensively in the country, with the purpose of putting information not before available online or in English. Her work has culminated so far in the blog Creative Hands of Mexico https://creativehandsofmexicodotorg.wordpress.com/ and her first book, Mexican Cartonería: Paper, Paste and Fiesta (Schiffer 2019).https://www.schifferbooks.com/mexican-cartonera-a-paper-paste-and-fiesta-6738.html. She also is a cultural correspondent for Mexico News Daily and does freelance writing.

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