With about 8,000 artisans keeping over 30 crafts traditions alive, the amazing handcrafts of Michoacán have every bit of the charm and cultural importance that Oaxaca and Chiapas do, but yet they languish in relative obscurity.
The state’s historic and cultural center is Lake Pátzcuaro, only five hours west of Mexico City, and an easy drive from the expat enclaves of Chapala and San Miguel de Allende. The Purhépecha city of Tzintzuntzan overlooked the lake and was the capital of an empire that rivaled the Aztecs.
Before we visit the wonderful artisans of this state, a little history for context.
When Tenochtitlan (Mexico City) fell to Hernán Cortés, the last Purhépecha emperor, Tangaxuan II, made himself a vassal of the Spanish king. He hoped to avoid bloodshed, but that was not to be. The Spanish sent conquistador Nuño de Guzmán to pacify the territory, renamed New Galicia. His atrocities sent the population running for the mountains, and even his superiors were aghast.
Bishop Vasco de Quiroga was then tasked to fix the mess. He quickly put an end to the worst of the abuses, but he also knew he had to offer long term incentives to repopulate the towns and villages.
The best-known and longest lasting of these revolve around handcrafts. Purhepecha crafts and trades were just as evolved as those of the Aztec Empire in both practical and luxury goods. When it came to metals, their skills were even more advanced, experimenting with copper and bronze.
Quiroga gave licenses to communities to produce certain goods. In this way, the crafts could (re)develop, and there would be trade among the towns as well as with the rest of New Spain. The work was so successful that Vasco is still referred to today with the honorific Purhépecha “Tata” (grandfather) before his name.
Much of the craft delegation system remains to this day, with certain towns noted for copper, pottery, textiles, wood objects and more. Mexico’s federal government has extended the idea, giving 13 of the state’s crafts a kind of trademark. These include the devil figures of Ocumichop; the ceramic pineapples of San José de Gracia; the ceramic pots of Zipiajo; the rebozos of Aranza; the stonework of Morelia; the traditional cookware of Capula; the Catrinas of Capula; the huanengos (a type of tunic), embroidery and ceramic pots of Terecuato; the copper work of Santa Clara del Cobre; and, the guitars of Paracho, along with the state’s work in corn stalk (unique to Michoacán) and lacquered wood.
Some towns have become tourist attractions for their craft designation and reputation. Perhaps the most famous of these is the copper town of Santa Clara del Cobre, just outside of Pátzcuaro. Quiroga gave the town the exclusive right to make cazuelas, a very large copper cooking vessel, today mostly used to cook sheets of pork skin for chicharrones, and Michoacán’s famous pork confit carnitas. Today, artisans make those and much more, including pots and pans of all sizes, plates, jewelry, vases, furniture, light switches, counters and even bathtubs.
Thanks to the movie “Coco,” Paracho’s fortunes have gotten a huge boost, although too many artisans, in my opinion, are making knock-offs of the white guitar. The town has a long and fine reputation for musical instruments, in particular guitars and vihuelas (a cross between a guitar and lute originating in the 15th century). The town is home to its very own Paracho guitar, which developed in the late 19th century.
Quiroga’s system did not necessarily mean that only one town could work a specific material or technique. There are various towns that work with clay, wood and fiber. Specialization generally comes in the way of what is made and/or the style.
Almost a quarter of Michoacán’s artisans work in textiles, working primarily in cotton and wool, but ixtle, and even fibers from fur and feathers, are also still worked. Cotton garments include guanengos, blouses and skirts, along with linens, with the most representative work from Patzcuaro, Uruapan, Zamora, Zacán and Tócuaro. Wool products include serapes, wrap belts, rebozos, rugs and blankets. Some towns focus on weaving on a backstrap loom (done by women), and others on the pedal loom introduced by the Spanish (done by men).
Although many traditional garments can indicate where the wearer is from, none do it so readily as the rebozo. A long, rectangular shawl, Michoacán’s rebozos are unique with their striped patterns, and in many towns, fringes knotted with a plethora of feathers. Although woven in just about every traditional town and village, certain ones do stand out, such as the rebozos of Aranza, Ahuiran, Angahuan, Turícuaro, Jiquilpan, La Piedad, Cuanajo, Zacán, Tócuaro, Tzintzuntzan, Santa Cruz, Boca de la Cañada, Macho de Agua, Zirahuén, Crescencio Morales, Maruata, Cachán de Santa Cruz, Cachán de Echeverría, San Juan Nuevo, Morelia, Pátzcuaro, Cocucho, Tzirio, Uruapan, San Miguel Nocutzepo, San Felipe de los Herreros, Paracho and Pichátaro.
Embroidery is found everywhere in the state with San Felipe de los Herreros particularly noted for this work, as well as Zacán Tócuaro, Erongarícuaro, Tarecuato and Angahuan
Like textiles, clay is worked all over the state. Pottery traditions range from those that have not changed since long before the arrival of the Spanish to very modern high-fire work with less than 30 years of existence.
Tzintzuntzan’s traditional pottery is a burnished type that dates from the Mesoamerican period. However, the town now produces more modern styles as well. The Morales Gamez family has excelled in both the old and the new. Father Miguel popularized a style of decorating traditional pottery with black lines on a cream background, which his daughter Angelica now excels. His son, Luis Manuel has taken traditional decorative motifs, updated them and creates modern high-fire ceramics.
Glazed pottery is best known through black-glazed pottery candelabras from Santa Fe La Laguna and the green (sometimes other colors) pineapples from San José de Gracia. These pineapples can be found in handcraft galleries all over Mexico, but owners will never tell you where they are from. Pineapples do not grow in San José because it is too cold. They have been made only for a few decades, and their invention is credited to Elisa Madrigal Martínez. She simply wanted to make something different, so a pineapple punchbowl it was. The crown is lifted for filling and emptying.
Although behind Oaxaca, purely decorative ceramics are also made in the state. The best known are the Catrinas – the bony lady of Day of the Dead – statues of Capula between Pátzcuaro and Morelia. These statues are quite exquisite, often highly decorated with very thin tiny details like fingers, which can easily break, so be careful. The other famous image is the mischievous devils from Ocumicho. They appear as masks and figurines that are playing tricks or doing everyday things like riding a horse.
Other important ceramic towns include Patamban, Pátzcuaro, Cucuhuhuo, Uruapan, Zinapécaro, Cocucho, Huáncito, Ichán and Zipiajo
Despite a severe problem with illegal logging, the state still has vast forests to provide wood for toys, decorative figures, cooking implements, masks, furniture and musical instruments. The most common craft is furniture making, with the brightly painted furniture from Cuanajo the best known. Other furniture towns include Capácuaro, Comachuén, Erongarícuaro, Tócuaro, Arantepacua and Turícuaro and Pátzcuaro. In addition, Paracho, Ahuiran, Aranza, Cheranástico and Nurío make guitars, violins and other wood musical instruments.
Other crafts include leatherwork, such as cueras (a kind of leather coat), leather-backed furniture in the Tierra Caliente, featherwork in Tlalpujahua and Morelia, sculpted stone, particularly the pink stone found in Morelia. Gold and silver jewelry are produced in Uruapan, Cherán and Patzcuaro. In the far eastern towns of Zitácuaro, Huétamo and Tlalpujahua, the Mazahua make a particular style of earring that used to indicate a woman’s marital status.
The state also has some uncommon crafts. The most important of these is pasta de caña and lacquerware. Pasta de caña is the bundling of corn stalks, cementing them and then carving them into very lightweight statues. It was unknown to the Spanish, but they immediately recognized its usefulness in creating Catholic icons to be carried in processions. Interestingly, the idea never caught on in the rest of New Spain and even disappeared for a time in Michoacán. It was revived somewhat in the 20th century, but only in the town of Patzcuaro.
Mesoamerica made lacquerware every bit as fine as that from Asia. Called laca or maque in Mexican Spanish, the pigments and wax/oil are not painted on, but rather laboriously rubbed in. This treatment on cut gourds resulted in fine cups for Mesoamerican nobility. After the Conquest, craftsmen began applying it to wood, especially chests and furniture, but it never had the status that Asian imports did. Michoacán is one of only three states to still produce this, along with Guerrero and Chiapas, and its production is limited to Patzcuaro and Uruapan.
Michoacán’s crafts continue to develop, with modern equipment such as gas and high fire kilns, and more modern techniques for violins. Foreigners like James Metcalf and Steven and Maureen Rosenthal reworked Santa Clara’s copper and Erongaricuaro’s furniture industries.
One important development for far eastern Michoacán was the introduction of blown glass Christmas tree ornaments in the mid 20th century by Joaquin Muñoz Orts. He had worked at an ornament factory in Chicago and when he returned home decided to make them in Tlalpujahua, breathing new life into this isolated former mining town. Today, over 80 percent of the population there makes glass ornaments and/or other Christmas decorations, making it one of two “Christmas towns” in Mexico.
Poverty is common among Mexican artisans, especially indigenous ones, and it is a huge problem in general in Michoacán. Buying direct from the artisan is always highly recommended, to make sure your purchase benefits the maker, not a middleman.
There are two main museums in the state, the Museo de Artes e Industrias Populares in Pátzcuaro and the Casa de las Artesanias in Morelia. Both have decent exhibitions on Michoacán’s crafts. Both sell handcrafts in their stores, which are the real deal, but salespeople know nothing and merchandise is rarely labeled with more than a price.
I highly recommend the state’s two main crafts fairs: The Feria de Domingo de Ramos (Palm Sunday Fair) in Uruapan and the Feria de Artesanías de Día de Muertos in Pátzcuaro. The Uruapan Fair is exclusively dedicated to handcrafts, hosting several important competitions. It begins on Palm Sunday, and like just about every other quality fair, the good stuff sells out almost entirely the first day, so go early! The Pátzcuaro event also has high-quality merchandise that sells out lickety-split, but because it is part of the extremely popular Day of the Dead celebrations, artisans’ stands can get lost in a sea of tourist trinkets.
Most, if not all, crafts towns also have fairs dedicated to their specialties. These include the International Guitar Fair in Paracho and the National Copper Fair in Santa Clara.