Growing up in the New York City metropolitan area, Leigh Thelmadatter always loved the excitement of big city living, especially the cultural attractions the city offered. Years later she moved to the Mexico City megalopolis and reveled in its cultural richness, especially the artisans of Mexico. After years of study, she has now become the expat handcraft expert of Mexico City.
“When I started exploring Mexico I began to see the wonderful handcrafts in the markets and, of course, I bought some like every other tourist does,” Thelmadatter said. “Then after a while, you start asking yourself questions about them. So, over time I visited more and more out of the way places to find out about them and also started reading about handcrafts. That’s how I learned about handcrafts and the fine art of Mexico.”
Thelmadatter is 56 and married to Alejandro Linares Garcia, a graphic designer and photographer. The couple lives close to Mexico City’s city-center in an apartment she purchased in 2009 for just US$25,000. This big city girl is very happy to live in the vibrant center of North America’s largest city.
Born in Bay Shore, Long Island in the shadow of New York City, her family moved to Carteret, New Jersey, just across the Hudson River from New York when she was still a baby. After high school graduation, she enrolled at Rutgers University, New Jersey’s state university, and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in linguistics.
“Linguistics was a nice combination of my analytical and creative sides,” she said, “but I found there was no money in it so I joined the Army and was shipped out to the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center in Monterey, California to learn the Korean language.”
She met her first husband at the school and within a few years they married, had a child and moved to an army base in Germany. By this time, she had left the Army and settled into the life of a homemaker to raise their son. Like most military families, they moved a lot.
“We moved to Fort Huachuca south of Tucson, Arizona, which was a completely new experience for me,” she said. “Around 1995 I started teaching English at a local community college, and then a few years later, we moved to Tucson. I think this was the start of my mid-life crisis.”
A year after landing in Tucson, Thelmadatter separated from her husband and started a master’s degree program in English at the University of Arizona.
“While getting my master’s degree I taught at Pima Community College in Tucson, mostly at the writing center, and I liked it,” she said. “But after graduating in 2003, my first job was teaching English at a local public school. It was not a good experience for me and I didn’t stay there for very long.”
Thankfully, she received a job offer from the Tecnológico de Monterrey, a top private university and high school system with 32 campuses in Mexico. She accepted a job teaching English at the Toluca campus, about 40 miles west of Mexico City and the capital of the state of Mexico.
“The school likes to call itself the ‘MIT of Mexico,’” she said. “The idea is to provide an American-quality education in Mexico. My initial plan was to stay here for two years and then return to the U.S. But, as is the case for so many of us expats, I’m still here 17 years later.”
She taught at the Toluca campus for five years and then had the opportunity to transfer to Mexico City to teach English as a second language and academic writing.
“I bought an apartment in a working-class neighborhood just south of Mexico City’s historic center, just a two-minute walk from a metro station,” she said. “I can get to all of the city’s museums and everything else with a half hour.”
She paid about US$25,000 for her 550 sq. ft. apartment in 2009 and thinks it is worth about US$55,000 now.
“It’s a typical middle-class Mexican apartment with two bedrooms and a balcony, which is hard to find in Mexico City,” she said. “It was new construction, which is important in earthquake-prone Mexico City. I had a choice to buy a nicer apartment in a nicer neighborhood and have no money to travel or buy things, or buy here and have money to travel. Priorities.”
She developed her handcraft art expertise by traveling to artisan centers within Mexico with her husband and, interestingly, becoming a Wikipedia editor.
“After traveling around Mexico for several years I realized I had two problems,” she said. “My knowledge of Mexico was superficial and my Spanish really needed to improve. Before I met my husband, I didn’t have a chance to speak that much Spanish because I was teaching English all day. I also had superficial knowledge of Mexico. Then I started working with Wikipedia, initially as a hobby. I started with geography because I found the coverage of Mexico to be atrocious. That launched me into researching information about Mexico in Spanish, which really helped me advance my language skills. We also started visiting many more places in Mexico to get a more in-depth understanding of the area.”
Through the combination of conducting research for Wikipedia and traveling in Mexico, Thelmadatter began building her knowledge base of handcrafts in the artisan centers of Mexico.
“I really learned about fine art in this country by working with Wikipedia for over 10 years,” she said. “It was really my apprenticeship in Mexican culture. I’ve written or improved about 800 articles over the past decade.”
But nothing beats first-hand knowledge, so she continues to visit the areas of Mexico where handcraft creation flourishes and has turned her subject knowledge into a blog that focuses on artisans and their work.
“I wanted them to get the attention they deserve,” she said. “I find them through travel, local art festivals in Mexico and word-of-mouth through all the contacts I have made. I put the information online and in English so people know where to go looking and not spend three days trying to find the one person they should have gone to in the beginning.”
She shares her expertise through her blog “Creative Hands of Mexico” and her book “Mexican Cartonería: Paper, Paste and Fiesta.”
Thelmadatter has filled her home with many wonderful handcrafts she has found in her travels. She told us many of her artisan friends call her home a “mini MAP,” which is the acronym for the Museo de Arte Popular, the major handcraft museum in Mexico City that opened in 2006.
“I got lucky when a project I did in Toluca got me a chance to transfer to the campus in Mexico City,” she said. “I’m now in a big city that suits me and near all of the cultural amenities that Mexico has to offer. I can get in touch with not only what’s going on in Mexico City, but other parts of Mexico, like the handcrafts done by indigenous people. I’ve had such a wonderful experience living in this major metropolitan area.”