Those who have traveled with Marina Aguirre know that there is always a new adventure around each corner. Best of all is the network of deep personal connections Marina has made with the local people wherever she has traveled. Just as we stayed with the Ch’an K’in family in the Lacandón jungle, we also were introduced to Juana, who is famous for her jaguars of Amatenango del Valle.
Juana and her family have been producing textiles on handlooms for generations. Entering through an open vestibule, the three generations of the family welcome us into the main room of their house, and provide for us a hearty soup with fresh vegetables, and tortillas with fresh Chiapan cheese.
We are seated around a plank table with benches and a few small chairs. The walls of the house are raw concrete block, and some of the windows have neither glass nor covering of any kind, so a chilling draft whistles gently through the space. In one corner of the room is an elaborate altar with a crucifix and festooned saints. Bunches of flowers and burning candles add to the adornment, and more garlands of flowers, as well as balloons, are strung from the ceiling.
An adjacent room is divided into four small bed chambers, roughly the same size as those we saw in ancient Maya dwellings at Palenque. Clothing is stored in large bags near the beds. A rocky descent greets our movement to the rear of the house, where the family maintains its workspace and a small shop. Juana’s mother and sister demonstrate the handloom. It becomes clear how labor-intensive is the creation of even a simple bolt of fabric. The more elaborate designs can take as much as a year, and command thousands of dollars at tony shops in San Cristóbal de las Casas.
A visit to the textiles museum the same morning had acquainted us with the various designs that identify each town and district of Chiapas, but here we can observe up close up how these are produced. Juana’s prized trophy is an elaborate wedding ensemble with feathers woven into the fabric. Our friends Eric and Mary Chaffee happily model this unique local garb.
Behind the house is the kitchen – a large flat comal with a brick enclosed flame beneath, and another open flame over which pots can be suspended. There is no refrigeration, and no real protection from the elements. Outside, chickens prance, not as pets, but as an essential part of the local diet. One marvels at how they managed to prepare food for so many people with such limited resources.
The next morning, following a debriefing, during which our travelers shared their impressions of our visit to San Juan Chamula and Zinacantán, we board the van again for a journey to Amatenango del Valle. This town is best known not for fabrics, but for ceramics. The local clay, particularly well-suited to ceramic production, is mixed with sand and formed into hollow shapes that are then dried completely and burnished before being painted and fired in the kilns. It is a craft perfected by the women of Amatenango, and while the men are mainly responsible for agricultural pursuits, they are permitted to assist with the final painting and glazing.
The road into town is lined with vendors selling an assortment of colorful vases, urns, chimineas, chickens and doves, and ceramic jewelry. But these craftsmen are not our destination. Rather we are seeking out Juana Gomez Ramirez, one of the most celebrated potters in Mexico.
As a child Juana and her family were abandoned by her father. Her mother and she continued to construct pots in the traditional manner to make ends meet. Carrying their pottery on their backs, they traveled miles to nearby cities to sell what they could.
One night, when she was eight, Juana had a dream in which she was instructed to construct the figure of a jaguar. After she awoke, she formed a jaguar out of clay. Her mother rebuked her, saying that it would never sell. After the jaguar was fired and painted, Juana’s mother took the statue into town, and was surprised that it sold right away. Soon jaguars became the family specialty, and despite ample efforts by competing shops to replicate the work done here, the Gomez Ramirez jaguars are without peer.
Fifteen years ago, Juana’s work came to the attention of the Banamex Cultural Fund, which began marketing Juana’s work in their shops throughout Mexico. (We had previously encountered her work in Guadalajara, Morelia, Mexico City and Mérida without even realizing it!) The success of these efforts has led to a major family business wherein all the aunts, sisters, cousins, husbands and children participate in producing and marketing world-class crafts pieces. Juana also travels throughout Mexico giving workshops and demonstrations of her art.
Our group is arranged at six small tables. Clay is set in front of us. A family member at each table demonstrates the molding technique, and we are allowed to give it a try. They remain there to correct our mistakes! Afterward, Juana’s husband Feliciano demonstrates how local stones are crushed into dyes to paint the ceramics before firing. The painting process is slow and meticulous, but the results are amazing.
The shop here testifies to the success of its owners. While the walls are still bare concrete block, the floors are lined with deep blue tile, and spotlessly clean modern bathrooms have been installed for the guests who flock here throughout the year.
After yet another lunch generously provided by the family, the ladies of the family line up for a portrait. Their broad smiles and generosity of spirit are captivating. The headscarves donned by some of them are an honorific, having attained age forty. Juana still has a few years to go, but it is clearly she who controls the operations of what has become a very serious enterprise.
Next time, I will continue our adventures in Chiapas and discuss the art of the deal.