La Laguna de Cajititlán is a little lake located just 12 km due north of Lake Chapala. The villages around its shores are quite remarkable because each is filled with artisans practicing a different specialty. This is where you will find the talented molcajete makers of San Lucas.
But there are many other skilled artisans who call this area home. For example, in San Juan you will find skilled potters, many of whom are true artists. In San Miguel, you have rope makers who practice the traditional way of turning sisal fibers into rodeo-quality sogas. And in little San Lucas, there are sculptors who can carve just about anything you want, from a molcajete to a life-size statue to a desk plaque, out of the extremely hard basalt rock that abounds in the hills directly above their pueblito.
My wife and I began our exploration of the craftsmen of Cajititlán with a visit to San Lucas. We arrived at the plaza one morning and the only living being we could see was a dog sleeping in the sun. Now this village has quite a reputation for its basalt sculptures and we expected to see a few shops selling such things, or at least a sign welcoming us to “The Mortar Making Capital of Western Mexico,” but all we found was that sleeping dog.
So, we bravely picked one house at random and knocked on the door, which was opened by a matronly looking woman who seemed a bit surprised to see us standing there. Then we mentioned molcajetes, the traditional mortars used to make salsas, and the woman’s eyes lit up. “Bienvenidos, welcome,” she said ushering us into her living room with a big smile. “Victor!” she shouted, “Here are some people interested in your esculturas (sculptures).”
Yes, that’s how you do it Mexico! In five-minutes we were warm friends, with Victor and his mother proudly showing us a great variety of sculpted objects, from molcajetes and metates to medallions and traditional water filters.
“We are such lucky people,” Victor told us. “If one of us needs 100 pesos, we just grab a pick, walk up the road to the quarry and break off a chunk of rock suitable for making a mortar. Would you like to see how we do it?”
A half hour later we were at the quarry. Victor picked up a bowling-ball-sized rock, knocked the dirt off one spot and tapped the stone with the pointy end of his pick, producing small pits in the surface.
“This rock is fine-grained but not too hard. See? All the holes are very tiny. Besides that, it has no sand embedded in it. The last thing people want is to find grains of sand in their salsa.”
He lifted the rock and, like a true Mexican Michelangelo, said: “I see a molcajete inside. I could turn this into a five-inch-diameter round one or a heart-shaped one. Now, the round one would bring me 70 pesos while the heart-shape will be worth 150 pesos, so I’ll go for the latter. OK, it looks like there’s enough rock here to put three legs on this mortar, but first I have to check if there are any natural faults.”
A few swift blows revealed just such a fault and the craftsman removed a one-inch layer, leaving the rock flat on the bottom. “Oops, not enough room for legs anymore, but it’ll still make a fine piece. Now I have to see if this rock has hilo.”
This, he explained, means that the rock will fracture in the direction the sculptor intends, rather than “doing its own thing.”
“Qué bueno,” said Victor. “It has hilo.” He deftly used the flat end of his pick to quickly give the rock the general shape he wanted. Then he turned the pick around and used the pointed end to begin hollowing it out. “These blows must be neither too heavy nor too light,” he said as tiny chips flew everywhere.
“Don’t you ever get a piece in your eye?” I asked, noting that he was not wearing goggles. “Ha! All the time,” he said laughing.
Victor told us that molcajete-making has a long history in San Lucas.
“It has always been the trade of my family and one day a neighbor dug up a metate (a ground stone tool) in the local cemetery, which amazed all the craftsmen of the village. It appears to be some 600-years-old, decorated with the head of a dog. The quality of workmanship is extraordinary. There are no tell-tale chisel marks on it anywhere. In fact, it’s so smooth it appears to have been machined. We can’t explain how it was done, but it suggests that sculptors have been at work here for a long, long time.”
From Victor Cocula I got a valuable glimpse into the age-old procedures and considerations that have gone not only into the molcajete you can buy at a street market today, but also into those you see on display in museums.
On a second visit to the basalt quarry above San Lucas, I bumped into a young man named Adrian Rodríguez. As he was carrying a small sledge hammer in one hand, I asked him whether he was a sculptor of molcajetes.
“Yes,” he replied, “and what I’m doing here today is looking for nice raw material.”
I told him what I had learned while watching Victor Cocula on my previous visit. Rodríguez replied that he himself no longer makes molcajetes the traditional way, “because it would take me all day just to make one. Now I use stone-cutting machinery and lathes and we can turn them out fast. I just filled an order for one thousand.”
“Do you break off chunks of rock with that sledge hammer?” I asked.“Oh no,” replied Rodríguez. Basalt is really hard. We have to use explosives.”
The sculptor then kindly showed me his technique. Having chosen the right spot in the rock wall, he pulled out a chisel and, using the sledge hammer, began to drill a hole “about three hands deep.” This procedure was so labor intensive and slow that I could now sympathize with his fascination for power tools.
Next the artisan, now sweating profusely, inserted a small packet of fine-grain gunpowder at the bottom of the hole. Then he inserted a sort of fuse: a plastic drinking straw that he carefully filled with gunpowder.
When he pulled out a book of matches, my friends and I all took off in different directions looking for good hiding places. The fuse, however, did just what fuses are supposed to do and Rodríguez calmly walked over to join me behind a big rock.
Well, I expected a tremendous bang, but all we got was a pathetic pop and a little wisp of smoke. Unfortunately for the sculptor, the only result of his endeavors was a bit of a crack.
“I should have gone deeper,” was his only comment.
All I can say is that the next time I buy a molcajete at a tianguis, I swear I will not haggle over the price. Better go visit San Lucas sooner rather than later, because I’m not sure that Generation Z has the gumption to carry on this tradition.
If you go to San Lucas, you will find Victor Cocula Navarro at number 9 on Calle Parroquia and Adrián Rodríguez Cocula at number 8, Calle Emiliano Zapata, both streets bordering the plaza. For their phone numbers and those of other basalt sculptors in San Lucas, see the Tlajomulco Artesanías webpage.
It is easy to find the plaza, just ask Google Maps to take you to “molcajete mas grande del mundo,” which means biggest mortar in the world, carved, of course, by members of the Cocula family, and now serving as the plaza’s fountain.