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The Toymakers of Mexico City  

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The Toymakers of Mexico City
Credit: Leigh Thelmadatter

The families of Alejandro Camacho Barrera and Miriam Salgado have lived in the Mexico City borough of Xochimilco for more generations than anyone can count. But it has been only the last several generations that have made these families the toymakers of Mexico City.

The Camacho-Salgado family story reflects the larger history of the borough. They were ejidarios, families with rights to work a portion of communally-held land – a system set up to ensure that peasant farmers had a way to make a decent living after the Mexican Revolution.

By the end of the century, the urban sprawl was such that the government decided to try and conserve what green space they could, which was in these same ejidos. Their land was appropriated to create the Xochimilco Ecological Park. Their compensation included smaller portions of urban property, in particular the Barrio 18 subdivision just off Mexico City’s ring road.

The land is completely theirs to do with as they wish, but it is nowhere near enough to continue an agricultural lifestyle. The ejidarios of Barrio 18 have sold land, built houses, started businesses or moved on.

For this family, the path forward was looking at another aspect of their past. Traditional toys are one of very few handcraft traditions to survive in the Mexico City area. Neither family has a multi-generational history of such work, but they did have experience with the toys and their making through their community. Camacho’s father and grandfather were carpenters, specializing in the making of trajineras, the flat-bottomed boats used on Xochimilco’s shallow canals. So, toy production began with wood, and expanded into other materials as the business developed.

Handcraft toys in Mexico City
Credit: Leigh Thelmadatter

The concept of “toy” in Mexican Spanish does not just mean playthings for children. It also extends into festival items. Basically, anything that is not for work or religious ritual is a toy. Another important handcraft to survive and now thrive here is cartonería, a kind of hard papier-mâché used to make many items, like piñatas. The technique can be used to make many festival items and playthings (especially effigies and dolls).

About 13 years ago, the family’s fine work began to get noticed by cultural authorities, including a first-place win at the annual competition sponsored by FONART, a governmental agency that promotes handcrafts nationwide.

Another toy they have become known for is alebrijes, the colorful monsters invented by fellow Mexico City craftsman, Pedro Linares. For more than a decade, the Museo de Arte Popular has sponsored a parade of monumentally-sized alebrijes in the center of the city. With support of institutions such as the Feria de Maestros de Arte, the family workshop, called La Lula, entered alebrijes into this event, and their fame expanded.
La Lula has since been profiled in various Mexican newspapers and television shows and the book Mexican Cartonería: Paper, Paste, and Fiesta / Papel, Engrudo y Fiesta.

Not content to sit on their laurels, the family has continued to take their craft to new levels. In 2018, they invited Colombian artisan and artist Rubiel Badillo to work with them in a kind of residency, as he learned Mexico’s papier-mâché traditions. They were commissioned to create a giant alebrije for the El Dorado 3000 exhibition in Lille, France, and their piece remains on display in that country.

Unfortunately, like all other artisans, the COVID-19 pandemic has meant difficulties. They lost major opportunities in 2020 with the cancelation of Feria Maestros de Arte in Chapala as well as the opportunity to exhibit and sell at the Fiesta Latina in New Mexico. However, it is certain that for La Lula, this is only a temporary setback. Dedication and quality of this type cannot be held down by a mere virus.

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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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