Mexico's artisan towns

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    Cierra works on a mask. When sales slump, as they have been recently, the artisans travel north to toil at work that has little to do with their skills. 'We have to put food on the table,' says fellow craftsman Horta.
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In the lakeside towns that dot the Pátzcuaro Basin in the state of Michoacán, in southwestern Mexico, buying a mask means a trip to the tiny village of Tocuaro. For copperware, Santa Clara del Cobre is the place to go. Ceramics? The indigenous Purépecha community of Santa Fe de la Laguna.


Much as earlier days required separate trips to the butcher’s shop for meat and the bakery for bread, here there is no one-stop mall to browse for crafts. Each town in the region is renowned for its own craft, a situation that dates back to the 1500s, when Roman Catholic bishop Vasco de Quiroga set up educational and cultural cooperatives to empower the locals, drawing on their pre-Hispanic traditions.


It is said that the bishop modeled the cooperatives on the Utopia envisioned by Sir Thomas More. Five hundred years later, artisans in each town retain those traditions.

On a recent day in Santa Clara del Cobre, one group spent the morning heating up 20-kilogram (44-pound) chunks of copper, then pounding the softened metal into rods they will later hammer into bases or handles for giant copper pots. In Tocuaro, Manuel Horta, who descends from a famous family of maskmakers in the town, uses a paintbrush to apply the finishing touches to a mask depicting five serpents wrapped around the face of the devil. The masks are worn during traditional Christmas dances that act out a struggle between angels trying to help, and devils trying to thwart, the journey of the shepherds to the birth of Jesus Christ.


A day spent driving from town to town recalls another era. But not all is utopian here still. When sales slump, as they have now, Mr. Horta heads north to toil at work that has little to do with the craft that has been passed down from generation to generation. “In the US we will work washing plates, or with animals, something we have no experience doing,” he says. Already several of his neighbors have left. “We have to put food on the table.”

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