Shopping in Mexico

Wandering around the colourful markets and
artesanía
shops is one of the highlights of any visit to Mexico. And the variety of wonderful folk art on offer is mind-boggling. A useful website promoting fair trade and sustainable production is www.bioplaneta.com.

Artesanía
in Mexico is an amalgam of ancient and modern design. The stronger influence, however, is undoubtedly the traditional popular art forms of indigenous communities the length and breadth of the country, which pour into colonial towns such as Oaxaca, San Cristóbal, Pátzcuaro, and Uruapan. These are convenient market centres for seeing the superb range of products from functional pots to scary masks hanging over delicately embroidered robes and gleaming lacquered chests.

Almost everything can be found in Mexico City and most regional capitals have a
Casa de las Artesanías
with exhibitions, and sometimes sales, of local craftwork. But it is almost invariably cheaper to buy crafts away from the capital or major tourist centres, perhaps from the
artesanos
themselves. Bargaining is usually acceptable but don't push it for what, to you, is only a small amount of money. It is often rewarding to take the time to visit the villages where the designs were originally conceived and where the
artesanía
is still made. Here are some of the products on offer and their sites of making.

Ceramics

Ceramics are crafted out of baked clay or plaster and are polished or glazed or polychrome. Pot-making is usually done by women, although in some parts, such as Michoacán, men paint the pieces. Some of the best pots have a brilliant glaze such as the Patambán pottery found in Michoacán and on sale in Uruapan. The green finish comes from the oxidization of copper whilst its fragility comes from 'eggshell' thin clay working. Also outstanding is the
bandera
pottery of Tonalá (Jalisco) decorated in the Mexican national colours.

Another type of ceramic deals with daily events such as the fishermens' life in Tzintzuntzan near Pátzcuaro, whilst in Ocotlán de Morelos (Oaxaca) the brilliant colouring is linked to the Day of the Dead celebrations.

There are many unusual forms such as the pineapple-shaped Patambán pieces and the
árboles de vida
(trees of life) of Metepec (Estado de México). Cats are a speciality of Tonalá (Jalisco) whilst Ocumicho in Michoacán produces a range of fantastical animals. Ceramic dolls are made on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.

Items such as candlesticks are sold in Izúcar de Matamoros and Puebla which also produces decorative ceramic tiles. Large porcelain vases are found in Tlaquepaque (Jalisco) and huge earthenware jars all over Guerrero and in Acatlán de Osorio (Puebla).

The finest china in Mexico, the Maiollica design or Talavera, imported from the Mediterranean, is made in Puebla and Guanajuato and a more practical black pottery is the speciality of San Bartolo Coyotepec (Oaxaca) and Dolores Hidalgo.

Lacquerware

Lacquerware, known as
maque
or
laca
is a more regionalized craft found in Chiapas, Guerrero and Michoacán. Prior to the Conquest its colouring was derived from naturally occurring pigments but since the Spanish arrived the decoration has been more artificial although more brightly coloured. Some pieces are even inlaid with gold.

In Chiapas the main centre of production is Chiapa de Corzo, where the speciality is a large cup made from the wood of the calabash tree and stippled with paint applied by fingertip. There is a lacquer museum in the town.

Olinalá is the focus of inspiration for
laca
in Guerrero and its influence spreads to other towns such as Temalacacingo, 20 km away, whilst the Sunday market in Chilapa is a good shopping opportunity. Specialities include large chests, boxes, furniture, toys and gourds shaped into fruit and animal figures. Michoacán has the most elaborate lacquer-work. Pátzcuaro craftsmen inlay gold to wardrobes, screens, trays and plates. Uruapan is also a good town for purchasing lacquer products.

Masks

Textile art is heavily influenced by religious ritual, particularly dances to master natural forces, but as well as being impressively robed, priests, witches and shamans are often masked in the guise of animals such as eagles, jaguars, goats, monkeys, and coyotes, particularly in the states of Guerrero (for example in Chilapa), Sinaloa, Sonora and Nayarit.

Such masks are made from cardboard, wire, wood, hide, tinfoil and other simple materials and decorated with thread, gems, mirrors and crystals. Besides animal spirit invocation, they could be related to fiestas such as the Day of the Dead (where the mask might be a cardboard skull or made of sugar), or burlesque, as at the carnival of Huejotzingo (Puebla) satirizing historical and political events specific to a region like the repulsion of the French invasion. At Tepoztlán, (Morelos), where a small pink mask with distorted features is surmounted by a huge hat, again the target is French intervention, this time under Maximilian.

Masks are also made in Paracho (Michoacán) and Tlaxcala state where the dancer is masked in the appearance of an old man. In Tlaxcala the mask is wooden, the face white and the moustache tiny. Crystal eyes peer out from behind huge eyelashes. At Papantla (Veracruz) black wooden masks stir up African spirits in magic ritual. Devil and clown masks are also commonly found. San Luis Potosí has the Museo Nacional de la Máscara (National Mask Museum) , and Morelia's Casa de la Cultura also has a collection.

Paper

The art of paper cutting and pasting,
papel picado
, flourishes seasonally around the time of the Day of the Dead celebrations, particularly profiles of dancing
calaveras
(skeletons). Papier mâché
calaveras
also spring up at this time. In pre-Hispanic times, paper was sacred as the material on which to record histories, cosmologies and social mores. Paper banners were used during religious festivals, and some sacrificial victims carried items of paper as they approached the sacrificial stone.

Silver and gold

Silver- and gold-work, known as
orfebrería
, can be found in Taxco and the markets in Mexico City. Jade jewellery is made in Michoacán while semi-precious stones such as onyx, obsidian, amethyst and turquoise are found in Oaxaca, Puebla, Guerrero, Zacatecas and Querétaro.

Textiles

Weaving and textile design has a long and varied lineage. The blouse, of pre-Hispanic origin, for instance, may be found in almost as many different cuts and colours as there are towns in Mexico. The comfortable loose shirt and poncho are ideally suited for hot days and coolish nights, but variations on this practical item of clothing have produced some classic, related, garment types, generally spun in cotton or wool on the traditional
telar de cintura
, a waist-high loom, or
telar de pie
, a pedal operated loom introduced by the Spanish.

The
huipil
is a blouse without sleeves, of varying length, depending upon the area. The best places to buy them are San Cristóbal and Tuxtla Gutiérrez (a white cloth). They are most famous in the towns of Tehuantepec (due to Frida Kahlo's paintings) where they are often a cherry red or black, decorated with large flowers or ribbons.

The
quechquémetl
is a diamond-shaped shirt worn by women that covers just the torso and is woven by indigenous groups in the mountains of Estado de México, Estado de Puebla (where the brocade is elaborately embroidered) and San Luis Potosí.

Ponchos come in two distinctive types: the
sarape
, which is a long garment, and the
jorongo
, which is shorter. They are found all over Mexico but the former is worn especially in the Valle de Oaxaca, where it is made in Santa Ana del Valle and Teotitlán del Valle (an elaborate cloak with Grecian designs, butterflies, suns, etc), and in San Luis Potosí.
Jorongos
from Tuxtla Gutiérrez are made from black wool.

The birthplace of the classic
rebozo
, a dress drawn at the waist and tassled at the hem, is Santa María del Río, south of San Luis Potosí, where it is a delicate silk garment often bought and stored in a small inlaid chest. A
rebozo
of very fine cotton is made in Tenancingo, 50 km south of Toluca, and in Teotitlán del Valle.

Old Spanish-style dresses are made in Chiapa de Corzo whilst various embroidered textiles, including belts and sashes, are elaborated in Cuetzalan (Puebla) and the famous
guayabera
shirt is sold in Mérida. Other specialist Yucateca products such as hammocks and
henequen
bags are covered in the relevant chapters.

There are many other woven items on sale in markets. Quite universal is the
morral
, or shoulder bag. Carpets, rugs and bedspreads are found around Oaxaca state.

Toys

Toy-making is an art in itself in Mexico and the toys aren't just playthings for children, but also small collectables enjoyed by adults. All sorts of materials are used - wood, paper, clay, tin - and many different types of toys are made. Among the most popular are puppets, dolls and pottery animals, as well as musical toys.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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