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Pottery makers, a handmade tradition

Pottery makers, a handmade tradition


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Known by the Mexica as Totonacapan, the ancient perimeter of Totonaca influence stretched from El Tajin and Papantla in the north and via Xalapa to southern Cempoala, this region is tragically famous for being the first land the Spanish conqueror set foot on. Cempoala and Tlaxcala would march their armies towards Tenochtitlan and the rest, as they say, is history. Today the wild El Tajin “the great smoke” and Cempoala “the place of the twenty waters” survive with stone vestiges that recall the Totonac glory. This scented territory, where the scented vanilla is grown, is rich in culture, nature and history.

The term “totonaca” is the plural of totonacatl and refers to the inhabitants of the province of Totonacapan. In the Totonac language, this word is made up of the terms “tutu” referring to the number “three” and “naku'” which means “heart”, that is, “three hearts”. The Totonaca use this term in the sense that Cempoala, Tajin and Castillo of Teayo are the three representative centers of the group; the three centers or three hearts of their culture.

Currently this Mesoamerican indigenous people preserves their language and ancestral customs.

Some authors have pointed out that the term “totonaco” means “man from the hot land”.

Throughout several generations, the Totonac people have had the desire to continue preserving their customs and lifestyle through the creation of an educational institution to transmit their teachings, their art, their values, and their culture, while also providing favorable conditions for indigenous creators to develop. This is how the Center for Indigenous Arts (CAI Centro de Artes Indígenas) emerged, a traditional settlement that is made up of 16 “houses – school”, each “house” is specialized in different arts such as: ceramics, textiles, painting, healing art, dance traditional, music, theater and cooking.

This scheme was included, on December 4, 2012, in the registry of Best Practices for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage, by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) for its contribution in the preservation, promotion and respect for the Totonac culture. In this sense, the Center for Indigenous Arts “The splendor of artists” (Xtaxkgakget Makgkaxtlawana, in Totonac), established in 2006, has become a model to follow in the region for its contributions to the conservation and transmission of a living heritage, and the promotion of artistic creativity.

One of the activities carried out is pottery or ceramics. In the House of Pottery (Casa de la Alfareria – Pulhtaman), the Totonac women share the ancestral methods of pottery and show how traditional pots and various ornaments were made, so there is no risk that this tradition will disappear; boys and girls who regularly attend classes show great aptitudes, which facilitates their learning. The techniques are learned from parents and grandparents, but they are also transmitted between people who do not have family ties. Thus, while some families stop producing when they change jobs, there is never a lack of someone who takes up the tradition and imprints their own style on it.

Pottery and ceramics mean the same thing, the art of making clay objects, only the first derives from the Arabic language and the second from the Greek.

For the Totonaca, it implies not only a physical process, but also a spiritual one, since before becoming mud, the sand has to be removed with the permission of Mother Earth, performing a ceremony, then knowing how to prepare the mud, clean it and have it ready to model it, which is what you have to have talent for and learn.

An example of the work of the Totonac artisans is the Totonac pot that represents the identity of the community, its roots, there is a belief that clay has an owner, the owners are the grandmothers and grandfathers who no longer exist materially, They exist spiritually. This pot can be made in two ways: in one, you start with a ball of clay and it is raised like this with the tips of your fingers; in the other, you use some “churros” and make a circle. First the mud is removed, soaked in large pots, kneaded, cleaned well and mixed with river sand. The dough is then polished and baked or stewed over direct heat.

Some researchers consider that the Mesoamerican settlers began their skill as potters from 2000 B.C. until 1521 AD (period of ceramic without glaze) during this period the pottery production was achieved with techniques such as “pastillaje”, burnishing, “esgrafiado” and many more. After this year and until 1960 enameled ceramics appeared; later other techniques such as high-temperature ceramics.

The beginning of the production of pottery with enamel in our country starts from the manufacture of the earthenware known by the name of majolica (from Mayorca), called “talavera”, its elaboration originates in the city of Puebla at the hands of the first Spaniards who settled there.

The burnishing technique is the one used in the House of Pottery – Pulhtaman, it is the oldest in history, used since the Neolithic era and consists of rubbing and polishing the piece completely to achieve a waterproof texture that prevents the filtration of liquids and which also provides a glossy finish. When the piece is molded, it is rubbed and the slip that gives it its reddish tone is applied; then it is allowed to air, it is burnished again, it is “esgrafiado” (drawings are traced on a surface that has two superimposed layers or colors, making the superficial layer jump at certain points to expose the lower layer) by means of incisions and superficial scratches; finally it is baked at a temperature of 600 °C.

El “pastillaje” consists of applying small rolls or clay tablets to the surface of a piece in order to form figures or decorations. The pieces adhere when the clay is still wet, so when the object is fired, all its parts are integrated. El “esgrafiado” consists of drawing lines, motifs or shapes with some type of punch, scratching the clay, paste or ceramic material with impressions or incisions of variable thickness, when the paste is still tender or scratching once it is dry or fired.

Mud is also known as clay and is obtained from the earth, from a rock called feldspathic. When it gets wet, kaolinite is produced and a kind of mud is formed; then it is kneaded and left to dry in the sun and may or may not be put in the oven to seal the piece. According to its time of erosion of the kaolinite, the different types of mud that are known originate: red, black and green.

Red clay is used in vases, cups, plates and decorative figures, where they are first molded around and can be left smooth, varnished or painted before being baked. The main places where this craft is found are: Tlayacapan (Morelos), Catemaco (Veracruz), Metepec and Tecomatepec (Mexico State) and Huasca (Hidalgo).

The black clay comes from a gray clay that turns black when baked, and they occupy a kiln that is called “two-mouth” to create a reaction similar to oxidation. After molding it, it is left to rest for 4 to 6 days to make it firm and later the decoration details are made, it is left to dry for 26 to 28 days before putting it in the oven. Black clay is representative of Oaxaca, especially San Bartolo Coyotepec, and is used for decorative elements and tableware.

Green clay is made mainly in Atzompa, Oaxaca and in Tzintzuntzan, Michoacán. Unlike red and black, in this one a previous firing is carried out to later add the clay (sandy, bluish-white clay) that gives it its color; It is also a type of clay that they mix with water and add piece by piece to achieve this characteristic that sets it apart. It is the least common, as it is more complicated and represents a greater investment for the craftsman.

The pottery pieces have different uses: domestic, such as the jugs that are used daily to drink “atole” or coffee; the ornamental, like the trees of life in Izucar de Matamoros, Puebla; the ritual, like the censers of Yecapixtla, Morelos, in which copal is burned for the deceased; and playful or fun, like the clay dolls from Tehuantepec, Oaxaca, called “tanguyus” (representation of the goddess of dawn) that are given to girls at New Year’s.

Pottery is one of the main branches of popular art distributed throughout Mexico. Its importance lies precisely in that enormous distribution and, of course, in the finesse and beauty with which the craftsmen mold the pieces. Around 75 pottery centers in the country stand out for the mastery of their artisans. For example, in Puebla we find Acatlan with its pitchers, cajetes (deep, thick, hemispherical clay bowl or casserole glazed on the side) and apaxtles (round container to carry or keep water cool); in Izucar de Matamoros, the animal dolls, candlesticks and the famous trees of life stand out; in Huaquechula figures are carved for the Day of the Dead and Christmas. In San Bartolo Coyotepec, Oaxaca, pots, pitchers, pichanchas (clay pot perforated with very small holes, used to wash the nixtamal and remove the lime) and mermaids are produced; Jamiltepec stands out for its pre-Hispanic-style toys; Tehuantepec for its dolls and little horses and San Blas Atempa for its pots and jars to cool water.

The most common uses of pottery are domestic, ornamental, ritual or playful.

In Michoacán, Capula pottery is dedicated to making pots, pots and glazed pots; pineapples and green punch bowls from San Jose de Gracia; from Patamban we are amazed by its green glazed earthenware; from Guanajuato its majolica; the different vessels from the Guadalajara area or the vessels and bowls of the Mata Ortiz ceramics in Chihuahua. The above examples are enough to give us a brief idea of the enormous pottery production in our country.

Most potters work in family workshops, with everyone participating in the process. Superstition can surround the process, especially during cooking, with potters taking care of the “evil eye” (when a person has the ability to cause harm, misfortune, illness and even cause death to another just by looking at it), of the neighbors, and with the construction of small altars for the realization of Christian and Indigenous blessings.

Both men and women mold the pieces, but the men generally make the larger pieces (due to weight) and are in charge of the kiln. Children start working with clay from a very young age, making decorative elements. They usually start making vessels around the age of fourteen and master the process by the age of eighteen. The man in charge of the family workshop is often at retirement age and his main objective is teaching and supervising production. However, many of these workshops are disappearing as the elderly stop working altogether and children and youth seek other more profitable careers.

In the end, depending on the people and the technique, they will be the pieces that exist throughout the Mexican territory, each piece is unique and in each craft is the legacy of a talented person and a hard-working family.

Centro de las Artes Indígenas (CAI)
Unidos por El Tajín, A.C.
Carretera Poza Rica-San Andrés Km 17.5
Papantla, Veracruz, México
Tels.: +52 (782) 821 70 89 / 821 70 90