Monday, July 5, 2010

Zacatlán Odyssey Part 7: The young artists of Popotohuilco

Two of Popotohuilco's young artists pose by their work. During our day-long excursion into the mountains overlooking Zacatlán, we stopped at a tiny pueblo named Popotohuilco. There, we met Miguel Diaz Guererro, a young man who is not only a gifted artist in his own right, but has been passing on his skill and knowledge to young people in his little village. The results are remarkable. Above (on left), Maribel Cruz Hernández, stands next to Flor Cruz Méndez (on right) . Maribel is 11 years old, and Flor is 15. Hanging on the tree between them are examples of their work. Although Maribel is one of the youngest of the artists, she shows an unusual sensitivity in her work. Another of Flor's works is shown among the photos which follow.

Popotohuilco can only be reached by a bumpy, winding dirt road. Snaking into canyons and around hairpin turns, the road is at least an improvement over the network of footpaths that have serviced the area for centuries. The tiny specks on the road are local people, trudging along patiently. When we passed them and they saw Mary Carmen, they were always ready with a smile and a greeting. Miguel Diaz Guererro is 28 years old, and was born in Popotohuilco. He began to draw in elementary school, showing his promise as an artist at an early age. In secondary school, he was introduced to oil paints and his gifts truly began to flower.

A steep mountainside provides a perch for Popotohuilco. The few buildings of the pueblo can be seen in the center of the photo. Heavy forest covers most of the hillside, cut occasionally to create milpas (small fields) for corn, beans, and maguey. Miguel was introduced by Mary Carmen to my friend Dick Davis, the person who recruited me to visit Zacatlán. Dick is in turn connected to the Wilmette Arts Guild, based in a suburb of Chicago, Ill. Wilmette seeks to preserve and enhance folk art and culture, and invited Miguel to show his work in Chicago, as well as promoting it on the Wilmette Arts Guild website.

The Casa de Salud (health center) was one a handful of structures of the pueblo. A one-room store, a crumbling old ruin of a church, and a small school were the only other buildings around the tiny dirt plaza. Nothing would distinguish the pueblo of Popotohuilco from thousands of others like it throughout Mexico except for the art school that Miguel created and runs for the aspiring young artists who live here. Through his own art, and by passing on his skills and knowledge to his young students, Miguel is both creating and enabling beautiful work. Even beyond that, through their art he and his students are recording a way of life which may vanish in the not too distant future, as "civilization" advances into these remote mountains.

Iglesia de San Miguel Arcangel sits next to the Casa de Salud. The old church has stood in ruins for some time, but the people of the pueblo are gradually reconstructing it. In the photo above, you can see the new concrete posts going up on the front corners, with rebar protruding from the top. Perhaps their work will be finished in time for to celebrate the fiesta of San Miguel Archangel on September 27.

Iglesia de San Miguel Arcangel, past and future. One of the young artists created a vision of how the church will look when reconstruction is finished. It probably also looked something like this in its heyday, but the artist is far too young to remember. She wonderfully captured the verdant and overflowing vegetation of the mountains, along with the golden light of a high-country afternoon.

Creator of the church painting stands next to another of her works. Maria de Jesús Mendez Hernández is 14 years old. Her painting above is entitled "Ocote Seco." Like her fellow students, she focuses her work on her immediate surroundings: the pueblo, its people, and the natural world of the mountains which surround them. There is an innocent freshness to the students' work, but also a startlingly high level of technique for people so young.

Antonia Ortega López, next to her painting "Neblina sobre Zepoalxochitl". Antonia is 14 years old and her painting shows a local woman in traditional dress, accompanied by her dog, gathering zepoalxochitl. In the background, neblina (fog) rolls over the steep mountainside, an effect we saw every day during our visit to the Zacatlán area, and which she captured perfectly. Zepoalxochitl are yellow flowers that are gathered as offerings for the graves in the local panteon (cemetery).

"24 de Diciembre" is the title of this evocative painting. The artist, Ana Maria Ortega López, 16 years old, was not present because she was working in Mexico City when we visited. However, María Guadalupe Méndez Hernández, shown above, stood in for her. Ana Maria's painting shows part of the traditional celebration of Christmas Eve, with residents of the pueblo gathered around holding candles.

"Cascada-Lavando en El Rio" is another work by Flor Cruz Méndez. A woman in traditional dress kneels by a mountain waterfall to wash clothes on a flat rock. Notice that Flor wears the same handmade outfit as the woman in the painting: a beautifully embroidered blouse called a huipil, with a long black skirt held up by a black and white embroidered belt. Over her arms she carries a lacy shawl, or mantilla (quexquemetl in the local Nahuatl language), which is also worn by the woman in the painting. Behind her head, she wears the same long braids seen in the painting. In my many hikes into the mountain recesses of Mexico, I have often found little grottos with waterfalls very much like the one pictured.

Just in from a day's work in the mountains. Esperanza Hernández Hernández, 84 years old, was one of the many relatives who flocked around as we photographed and interviewed the young artists. Despite her age, she is known as a hard worker, and uses her sharp machete to cut firewood. I asked her if she might also need it to fend off unruly boyfriends. She responded with a hearty laugh, echoed by the crowd which had gathered around to listen in on the interaction. When Christopher stood next to her for a picture, someone suggested that he might be one of the unruly ones, drawing more laughter from the crowd.

Christopher and I joined Miguel, his class, and their relatives for a photo. Hanging on the fence are other examples of their work, including large painted pottery platters. Miguel stands at the extreme right of the photo. He was obviously proud of his students and, like a good teacher, stood a bit to the side during our whole visit so that the students themselves could enjoy the limelight. If you would like more information about Miguel or to view his work, click here. My only regret from this visit is that I could not show all of the young artists who participated along with their beautiful paintings. My apologies to those who are not represented in this posting. Perhaps some of the people viewing this will come and see your work! Photo by Mary Carmen Olvera Trejo.

This completes Part 7 of my series on Zacatlán. Next week, we will visit the gorges and roaring waterfalls of Tulimán. The following week, I will finish the Zacatlán Odyssey series with a visit to a most unusual clock business, and a look at the family dynasty that has operated it for 100 years. If you would like to leave a comment, you can either use the Comments section below, or email me directly. If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim


  1. HI. Jim
    I enjoyed reading your blog on Oaxaca. I would like to get your help as you have explored and met various artists in that State. Currently I am looking for a place where they can apply embroidery to our garment.I heard and saw many beautiful embroidery done in Oaxaca and when I came across your blog, I had to ask!!!
    If you have come across a place where you can introduce me to explore, that will be wonderful since I have not been to Oaxaco yet.
    Thank you for reading. Best, Yuki

  2. No podían poner algo mejor?
    Y de que sirvió?

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If your comment involves a question, please leave your email address so I can answer you. Thanks, Jim