Monday, July 12, 2010

Zacatlán Odyssey Part 9: The Dynasty of Time

Time for flowers. Zacatlán's Plaza de Armas contains one of the most unusual clocks I have ever encountered. It has two large clock faces, inclined at low angles to face in opposite directions but meeting at the top, with a single mechanism between them operating both. The faces of the clocks are large flowerbeds. The only non-living parts of the clock faces are the hands and numbers.

Roque Leonel Olvera Charolet (1924-2010) created and donated the floral clocks to Zacatlán. Sr. Olvera died just before we arrived for our visit to Zacatlán. I am very sorry I never had a chance to meet him, as he seems to have been a remarkable and well-loved man. He was the second of three generations involved in his family's clock-making businesses. Sr. Olvera's family is a Zacatlán dynasty that stretches back more than 100 years. For more examples of family's huge floral clocks, click here. Photo by Dick Davis.

Relojes Centenario is located about 2 blocks from the plaza. The original family clock business is called Relojes Centenario (Century Clocks), and is run by Sr. Olvera's brother, José Luis Olvera Charolet. The clock dynasty was founded by Alberto Olvera Hernandez (1892-1980), father of Roque Leonel and José Luis, in 1909. The small tower pictured above contains 4 "monumental" clock faces, a specialty of the company. They have built more than 1500 monumental clocks for public buildings, churches, plazas, etc. throughout Mexico, Colombia, Guatamala, El Salvador, Venezuela, Cuba, and the United States. Notice the line of 7 small balconies on the second floor with french doors behind each. Several times a day, something very unusual happens here.

Dancing dolls appear "like clock-work". Periodically each day, the french doors open, one by one, and full-size human figures move out onto the balconies. Six of the figures are women, one is a man, and all are dressed in colorful regional costumes. Most remarkably of all, they dance, moving their heads and arms to the tune of a famous song from their own region!

The doll from Oaxaca wears a gorgeous costume from the colonial era. We knew nothing of this amazing show until a break during the Flower Festival, when Christopher was almost literally dragged down the street by a group of bystanders who insisted that they wanted to show him "something you have never seen before." We had no idea at the time that the spectacle was part of a store owned by Mary Carmen's family. The regular performance of the dolls, controlled by a clock mechanism in the store, just as regularly draws a crowd of spectators. Christopher came back to find me, and insisted that we had to return later that evening so I could witness the next performance.

Closeup of the Oaxaca muneca (doll). Both Christopher and I remarked upon the resemblance to Mary Carmen. Mexico has 31 states, but only 7 are represented among the munecas: Oaxaca, Puebla, Yucatán, Chiapas, Sinaloa, Veracruz, and Jalisco. Those states were chosen because their traditional clothing is the most colorful in Mexico, and has become internationally recognized.

El Jefe (the boss) makes his appearance. The climax of the performance occurs when the last door opens and a male figure dances out dressed in the charro outfit of a Mexican cowboy. Charros have become a symbol of Mexico and charro associations are found throughout the country, but they originated in Jalisco State, where I live. Quite naturally, this muneca danced to "Guadalajara," one of the most famous of Mexico's traditional songs. Guadalajara is the capital of Jalisco. For more information on charros, click here.

Closeup of El Jefe. The muneca is, of course, modeled on Mary Carmen's father as a young man. Throughout his life, he loved to dress up in his charro outfit and was active in the Zacatlán area's official charro association. The first public exhibition of the dancing dolls was on March 27, 2010, only a few weeks before Roque Leonel died. I imagine that he hugely enjoyed the ingenious performance, and appreciated that people would remember him through it for many years to come.

Interior of the clock store, with some of its beautiful wares. The store sells everything from large tower-clocks to small wrist watches. The clock shown above is faced with beautiful talavera-style tiles painted with floral designs. Talavera tiles originated in Puebla, the capital of the state, about 90 miles south of Zacatlán.

A visit to the clock factory and the Relojes Centenario museum. Just outside the blue entrance door, we encountered a lovely flower bed and some molds with a pre-hispanic design. The molds were going to be used to create a large clock the factory was building.

The 3rd Generation. Jesus Clemente Olvera Trejo, who likes to be called Clemente, stands by one of the many antique clocks in the small Relojes Centenario museum adjoining the clock factory. Mary Carmen's 8o-year-old mother, Maria Julita Trejo VDA. de Olvera, gave birth to Clemente, as well as two other brothers and 8 sisters, including Mary Carmen. Among them, Doña Maria Julita's children have produced 32 grandchildren, and 35 great-grandchildren. Clemente joined the family business in 1990, and now runs Relojes Olvera III Generacion, the second of the family's clock businesses. When Mary Carmen took us for a visit to the factory, Clemente graciously acted as our guide through the fascinating little museum and the adjoining factory. Clemente was born in 1967, and has been making clocks for 20 years. One of his special creations has 12 bronze bells which play the melody of "Peregrina."

Where it all started. In 1874, Mary Carmen's great-grandfather Don Juan Olvera y Manilla bought an old rancho outside of Zacatlán. The rancho itself may date back before 1791, the earliest date in the family records. Mary Carmen's sister and brother-in-law (see Part 3 of this series) still operate the rancho as a B&B called Tonatzin Spa Hostal. In 1892, her grandfather was born and grew up on the rancho. When, as a young man, his mother's clock stopped, he asked her permission to attempt a repair. Growing fascinated with clocks and their intricate mechanisms, he decided in 1909 to try to create one from scratch. His only training was his experience with his mother's clock. His uncle told him that if he succeeded the uncle wanted his first clock. He set to work in April of 1909, and in August, 1912, he finally finished. His uncle was probably as amazed at the achievement as I was when I heard the story. The clock shown above is a replica of the original. Thus Alberto Olvera Hernandez began the family clock dynasty.

Display of some of the tools and mechanisms used in making early clocks. Don Alberto had 11 sons, one of whom was Roque Leonel, whom he took into the business. Together they built Relojes Centenario, and incorporated the business in 1944. Clemente, Roque Leonel's son, has introduced modern elements, such as digital mechanisms and solar power, to the making of his family's clocks.

Trying my hand at clock-making. Several antique metal lathes are on display in the museum. Since they are still perfectly functional, Clemente encouraged me to take a try. I was game, although I hadn't operated a lathe since metal-shop class in junior high school. As I recall, I didn't get a very good grade then, but on Clemente's lathe I at least managed to avoid cutting off any fingers. Photo by C. Jordan English

Clemente shares a laugh with a clock worker. Porfirio Becerra Santiago is one of several highly-skilled workers we met during our tour. I was impressed by the factory, which was clean, well-lit, and very well-organized.

Feliciano González Márquez takes a measurement. Clock-making is delicate work, requiring careful measuring of all the parts. Notice the safety goggles, and the rack in the background with a specific place for each tool. This is a place where everyone takes their work very seriously.

The factory casts many of its own parts. We got to see a bit of the process where parts are placed in a wooden frame, sprinkled with a powder which inhibits sticking, and are then covered with finely-ground silica. The parts are then removed, leaving their impression in the sand and molten metal is poured into the frame. The boxes to the right in the photo contain newly cast parts that are still hardening.

Tamping the sand around the parts. Enrique Sánchez Hernández tamps silica around the parts he placed in the box in the previous photo. To make a good impression for the casting, the tamping has to be firm but very careful so as not to disturb the parts in their places.

La Casa del Tiempo, a good description of this family dynasty. I thought this sign, which means "The House of Time," perfectly exemplifies Mary Carmen's family, a dynasty of time which for more than 100 years has played an important role in their wonderful little city.

As they say in the movie business: "its a wrap!" When I started on this adventure last May, I had little idea of what to expect, and no idea that it would turn into a 9-part series in my blog. While I am ready to move on to other topics (and believe, me I have a backlog) I close out this series with bit of a pang. I enjoyed every part of the visit, the photography, the writing, and the positive feedback I have gotten from so many people. I am happy that many have expressed interest in visiting Zacatlán to see its wonders for themselves. I want to especially thank Dick Davis who originally invited me to participate, Mary Carmen Olvera Trejo who was our splendid guide and hostess, and the countless warm and friendly people she introduced to us during our visit.

As always, I welcome comments, corrections, and general feedback. If you want to leave a comment, please use the Comments section below or email me directly. If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim


  1. Gracias, Jim, for this encouraging and informative series of a fascinating people and place. I especially enjoyed your visits to the small outlying villages. This is the first series I have read in your blog and I am looking forward to reading more.

  2. Thanks for introducing me to another place in Mexico that I want to visit. The journey into the countryside reminded me of the hiking weekend I did while a student at the Instituto in Oaxaca. A number of the small villages high in the nearby mountains have formed a hut to hut trail system. Our guide was perhaps in his sixties or seventies, but of course was well used to the steep trails and the altitude. He had also learned all the medicinal uses of the local plants from his mother and shared his knowledge with us. The small steep fields and the towns there were very like these.

    I have e mailed many family members and friends telling them of your blog and urging them to visit it. I entitled my message "Why Mexico?" because so many think we are crazy to plan to retire there and refuse to plan to visit us in Mexico. They know nothing of the wonderful Mexico you bring to life in these blogs.

  3. Hi Jim, My nameis Raymundo Pérez, I´m the logistics manager of "relojes Olvera III Generación" and is a satisfaction can read your notes in this page, i would like so much have the oportunity to meet you. Give new route in the museum and Zacatlán. leave my mail and I ´m aware to your comments. Greetings!


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