Puebla city palm artisans struggle to keep a unique art form alive

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“People in this pueblo have magical hands, ”said Jesús Iván Ríos Piñeda, who served as my guide for a day in Santa María Chigmecatitlán, Puebla, located two hours south of the city of Puebla. People here use their magical hands to make intricate figures and other objects from palm leaves or plastic strips called rafia.

The Mixtecas, indigenous peoples who occupied – and continue to do so – parts of Puebla, Oaxaca and Guerrero, have used palm leaves to weave mats, baskets and other objects for hundreds of years. , long before the arrival of the Spaniards. In 1642 this knowledge was brought to the present day Santa María Chigmecatitlán.

According to local oral history, the pueblo was founded when a group of Mixteca from Oaxaca, after wandering for 30 years, stopped at a mesquite tree and hung a canvas depicting the Virgin of Guadalupe on one of its branches. After that, they saw a coyote walking among vines nearby.

The group decided to name the pueblo after the Virgin and the coyote: Chigmecatitlán is Mixteca for “dog among the vines”.

The pueblo the foundation is celebrated every December 8 with the canvas again hanging from a mesquite tree. Ríos said coyotes still live in the area, but to date none have appeared at the celebration.

María Verónica Peralta Ordones learned the techniques of weaving palm leaves in the city from her grandmother.

Although the Mixtecas wove utilitarian objects for centuries, weaving palm leaves into figurines probably did not begin until the early 20th century. The artisans of Santa María Chigmecatitlán are best known for their miniature figurines – as small as an inch high – which are extremely detailed.

These miniatures did not appear until the mid-1960s, when the Gallardo Osorio family started making them. Other families started making miniatures soon after.

The slings used to make the numbers are usually found near the pueblo and cut in March or April and again at the end of the year, when there is little or no rain. Once dried and cleaned, they are ready to use.

“Only people in this pueblo making miniature figurines, ”said María Verónica Peralta Ordones as she sat at her work table. “I learned from my grandmother, by first doing chiquihuites (baskets) and handbags. Before, people used to chiquihuites, but now, mostly do numbers.

If anyone wanted to learn how to make figurines, Peralta said, he would start by weaving a very small rug that she called a tejida“It would probably take 15 days, working constantly,” she said. “And you have to have nimble fingers.”

Before doing a figure, Peralta first places the palm leaves in a damp cloth for 30 minutes to moisten them. This makes them flexible. Using a needle, she then skilfully slices them into very thin strips. Then his fingers take over.

As I watched in amazement, she sort of looped, twisted, and woven these bands first into an angel’s body and then into its base and head. After connecting the head, she added her eyes, mouth and hair using a needle and colored thread. Finally, she woven and tied a belt, a trumpet and wings.

To say that his fingers moved expertly would be a gross understatement. They moved, as Ríos had said they would, as if by magic.

“To do this job,” said Peralta, “it takes a lot of patience, care and love.”

She finished the angel, just over an inch tall, in less than an hour, but the other figures take much longer. “A figurine of Catrina [the iconic Day of the Dead skeleton figure] of 12 centimeters takes about nine hours to make, ”she said.

A nativity scene that she made with twenty miniature figurines required 20 days of work. “The challenges don’t scare me,” she said. This piece won second place in a regional competition of the Fonart (federal agency for crafts) in 2011.

A few steps from Peralta’s workshop is the store of Mario Cabrera Ibañez, Yuchi uuu. “The name is Mixteca for ‘pieces of palm tree’,” he said.

Puebla craftsman Mario Cabrera
Craftsman Mario Cabrera Ibañez makes both miniature palm tree figures and figures as large as three feet tall.

In addition to the dozens of miniature figurines on display, there were several large pieces in the store. One, that of the Virgin of Guadalupe, measured almost a meter.

“It took me 15 days to do, working eight hours a day,” Cabrera said. “I prefer to do miniatures, but it’s all the same.”

In addition to working in the palm, Cabrera and his family make items from rafia, thin strips of plastic imitating the fibers of palm leaves in natural raffia. “My children work in rafia, which is faster, ”he said. “I work in palm, which is more difficult. I sometimes work in rafia, but I prefer the palm tree because of the tradition.

A few minutes by car, Sirenia Bardovino Pineda was weaving chiquihuites out of rafia in his store. “I prefer rafia because he’s ready, ”she said. “I don’t need to clean it or paint it.”

She said it takes about an hour to do a little chiquihuite.

“Learning how to do one takes two to seven days, depending on the person. »One of the most popular items made from rafia is the sonaja (rattle), of which there are at least 200 types. Bardovino said that in addition to her store, she sometimes sold at fairs in other pueblos and cities. But, she said, people often want to pay less. “There is a lot of bargaining,” she said.

Peralta estimates that there are 50 families, mostly related, in the pueblo which make the palm tree figures. Each family has its own style. But, unfortunately, it may be a dying art.

“I don’t think young people will continue to make them because it is difficult to survive economically,” she said. “Few young people make it, but I hope my granddaughters will continue to make it. My daughter also knows how to do them. More and more young people are musicians or join the army. They leave. Many know how to weave, but they prefer to do something else.

As everywhere, the pandemic has impacted the Santa Maria Chigmecatitlán, with fewer people coming to buy figurines. But it had a positive effect. “More young people stayed and learned to work in the palm,” said Peralta.

There were no tourists in town the day I was there and no customers in the shops. Some artisans said they sell their products at fairs in different cities, but it requires a lot of travel and expense.

“A lot of people have second jobs,” said Ríos. In addition to doing the figures, he works in construction. “I have to do it to survive. “

However, despite the difficulties, all the craftsmen with whom I spoke wish to continue this work.

Miniature palm tree figurine by Mario Cabrera Ibañez
One of Mario Cabrera Ibañez’s miniature figurines. Yuchi uuu Facebook

“I have a special affection for my job because I learned from my grandparents,” said Peralta. “My job helps me remember my grandparents.

“I like my pueblo, “she added.” I love its people, its history. I love my job. It is a memory of my grandparents and a connection to my family. I want to continue working in the palm. Mother Nature gave us this culture.

• Items from Mario Cabrera Ibañez Yuchi Ñuuu’s store can be seen on his Facebook page.

• María Verónica Peralta Ordones Peralta can be contacted at 224-104-9208

• Sirenia Bardovino Pineda can be reached at 224-115-5982.

Joseph Sorrentino, writer, photographer and author of the book San Gregorio Atlapulco: Cosmovisiones and of Stinky Island Tales: some stories from an Italian-American childhood, is a regular contributor to Mexico Daily News. You can find more examples of his photographs and links to other articles on www.sorrentinophotography.com He currently lives in Chipilo, Puebla.


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