In preparation for attending Tuesday’s World Cup qualifier between Mexico and the United States, I was ordered to be discreet.
Use of this site constitutes acceptance of our User Agreement (effective January 1, 2014) and Privacy Policy (effective January 1, 2014). In the 1500s, a Spanish bishop turned a collection of pueblos around the Mexican town of Patzcuaro into a center for craftsmanship.
On Friday mornings in the colonial town of Patzcuaro, Mexico, there is a flea market where indigenous people barter their wares the way they’ve done since before the Spaniards set foot in this region. Sixteen years later, in 1538, a more benevolent Spaniard, Bishop Vasco de Quiroga, traveled to the area, determined to stop the slaughter of the Tarascans, or Purepecha, and to focus on converting them instead. An artisanal tour of Michoacan — with an interactive map of its 18 towns devoted to ancient crafts. Quiroga gathered the scattered indigenous people into pueblos (the better to convert them), and assigned each village its own craft: fishing nets to the island of Janitzio, leather to Ocumicho, musical instruments to Paracho, lacquer to Patzcuaro, wool to Aranza, pottery to Capula, wooden chests to Quiroga, and so on.
Five hundred years later, artisans still flock to Patzcuaro with their wares, especially at fairs during the Semana Santa (Easter week) and Night of the Dead (November 1-2).
Despite these economic pressures, an astonishing array of artesanias still exists for visitors to explore in the region—relatively safely. Behind the simple wooden doors to Nicolas and Maria’s home is an entryway with shelves of award-winning pots. While Nicolas has passed down his pottery-making skills to his daughter (“Apart from her father’s good looks, she has inherited a craft,” he joked), this tradition is fast becoming unusual. Santa Clara de Cobre, about twenty minutes above Patzcuaro, is a colonial town with a copper sheen. The brothers Napolean (left) and Jose Perez are two of the town’s upcoming masters; their late father, Jesus Perez Ornelas, made the candlesticks for the local church, and was renowned for his work with intricate bird and human faces on his copper pots. Copper was originally mined in mountains near Patzcuaro, but that resource has long been exhausted.
After the copper is shaped into a basic vessel, it gets hammered on an anvil to develop texture and various designs. The principal seat of the Tarascan Empire was Tzintzuntzan, a pueblo a few miles around the lake from Patzcuaro where the Spanish forced the indigenous Purephecha to dismantle their pyramids in order to erect churches and other buildings; you can still see petroglyphs etched in the stones on the church facades. Manuel Morales, whose studio is on the church grounds, is one of the region’s best-known ceramicists—his family has worked in clay for five generations.
Manuel became interested in fine art in college, and his work took a different direction from the traditional designs.
Unlike most potters in Tzintzuntzan, Manuel uses a very high temperature kiln, which makes the ceramics shinier and more durable.
Like the clay in the surrounding mountains, the reeds in Lake Patzcuaro have served as the raw material for the region’s crafts for centuries.
Florencia and Samuel Morales and their three sons, along with many other families in the pueblo, cut their reeds from the nearby lake. Mario Lopez, originally from Mexico City, was the first in the pueblo to begin weaving on metal frames. Teofila Servin Barriga, from the tiny village of Sanabria, between Tzintzuntzan and Patzcuaro, belongs to an embroidery cooperative with fifty other women, whose shawls and tablecloths are displayed in her modest house. For many of the women, whose husbands went north to the States to find work, embroidery became “a type of therapy.” Teofila, who worked as a domestic servant to pay for school in Patzcuaro, now travels throughout Mexico to give embroidery classes, and attended the Santa Fe, New Mexico International Folk Art Market. The icon perhaps most associated with the Patzcuaro region is the fantastical “pineapple,” or “pina,” crafted in the mountains about two hours from town.
To add to the misunderstanding, says Carlos Hernandez Cruz, who represents a collection of 25 Michoacan artists at the Casa Michoacana gallery in San Miguel de Allende, artisans began to make the pinecones look more like pineapples simply because tourists thought they were pineapples. About 60 families make the pinas in this town, which is nicknamed San Jose de las Pinas because there is another pueblo nearby, also named San Jose de la Gracia, that specializes in cheese (thus nicknamed San Jose del Queso). In the Purepecha tradition, it seems, hospitality is constant, whether its symbol is a pinecone or a pineapple. Ocumicho, high in the mountains, is a drab mountain town, but behind the doors of many of the houses are fantastic, colorful, otherworldly characters. Octavio seems to be constantly amused by his crazy diablitos, which lighten the somber atmosphere of religion and poverty that pervades this and many of the region’s pueblos. In the village of San Bartolome Cocucho, the ceramicists specialize in enormous, graceful, burnished pots that bear the same name as the town: cocuchos.
Dona Juanita Santos Joaquin is 72, and has been making the cocuchos for nearly 60 years, since she was 15. These pots were sold for a pittance until an architect passed through the village one day and began buying them to decorate houses and gardens. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to find the indigenous artists outside of Patzcuaro without a guide. There are so many artisans and pueblos surrounding Patzcuaro that it’s difficult to pare down a list to visit; you could easily spend ten days exploring any of them.
Capula: Nearly half the population is this town makes punteado pottery, which is covered with tiny, precise dots painted with the hairs from squirrels’ tails. Huancito: Because this town is so dry, Vasco de Quiroga assigned them the task of fabricating jugs to transport liquids.
Cuanajo, off the road to Santa Clara de Cobre, produces wooden chests and furniture, elaborately carved with flowers, animals, and fish. Tocuaro: Ten miles west of Patzcuaro, artisans here make intricate, lively, and often fierce wooden dance masks for holidays and rituals, each costing up to several hundred dollars. Erongaricuaro, near Tocuaro, is full of women who weave clothes and tablecloths from hand-spun cotton. San Francisco Uricho: Outside Erongaricuaro, this town makes traditional off-white and brown Michoacan pottery. Paracho: About 40 miles west of Lake Patzcuaro, Paracho is famous for making guitars, both masterpieces from individual artisans and from the larger factories in town. Quiroga: Along the road toward Morelia, Quiroga is known for wooden toys and dollhouse miniatures.
There are many lovely places to stay in Patzcuaro, but the Casa de la Real Aduana, just off the square, is special.
The garden is impeccably kept, filled with a whimsical giant chess set, pots from the region, and flowering plants.
The owners, French photographer Didier Dorval and his Mexican wife Gemma Macouzet, are artists and collectors with refined taste (their collection of European paintings will amaze you, too, with familiar names they’d rather not advertise).
Five years ago, she turned her colonial home into a whimsical museum dedicated to preserving Mexico’s tradition of elaborate toys and miniatures, made of materials such as vegetable fibers, clay, and wood. The best toys come from the regions with the strongest craft traditions–Michoacan, Oaxaca, Jalisco, Guanajuato, Guerrero and Veracruz–but the museum has examples from almost every state: miniature scenes of fairs, bullfights, parades, musicians, and wrestling matches, as well as fantastic colored animals and elaborate pinatas. Mexico City - Once a week, vans loaded with reams of material to be stitched into trousers and shirts for US retailers, drive through the muddy streets of the Los Reyes-La Paz neighbourhood on the outskirts of Mexico City. The fabric is distributed to the area's many seamstresses, who have a week to each make about 50 trousers and shirts. Given the anonymous and impersonal nature of outsourcing, the seamstresses have no contact with the US retailers and are not employed by them. As the industry is unregulated, the seamstresses are at the mercy of the brokers and have no means of asking for better salaries. Fed up of the long hours and meagre pay as a seamstress, Beatriz Solano, 35, travelled to the country's border with the United States to look for work.
Development experts and economists say that women are empowered when they work outside their homes. While they work outside their homes to supplement their husbands' wages, they continue to look after the household chores and their children. Ortega the seamstress was just 17 years old when she came to Mexico City to marry her fiance, a construction worker.
The negatives, which Solano and other Mexican women like her didn't know about in advance, were the high cost of living and insecurity in the country's border cities. The game was being played in Mexico City, at Estadio Azteca, in front of more than a hundred thousand Mexican soccer fans, so I shouldn’t wear red, white, and blue. Your California Privacy Rights The material on this site may not be reproduced, distributed, transmitted, cached or otherwise used, except with the prior written permission of Condé Nast. The people here are still making and marketing their wares in much the same way as they did hundreds of years ago.

Squat, weathered women in long braids and woven rebozos carry baskets of dried fish, avocados, or wood scraps, which they trade for the used clothing, pots, or medicinal herbs that other natives have spread out on blankets. Clay was abundant in the hills around Patzcuaro, which led to many different approaches to the ceramic arts.
Inspired by the writings of Sir Thomas More, Quiroga, whose statue stands in the middle of the main plaza of Patzcuaro, set out to create a spiritual and economic utopia. The olive trees that Quiroga planted in the town of Tzintzuntzan, about ten miles from Patzcuaro, still grow. Drug-related violence in Michoacan has made tourists afraid to visit, even though most of the skirmishes have been hours away from Patzcuaro. Much of the town is still communal, including the central “hospital,” which is a place of hospitality, not medicine. The courtyard is strewn with laundry lines hung with T-shirts, jeans, and indigo blue rebozos. The street lamps are copper, shops sell dangling copper cooking pots, and one of the main plazas has a kiosk with a copper roof and benches and garbage cans painted copper.
The Perez brothers’ copper vases are somewhat more ornate than most, and in their open-air workshop there are dozens of anvils, most of them made by their father.
Jose’s pots are more ornate, Napolean’s more regular.  “Copper is our inheritance, and our cultural identity,” says Napolean. There is a long tradition of pottery-making (alfareria) in Tzintzuntzan, where clay is abundant, and some artisans continue to use prehispanic geometric designs.
None of the potters in the town had an electric-powered wheel and a gas-fired kiln until his father, Miguel, bought one in 1982.
He studied painting at the University of Michoacan, and developed a style of geometric designs influenced by painters, such as Rodolfo Tamayo, Diego Rivera, and Pablo Picasso.
His work is mainly sold in galleries, for upwards of $500, but if you stop by his studio, you can buy modestly priced pieces with imperfections (I took home a half-glazed mug for about $25). Quiroga assigned the pre-hispanic craft of basket-weaving, or chuspata, to the pueblo of Ihuatzio. They then sprinkle them with water to make them pliable, sit on low benches in their home, and weave. Yet Dona Consuelo isn’t the oldest in the family, whose members tend to live into their 100s. These appliqued ceramics, often dark green, can be either simple or extravagantly ornate, sprouting candelabra, cups, or flower tops. The pineapple is also a universal symbol of hospitality, which boosts the pinecones’ morph into pineapples still further.
To commemorate his town’s craft, Pedro started a community museum in the courtyard of his family home to display the pinas; every year craftsmen from the village compete for the best dozen pieces.
Before we left, Hernandez’s wife, Isabel, put down her clay and insisted on making us lunch before we left.
Bishop Quiroga originally designated Ocumicho as the leatherworks town, but after the cattle were stolen during the Mexican Revolution, the women began to create ceramic objects to sell, many of them devil masks and figurines. His mother-in-law made them, but none of her six children was interested in carrying on the tradition. At that age, she had just married, and since her husband was an orphan, he had no money or property for the family. Since then, business has been fairly brisk, though the size of the pots makes them a little difficult for tourists to bring home. She divides her time between Mexico and San Francisco. Janet Jarman is a Mexico-based photojournalist and multimedia producer.
Intricate trays (about $50 to $400) with gold on black backgrounds and layers of other colors are available at Los Once Patios, a converted convent with 11 different patios, each filled with crafts. This colonial town was briefly home to the French artist Andre Breton in the 1950s, and visited by Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. The 16th-century colonial tax collector house has only five guest rooms, each exquisitely decorated with the finest examples of Michoacan crafts–textiles, pottery, metalwork, masks, and furniture. At $200-300 per night, the hotel is in the luxury category, but it an aesthetic experience you won’t want to miss. Angelica Tijerina started the collection 50 years ago, when her parents began bringing home dolls and toys from their travels all over Mexico.
The museum, which houses roughly 3000 toys (or juguetes), holds a yearly contest for monetary prizes and the honor of having their works displayed. For sewing all day for some of the biggest and most expensive department stores, these women earn about 4,000 pesos (283 dollars) a month.
In the fancy stores, the price of the clothes is sometimes five times the cost of making them. According to Mexico's National Population Council, an estimated 6.6 million Mexican homes will be headed by women in 2010. The younger and less experienced the worker, the easier it is for the bosses to exploit her. My haircut, I was told by a Mexican acquaintance, was too American, so she recommended a hat. One reason the Tarascans were never conquered by their fierce Aztec enemies was their superior metallurgy.
Surveying the richness of the local crafts, and the informal barter system already in place, he decided to use these traditions as the basis of a networked trading economy in what is now the state of Michoacan in southwestern Mexico. To strengthen the region’s craftsmanship, the bishop imported experts, tools, and techniques from Spain, and built workshops in many pueblos. In some pueblos, finely skilled craftspeople have had to turn to construction work instead, or head north to the U.S. On the day I visited Nicolas Fabian Fermin, he wasn’t in his studio; my guide had to track him down on narrow dirt side streets, where he and his wife, Maria del Rosario Lucas Buatista, were doing their monthly duty of delivering food to the elderly and infirm in the town. The kitchen has open shelves with handmade crockery, and the smell of dried chilis and wet clay hangs in the air.
As you walk down the streets, you can hear the faint tapping of metal upon metal from the town’s 250 copper workshops.
The coppersmiths pick over the copper scrap for impurities and place it in a forge—a wide, shallow depression in the floor for the fire, which is fed by traditional bellows. Here, Sergio steadies the hot glowing ingot with tongs, preparing for Napolean to break it apart with a sledgehammer.
He created his birds and other adornments as a response to mechanization, to better distinguish his handcrafted pieces from ones made by machine. Miguel popularized the white and brown pottery style that’s characteristic of the pottery in Tzintzuntzan, decorated with animals, fish from Lake Patzcuaro, and other local scenes. He also found inspiration in the ancient symbols found on the pyramid remains outside of town.
The town, near Tzintzuntzan, is still known for its wicker weavings–baskets, boxes, tables, and furniture—all made from bullrushes gathered from the lake. Pedro Hernandez is one of the masters of the “pinas,” which evolved from utilitarian pots in the 1970s. His grandson, who is just now starting to play with clay, will be the fifth generation ceramicist in the family. We sat on benches around the open-air kitchen, and had the richest, most savory chili pork stew I’ve ever eaten. The devils play a role in festivals and dances during Holy Week, when they represent the Romans who wanted to kill the baby Jesus. I couldn’t resist taking home one of his creations—a collection of surreal animals standing in for the wise men, with the whole Nativity scene loaded onto the back of a flying green armadillo–which cost 500 pesos, or about $30. It wasn’t decorated with his crazy devils; the girls’ rooms were princess pink and the decorations were subdued crosses and photos of the Virgin Mary, like you’d find in a Bible study book. Our guide explained that it’s important to partake of the hospitality offered; to refuse would be bad manners.
While they are mostly decorative these days, the cocuchos are large because they were originally made to store grain and water.
These days, Dona Juana spends most of her time in her kitchen, which is doll-sized, like she is, with hand-made pottery on the open shelves. Her work, which has won an American Photography first prize, has appeared in The New York Times and a range of other publications.

He is a native of Patzcuaro, knowledgeable about the history and crafts, and speaks excellent English.
The town’s jug tradition evolved into a system of elaborate, high towers that allows large amounts of water to be stored in a typical home’s very small space. Every corner of the hotel, like the mantelpiece in the sala with several of Manuel Morales’ pots, is a visual vignette. They are very easily exploited, and many contend that the theory of empowerment through work is erroneous. After her husband died, Ortega learned to write with help from her school-going younger daughter. Walking into the stadium we saw a bus of American supporters being guarded by a line of police. They were no match for the Spanish conquistadors, however, who arrived in 1522, plundered those treasures, and killed any Tarascans who stood in their way.
Patzcuaro, with its spread of white houses, red tile roofs, and expansive main plaza, became the trading hub for these crafts, which strengthened the economies of all the villages in Michoacan.
Some of these crafts have changed over the years, becoming more decorative than utilitarian–copper vases rather than weapons, for instance, or fantastic pineapple-shaped pots instead of cooking vessels. Vasco de Quiroga gave this town, officially founded in 1553, the exclusive right to make copper cazos, or cooking cauldrons; it also produced coins, church bells, stills, and arms and armaments that were sent to Spain. Some of the shops in town avoid all this trouble by using pre-manufactured disks, which these men would never consider. Their grandfather, on his deathbed, warned the elder Perez about departing from the tradition of making simple cauldrons, but his ornamented vases have become among the most prized in the region. Since the 1970s, artisans have expanded their repertoire of baskets by weaving onto metal forms; this monkey table, an example of this style, took about eight days to make. Donkeys and trees are scattered across napkins, and a shawl depicts the circle of life, from birth and baptism to marriage and the birth of a grandchild.
I bought a small pineapple for about 180 pesos (about $10), and had to insist he keep the change when he cheerfully replaced a top I’d shattered. As soon as we mopped some up with a tortilla, Isabel piled on more tortillas, hot from the grill. Over time, the devils took on a life of their own, and the pueblo and its artisans began creating wicked characters and surreal tableaux of devils, mermaids, dragons, spotted dogs, flying fish, saints and drunken caballeros, winged serpents, and all manner of hallucinogenic insects and animals. Unlike some Ocumicho figurines, Octavio’s are mostly rated PG (aside from some topless mermaids). They had to travel high into the mountains to bring back the clay and the wood to fire it with burros.
Shops all around the main Plaza Don Vasco de Quiroga are filled with artesanias, as is the Friday market at Plaza Gertrudis Bocanegra (though these will not be of comparable quality).
Her older daughter, 25, does not study or work, and her husband, a goldsmith's assistant, is also unemployed.
These transformations have accelerated since the 1970s, when more tourists discovered the area, and more craftspeople were educated and exposed to the art of the outside world. In other villages, the crafts have been so undervalued that younger people leave to find easier, more lucrative ways of making money, and may only create crafts for fairs or competitions. Nicolas’s great-grandfather made pottery in the pueblo, and his grandfather was well-known for his chocolate pitchers. At the time, the smelting techniques in the village were considered better than those in Spain. One of the first and most famous of the artists, Marcelino Vicente was known for his scenes of sexual debauchery, with lustful demons, bosomy sirens, and other well-endowed creatures, in all their colorful clay glory. Dona Juana can still demonstrate how she made her giant pots, which she did for us that afternoon with swift, efficient movements, despite her obviously pained hands. Tourists have become used to paying rock-bottom prices for crafts–which, when bought directly from the artisans, cost about a third of the price you’d pay in a commercial gallery.
The traditional pottery in the pueblo is black–created with molds, not on a wheel–often with intricate designs. Of all the crafts in the Patzcuaro area, this is one of the oldest, and most firmly established: More than 80% of the town is employed in making or selling copper, and there is a Museo del Cobre (a copper museum) in the center, as well as a coppersmithing school and a yearly competition.
When Jose said he could copy it for me, I happily commissioned him, for the 2500 pesos he asked.
His wife and children finish his creations by decorating them with paintbrushes made of human hair.
That price difference, and the willingness of many artisans to bargain, can skew a buyer’s sense of the work that goes into these crafts—and disguise the hidden reality: Usually, the artisans are simply desperate for cash. Nicolas, who began playing with clay as a child, noticed that the black-glazed pottery chipped easily, and the designs wore off. While most Michoacan artisans don’t use, or have access to, the Internet, Lopez does. Tensions reached a peak midway through the second half, when a penalty kick could have been awarded to Mexico but wasn’t.
After an initial firing to oxidize the surface, the pots go into a hotter fire of corncobs to darken the cocuchos in abstract designs. I turned around and looked up to find myself in the middle of a Medieval siege, as imagined by Hollywood, except the shower of arrows was replaced by cups of beer and kernels of popcorn, covered with hot sauce, being tossed from the upper deck. The term means nothing more than a “just price,” but galleries who subscribe to it seem to honor it. Each piece, some as tall as six feet, must then be rubbed for days to get just the right burnished surface, so it shines with a subtle gleam. I only had space in my suitcase for a small pot, which Dona Juana tried to sell me for 50 pesos, or $3; it took some time for her to accept 100. They were victorious last year, for the first time ever, but the match was a friendly game, with neither team using its best players, and the stadium was half full.
This time, Azteca was sold out: the only empty sections formed an L-shaped buffer of unsold seats around the rows in the upper deck reserved for the traveling corps of American soccer fans who call themselves the Outlaws. The Americans have not been the only ones to struggle there: in the more than seventy World Cup qualifiers played at Azteca, Mexico has lost only once. There were, I was told, four thousand police officers at the game, one for every twenty-five fans—or, perhaps more accurately, eight or nine for every American.
I felt slightly nervous, sitting in the lower deck, ten rows behind a fence topped with barbed wire.
During corners, a group of policemen stood near the kicker and held up riot shields to keep any projectiles at bay. Someone in the stadium had an especially strong laser pointer, which they would direct toward the field any time an American player fell to the ground in agony, something the Mexican fans automatically presumed to be fake. Earlier in the day, as we were heading to the match, an expat friend’s landlord had told us a story about the aftermath of a game in which Argentina had beaten Mexico. Two Argentinian fans started celebrating boisterously nearby, and several Mexican fans approached and started beating them up. On Tuesday night, American fans seated in the supporters’ section reported tossed beers and, in at least one case, injury.
The Americans were likely far from innocent, and there are perhaps lessons in humility, or, at the very least, caution, to be learned. Where I sat, surrounded on all sides by Mexican fans but wearing beige and gray rather than draped in an American flag, there was no trouble.
American fans are not as rabid as their counterparts, and playing matches at the Rose Bowl is not as difficult for opponents as visiting Azteca, but steps are being made.
The team’s survival in such a hostile environment was impressive, but games like this are a prerequisite for success in international soccer. With limited blood spilled, Tuesday was another step on the path to gaining the soccer world’s respect.

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