Saturday, February 3, 2018

Apolinar Aguilar Velasco: A Cut Above the Rest

Apolinar forging

Apolinar Aguilar Velaquez is a bladesmith (cuchillero artistico). For over forty-seven years he has been, forging, hammering, and grinding steel into precision handmade knives, machetes, and swords. In that time, he has become a master of his art form.

The Spanish Dominican friars brought the art of bladesmithing to Ocotlán in the sixteenth century. At one time there were over one hundred fifty knife makers in Ocotlán. Today there are approximately forty-five. Apolinar’s workshop is one of the more successful. But that was not always the case.

At the age of ten, he and two older brothers, eighteen and twenty years old, decided to open a workshop in Ocotlán, Oaxaca. Apolinar’s uncle Ricardo, who died at the age of 110, taught them the art of knifemaking. The three brothers struggled to earn a living bladesmithing. They had to make their own tools and bought recycled metals such as pistons and shock absorbers from mechanics to melt down to make the knives and swords. It took them over twenty years to earn a decent living through their art form.

In 1983 Apolinar and his brothers went to Wimberley, Texas to see if they could fare better there. They were able to build a small workshop on an empty lot and caught the attention of the locals. The locals, impressed by the quality of their work, invited them to an artisan fair, and from then on their business began to prosper. It was during this time that one of Apolinar’s swords was chosen to be used in the film, “Conan the Barbarian”. Next they were invited to participate in an international metal craft competition and were awarded fifth place. This gave them the experience and confidence to return to Ocotlán, the pueblo they loved, and start anew.

When the brothers returned home two years later, their business took a turn for the better. They were discovered by a prominent martial arts teacher who began to promote their work. They decided to keep their bladesmithing one hundred percent traditional and to circumvent middlemen, selling their works directly to townspeople and tourists.

Apolinar built his own bellows from a wooden box and pieces of leather, and fired his primitive forge with pine charcoal, which can burn at temperatures up to 4000 degrees Celsius, an ideal temperature for forging metal. The only electrical powered tool he uses is a grindstone for sharpening his knives and swords. When asked why he doesn’t modernize his equipment, he answers that that would take the art out of his work. He is bound to tradition and the quality of product that it renders. His techniques of bladesmithing have changed very little since the sixteenth century. Even the handles for his knives and swords are made from natural materials: tropical woods, animal horns and antlers, bones, snake and iguana skins and any other natural material that a client requests.

Apolinar’s brothers are now deceased and he works in partnership with his daughter. They still use the name Taller Angel Aguilar as the name for their workshop in honor of Apolinar's older brother. They have perfected the technique of demonstrating their art form; the amazing display of their finished works highlight their superior craftsmanship, and one feels honored to leave the workshop with one of their knives.
Besides producing the highest quality of knives and swords, Apolinar and his family have forged a way of life that brings them pride and satisfaction in the work they do. They are maintaining an ancient tradition out of love for their art form, and in doing so, they have established themselves “a cut above the rest”.




Monday, January 1, 2018

Breaking Earth: Arnulfo Morales and his Handmade Yokes


Arnulfo Morales Hernandez is a yoke maker. He is the only remaining craftsman in San Bartolomé Quialana that makes wooden yokes for the teams of Brahma bulls that plow the steep hillsides surrounding the pueblo. He also makes the wooden plows that turn over the earth for planting corn during the rainy season from May to September. The rugged terrain makes plowing with a tractor difficult and dangerous. Nearly everyone in San Bartolemé continues to work the land in the traditional manner: with a team of Cebú and wooden plows (arados).

Arnulfo's Yokes
Arnulfo has been making yokes and arados for twenty-five years. He learned by watching some of the older men in the pueblo (now retired) and then taught himself. It takes him two to three days to make a yoke, depending on the size. They are made from different types of hard wood and last up to twenty years. A larger yoke sells for 1500 pesos ($75 US). The wood costs Arnulfo 500 pesos, leaving a net profit of 1000 pesos ($50 US).

Cebú for sale at Ocotlán Market
The smaller yokes are used for training young Cebú to work the land. Arnulfo explained that it is much like breaking a horse. The Cebú are strong animals and put up much resistance to having the yokes put on them. Much care must be used in harnessing them as they can get very angry and react wildly, endangering the person trying to train them. However once they are trained, they are very easy to work with. “Ya, uno no va adelante, ellos van solos” (Then you don't have to lead them anymore; they go by themselves). The campesino guides the plow and the Cebú do the rest. Each animal has a name that they recognize. If for some reason they stop plowing, all you have to do is call their name and they start working again. They know their job well. 

Arnulfo does not think his trade is in danger of dying out in the near future. People in San Bartolomé respect the traditional ways of doing things, and tractors are not of much use due to the terrain. His son-in-law is working with him now and perhaps will decide to stay in the yoke business. “It is honest work that brings food to the table”, he told me. There are few schools nearby by, and for those who do well in school, there are more options for employment. Those who do not fare well in school work the land.

When I asked Arnulfo what he liked most about his job, he answered: “Me encanta mi trabjajo. Cada persona nace con algo, y yo nací para hacer yugos y arados. Uno necesita amar lo que hace para ser feliz”. (I love my work. Everyone is born with a gift, and I was born to make yokes and plows. You need to love what you do in order to be happy).


Arnulfo & his wife, Inés
Arnulfo & Inés' daughter
Arnulfo’s life style is quite self-sustaining. He owns his house and the land he farms. The demand for yokes and plows is consistent and he usually has sufficient work. His wife makes tejate, a natural drink made from cacao, to sell in the market and also embroiders huilpiles. His daughter is a flower vendor. Working together they make an honest living and are able to remain in the place they call home. And in doing so, they maintain the traditions of their ancestors and a simplicity of life that is a true accomplishment in this day and age.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

One Man's Grain of Sand


As a young boy, Martin Valdéz Toledo watched his grandfather shaping clay into traditional Zapotec dolls called Tangú Yús. They were handcrafted and colorfully painted and many people had one in their home. When Martín's grandfather died, no one stepped into his shoes. It wasn't until many years later that Martín decided to fill them. He had worked several different jobs to provide for his family until one day he remembered the Tangú ¥ús. He made several and his wife took them to the local market in Juchitán. She sold them easily that day and so began a craft that Martín has been practicing for over twenty-two years. He is one of only two people in the entire region of el Istmo of Oaxaca to do this work. He starts at 6 am every day and works until 4 pm. His hands are precision machines, shaping the local clay into dolls that  are "almost" identical". Yet each one has the noticeable difference of a handmade piece of art.
Martín explained that centuries ago when the Zapotec people of Oaxaca's Central Valley migrated to the Istmo, they brought their clay gods and goddesses from Mitla with them. On of the most revered was the goddess of el Nuevo Amanecer (Dawn). It was believed that she ushered in the sun each morning. Another was the bare-breasted goddess who was the patron of healthy births. And there were many more, most of which are forgotten now. Most people don't remember the importance of the Tangú Yú.



When I asked him what he liked best about his work he replied, "Two things. First, it provides a way for me to make a living , and second, this is an important part of my culture. It is a small grain of sand that I carry so that our culture will not disappear".He still goes with an ox drawn cart to get his clay. And ironically he often finds small Zapotec figures buried in the loads he brings back.

Martín takes great pride in the work he does. "This is the talent that God gave me", he told me. "There are no molds used, "puro mano" (only hands). The repetitive nature of the work has taken a toll on his body. His back aches from sitting all day and his hands and arms suffer as well. His two daughters paint the Tangú Yús, but they are studying professional careers and will not take over for Martin when he is no longer able to do his craft. The authorities do not promote the native crafts, and modern machines can now produce copies of the hand work for a much lower price. People are not willing to pay for the quality of workmanship. Unfortunately, his craft seems destined to die out.

 But in the meantime, Martín continues to carry his small grain of Zapotec sand, and his sales still provides a modest living for him and his family. And most importantly, it keeps the rich culture of the Zapotec people of el Istmo authentic and honorable.


Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Carlos Flores: Pajarero



Carlos Flores is a pajarero. For fifty years he has been an ambulant bird vendor, wandering the streets of Oaxaca with his cages of colorful birds strapped to his back. He is one of a handful of men in Mexico who still earn their living in this way.
When he was fifteen, a cousin in Mexico City invited him to join him in selling birds on the streets. Since Don Carlos did not have a job at the time he accepted. “I didn’t know anything about birds”, he told me. “I had to learn everything, what kind of bird they were, what they ate, how to care for them, and how to sell them to people”. Carlos’ cousin and other bird vendors took him under their wing and taught him all he needed to know. In a matter of weeks he was selling on his own and generating a small income. Today a good month sales brings him 6000 to 8000 pesos ($330-$440). From that subtract the expenditures for the purchase of the birds, travel to get them, and their food and medicines. It does not leave much as profit.
Many things have changed since the time Carlos started selling. Many birds are now protected due to their dwindling numbers. The Secretary of the Environment and Natural Resources monitors bird vendors. Carlos has a permit that must be renewed yearly, and there are stiff fines for capturing and selling protected birds. Carlos travels throughout Mexico to purchase his birds. He transports them in the luggage compartment of buses and can only travel at night when it is cool and safe for the birds.
I visited Carlos one morning to watch him at feeding time. He mixes banana, hard-boiled eggs, seeds, and a special blend of flours for their breakfasts. He has learned to detect illnesses in his birds and how to treat them. What brings him joy is to pass houses of customers and hear their birds singing and bringing happiness to the house. It also makes him happy to know they are being well cared for.
Carlos’ oficio (occupation) is in danger of extinction. At one time bird vendors were a common sight in the streets of Mexico. Many people had homes with large patios and terraces and singing birds made them an agreeable space. Now many people live in apartments and don’t have room for birds. There are also environmental and animal rights concerns that were not as common as they are today.

Once a year he goes to a pajarero procession in San Luis Potosi attended by 150-200 vendors carrying their cages to the Basilica de Nuestra Virgen de Guadalupe to be blessed. That number will most likely continue to dwindle as vendors get too old to carry the cages anymore and there is no one interested in taking their place. Like many professions, it will eventually die out. But for Carlos, it is his way of earning a living. And in doing so, he can still bring the joyous sound of singing birds into homes and lives of many and keep an ancient tradition alive. 

PS
This post does not condone the caging and selling of birds. It is an objective documentation of a profession that still exists in Mexico.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

The Tin Man of Xochimilco

Victor Hernandez Leyva has been working with tin (hojalata) for over 55 years. At age nine, he began working as an apprentice to an uncle near his home in the barrio Xochimilco in the Centro Histórico de Oaxaca, a neighborhood known for its tinsmiths and weavers. As with most apprenticeships, he started by observing and doing odd jobs for his uncle, taking on more intricate jobs little by little.

“One learns over time by doing, poco a poco", he told me. By the time he was seventeen, he was an accomplished tinsmith capable of making both functional and decorative objects. He was hired to work as an assistant to his uncle and did so for over twenty-two years.

In 1992 Victor decided to set out on his own, specializing in decorative works, such as mirrors, boxes, and light fixtures. He built a workshop in his home and at one point had fifteen assistants work with him. Over time, he purchased the many tools of his trade, chisels, punches, tin snips and wooden mallets.


The barrio de Xochimilco is known for its hojalateros. There are several shops that do similar type of work, and it is the quality of Victor’s work that sets him apart from the rest. He got involved in hojalatería as a way to earn an honest living, and he quickly fell in love with it. He has never wanted to do anything else. When I asked Victor what he liked best about his job, he answered, “Everything, I love my occupation, I put the best of myself in all that I do. I like giving the highest quality I am capable of giving”. And this he does. He has won more than twenty-five competitions at the state and national level, and has been recognized as a master craftsman throughout Mexico.

I watched him pick up his hammer and chisels and start to pound out a detailed and ornate design on a sheet of tin. When I marveled at his ability to do this, he told me, "It is something I thank God for, the ability to think creatively about what I am going to make; it does not come from me alone, but is a product of a talent that God has given me”.

Today Victor has only one assistant. Sales are not good and he claims that the
government does little to support and promote local artisans. Like many artisans in Oaxaca, the social upheaval in 2006 seriously hurt his business. He never bounced back after that time. He now sells most of his work in other states in Mexico or outside of the country. But he is very happy that he has family members who will continue his business when he is longer able to work.

Hojalatería is a Oaxacan tradition that Victor is intent on keeping alive. Despite hard economic times, Victor continues to make an honorable living doing what he loves to do. His secret: always doing his work with the highest standards of quality in mind, doing it with grace and integrity, and putting customer satisfaction first. These are the signs of a true artisan.