Agustin Jimon Galvan sits at a cluttered wooden work bench in the shady courtyard of his home on a quiet cobblestone street, his weathered hands coaxing miniature water pitchers out of chunks of clay. A green parrot in a rusty cage swinging from the corrugated roof whistles and chirps in company.
As Jimon's fingers ply the material into souvenirs that will sell in Tonala's markets and shops, he hums along to Mexican golden oldies blaring from a beat up tape player. "I'm 84 years old," he says, shouting above the music and grinning toothlessly. "I've been making traditional pottery like this my whole life -- since I was 7."
The Jimons have passed down the tradition of producing the distinctive decorative pottery over six generations, and are recognized as one of several dozen artisan families in the Guadalajara market suburbs of Tonala and Tlaquepaque who keep Mexico's heritage of handicrafts alive today.
Guadalajara is a teeming metropolis -- considered the Silicon Valley of Mexico -- and the country's second-largest city with a population of more than five million. Tourists flock to the city for a taste of Mexico's colonial culture, old world architecture and historical traditions -- it is the home of the strolling bards known as mariachi -- as well as its amazing dining, live theatre and throbbing nightlife.
But instead of urban hustle and bustle, my husband and I sought the outskirts of town, where thriving home workshops in Tonala and Tlaquepaque offer a glimpse inside Mexico's artistic cottage industry. We were also eager to buy authentic goods straight from the hands that shaped them.
We set off one Saturday morning from our bed-and-breakfast, Villa Ganz, and headed for the first stop on our quest for traditional market shopping. The moment our car turned off the highway at Tonala in the city's southeast, traffic slowed to a crawl as if drivers, too, were tempted by the overwhelming array of merchandise bursting from shops along the main street.
Thursdays and Sundays draw heavy crowds thanks to market stalls selling goods right on the sidewalk. But even on Saturday, block upon block of stores offer everything imaginable. Goods of ceramic and wood, woven straw, forged iron, papier mâché and blown glass spill onto the street like a gigantic yard sale, enticing passersby to take a closer look.
In Tonala, pottery rules. It has been the main source of Mexico's most prized pottery since pre-Hispanic times and still boasts more than 400 workshops. As a fan of leisurely afternoon visits to garage sales, I quite liked Tonala's chaos, and could have spent hours browsing for knickknacks. But instead we headed for the tourism bureau to meet our guide, Jorge Manuel Aguirre, whose father's portrait hangs on a wall with about 70 other notable Tonala artists. Jorge told us about different pottery and ceramic-making techniques before walking us around town to the workshops of the most talented artists.
We visited the Crista Color recycled-glass factory and were astonished at the frenetic energy of the workroom where artists shaped, spun and blew great molten globs into distinctive glassware rimmed with a single accent colour. (A finished set of eight glasses sold for about $17.50). We were told the eight-person production team could craft 300 in one day, along with other glass pieces, such as vases, platters and decorations.
Next, we moved two blocks up from Jimon's house and peeked into the workshop where Lupita, Mexico's version of Barbie, is manufactured. The dingy workroom could have been an auto mechanic's shop, with fluorescent lights hanging from the ceiling and dog-eared photos of pinup girls taped to the walls. The foot-high doll comes in two dozen different poses and traditional costumes, such as Lupita serving nopal cactus, Lupita as a charra (cowgirl) and Lupita carrying bread. In full makeup and painted costume, Lupita dolls retail for about $31 and the small factory can produce 500 in a week.
One of the most memorable workshops we visited belongs to the Bernabe family, one of Tonala's most renowned producers of finely painted petatillo ware. We walked through the shop selling finished ceramic plates, bowls, serving platters and cups, and into the sunlit inner courtyard where Don Jose and his three sons sat bent over their work, each painting designs on various pottery items. The decorations may appear simple at first glance, but a small cup can take more than 45 minutes to complete.
"It's difficult for us because the process and tradition we painstakingly preserve is not appreciated," Don Jose said. "People come and try to talk us down [in price]and it's sad. They don't understand the heritage and culture. But we have worked hard to see the tradition continue after so much time so that is very satisfying."
Forest animals and bucolic nature scenes play out on the pottery with a tiny cross-hatch background known as petates, hence the name, petatillo. Back in the showroom, I ask Don Jose's wife how much a 12-piece dinner set costs. She tells me. I nod and gulp. My husband whispers, "Did she just say $15,000?" But it's true. Many wealthy families pay the price for such works of art. Petatillo ware is Mexico's answer to Limoge china.
We spent that afternoon in the nearby district of Tlaquepaque, which features old homes converted to fine-art galleries, shops in an orderly pedestrian arcade and El Parian, a cluster of traditional restaurants that opens onto a central courtyard where a 10-piece mariachi band serenaded crowds.
Much prettier and subdued than Tonala, the upscale stores in this village offer art lovers and collectors a unique concentration of handcrafted art unseen in the rest of the country. Featuring fewer workshops and more designer boutiques, Tlaquepaque is a pleasant experience that seems to organize the wild clutter of Tonala into tourist-friendly stores.
Still on our quest for grassroots goods, we found a candle shop with a backroom production area and paid about $88 for two handcrafted candles, each 10 centimetres in diameter, and lovely stone display tablets.
Back in Tonala after our tour of the workshops, we strolled through the cobblestone alleyways and found ourselves in a shop selling woven-grass goods: all shapes and manners of baskets, drawers, storage containers and placemats. Out of habit, I launched into bargaining mode. But the young man attending the store started talking about his family, members of which made the pieces in the poor state of Michoacan. I imagined generations bent over a bare floor, fingers flying as they turned dried reeds into baskets.
"Sure, we'll take them," I heard myself say.
Pack your bags
WHERE TO STAY
Villa Ganz: Lopez Cotilla 1739, Colonia Lafayette; 1-800-728-9098; http://www.villaganz.com. Rates start at about $250 and include continental breakfast. Ten cozy suites are tucked into a lovely colonial home that offers an intimate and personalized experience in central Guadalajara.
Casa de las Flores: 175 Santos Degollado, Tlaquepaque; 52 (33) 3659-3186; casadelasflores.com. Rates start at $94. This flower-filled bed and breakfast is located a few blocks from Tlaquepaque's historic centre in a restored traditional adobe home.
La Villa del Ensueno: Florida Street 305, Tlaquepaque; 1-800-220-8689; http://www.villadelensueno.com. Rates start at $88, including breakfast. The inn, tucked into a quiet street, has 16 rooms. WORKSHOPS
Galeria Jose Bernabe: Av. Hidalgo 83, Tonala; 52 (33) 3683-0044; open 10 a.m.-3 p.m. and 4-7 p.m. weekdays, 10 a.m.-3 p.m. weekends, closed Sunday.
Los Cirios: Madero 70, Tlaquepaque; 52 (33) 3635-2426; http://www.loscirios.com.mx.
La Casa de los Artesanos: Av. de los Tonaltecas Sur 140, Tonala; 52 (333) 284-3092. Besides having an excellent selection of pieces by some of Tonala's best, visitors can book tours of the artisans' studios and workshops with bilingual guides from Tonala's tourism board. Call a day or two in advance to book an appointment.
Tlaquepaque Tourism Board: Morelos No. 288; 52 (33) 3562-7050, ext. 2320, 2321; laquepaque.gob.mx.
Mexico Tourism Board: 1-800-4463-9426; http://www.visitmexico.com.