Blog # 21: Santa Clara

March 15, 2011

Among the social experimenters of the Renaissance, Tata Vasco, aka Bishop Vasco de Quiroga, has to rank right up at the top. Political philosophers like Thomas More dreamed of perfecting human society in the image of God; More set down his dreams in his Utopia. Quiroga, who read More and admired the Utopia, was too busy dealing with the everyday problems of his newly conquered Mexican world to write about utopias. Besides, why write about them if you could actually create one? Or at least try . . .

Born in a little wheat-farming town with the prettiest name in all Castilla, Madrigal de las Altas Torres (Madrigal of the High Towers), educated as a Franciscan Friar in his teens and later trained as an oidor, a sort of judge-administrator, in the recently Muslim towns of Andalucía and in the temporarily Spanish Algerian city of Oran, he was appointed to the five-man governing council of Mexico in 1531. Five years later he was named bishop of Michoacán and charged with restoring order and prosperity in the wake of the overzealous conquistador Beltrán de Guzmán.

Amazingly he pretty much accomplished both goals. Lake Pátzcuaro was the heart of the Tarascan empire, and he used it as his base, building his first cathedral in Tzintzuntzan. He gathered the scattered Tarascan Indians into a number of towns around the lake and in the fertile valleys of the surrounding mountains, and assigned each town a craft which was to be the basis of its economic survival: pottery making here, basket weaving there, carpentry, wood and stone sculpture, hat making, leather work, textiles. Each town was to have a church and an assignment of priests to teach the Indians the gospel and the principles of self-government.  A certain percentage of each person’s workday was to be devoted to projects enhancing the common welfare. The rest went to farming and to craft production. Quiroga soon earned the trust, respect, and love of the Indian population, who took to calling him Tata Vasco (Father Vasco), the name by which he is still called today throughout the region. While many of his innovations have faded over the nearly five centuries since he came to Michoacán, his craft towns, many of them now world famous, still persist in their crafts. Zirahuén, alas, didn’t get an assignment. The best we can muster today here is a few roughly carved wooden spoons, set out to sell on a couple of tables down by the embarcadero on Sundays.

But Santa Clara, twelve kilometers east of here, did. From ancient times Michoacán had a tradition of mining, smelting, and working with copper, and Tata Vasco concentrated the metal workers in Santa Clara, where they are still hammering away. Mexico doesn’t have a program to recognized outstanding traditional craftsmen as human national treasures, the way Turkey and Japan do,

but if it did, many of Santa Clara’s artists would wear that crown. Several of them have toured the US and other countries demonstrating their techniques (naturally our daughter Abby helped host them when a group visited Indiana a few years back).


When we get visitors in Zirahuén, we take them to Santa Clara. On Friday it was Steve and Jenny Raulston’s turn. The road through the center of town is under repair, so we entered through the suburbs (aka, the other street) and parked just off the plaza. The Ministry of Tourism designated Santa Clara a Pueblo Mágico (Magic Town) a couple of years ago, so most building have now been painted in the P.M. colors: brick red from street level to chest height, and white from there up. All signage fulfills the quaintness regulations. The house roofs, at least in the center of town, are orange tile. Santa Clara’s plaza, colonnaded all round with red wood pillars, is lined with copper shops. Suspended from the roof of the bandstand in the plaza center (every decent Mexican plaza has a band stand), is a large copper pot. Large, as in not quite big enough to swim laps in.

Many tourists get no farther than the plaza shops, with their racks of earings , trays, pitchers, copper roses on copper stems, miniature copper pots and pans for the tourists’ daughters’ dollhouse kitchens, and religious doodads.

But the real treat is the workshops, the talleres. There is one in the central patio of the artisan’s co-op building, and others in back of some of the more serious shops. Our favorite, as of Thursday, is the Casa Felicitas, half a block off the main street on Calle Pino Suárez. It’s our favorite because Juan Lonato Rojas, the master craftsman in charge of the work crew there, is so good at explaining the tools, the materials, and the processes they use. Since Steve, Jenny, Linda and I all speak Spanish, there was never a need for Juan to slow down or grope for English equivalents.

Raw materials: the artisans are no longer miners, nor do they buy from miners; they purchase the cast-off waste material from copper wire manufacturers. They do, however, fuse the wire into the basic shapes they require right in the taller. A vase, then, starts out as a thick copper disk. The artisans, all men, heat the disk in a wood fire that is blown to temperature by a gigantic leather and wood bellows operated by two pump men (and, for larger pieces, helped along by an electric motor). When the metal is white hot, one man holds it against an iron anvil with tongs while two or three others beat it with what look like twelve-pound hammers. It cools quickly, so it has to be reheated every couple of minutes.

When the disk has achieved the proper breadth and thickness, they hammer it against a curved iron bar (née truck axle)  to start it bending dish-ward. With subsequent heatings and beatings on other re-utilized car parts, it becomes bowl-ish, and eventually, pinching and poking and crimping, pitcher-like.  Apprentice craftsmen do the basic shaping; master craftsmen finish the piece off.

The most delicate work is the precision hammering that gives the piece its final texture, marring the surface selectively to produce contrasting tones and shades. At the end, one final heating and then the tong-man plunges the glowing  artifact into cold water where, with a hiss of steam, it —miraculously— loses its all its dullness and glows the bright penny look of copper.

For one of the big vases, four men work as a

team for four days. So, factoring in the soaring price

of the raw copper, $200-$400 for a major piece doesn’t seem all that unreasonable.

We didn’t buy one this year, but have three at home from ancient trips.


No! Wait!  Post- writing and pre-posting bulletin: we bought one this year too.


David & Linda