Clay Figures with Curative Powers

It is always exciting to discover something completely different…something completely unknown. The discovery of an authentic "cuadrilla" set was exciting and mysterious in that way, and provoked an intense curiosity that still persists for us today. I had seen clay incense burners in use known as "sahumerios" or "copaleros". And I had also seen special clay candle holders used in altars for Dia de los Muertos. But the discovery of clay figures that were actually used for healing was something completely different.

ABOVE: Don Dario Soteno, maker of "cuadrillas" for healing.
Photos taken in October 2004.

Our story begins in October 1997 when we were first introduced to "Don Dario" by his son, Tiburcio Soteno. The firmness of his handshake, his jovial demeanor, and the lines in his expressive face remain unforgettable. He was so pleased to have visitors that day and with some gentle prodding from Tiburcio, he agreed to show us his clay creations. The elder Soteno went to his bedroom and retrieved a shoe box from beneath a perfectly-made bed. His sparse quarters contained almost nothing yet truly everything one required for a good and simple life.

Don Dario returned to the sunshine of the courtyard and sat down on a wooden chair. With his signature sombrero just right, he proceeded to remove the shoe box lid. He next unwrapped many magical and mysterious clay figures, gently handing each to son Tiburcio to stand in the grass. Don Dario's rapt audience included Felipe and Lola Linares, Leonardo and Trini Linares, Linares grandsons Abraham and Noel, Tiburcio's wife, Amalia, and Rick and myself. Although my Spanish was non-existent at the time, there was no mistaking everyone's complete fascination as 37 mystical pieces were arranged on the ground for display. And this reaction was coming from THE Linares family who had invented the fantastic "alebrije"!

ABOVE: One of the largest of 37 cuadrilla pieces
by Don Dario Soteno (approximately 8" tall).

Snakes, dancers, sheep, and musicians were but a few of the many images dabbed in bright colors reminiscent of harlequin or jester clothing. Don Dario firmly explained that cuadrillas were not for sale, but rather commissioned by special healers…the "curanderas". Now he really had our attention! Questions spilled out faster than answers could be provided. "Where are the curanderas? What circumstances required the special powers of the cuadrilla? How was the cuadrilla set actually used?" Don Dario patiently provided answers with Amalia and Tiburcio interjecting additional details.

The curanderas came down from the mountains, and at other times from parts unknown. It seemed evident that when healers required clay ritual objects, they simply knew through their curandera network to contact Don Dario. As for the cuadrilla's intended use, when it was explained that certain people or certain households only experienced bad luck and misfortune, every Mexican in our group nodded in complete agreement. Our Mexican friends also agreed that it was "one's duty" to try and change this bad luck through some form of intervention. Therefore, the mission of the curandera—with the aid of the cuadrilla figures—-was to change the very atmosphere surrounding the afflicted, or as Don Dario phrased it, to remove the "bad air". As for the details, I later learned that the clay figures were actually rubbed on the body of the afflicted (and that's just the beginning) while reading Linda McAllister's fascinating article, Gentle Mysticism In Clay¹.

ABOVE: Only a glimpse of the 37 characters and objects
that comprise an authentic Don Dario cuadrilla².

Completely content with not only meeting the maestro, but having him regale us with wonderful stories of healers and healings, we reluctantly headed for the door. Then Don Dario whispered something to Tiburcio that even surprised his own son. Don Dario first clarified that under normal circumstances, the cuadrilla set is not for sale. He then explained that an order had been placed, but the curandera never returned. Don Dario had been patiently waiting for the curandera's return for more than two years. As no urgent healing was required, he allowed Tiburcio to state that this very cuadrilla set was for sale. Rick hesitated for about 30 seconds, then immediately purchased the set pictured above.

Don Dario passed away on Friday, March 11, 2005. Tiburcio Soteno insists that our cuadrilla set is the last complete set made by Don Dario Soteno.

During the last days of March 2005 with Don Dario very much in our thoughts, we took a wrong turn past Acatlán and found ourselves in the village of Tlayacapan. We were not planning to go there, but there we were just the same. Things like that happen in Mexico. Rick and I knew that a wonderful old maestra lived here so we decided to investigate Tlayacapan further. Off we went with nothing but "Felipa Hernández Barragán" scribbled on a piece of paper³. As we entered the market, I looked around for the oldest woman in the market…someone who would be a comadre of Doña Felipa's. The señora with the longest gray braids was very glad to help and promptly led us to Felipa's niece just a few steps away. Soon we were sitting in Doña Felipa's "sala" which was the beginning of another unforgettable afternoon, not unlike our afternoon spent with Don Dario years before.

After the grand-daughter invited us in, we introduced ourselves to Doña Felipe who let us know that she could not see so well, but yes, there was work for sale. At the age of 95, she got up and led us to her "taller" with little difficulty, only slightly relying on a cane to find her way. She was glad to reflect on her life of clay-making with us. Felipa's memories were not dulled or confused despite her 95 years.

ABOVE: Doña Felipa Hernández Barragán, March 2005.

Felipa learned the making of healing clay from her mother-in-law, who she fondly calls her "only real mother". Her affection for her adopted mother remains evident today, and this very house where Felipa has lived her entire adult life is in fact the home of her beloved mother-in-law. As the clay is unwrapped, the important dates of Felipa's life are also revealed. She was born in 1910 and married in 1930. She enjoyed a marriage of 72 years. Yes, 72 years. She and her husband were blessed with five children during the marriage.

As the pieces were unwrapped, we were amazed to discover that there were two different healing sets. Doña Felipa called her sets "juegos para mal aire" or healing sets for "bad air". The same "bad air" Don Dario had described. The first set shown to us was specifically used for children. Containing exactly twelve figures, the use of the color red defines that this is a children's healing set.

ABOVE: The children's healing set painted with red.
ABOVE: The adult healing set painted with black.

Unlike the children's set, the same twelve figures of the adult set are accented with the color black. In both sets, it is clear which figure is the healer and which figure is the patient. The attending insects, reptiles, bird and animal figures notably do not include any religious reference or Spanish influence. There are no saints or angels as are incorporated in other Mexican ritual clay (for example, the ritual clay of Ignacio Peralta Soledad, Huaquechula, Puebla, 4). The figures and imagery clearly come from something ancient and apart from the Bible, yet at first glance, these figures project the look of a surreal nativity scene. Did the Spaniards also perceive this unexpected similarity?

Although the grand-daughter enjoyed talking about the clay and showing us pieces, Doña Felipa was not content to sit and insisted on helping unpack clay figures also. It was her way of showing everyone that she still could be useful. She lamented that her eye sight is so poor that she is barely able to make clay. In fact, in both the adult and child healing sets, Felipa only had made the little bird, made completely from memory and touch. It is Felipa's daughter, Maria del Refugio Reyes Hernández, who works with her mother and will continue the tradition into the future. As if on cue, Maria arrived from the market and was very anxious to reveal the secrets of how the ritual clay is made.

LEFT: The tools and "tierra" used to make ritual clay.
CENTER: Cattail seeds are fluffed…
RIGHT: …then evenly kneaded into the moist clay by Maria.

Maria excitedly explained that their clay is strong and would last for years because of the "plumas". Because of the feathers? Well, the "plumas" turned out to be the fluffy cattail seeds. She proceeded to knead the "plumas" into the clay until evenly distributed explaining that the cattail fibers made the clay very smooth, very strong, and the resulting mixture was far superior to clay alone.

ABOVE LEFT & RIGHT: The precious clay molds handed down from
Felipa's mother-in-law to Felipa. They are now in the capable hands of Felipa's daughter, Maria.

The figures are made by pressing clay into special molds and by forming some figures by hand. Maria then showed me the molds. The molds used today are the very same clay molds used by her grandmother in her youth more than a century ago.

Maria then told us that her mother had just been honored by the entire community of Tlayacapan during Holy Week (2005). The town's "casa de cultura" known as La Cerería, had just named a special room in Felipa Hernández Barragán's honor. Inside, there now resides a permanent exhibition of Doña Felipa's work.

LEFT, RIGHT: Doña Felipa, then…and now.
Both photos are from the collection of Felipa Hernández Barragán
and La Cerería, Tlayacapan, Morelos. The photos are displayed in the
Felipa Hernández Barragán Room at La Cerería (Casa de Cultura).
No dates provided on either photo.

LEFT: A display of Doña Felipa's repertoire as seen in La Cerería, which
extends far beyond the healing sets for which she is most-famous.
RIGHT: A portion of the museum display showing the healing figures
in ritual use. A bowl of salt is positioned beside a bottle of tequila. An
unfiltered cigarette is tied to each clay figure with red string, 5.

Despite the company of her daughter, a house full of activity, and the recognition of her own community, Doña Felipa repeatedly told us that she was very lonely. Maria explained that while she is not alone, Doña Felipa was indeed lonely. Felipa's beloved husband had passed away in 2002 at the age of 105. Felipa was ready to join him in heaven. Felipa told us that healers no longer commissioned healing sets. The only people requesting ritual clay sets today were collectors, such as ourselves. You could hear the sadness in Doña Felipa's voice as she explained that she had outlived her husband, the curanderas, and the era when clay was used to heal. She told us over and over that "It is terrible to become old". Yes, Felipa was ready to join her beloved husband.

In the Soteno family, the tradition of making the "cuadrilla" has been handed down to Don Dario's grandson, Carlos Soteno. In the Hernández family, Maria will continue the work. Although the curanderas' actual use of healing clay seems to have ended, the art of making ritual clay will continue, for now.

We are so thankful that our life experiences include knowing Don Dario Soteno until his death. And due to a wrong turn, we also have had the fortune of meeting Doña Felipa. Both elders are from an era when many believed that special clay could change fortunes, cure illness, and rid a household of "bad air". As I look at these wonderful clay figures, they are truly alive with "anima". They do possess power and spirit. There is no doubt that the life force of Don Dario and Doña Felipa are indeed, a part of every clay piece.

April 2005
All photos by Deb Hall unless otherwise noted.
By Debra Hall
ZOCALO Fine Folk Art
San Miguel de Allende, MEXICO
Pátzcuaro, MEXICO

¹ For a full accounting of the use of Don Dario's cuadrilla set by curanderas, read "Gentle Mysticism in Clay", by Linda McAllister, pages 78-79, Artes de Mexico, Metepec Y Su Arte En Barro, Número 30, 1995-1996.

² To see a complete photograph of the 37-piece cuadrilla set by Don Dario, see pages 50-51, photograph by Ricardo J. Garibay R., Artes de Mexico, Metepec Y Su Arte En Barro, Número 30, 1995-1996.

³ We were aware of Doña Felipa as she is one of the grand masters, see pages 77-78, Felipa Hernández Barragán, Clay as A Cure For Illness, Great Masters of Mexican Folk Art, Fomento Cultural Banamex, A. C., 1998.

4 For more information about Ignacio Peralta Soledad, Huaquechula, Puebla, see "Ignacio Peralta Soledad, Ritual Clay Objects for Holy Holidays" on this web site ( under the heading, Postcards from Mexico. Also see pages 136-137, Ignacio Peralta Soledad, The Ritual Joy of Clay, Great Masters of Mexican Folk Art, Fomento Cultural Banamex, A. C., 1998.

5 A detailed account of how curanderas used Doña Felipa's "Juego de Mal Aire" will be provided in a future Postcard from Mexico on this web site (

La Cerería is located on the west side of the Plaza de la Constitución, Tlayacapan, Morelos. Closed Mondays.