The Folk Art Twin Towers

Las Torres Gemelas…As seen through the eyes of Tomasa Gonzalez
Of Ocumicho, Michoacán

All who have seen the folk art rendition of 9/11-in-clay have been deeply moved by this handmade remembrance. As September approaches, ZOCALO wishes to revisit the circumstances and emotions experienced in the village of Ocumicho, Michoacán in the days immediately following September 11, 2001.

The name of the artista is Tomasa Gonzalez. She lives in the remote village of Ocumicho, Michoacán located about 3 hours northwest of Pátzcuaro. The medium used to create the Twin Towers is low-fired clay, completely molded by hand, then painted in the distinct style of Ocumicho. Rick and I have known Tomasa and her family for 12 years.

Tomasa Gonzalez at home
Ocumicho, Michoacán

The village of Ocumicho together with the rest of the world, immediately learned of unfolding events via available media. There are televisions with limited reception, but certainly more radios in Ocumicho, though no indoor plumbing. The entire area is bound together by a station known as Radio Purépecha and news traveled not in Spanish, but in the native tongue of thousands of villagers: Purépecha. Rick (my husband) was actually in Pátzcuaro that fateful morning, and after the first reports on TV Azteca, all Mexican networks switched to US networks for continuous coverage throughout the day. The news of the number of Mexican nationals who had potentially lost their lives spread quickly to Michoacán's most-remote villages, and all knew that someone from their own green mountains would be among the missing, or worse.

It has always been Tomasa's way—as is the tradition of the entire village—to record historic and daily events in clay. When the tragic night club fire occurred in Mexico City several years ago killing hundreds, she recorded this catastrophic event in clay. It is common, or better described as natural, for Tomasa to create renditions of caesarian births, weddings, feast day celebrations, and to even express fears of the Ebola virus as remembrances-in-clay. Each work is a physical depiction of the important events and emotions affecting village life.

And so, Tomasa went to the clay very soon after September 11, 2001.

Rick and I arrived at Tomasa's home on September 28, 2001 to find two clay towers already formed and fired. I began to cry immediately at the sight. Tomasa and her husband, Rutilio, were so relieved to see us. Their grief for all people of the U S was huge and they truly felt the United States and the world were coming to an end (as did we). We talked for many hours about our profound sadness, and our good fortune that each of our homes, families and children were safe on this day.

The timing of the creation of this folk art piece was coincidental in that all Michoacán artisans are hardest at work producing their finest and most creative offerings for the concurso, the juried show, held annually in Pátzcuaro during Day of the Dead. Tomasa completed her rendition of September 11-in-clay, then entered this dramatic work in the Day of the Dead concurso for judging.

Although this piece did not win a grand prize, all who saw the Towers were transfixed by this emotional sculpture, humbly displayed beside Tomasa as she knelt on the sidewalk of the beautiful Plaza Don Vasco de Quiroga…the heart of Pátzcuaro. Hundreds of photos were taken of the clay Las Torres Gemelas, but this very first work depicting the Twin Towers by an Ocumicho artisan was immediately purchased by, and now is a part of, the extensive folk art collection of Margie Shackelford and Alex Caragonne of San Antonio, Texas.

Wanting to share this amazing work, Rick and I immediately commissioned two additional Torres Gemelas to be made. The second rendition was displayed at (the former) ZOCALO Houston, and the third Las Torres Gemelas is now part of our personal collection in San Miguel de Allende. Each successive piece became more detailed, more figures added, and no two were the same, which is the hallmark of the Mexican folk art tradition.

Unfinished Twin Towers, Rendition III
Commissioned for the Collection of Rick & Debra Hall

During the exhibition we experienced many amazing conversations about this emotional work, especially with children who noticed every detail of the sculpture. Children were quick to notice the fact that fleeing victims wore sandals, the children depicted were barefoot (village children often do not wear shoes until they go to school in Ocumicho)…and pointed to the water tank truck with hose sculpted as a "pipa" because Mexican villages do not have big red fire engines. Children noted the fact that all officials were dressed in green uniforms as they are in Mexico. They saw the way babies were strapped to their parents, Indian-style. The many pick-up trucks circling on Wall Street were regarded. And on, and on, their young minds noticing every detail of this "accurate" village interpretation of September 11, 2001.

Seeing this piece somehow prompted children to share how they had heard the news, where they were at that very moment, and how they were feeling NOW though many months had passed. The children of Houston had a tremendous need to discuss their feelings, and this folk art piece had somehow prompted the free expression of those feelings.

In every instance, child or adult, the realization that people in a village so far away cared so very much about the people of the United States was resoundingly evident.

As collectors and keen observers of Mexican folk art, it is our feeling that the making of the clay Twin Towers in Ocumicho, Michoacán expresses EVERYTHING that folk art is, and speaks to the very role of folk art in a household, a community, and in indigenous Mexico.

Tomasa did not hesitate in going to the clay. She did not consider if this work would be viewed as controversial or politically correct.

She was compelled to create out of grief, and did.

By Debra Hall
ZOCALO Fine Folk Art
San Miguel de Allende, MEXICO
Pátzcuaro, MEXICO

Originally written in June 2002
Edited August 27, 2004

The photo that appears at the beginning of this account was taken by Ruth Bello. All other photos are by Deb Hall.