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Elena Felipe & Bernardina Rivera
Huáncito, Michoacán
May-June 2002

Only a stone's throw from the very busy highway between Pátzcuaro and Zamora, we recently visited the most Tarascan of villages that we have ever experienced. More so than remote Patamban, Ocumicho, or Cocucho…for us, Huáncito was an edenic and beautiful world where almost no one speaks Spanish and nearly all dress in native tradition. We had previously seen and purchased the intricately painted "brunido" (burnished) pottery during the annual Day of the Dead artisans market in Pátzcuaro, but on this visit we sought the maestras themselves, Elena Felipe & Bernardina Rivera (pages 36-39, in the book, Great Masters of Mexican Folk Art).

Elena Wash day Bernardina
In Spanish we stumble for directions repeating their names, replies coming back in Purépecha, then pointing fingers…up the hill…up the hill! As the big red pick-up truck with Texas plates bumped along, we are guided down a very narrow road and motioned to turn right.
Simply impossible on this corner where only a burro could pass. Reverse! As we back up several blocks, no fewer than 50 villagers are gathered, smiling, giggling, and assuring us that there is another route. All of Huáncito knows that the Tejanos have arrived.

Passing through the village, open doorways reveal pottery in the brightly colored style found in most Mexican markets; a water jug with a cup resting atop the neck with brightly painted flowers on every side.

At last on a wider and relatively good road, we discover the house arriving with an entourage of the maestras' relatives and many curious on-lookers in tow. We are warmly greeted by Elena and Bernardina, and are immediately in awe of the glowing pots displayed just beyond the entrance. This is the "old style". These are the natural burnished pots painted with lacey black designs.

To our relief, introductions are made in Spanish. Having exhibited in Mexico's best museums and casas de cultura, both women are savvy communicators and negotiators and have traveled to Mexico City and Morelia many times to accept top awards.

Molds for ollas

A selection of pottery
Stacking a tower
Each proudly displays the work they make together, painted with images of humming birds, flowers, monarch butterflies, and delicate leaves.


But "no señor", nothing is for sale…these are all orders for various stores in Mexico. Well then. We will make an order.

The excitement of a big sale is in the air as styles, shapes, designs and prices are discussed. We agree to return in about eight days when we will pick up only two large ollas (pots)…which is all that they are able to finish in this short time…in order to introduce a sampling of their fine work in our San Miguel store. The remainder of the order will take more time to complete.

Ten Days Later…
We return to Huáncito confidently knowing where to find the house, waving to everyone who helped us locate Elena and Bernardina before. But we were in for a complete surprise. As Bernardina carefully stacked the same tower that appears in the Grand Masters book she exclaimed, "this is for you!". And there was much, much more. Both women had been working night and day and were not allowing us to come and go with only two ollas!

Now began the great packing "game"…a grand event at any artisan's house. Someone must buy the "periodicos" (old newspaper), and the boxes (egg boxes are preferred for their strength…but don't try to cross north of the San Luis Potosi state line with "cajas de huevos"…the agricultural check-point will confiscate all of your boxes and you and your pottery will be left standing there on the side of the highway!).

Then we must have rope and string. And someone please find the tape. There is always a great amount of discussion on which pots go into which boxes, the correct amount of newspaper padding to add, and how to best tie each box with string. Rick and I stand clear. These are the experts who deliver every delicate piece by bus.

While all the commotion ensues, there is plenty of time to hold babies and to learn a few more words in Purépecha, the area's native language. My eager young professors are Saulo, Laura, Armando and Hilberto---all of whom have other given names in Purépecha (that I could barely pronounce and am now unable to recall). Please, I am still struggling with my Spanish!

With truck loaded and pesos paid, we depart this "otro mundo" promising to return very, very soon with more orders and photos of the children. And we depart hardly believing that we have the famous "Tower of Jugs" in our possession.

By Debra Hall
June 5, 2002
ZOCALO Fine Folk Art
San Miguel de Allende, MEXICO
Pátzcuaro, MEXICO