This article is from the February 2006 The Mexico File newsletter.
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Las Joyas de Mexico

Angelica Vasquez Cruz

by Lynne Doyle

Lynne Doyle is a longtime Mexico File subscriber and contributing editor from Maine. The object of the Las Joyas de Mexico feature is to highlight for MF readers some of the lesser-known but most rewarding of Mexico’s geographic, human and artistic treasures. Lynne can be contacted at LinfordD@aol.com. 

High up in the mountains northwest of Oaxaca, in the small village of Santa Maria Atzompa, there is a large stucco house tucked into the mountainside. After navigating a rutted dirt road above the town, you reach a gate almost obscured by vines and flowers. Behind the gate, there are several rescued dogs lying in the sun, all of whom get up to gently greet visitors to the home and workshop of ceramist Angelica Vasquez Cruz, the tiny little woman with the enormous talent known worldwide among ceramic collectors for her intricate handcrafted clay figures.  

Angelica doesn’t look old enough to drive but she has four grown children and has lived since the mid-1990’s with Texan John Kemner, as outgoing and verbose as Angelica is quiet and reserved. Her home is secluded and peaceful, surrounded by the many varieties of bougainvillea she painstakingly grows against its walls. The view from her terrace over the valley is breathtaking. Off of the terrace is her gallery, a plain turquoisey-green room lined with the shelves that display her many unique figures, both large and small.  

Angelica is a genius with detail. Her figures, generally of women, are precise and intricate in the extreme. No two are ever the same, and because of their complexity, Angelica does not produce a large volume of work. You will not find her figures in markets or shops – most are either special orders or purchased directly from her. While some of the figures are tinted with a wide range of muted colors known as “agobes” (natural substances mixed with clay and applied much like paint to achieve “more life” in the work), most of the ornamentation on them is achieved by different varieties of clay which turn color when fired. Angelica also achieves some of her patterns by running a pencil through the clay to add variety, depth and texture. The facial expressions on Angelica’s mermaids, angels, virgins and market ladies are both mischievous and serene, and their hair styles are usually either intricately braided or long and flowing. Flowers used to adorn dresses and hair are miniscule and usually consist of several different tones of clay to establish color and distinguish blossoms from leaves. Her work has to be seen to be believed and there is nothing like it coming out of Mexico today.

Angelica herself is perhaps five feet tall and weighs about 90 pounds with rocks in her pockets. She usually wears slacks, men’s shirts too large for her and flip flops as she plunks down with the ease of the teenager she looks like onto a cushion on the floor of her gallery to discuss her work. She does not speak English but appears to understand a great deal and uses energetic body language to get her point across. She has long shiny black hair and delicate, serious features, but her smile, although it rarely appears, lights the room when it does. She is most comfortable explaining the thought processes and techniques behind her work. She considers herself a spiritualist who is constantly reflecting on both the culture and history of her country as well as the roles and conditions of women in Mexico’s highly traditional society. Her success is relatively recent, dating only from the early 90’s, although she began working clay when she was a young child following in the footsteps of her parents. Initially, her parents made utilitarian pottery for the practical use of fellow villagers but in middle age, emulating their daughters, began to make decorative pieces. Angelica’s early marriage at 18 and responsibility for her children delayed the time when she was able to develop and take credit for her own creative work. However, her considerable renown in the world of Mexican ceramic folk art is assured now. She is welcoming and pleasant to unannounced visitors and an afternoon spent in her gallery and on her terrace is an unparalleled experience. She can be found on Avenida Independencia beyond the center of Atzompa, and any cab driver in the city of Oaxaca can get you there, although not all will be willing to traverse the rocky road to her door. It is best to inquire first, or hire Sebastian Chino Pena, who can get his Suburban right to the gate as well as translate and negotiate prices for you.

A visit to Angelica is a uniquely Oaxacan experience – an opportunity to meet a woman of her time as well as of her culture who represents a unique and singular aspect of the progress Mexican women are making and the stature they are achieving in the traditionally sexist world of Mexican folk art.

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