Popular Mexican neighborhood stealthily guards the centenary dynasty of stonemasons

2023-08-22 06:22:34

XOCHIACA, Mexico (AP) — An incessant pounding guides the path of visitors who flock each Sunday to a hundred-year-old cemetery hidden among the alleys of a cemetery on the outskirts of the Mexican capital.

In the middle of a corridor, guarded by a dozen sculptures of saints, a handful of men with the help of hammers and chisels are shaping stone blocks into flowers and vines.

The group is part of a centuries-old dynasty of artisans, mostly self-taught, known as the “Chimalhuacán stonecutters.”

All its members are from the popular neighborhood of Xochiaca, in the Chimalhuacán municipality of the State of Mexico, where the tradition has been passed from father to son for at least five generations, according to teacher Tomás Ugarte, 86, the oldest member. of the group.

A decade ago, the municipal authorities had registered some 600 stonemasons. But due to the death of many of them and the little interest of the new generations in continuing the tradition, the group has been reduced by half, Carolina Montesinos Mendoza, director of the Institute for Research and Promotion of Handicrafts of the State, told The Associated Press. State of Mexico (IIFAEM).

Many of his works adorn different structures in the center of Mexico City and private properties, but his most important works are in Xochiaca, where their thousands of humble inhabitants care for and appreciate them.

“They are the community,” said priest Alberto Sandoval, 66, when speaking of the ties that unite the “Chimalhuacán stonecutters” with his native Xochiaca.

Sandoval, who has known the stonemasons since 1990 when he was parish priest for five years at the neighborhood’s Santa María de Guadalupe church, said the group’s ties to their community are so strong that in many of the homes there are molcajetes -stone mortars for crush spices- made by artisans.

Unlike many artists who prefer to preserve their works in museums or galleries, the group has chosen to use the open spaces of the pantheon to create and preserve their sculptures.

Every Sunday the artisans put aside the activities of their private workshops to sculpt different works for free in the corridor of the modest cemetery where visitors can contemplate beautiful figures such as an imposing stone Christ six meters high or 12 apostles inspired by European sculptures.

His works also adorn the façade, interior and surroundings of the Santa María de Guadalupe church, some 250 years old, where they carved altarpieces of the apparition of the Virgin at the entrance, sculpted the interior columns and the altar and made a Christ and a three meter tall virgin.

About the origins of the “flintstones” -as they are known among the inhabitants of their community- little is known.

Montesinos Mendoza said that according to the accounts of some of the oldest survivors of the group, it is believed that it is a “centennial art” that was complemented by that of other artists who migrated from different parts of the country to the State of Mexico. In Querétaro, Zacatecas, Jalisco, Puebla, San Luis Potosí and Coahuila, among others, there are also numerous stonemasons.

One of the records that speaks of the beginnings of the “Chimalhuacán stonemasons” is written on a slab that is preserved in the church patio: “Xochiaca cradle of stonemasons, which has flowers in the water”.

The phrase recalls the times when Xochiaca was visited by stone seekers who came to the slopes of that town’s hill to extract them and transport them by barge through the waters of Lake Texcoco, largely already disappeared, to Mexico City. to be used in different constructions.

“That’s where the origin of the stonemasons came from,” said the teacher Mario Olivares, a member of the group, explaining how the activity that was generated around the quarries encouraged many of the inhabitants of Xochiaca to venture into the art of carving. the rocks.

One of the residents who joined the group following in the footsteps of his grandfather and father was Juan Alfaro Bastidas, 75, who recounted that when he was young he would go into the quarries, lit by a candle, to extract the stones that he would later use. to sculpt.

Only the memory remained of the excavation practice. Two decades ago, the land where the quarries were located was sold and hundreds of houses were built on those areas, some of which still preserve the caves and have transformed them into rooms and halls, Bastidas said.

With the disappearance of the quarries in Xochiaca, the artisans had to manage to find the rocks in other municipalities in the states of Mexico and Michoacán, Puebla, Querétaro, Yucatán and San Luis Potosí, which has complicated and made the elaboration of the sculptures more expensive.

Despite the adversities, the artisans have not given up and turn to the municipal authorities and their neighbors to raise money and bring the stones from different parts of the country.

“This has been done thanks to the neighborhood that has supported us with a cooperation that comes and leaves us 100, 200 pesos (between 5 and 10 dollars). The stones are bought by the people, ”Bastidas said as he proudly displayed some of the sculptures from the Todos los Santos pantheon that he carved together with his companions.

Although the group fights to preserve their art, economic limitations represent a risk to their survival, the IIFAEM director admitted, pointing out that many of the artisans must work in construction or interior decoration to support their families because their pieces Individuals, which typically cost between $500 and $2,000, can spend a long time on the shelf before being sold.

Olivares, 51, trusts that one of his three grandchildren will follow the tradition and recalls a poem that artisans carved into one of the entrance walls of the Santa María de Guadalupe church: “My old Chimalhuacán, towns of my childhood that They gave my life that fire of art that burns and ennobles its people”.

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