SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS, Mexico – Teresa started molding clay at age 11 and like so many women in her area who learned that art from their mothers, she became a potter in Amatenango del Valle, a town in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas known for its fine pottery enriched with Mayan motifs.
“I started working when I was little. I finished elementary school and high school, but when I was 11 I had already started working with clay. I make al kinds of things, but mostly I’m asked for jaguars, frogs, doves and jugs decorated with jaguars,” said Teresa Bautista Gomez.
Amatenango, founded in 1528 by Mayas of the Tzeltal ethnicity, is a small town famous for its women potters, who from pre-Columbian times were taught that skill by their mothers and passed it on to their daughters.
The art of pottery has been kept alive in the town through the centuries, and in its streets one can see women offering ceramic doves, dinner plates, jugs, hens, moons, suns and jaguars.
With almost 10,000 inhabitants, Amatenango in central Chiapas state is distinguished by its culture, traditions, customs and above all, it is known for these women who copy the forms of nature in clay they shape with their hands.
It is here that female “tozontajal” (potters in the Tzeltal language) every morning set about molding their ceramic creations to support their families.
To make their creations they still use pre-Columbian methods, which start with collecting the raw material, which they used to find on their own lands until it got too scarce. Now they must walk several kilometers (miles) to find it.
They take it home where they knead it, work it with sand to give it consistency, then they mold it and polish the pieces before firing it in the kilns in the patios of their homes.
Some pieces can take from 15 days to six months to make, like the jaguars of the Mayan cosmogony, or the vessels decorated with special colors.
From the time they knead the clay, they begin shaping the parts of each piece until it’s almost perfect. Afterwards it is polished, allowed to dry in the sun for another two days, then fired for a couple of hours, after which it goes to the area where it is given the finishing touches.
“The truth is we earn very little. I’m with a group of women and we all share the work,” the artisan Simona Lopez Gomez said.
The men work in agriculture, but since they only see their profits once a year, the women bear the greatest responsibility for supporting their families.
“The men almost don’t take part, they only help us when they don’t have work in the fields, and when they have work in the fields, they don’t help us,” said Simona, who has worked making pottery for over 30 years.