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The Eye of God: Tranquility and Tradition . . . Mata Ortiz Pottery in Harmony with the Ancients

From: Journal of the Southwest
Volume 54, Number 1, Spring 2012
pp. 159-163 | 10.1353/jsw.2012.0008

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

"Papa" Julián Hernández knows everyone in town. Drive anywhere in Casas Grandes with him, and your conversation will be punctuated with the beep of the horn, the wave of a hand and a hearty "¿Cómo está? Having started twenty-three schools in twenty years, Julián Hernández has students everywhere. He is an outgoing, big man with an even bigger smile. If the Grinch's heart was two sizes too small, Julián's seems two sizes too big. He is passionate about his family, his school, the young people of his community, and . . . his pottery.

Julián's family has lived near Casas Grandes for more than two hundred years. The pueblo of Casas Grandes is the stuff of a Mexican tour guide's fantasy. The small village of 5,000 people has it all: Saturday-night weddings with everyone dressed to the hilt, a delightful plaza in the center of town where locals take their evening strolls, a historic Catholic church with twin bell towers, and beautifully shy señoritas. It also has Mennonite farmers and Mormon fruit growers. George Romney, a governor and one-time American presidential candidate, was born and educated near here. Tradition and tranquility are the community's highest values. Casas Grandes has it all . . . and more.

Casas Grandes is the site of the ruins of Paquimé, the largest ancient city of northern Mexico. Inhabited between ad 900 and 1450, Paquimé is an archaeologist's delight and an anthropologist's dilemma. No one knows exactly who the inhabitants of this great city were, where they came from, or where they went. With their macaws, ball fields and metalwork, they may have represented the northernmost reach of Meso-american culture. With their knowledge of desert hydrology, cisterns, and architectural styles, they may have been the southernmost extension of the Great Chichimeca, connected to the better-known Anasazi, Hohokam, Mogollon, and Mimbres cultures. Maybe they were a little of both. One thing is known for sure: a pottery tradition developed at Paquimé that represents one of the highest forms of the art in prehistoric North America.

Julián loves to talk about Paquimé and the old ones of Casas Grandes, not because they are a culture, but because they are his culture. Although we cannot directly connect any modern-day Mexican group back to that culture, it is clear that after two hundred years of family and geographical ties to Casas Grandes, Julián endorses the culture as his own, a tie that is clearly seen in the iconography of his pottery. He worked with Mexican archaeologists at the Paquimé dig in the sixties. He is proud that he helped map more than a thousand archaeological sites all over northwest Chihuahua.

While appreciative of what it has meant to the community, Julián is a bit less enthusiastic about endorsing what has often been called "The Miracle of Mata Ortiz." The community of Mata Ortiz is the other world-famous neighbor of the pueblo of Casas Grandes. The village of Mata Ortiz doesn't have a tourist attraction; it is one. More than four hundred of the town's residents are potters. Their skills and income vary widely. Their pottery is handmade and hand-painted, and sometimes fired outdoors, for the most part in ways that would make the old ones at Paquimé proud. For years the economic survival of the town was in doubt; now, satellite dishes and new pickups dot the landscape. The best potters of Mata Ortiz have received worldwide acclaim.

Their heritage is at the same time the great pottery tradition of Casas Grandes and the murky world of those who dug prehistoric pots to sell, then made pots to look old when the old ones were no longer readily available. This darker side of the Mata Ortiz force seems as ancient today as the ruins themselves. Even Julián himself says, "My older relatives dug pots and then made pots to sell as old ones. They didn't think they were doing anything bad. They were just working!" For Julián, this history doesn't take the shine off the Mata Ortiz ollas; in fact, for him...

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