Keeping Culture Alive on Cinco de Mayo and Beyond
Cinco de Mayo is a holiday that is widely celebrated in the US. Just take a look at your timeline and see how many of your friends are grabbing margaritas on May 5th!
Seeing as Cinco de Mayo is also known as a celebration of Mexican culture (besides imbibing in westernized versions of Mexican food), it would seem as if our fascination with Cinco de Mayo is ubiquitous – especially in Mexico.
However, to most Americans, it’s a little known fact that Cinco de Mayo is observed more in the US than in Mexico itself. Rather than being a nationwide event commemorating Mexico’s Independence Day (which occurs on September 16), Cinco de Mayo actually celebrates the Mexican Army’s victory against the French at the Battle of Puebla in 1862.
Accordingly, most of Mexico’s Cinco de Mayo celebrations are concentrated in Puebla, where the holiday began.
Puebla & Cinco de Mayo
Puebla is a Mexican state nestled between the Sierra Madre and Sierra Nevada. In addition to mountains, Puebla is home to volcanoes like Matlalcueitl and the recently active Popocatépetl. Its capital (also named Puebla) is about a two-hour drive or bus ride away from Mexico city. As of 2016, Puebla has a population of 6,277,115, placing it in the top five Mexico’s most largest states.
Poblano (the people of Puebla) Cinco de Mayo festivities include reenactments of the Battle of Puebla; cooking iconic, traditional dishes like chiles en nogada and Puebla’s famous mole poblano; and watching parades. Men wear the traditional charro suit, which is trimmed with detailed braiding or sets of gold and silver buttons known as botonaduras. For women, the china poblana dress is worn.
La China Poblana
The china poblana is a traditional Mexican dress that originated in Puebla. However, just exactly whom the style came from is unknown. The dress may have come from Puebla’s indigenous people, who possibly wore dresses similar to asian styles. However, the most popular legend centers on Mirrha - “La China Poblana”, or “the Asian woman from Puebla”. Mirrha was a slave from Asia (possibly the Philippines or India) who was brought to Puebla in the 1600s. Legend has it that she rejected the thought of assimilating with Poblano women’s styles and instead incorporated dress customs (such as saris) from her home country in her daily wear. Thus, the inspiration for the china poblana was born.
Of course, a unique look does not always mean it will gain popularity. Just how did the china poblana become Mexico’s national clothing for women? Well, Mirrha was beloved by Poblanos. Not only was she known as a beautiful woman – she had a beautiful soul to match. (So beautiful that briefly, she was canonized as the saint, Catarina de San Juan). It is said that because of this saintly kindness, the inspiration gained traction, and the china poblana was officially adopted as the national dress for Mexican women in the 19th century.
A china poblana dress is best recognized by its brightly colored, beaded, and sequined skirts – perfect for sparkling in the light while dancers perform the theatrical twirls of the jarabe tapatío, a traditional Mexican dance. The skirt is also embroidered and sits atop layers of petticoats. It is paired with a rebozo (or scarf), and a billowy, white, short-sleeved blouse embroidered with floral designs.
Although the china poblana is now only worn for special, traditional events, Puebla keeps their traditions alive well past Cinco de Mayo through the crafts of their artisans.
As showcased by its vibrant clothing, Puebla is more than just the site of a famous battle; it is also a place where rich, traditional craftsmanship continues to thrive. Talented artisans in Puebla produce crafts such as textiles, silver jewelry, hand-blown glass, and more–including the craft Puebla is most famous for: talavera.
Talavera is a type of majolica, or tin-enameled ceramics. The tin enameling creates a distinct, white glaze, which is then hand painted in a variety of colors. Items range from functional (such as dishes and serving platters) to the more decorative (vases, tiles, and more).
You can easily spot talavera ceramics on Puebla’s architecture, which is adorned with smooth tiles on many of its facades. This architectural adornment is so prevalent throughout the city of Puebla that it is known as “the city of tiles”.
Although talavera is a Poblano craft, it originated in Baghdad in the ninth century. The style also has Italian roots. Additionally, as evidenced by talavera’s original white and blue colors (and because Mexico was a major trade stop for galleons carrying Chinese ceramics), Poblano artisans drew inspiration from Asia as well.
However, talavera’s most direct influence came from Spain. Spaniards established many ceramic workshops in Talavera de la Reina, the city from which talavera gets its name. From Spain, talavera traveled to Puebla in the 16th century. The Spaniards brought new tools and techniques (such as the pottery wheel and talavera’s tin-based glaze) to Puebla, where it combined with the Arabic, Italian, and Asian influences and evolved into the Poblano craft it is known as today.
The Talavera Process
Poblano artisans stay true to their heritage by continuing to employ traditional talavera-making techniques from the 16th century. Talavera must be made with two volcanic clays (a light clay and a dark one) sourced from the Pueblan state. Artisans mix, strain, and knead the clays together. They then mold the clay and leave it to dry. After the piece is dried, artisans bake and glaze the talavera. This glaze gives the talavera its signature glossy look and serves as the backdrop for intricately stenciled charcoal designs. Once artisans create and stencil the designs on the talavera (they may instead employ a freehand design), they hand paint the piece in a multitude of colors. Artisans then conclude the process with a second round of baking.
Although the talavera process has mostly remained the same throughout the centuries, its style has experienced a few changes. For example, talavera has moved beyond its original blue paint to include dark and light blue, yellow, red, green, orange, and black. Today, artisans are also more free to experiment with contemporary ceramic shapes and decorative designs.
Denomination of origin (DO4) is a certification that designates that a good can only be made in a certain region. This certification exists to ensure the consumer receives a quality piece because of the region’s high-quality sources, and perhaps, most importantly, to honor the local people’s traditional techniques and historical connections to the piece.
Talavera is one such good that is classified under the denomination. The craft had become so integral to Poblano identity that in 1997, the Mexican government designated that talavera could only be produced in the municipalities of Puebla, Atilixco, Tecali or Cholula. However, even if a piece is created in these municipalities, it is still not certified talavera unless artisans use traditional ingredients and methods.
There are a few ways to tell if a piece is certified talavera. Certified talavera is distinguished by its off-white color, whereas non-certified pieces are stark white. It will also most likely be more expensive due to the time artisans put into crafting each hand-made, high-quality piece. If all else fails, a hand-painted DO4 number on the bottom of a piece is a surefire test of certification.
Support Artisans, Preserve Culture
Cinco de Mayo celebrations encompass just one day out of the year where Poblanos respect Mexican heritage. Beyond the holiday, Poblano artisans continuously go to great lengths to preserve their culture by honoring 400-year-old traditions in their daily craft. These artisans are not alone in their efforts; even the Mexican government (through protections like denomination of origin) has their back.
With this in mind, it’s clear that to Poblanos, merely buying machine-produced, culturally-inspired ceramics is not enough to keep their culture alive. Instead, supporting Poblano artisans and their traditionally crafted pieces is key. Doing so ensures the preservation of traditional, age-old techniques, and subsequently, the traditions of Poblanos for years to come.
Consciously consuming crafts in order to preserve culture? Now that’s definitely a mission we share here at Terra Adorn.
Author: Jazzy Celindro, Terra Adorn Ethnographic Writer