MY HUSBAND, RICHARD, AND I were sipping margaritas on the hillside patio at the Villa Montaña hotel. The sun was setting behind the mountains on our left and a midsummer thunderstorm, complete with rainbow, brewed over the mountains on our right. Spread out below us, in all its centuries-old charm, was the city of Morelia, the capital of the state of Michoacán. In a pleasant tequila fog, I pondered why, as long as the salted peanuts kept coming, we should ever leave this perch in the altitude-cooled mountains between Mexico City and Guadalajara.
But I was there on a mission: to meet the master artisans in the hamlets scattered in these hills, the disciples of the one-village, one-craft concept promoted by Vasco de Quiroga, a kind and farsighted Spanish bishop dispatched to the region in 1537. The still-revered Quiroga believed that specialization would increase trade and self-sufficiency among the indigenous Purépecha people (whom the Spaniards called Tarascans).
The next morning we met Miguel Rubio Martínez, an English-speaking guide recommended by the hotel, in the lobby at ten o’clock sharp. When I showed him my list of must-see towns and artisans, he actually jumped. “It would take days and days to visit all these places,” he said. We had eight hours. So I deferred to Miguel; after all, he had been leading tours here for eleven years. But by three o’clock that afternoon, with nary a maestro met, I was beginning to think this one-village, one-craft thing was a tourist bureau fairytale and that Miguel, a fount of historical knowledge, had a hidden agenda to keep me from shopping. Would I ever get to Pátzcuaro and the other crafts meccas? It had all looked so simple on the map, which gave no hint of the hailstorm, miles of roller-coaster speed bumps, and aged buses and trucks chugging up steep inclines on narrow roads we had encountered in these lush hills.
Still, serendipity had dished up some memorable, non-materialistic experiences. In tiny Santa Fe de la Laguna we stumbled upon the annual religious vigil honoring Santa Ana. In the modest home where she appeared generations ago, dozens of identically dressed young women, each with a wreath of flowers in her lap, sat in silence in a candlelit room. On the flower-packed altar sat a small glass case filled with what looked like a doll’s evening gown. When we looked closely, we saw a tiny gray head, no bigger than my thumbnail, sitting atop the dress and sporting a teeny gold crown. I’m still not sure what we saw—a figurine, a miracle, a wad of gum?—but we’ll never forget it.
We had seen some crafts, but quality had been scarce. At the Mercado de Artesanías in Capula, a cooperative of forty artists, we perused some nice traditional pointillist pottery and a more contemporary forte known as Catrinas—delicate clay skeletons bizarrely dressed in brightly glazed Victorian-era finery. In Tzintzuntzan the market, rife with straw products like place mats and strings of Christmas ornaments, was completely eclipsed by the Convento de Santa Ana, dating from 1526, whose original cartoonlike frescoes are still visible and whose grounds sport gnarled 476-year-old olive trees. Even the supine statue of Jesus in one of the convent’s two churches is still growing; extensions are regularly added to his glass case to accommodate the unexplained expansion. (We admired the convent less, however, when we learned that the stones used in building it had been stolen from the ancient Purépechan temples across the road.)
After a leisurely lunch at a hillside restaurant chosen by Miguel, I think, for its teasing view of Pátzcuaro and its specialty, avestruz, or ostrich (no way could I eat it after meeting several of the homely chicks in a nearby pen), we finally arrived in Santa Clara del Cobre, a wonderland of hammered copper. At the rear of Casa Felícitas, one of dozens of combination workshop-stores here, we watched Rafael Zarco Soto and his apprentices at the forge as they pounded thick disks of lumpy, red-hot copper into thin sheets that they would later coax into impossibly intricate pieces. After one of his extended sprees of pistonlike pounding, I asked the gasping Rafael, who has been a coppersmith for more than thirty years, if he ever tired of the work. “It’s in my blood,” he said, pounding his chest for a change. “Hard work, but there is beauty.” With that, we trotted into the store, whipped out our Visa card, and loaded up on beauty in the form of many small lidded canisters and tiny vases, as well as a graceful pitcher with a curved handle that had been fashioned from a single piece of copper, all impossibly cheap ($3 to $70). And I didn’t even think we liked hammered copper.
Before leaving town, Miguel insisted that we meet Ignacio Punzo Angel, a third-generation coppersmith who has won scads of awards and is featured in the tome Grandes Maestros del Arte Popular Mexicano (Fomento Cultural Banamex). In a tidy forge at the rear of his property, set behind a courtyard filled with dahlias and roses, we found Ignacio and two of his sons busy perfecting three magnificent pieces they planned to enter in the town’s prestigious copper competition the next month. One was a vase, around three feet tall, whose intersecting ribs and planes were so symmetrical and complex they appeared computer generated. And when I say the men were perfecting them, I mean perfecting. “When you are working on the piece, she asks you where to hit her,” Ignacio said, as he tapped away at the infinitesimal flaws.
We spent the last hour of our tour in Pátzcuaro, perhaps the best-known crafts center in the region, near the shores of the popular but polluted Lake Pátzcuaro (locals know better than to eat its once-famous white fish). Although we would have liked to linger on a bench under the ash and pine trees of the lovely Plaza Vasco de Quiroga, time was a-wasting. We dashed through the town’s red-trimmed-white-adobe quaintness like