Juana Gómez Ramírez
(Xhana Compash Otol)
Ceramic Jaguars, Pots, etc.
The village of Amatenango del Valle, Chiapas is a Maya Tzeltal speaking community located on the Pan American Highway near San Cristóbal de Las Casas. Amatenango is known as “The Chiapas Capital of Pottery” where local women artisans display and sell their works under covered arches along the side of the highway to passing motorists or from their homes/workshops in the village on a commission basis to specific order. The skills necessary to produce the unique pottery of Amatenango have historically been passed down from mother to daughter over the generations.
This passing down of the skills necessary to become an accomplished potter in the Amatenango tradition is the tradition represented by our guest artisans Juana Gomez Ramirez (known in Amatenango as Xhana Compash Otol) and her mother Feliciana Ramirez (“Otol” in Tzeltal) who present their clay productions of birds, jaguars, jaguar masks, water jars and other items they have produced in their home workshop. Señora Feliciana Ramirez first introduced her daughter to the potter’s art by encouraging her to model small animals with clay when she was only six years old as is the tradition in the village where the children are encouraged by their parents to make and sell their creations to passing visitors. Over the years, Juana continued to develop her potter’s skills until she became the accomplished artisan she is today.
It is the women of Amatenango who make the pottery for which the village is famed while the men follow traditional agricultural pursuits although the men may participate in pottery making by helping the women paint the finished works.
Juana Gómez Ramírez was born in 1982 and has been making clay figures since she was eight years old receiving her training under her mother, Feliciana Ramírez Gómez, born in 1964. Feliciana was married at 16 to a local farmer and began her career as a potter making water jars, chimeneas and flower pots in the shape of doves to supplement the family´s meager and seasonal income from farming.
When Juana was still a child, her father abandoned the family and the pottery made by Juana and her mother became their primary source of income. They had to travel to San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Comitán and Villa Flores carrying their wares on their back.
In the early 1990s, an artist named Pancho Álvarez came to Amatenango from San Cristóbal de Las Casas to teach local potters how to make jaguar figures. Feliciana and soon thereafter, Juana, at age 11, mastered the art of making jaguars and water jars decorated with jaguars.
In 2001, the state government of Chiapas funded the building called "The Portales" along the Carretera through Amantenango and the main thoroughfare from San Cristóbal to Comitán, Chiapas. That year, Juana and her mother started selling their wares at the portales featuring jaguars, large jars, and other clay figurines.
Around 2004, Fomento Cultural Banamex started buying Juana's pieces for their Museum store. Her reputation for quality and artistic merit become such that they stopped selling on the street and worked from their home filling orders.
Today, Juana´s studio is a family affair and includes her mother Doña Feliciana, husband, Feliciano, brother-in-law, Vincente, her two brothers, Pedro and Juan and one of her three sons, Reynaldo. Juana oversees and controls the work of all family members, however, each signs their own work and features their own unique style.
Celestino Gómez Ramírez
Tomás Gómez Ramírez
Juana Goes "Green"
The land upon which the studio sits today was purchased by Juana six years ago and their new home was started two years later. Last year after returning from the Feria Maestros del Arte, Juana had sufficient funds to start working on the construction of a kiln. The kiln is a new, highly efficient one, which heats the clay at higher temperature and fires the clay all the way through. It uses ten times less firewood and will help with the ongoing deforestation problem in Chiapas as well as lowering the air contamination. It used to take a truck load of wood to fire two large jaguars - the same quantity can now fire 12 jaguars. The photo above left is an experimental kiln built first to ensure it would work properly. On the right is the new kiln without its door.
Hopefully other artists will learn about this method and will be convinced that their art will benefit from using a kiln and, in doing so, will help lessen the deforestation and air contamination in the area.
Amatenango is a typical Tzeltal village where the men are farmers and the women supplement the family income selling their artisania. Here, clay is the means to extra income.
In the past, all the items were utilitarian and now are evolving into decorative and artistic clay items. Alberto Bautista Gómez was the first man to enter the field of ceramics along with the women and now the men in Juana´s family are also working with clay.
Like many of the other children in the village, the Gómez Ramírez' children started working at about age 11 having to earn a living at a very young age. Because their father walked out on the family, they had to grow up very quickly and were raised in difficult conditions. It is heart warming to see that Juana's children are retaining their heritage but also go to school to get an education.
After the family got electricity, their first purchase, "their pride and joy," was a computer and a printer for Rey (shown in the photo to the left). The computer is key to their business and is also an extra incentive for the younger children to want to learn how to read and write. The Internet has opened a new world for this family.
Because the sales of Juana's jaguars increased the family's income, they have moved out of the little wooden shelters they used to sleep in to a house with a cement floor and solid walls. A gas stove has replaced the traditional wood stove that filled the lungs with smoke as they cooked. The once rocky paths they walked are now mostly smooth pavement. Below is the hill leading up to Juana's mother home, the small shack is the bathroom and the beautiful view from the house is shown.
We take for granted even the smallest things that these families work and strive to attain to make their lives better and more comfortable. It is very rewarding to see how, with the help of Fomento Cultural Banamex and Feria Maestros del Arte, Juana's life has so greatly improved.
Juana has been invited to the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago to show her work October 2013 - another step toward the recognition of the quality of her art. She is so excited at the idea of going to Chicago - a mysterious place somewhere up North!
Pedro Celestino started building his house 3 years ago and has reached the state where he finally asked his fiance to marry him - they were married on April 27, 2013. Juana told us that the young women of Amatenango do not want to get married to men without houses, so the first priority of young men is to build a new house.
The pottery made in Amatenango is distinctive both for the materials used there and the techniques utilized by local artisans. The sand and clay used for this pottery in unique and only found in the vicinity of Amatenango and local artisans use ancient pottery making techniques handed down to them over the centuries by their ancestors. The clay and sand are mixed to form a paste out of which the hollow pieces are rendered and then the pieces are air dried outside the home/workshop until totally dry. Once the piece is completely dried, imperfections are “sanded” away using a knife or special spoon before the piece is burnished using river stones. Once the piece has been burnished and rendered in its final form satisfactory to the artisan, it is painted or varnished in accordance with the artisan’s chosen finish or, if the piece is made to order, in accordance with the client’s instructions.