Updated editing and typos corrected.
Second update: And I just discovered it's spelled ChavaRRillo, not Chavarillo
When I was in high school, on days when, for one reason or another, very few girls were in attendance, we’d all be herded into the auditorium with its gothic windows and clacking wooden seats to watch odd movies like Dragonwyck. It was already an oldie when we saw it. We all thought we were we were allowed to watch a regular movie during school hours because, for us New York students, its setting in the Hudson River Valley in the early 19th century probably gave it enough educational merit to calm teachers' consciences. It was, if I remember, really spooky and sinister. Sometimes, instead, we’d see documentaries with names like “Growing Oranges in Florida.” In the this one, cheerful-looking pickers dressed in ironed work clothes, climbed ladders into the trees accompanied by the mellifluous baritone of the narrator. The workers in "Growing Oranges in Florida" must have been legal migrant workers in those days, the 1950s. They were called braceros. In another documentary we’d watch the miracle of assembly-line food-processing and canning unfold before our eyes.The lines were attended by serious-looking women dressed, and with faces and hair covered, in white. Kind of a burka effect. In another, the one I liked best, we’d watch the early edition of a newspaper go from final mock-up at night to our doorsteps at dawn. A steady commentary on how all these activities demonstrated the Greatness of America, our freedoms, our skills, our technological supremacy accompanied all of them. Propaganda-ridden or not, however, those documentaries left me with a never-ending curiosity about how things were made and who made them and how they came to market and to me.
So in this spirit I bring you now my own documentary: Making Pots and Bricks in Chavarrillo, Veracruz, Mexico
Chavarrillo, a town at the end of a road that goes no further, is a center for the production of roof tiles, bricks, cooking pots and flower pots, dishes and bric-a-brac. The road into town is lined with
brick- and tile-filled sheds and giant brick kilns. We drove there one day last week with our friends Alfredo and Jo to buy clay. Jo is a highly skilled ceramicist who has made an elegant series of masks based on Aztec deities. She was interested in finding some local clay with which to experiment. Jim who has previously worked with high-fire materials was thinking to try some low-fire clay. Alberto was thinking to learn to throw.
Jose Contreras is a local brick maker/potter with a considerable reputation. He and his extended family live in a largish compound at the edge of Chavarrillo. He is the jefe, taking over from his father who is still working at it after fifty years or so. Jose Contreras also does I think most of the pottery. His mother does the books, sisters decorate, others stoke fires and form bricks. One brother, incidentally, has a legal visa to work in the U.S. He has to come home for several months every year. When he is in the U.S. he works on constructing giant oil rigs in Aransas Pass, Texas. In our lives in Texas, we visited Port Aransas, on the northern end of Mustang Island. From there you have an excellent view of Aransas Pass on the mainland where the partly built rigs lie like enormous dinosauar skeletons. Worth a lot of posts, that area of Texas.
The Contreras family digs its own clay from pits on its compound. It is almost indistinguishable from the soil it shares space with, but it is much more cohesive than soil.
This dry barro is mixed with sand and water in what is called a pug mill to make the material usable. Here is the horse-driven one the Contrerases use:
Mostly for his pots, though, he uses molds of which, unfortunately, I didn't take any photos. He doesn't pour clay into the molds but rather shapes it on top of them by hand. Molds tend to form pieces of objects which are then assembled. Contreras also does hand-made adornments for some.
The kilns are fired with wood. I don't know the source of the wood or how it plays into the problems of deforestation, if at all. But this industry is a good example of why sustainable, multi-use forests are a better approach to deforestation than putting forests off limits.
In addition to all of us buying roughly 160 pounds of clay, Jo and I each bought a clay stew pot (olla) and some clay ramekins. I had previously bought a clay bean pot. These pots work beautifully. I can use them on my gas burners with no problem and at any heat. I've now used the olla for a number of dishes and I have baked eggs in the ramekins. They worked very well in the oven. Women in my colonia (men don't do the cooking that I know of) prefer the clay to metal. I think these may cook a bit faster, but they certainly cook evenly and I haven't burned anything yet. The pots cost roughly two or two and a half dollars apiece. Some of you may ask about lead. This isn't a problem if you know who you are buying your pots from. Even if you don't, lead would only leach if you cooked acidic foods, and then not that much. There is no population in Mexico that shows signs of lead poisoning associated with using these pots.
I can't imagine a more interesting way to buy pots than going to the Contreras pottery.