Ana María Hernández of Taller Coatlicue on the evolution of a tradition 

— As told to Rodrigo Cruz and Melissa Patenaude

Ana María Hernández photographed by Eva Lepiz.


Overcoming obstacles

Remembering ancient teachings to revive a stagnant industry.


Words by
Melissa Patenaude

My father did not force me. He told me “If you don't want to continue in that line of work, you can work clay with me because there is a lot of work here too."

Hello! My name is Ana María Hernández and I am the founder of Taller Coatlicue.

I grew up very close to here, in Santa María Atzompa. My childhood was very beautiful here because there used to be a lot more fields, everything was freer. There were no houses on this street. We had a river, just 200 meters (220 yards) away, on the edge of my grandfather's land. This whole block belonged to my grandfather. He had a lot of land. At some point the river dried up so we had no more water to play in, and later, the people in the town dug and changed where the river passed.

Yes, it was very beautiful. My parents were artisans and my father worked in the bakery. And well, in my childhood we would play, run. In times of rain, it was very pretty how the water would flow down the dirt streets--there was no pavement.

I enjoyed my childhood quite a bit, and then work begins. At twelve my father said “well, you are going to start to see what we are doing and start to work”. I started working on a kicking lathe when I was twelve. A man came and said to my father "I can teach your little girl how to work". The man was a great man, so I answered "I would like to learn." I didn't learn much at first because I wasn't interested, I was a young girl. Well, two or three little pieces I learned to make, and I had learned to work the lathe, but very little--I still was not interested.

When you are a child, you think that your parents are doing you a bad thing. I thought “my dad wants to exploit me, he wants me to work". You don't think that it is going to serve me. I still learned to use the lathe, to make very small pieces, and from there I started to work and made little plates, glasses, little houses, small things.

Later, I went off to study. I studied dressmaking. I was a dressmaking teacher, but I didn't do it for long. I was barely sixteen years old, and didn't like to teach. My father did not force me either. He told me “If you don't want to continue in that line of work, you can work clay with me because there is a lot of work here too.”

At the time, green clay, chia-style, sold a lot. We sold a lot to Japan. We made a lot of grated goats, turtles, angels.

And then he reminded me that my grandfather used to tell me about other more ancient techniques.

On the brink of giving up

I have four sisters and one brother. We are six. Most of them worked clay. Right now two of my sisters no longer work pottery, but the rest do. My brother and one of my sisters work here in the workshop. They both still work in the traditional way. Although we are leaving the traditional methods to work with more ancient techniques.

A few years ago, I was ready to retire. The sales are not consistent here in the town, everyone works the same style and there is a very tough competition. My work had become hard. I have always tried to make my work better so that people would like it and so it would serve the clients better. I was working and there was no budget to continue. Sometimes I would finish a week of work, and another week I would have no firewood. To finish pieces, I had to buy a lot of colored pigments which are very expensive, a hundred pesos (about $5 USD) for fifty grams (1.8 ounces). Sometimes I invested a thousand pesos ($50 UDS) for fifteen days, but it was not enough because all the ceramics were painted. But I didn't give up. I bought the firewood, I bought all the materials. One of my aunts, Ana, who has always worked with me, said to me one day “Ana, we have no more work. What are we going to do?" I told her we were not going to stop and give up. So we continued working, but as we wanted to increase production and sales, the clients said "I am going with so and so because he gives it to me cheaper”. We couldn't lower our prices and fight like that.

When my some Adrían came back home from studying to start working, I told him "Look, I'm not going to work with pottery anymore. It doesn't work for me, I don't see any money coming out of it. I can't even buy firewood anymore." He said “No, no, no, I'm going to start working and you're going to leave? No, we are going to continue and do the techniques that you know." I argued that these techniques were not selling. Then he reminded me that my grandfather used to tell me about other more ancient techniques.

My grandfather had told me that there were other techniques of working clay that worked beautifully. Adrían said "Why not do them? I didn't know if they could be done and if they would sell. He said “You have to start and make it work." He encouraged me a lot. He said “Let’s do it because it is necessary. If green clay no longer works, let's change.” So we did.

Since very early on, people came to my workshop because it was open to the public. At the time, many artisans in the town would not let you enter their workshop. People would come to see and stole clay from you, stole things from you, and sometimes, Americans would come look and say "no, no, no, I don't want these pieces from this artisan." But they didn't even know. Still, from the beginning, since I came here, since I made my home here--my father had left it to me this property--I started this small open workshop.

When I left my parent's house at the age of eighteen, I met my husband--very young. After we got together, I started working. I came to work here and started building my own workshop. It was my workshop, I worked alone. I had my young children and was still working every day.

I had nine children. By the time they had gown up, the workshop had grown as well. Yes, that's how it was! First, my eldest, Francisco, started working. He really liked working, he focused on making animals, dinosaurs, doing other things, not doing what I did. And that's how it started. Then my other daughters started working with clay. My eldest daughter, who is here and my aunt Ana, are the ones who have worked in this workshop the most.

Balancing work and raising a family was difficult because I didn't stop working. Apart from making pottery I also sewed at night if I had time. In the mornings, I would have two or three hours to sew before going to work the pottery. Yes, it was very difficult, and my husband also did not stop working. He was a day laborer and went out to work.

My grandfather used to tell me “We didn't have any glaze, we used to finish the pieces with stone." He even gave me the stones.

And little by little we started to leave traditional techniques. We were bringing back older traditions, what was done before in this town which is burnished clay.

It is a technique that must be well finished and needs a good firing. That is what was done before we had glazing. My grandfather used to tell me “We didn't have any glaze, we used to finish the pieces with stone." He even gave me the stones.

The glazing technique is already more than five hundred years old. But he would say, "it is better made with a quartz, with a stone, burnished. Why would anyone want glazing?" He used to say glazing didn't even work, that it was better with a stone and well cooked. Well, everything that is old eventually becomes modern again.

Right now, for the future, I'd like to see people change their point of view so that they see the planet as it is. I hope that they stop buying plastic, that they buy more clay, things that do not harm the planet, because, right now, we are destroying it. Buying so much plastic, so many bags, is what has destroyed the planet and we are running out of time to make it better. That's what I wish. I wish that people change, even if it is only with a grain of sand.

More on Ana María Hernández and Taller Coatlicue coming soon.