Leticia García Blanco on the rise and evolution of a family tradition

— Story as told to Daniel Bolaños and Melissa Patenaude 

Portrait of Leticia Blanco and her son Fernando Peguero

Leticia and her son Fernando Peguero photographed by Eva Lepiz.


A story of family pride, traditions and not giving up

A family path marked with successes and born from adversity.


Words by
Melissa Patenaude

I've been working with clay, here, for about 50 years and still making the figures that my mother taught me.

Hello, I'm Alicia Leticia García Blanco, at your service! I was born here, in Santa María de Atzompa. My parents are from here as well.

My mom's name was Teodora Blanco. She was the one who taught me to work the clay, to make clay figures such as mermaids, nativity scenes, musicians, angels, various figures. She was the first one who started these kinds of clay characters in town. Here, in town, many are dedicated to everything that is utilitarian such as casseroles and comales.

She was the one who started the figurine of the Nahuales. She used to always tell me, and her mother always told her, about the legends of the towns here, about the Nahuales. So she started to imagine what the Nahuales were like, and what they did. That's where she started to shape those characters--it was how she started. Then she saw the vendors the market, the ladies who went to sell at their stalls, at their fruit stalls, their clay pieces--everything she saw in the market, she captured in clay. She made figurines carrying their pots or ladies carrying their bread or fruit. It's with this work that she was recognized nationally and internationally. She participated in contests and won many prizes. I was very young then, and that's when she started to teach me to work the clay. I was about six years old.

Now I've been working with clay, here, for about 50 years and still making the figures that my mother taught me. And I have four children, all involved in pottery making. They all have their profession, and they all also work with clay.

Additional context:
In Mesoamerican folk religion, a Nagual or Nahual (pronounced [na'wal]) is a human being who has the power to shapeshift into their tonal animal counterpart.

Nagualism is tied to the belief one can access power and spiritual insight by connecting with the tonal animal within.

My mother was the one who did something different, more fantastic pieces.

From utilitarian to fantasy

I have five siblings or which three work with clay, and two don't. I one sister named Irma. She works with clay. She makes really big figures, because my mom made big figures for some time. My mom had to get up on a chair, because she was short like me, to be able to reach her pieces and finish them. My sister Irma is the one who continued to make those pieces, but now she has been sick and doesn't make them anymore. Her children are the ones who do it now. She was the one who learned the most from my mother how to make the big pieces. I keep to the smaller pieces myself.

My family has always been involved with clay, it's been around forever. It comes from my grandparents. My grandparents, made vases. My mother was the one who did something different, more fantastic pieces. She started to make clay figures from her own imagination. Then she began to add these figures to pots. In the pots, she would mold the faces of the figures, as I am doing now, and then, she would put her braids on them. In this case, I have done it differently. The form of a vase is different and the faces are different.

My mom told me she started the style of figures on pots. My grandparents made toys and little flowers. They had to go all the way to downtown Oaxaca walking [90 minutes to 2 hours walk] to go sell their pieces because there was no transportation. They would go with their donkeys and they would carry the crockery on their backs and the donkey's backs. They had to cross a river, and when it rained, the water rose. One day it rained very hard. The river would often wash my mom and her dad away, since he took her to the market with them. One day she said "How is it possible that I risk losing my life like for so little money". They didn't make much and got very tired. So he said, "I have to do something. Something that will make us more money". He spent the whole night thinking about what to do. She says that's when she came up with the idea of making the clay figures. As she saw the ladies going around with their baskets of fruit or bread and their guajolotes or their little pots, she thought "Why don't I make those figures?"

The next day she started making and she says that my abuelita would get very angry. She would say "I don't want you to waste the clay, what are you doing?" She didn't listen to her, and she kept hiding from her mother, making the figures. She could not find a way to make them until her father, because she always supported him, said to my grandmother, "Let her do it, and let's see what she can do". And then one day she was able to make her early monkeys. When she had them ready, she took them to the market to sell. She saw that people liked them more than what here parents were selling and that's when she started to make more. And then, an American bought her pieces and told her that he liked them very much, and said "I want you to add this, I want you to do it like this". She quickly started imagining how to make the new requests and that's how she started to make the clay figures. From there she left the vases and toys to make the clay figures. And shortly after, she began to imagine the legends of the Nahuales. Then she began to make figures with women's faces, with animal faces.

Our childhood it was very difficult economically, but then thanks to my mother's work, we were able to get ahead. She didn't have many resources, she was looking for something else to do to generate more money, because with toys and the projects that my grandmother taught her, she didn't see much money coming in. She began to look for ways of working and that was what, little by little, got her ahead.

And from there, so did we. That's how we have been able to move forward.It was hard to grow a business back then. There was nowhere to get money. Now there is a lot of support from the government, I see there is a lot of support for children to go to school, for uniforms and so on, but that help did not exist then. We had to work a lot and find a way to make money.

As I saw my mother working, I was also curious as to how make little toys. More than anything, as a kid you start playing with the clay, and when you see that the clay is always right there, it makes you want to play with it. For us, clay was a game. When my mother saw us interested in the clay, she started instructing us how how to do it. So little by little you start learning. Playing and learning.

Little by little I started to learn and when I was older, I started to make more and more of my figures. With practice, they were were becoming better. When I was about 18 I found out about a contest which I entered and won third place. From there I continued participating and I now have about 17 awards from all around Mexico. I just recently won a prize for a toy from Oaxaca. I also won the National Ceramics Prize in 2015 in Jalisco. I also won the national prize of Pantaleón Panduro in 2017 in Tlaquepaque, Jalisco.

In our work, we use three types of clay. We call that one "barro negro" (black clay). It comes from the mines of San Lorenzo Cacaotepec. And this other clay, which is white, comes from Santa Catarina, and from here, from the town too. The red clay comes from a hill called Cuatro Venados.

The black and white clay get delivered here. When it comes from the mine it comes very wet, so we first have to dry it. We lay it out on the ground and once it is dry we break it into little pieces. Once we are ready to use it, we soak it in drums of water for a day. Once it is well soaked the next day, it is strained two or three times and left to rest for a week. We do this do that only the pure clay paste remains. The white clay goes through through the same preparation process, the the small pieces are beaten with a stick that we call a "golpeador" to make a powder which we strain so that it is as pure as possible. Then we mix the black and white clay together to make the mixture we work with. 

The red clay is used for painting the figurines. It also goes through the same preparation as the white clay. We then add water to it so it becomes a liquid paste. 

Thanks to this work we have been able to bring out the talent that we have, the talent that we carry inside. 

Here in town there are many artist families. Everyone works independently, but with their family. Before, I would say 100% of the town's families worked the clay, now it's more like 80% of the families. Yes, almost all the people work the clay, everyone has their own way of working or all have different jobs, but everyone works it.

For us the best thing about our community is our work. The clay brought us out, it has brought us forward. It is very sacred for us, the clay, the land and everything that God has given us in this land. Thanks to this work we have been able to bring out the talent that we have, the talent that we carry inside. 

The clay tradition right now is in danger. Now young people prefer other jobs, not clay. Many young people don't work the clay anymore, so it is being lost a little. Mostly because in some periods, they see that very little income come from the business. Sometimes they don't see it and that's what discourages them.

To keep the tradition alive, we have to continue working, and  imagine new designs so that the customers also like them. Now there are pieces for everyone's taste. There are some who like the traditional, and others don't. We need to always evolve and come up with new ways of working.

For the future, I would like to see that my children do not leave this work and that they get what they need to succeed with this art, with this work. So that we don't lose the tradition, that it continues. Nowadays, young people don't like it as much. My children do, thank God they still do, but here in the town, almost no longer. The children are not interested in clay anymore, they want other ways of working. 

I wish this tradition never ends, and that there is more support for artisans so they can move forward and not lose this beautiful tradition. 

More on Leticia and our conversation coming soon.