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Rufina Ruiz López on how her rebellious soul came back to family traditions 

— Story as told to Eva Lépiz and Melissa Patenaude

Rufina Ruiz López photographed by Eva Lepiz.

Interview

A story of family, passion and rebellion

Taking the road least followed and coming back to family traditions.

10/24/2022

Words by
Melissa Patenaude

My grandmother taught us. She told us that she learned from her mom, and was passed down from mom to mom for generations, until it got to us. Each mother became who she is thanks to the pottery.

Introductions-
Hi! I'm Rufina Ruiz López. Welcome to the Taller Ruiz López. Let's start right away because my burning is almost done, and I'm going to have to stop to take out the pieces from the fire.

I am originally from Santa María Atzompa... I was born and raised right here. My siblings and I were a soccer team, ha! Eleven brothers and sisters. Eight currently alive. I'm the ninth child.

Pottery has been my whole life, from my great-grandmother, whom we remember, to today. My grandmother taught us. She told us that she learned from her mom, and was passed down from mom to mom for generations, until it got to us. Each mother became who she is thanks to the pottery.

When you are a child, at three or four years old, you start playing. And we played with clay. It is the way of teaching. I currently do it with my nephews. We are not only going to play but also get familiar with the materials, especially cleaning the impurities that the mud brings. If you don't do it by playing, you don't learn. You learn by playing. I started playing with clay at the age of five. Imagine learning such a skill at five years-old, from cleaning it to laying it down. I mean, it was playing to us! And, before you jump to conclusions, we weren't going to work. It was no child labor as some might think. We were taught, through dialogue and example, that people had to play. I had a very cool childhood, right?

My big brother always used to say: "we kind of walk in agreement". If you decide one thing, we respect your decision and we all agree. And we try to continue to do that, together, making the decisions that everyone agrees with.

Great childhood memories

There was a time, when my brothers worked as bricklayers, when we would go to play in the alfalfa trees. I loved walking through the alfalfa fields, filling myself up, feeling the dew of the leaves, after the rain. What a great memory. Not even the neighbors said: "no, not in the alfalfas" because we were so happy there. With my siblings, at least the little ones, we were always all together. We went out to explore the alfalfa trees. I would find very long alfalfa trees and would move the leaves with my hands to pour water on my youngest sister, haha. At that time I was about six years-old and my sister about four years old. We have always been very close, the youngest 3. Yes, we were the three naughtiest ones who ran throughout childhood.

My childhood was very beautiful, because at the end of the day, I think I have been very sheltered. I did not have a childhood of mistreatment as many have. My mom is a woman who never mistreated her children. She always educated us based on advice, metaphors or fables. She was mom and dad to us. She never hit us. I think seeing her children grow up and seeing what they were becoming was the most wonderful thing for her. My mother never hit me, and now, we continue the cycle, because we do not let anyone in our family hit the children.

I put a lot of emphasis on us not being mistreated, because it was a regular occurrence in the town. In the village it is very common for children to be beaten. It was weird to me because I didn't experience that at home. But I used to visit my uncles' children and I saw how they were beaten. It was hard for me to understand how they could have a life like that or see them being mistreated. Mom would say: "You are not animals for me to hit, just for me to talk to and you to listen." And again, she was mom and dad. Imagine my brother, the eldest who was eighteen years-old, and the three-month-old boy she had when she became widowed, and vice versa. When she passed away my oldest brother was sixty-two years-old and my youngest brother was twenty-seven.

We were always a very close family. My big brother always used to say: "we kind of walk in agreement". If you decide one thing, we respect your decision and we all agree. And we try to continue to do that, together, making the decisions that everyone agrees with.

Then I grew up, studied and have always been a rebel without a cause, haha. And I really liked business. I love business. 

I studied accounting but never liked it. There were other options for me, but there were many accountants in the family so I was followed the tradition. I learned it, and worked as an accountant, but it was not for me. I was very rebellious and wanted to study music from a very young age. I took my exam, passed and when I was going to register for the program, I saw the registration of two of my brothers. I mean, it was difficult to put many children through school at once. My mom said, and I knew it, that we were too many siblings studying at that moment. So she said: "look, in the coming weeks you will sign up again". But we did not understand that registrations were closing. That's how I spent a year without studying. And since the young lady couldn't enroll in music, I said, "I don't want to study anymore. I won't study because I want to study music."

"Daughter, you understand that I couldn't pay right now, but you will sign up later." she said. At that time I did not understand that I had to abide by my mother's financial situation. I just kept saying I wanted to study music. I wanted to play the piano. I always dreamed of being an artist and a concert pianist. I used to tell my brothers: "sooner or later I'm going to be an artist." I always dreamed of myself on stage. My limit was that my mother did not have the resources. She said: "my daughter, you are going to study." I was very insensitive to her at that time. Now that I'm older, I think: "Oh mom, how did you put up with me so much?" 

She suggested I study nursing, but I didn't like it. She paid for school and I didn't go. I went to school, but I didn't go to class. They caught me and told me: "You don't you want to study? Come and work with me." And that's how I started to learn the basic work of running a pottery business. I was 15 years-old.

Mom lent me the money I was missing for the enrollment and said: "You already failed once mija. You see, you are the first woman in the family to study. It is up to you that your sisters study. You fail me again and your sisters will have no right to study."

The following years, at about 17-18 years-old, I started saving and that's when I started working in markets. I left home when I was sixteen. My sister China told me: "If you want to study, sister, we go to the market and you save your money”. I worked and saved for a year, and my brother Polo, who did the accounting program before me, told me: "Look, mom is not going to let you go to school because she already paid for nursing school. You were the one who failed, not her and she is not going to let you go to school. But don't worry, I secretly took out your file”. And that's how I enrolled in accounting, haha. It was high school specialized in accounting.

Mom lent me the money I was missing for the enrollment and said: "You already failed once mija. You see, you are the first woman in the family to study. It is up to you that your sisters study. You fail me again and your sisters will have no right to study." At the time, in the village, women had no right to anything at all. And my very intelligent mother said: "My daughters have to become someone different." And that's how we 3 sisters started to study, and became proof that women could study in the village. Soon after, other women joined as well. About 12 women from the town started studying with us.

Unfortunately, many began seeing boyfriends and did not finish. My mother said: "Be careful, don’t behave like them. Be careful with a boy. If you are given the opportunity to study, it is for your good, not for you throw away doing foolish things." So I stayed to not betray my mom's trust, but also for the responsibility of being someone different.

In other words, you always, always go as a merchant, you will always earn money. So, I learned to do business like this. If they gave me stones, I would sell stones. After working for a company as an accountant for 16 years, I left and returned home, to Atzompa, for health reasons.

You never leave pottery. I never stopped making pottery. Even then, I sold was my sister Ceci's pieces. I would go to work and take the pieces to sell at work. But still, I never stopped making pottery, never. 

Clay must always be worked in the community. When I returned home for health reasons, is when I started working at the markets again. I worked there all week. I told my sisters: "You can produce, and I will sell." And we did this from the time I was about 27 years-old, until I was 45.

Selling will always give you money. It depends on how you want to move it. A piece that cost me 20 pesos, I would sell for 30 plus freight costs and other expenses. And I always added something extra. I learned... If they gave me stones, I would sell stones. I figured that if I could sell product that wasn't mine, I could sell my own.

I am very social which helps in markets. You build strong bonds with people who are not from your family. In these markets, you meet customers and other merchants face to face for the day and you leave. the market in Ocotlán is two hours and half hours away. Wednesdays we go to Ximatlán. Different towns on different days. That's the routine. We leave at 3am and leave the markets at 4pm to come back.

Most people will tell you that your ideas won't work. It discourages you. But then I look back at work others have done, and risks others have taken, and it encourages me to not give up.

In business, for our studio, the biggest challenge has always been around growth. The idea to always evolve and not stagnate. When you open your mind, the rest is easier. Changing the mindset of those around you is hard. You can come up with great ideas, but they are intangible, unproven. Most people will tell you that your ideas won't work. It discourages you. But then I look back at work others have done, and risks others have taken, and it encourages me to not give up.

Many times I cam close to giving up on this project. But I always found the strength and faith to continue in my heart. The passion always comes back saying "It's possible". That confidence comes from my mother. She always said "Even if you fall, get up, stand up, keep going."

My plan for this studio is to leave a legacy. It is up to my nieces and nephews if they want to follow in these footsteps or not. But there is no shortage of people to take over. There are many young people who are learning the trade. One of them will follow our example. And they will say thanks, just as I thank my teachers. I tell the kids who come here: "Keep the good seeds, and throw them in fertile soil so they can grow. If you throw them on rocks, they will not grow. But look carefully... if there is even just a little soil on the rock, it will germinate."

More on Rufina and our conversation coming soon.

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