THE BEST-KEPT SECRET IN MEXICO: CASAS GRANDES
by Judith Fein
photos by Paul Ross
It was eleven o¹clock at night. My husband, Paul and I were walking off our supper along a dirt road in this farm town of 44,000 in the northern state of Chihuahua. There wasn¹t a car in sight. As we topped a small rise in the road, a large illuminated building loomed. We walked inside and quickly figured out that we were the only gringos in a huge nightclub. Someone asked us a few questions, we replied that we were American writers who loved Mexico, and the next thing we knew, we were hauled onto the stage, facing a crowd of 800 people and a barrage of spotlights. A microphone was stuck into my face.
“Uh…hi, there,” I said. “
The entire crowd screamed back at me: “WELCOME TO CASAS GRANDES!! WE LOVE AMERICA!!”
And then, they actually cheered.
Nuevo Casas Grandes
If you¹re tired of the stress and mess of city life, get in your car and drive on down. It¹s an easy haul, about three hours southwest of El Paso, mostly on Route 2, the Mexican east-west highway that parallels the U.S. border.
As you approach the town, you pass through verdant fields growing bright red chilis. On Avenida Juarez, the main street, decent hotels run around $35 a night and it¹s hard to spend more than $5 or $l0 on a meal. The area is so non-touristy and undiscovered that the Mexico guide books can¹t even agree on how to spell Casas Grandes, although an “s” at the end of both words is grammatically correct.
In Old Casas Grandes, a ten minute drive from the new city, we entered a photographer¹s dream. Wind-blown, sculptural, evocative Paquimé is considered the largest and most important archeological ruin in all of Northern Mexico. The earliest habitations were pit houses from around 700 A.D. The peak of the civilization was in the l2th century, and then, for an unknown reason, it went into decline and was abandoned in the l4th century.
Beautiful Paquimé rises out of the desert, like the ghost town of a sophisticated indigenous culture. The low walls of the earth-toned village are made of rammed earth, and the ruins of houses, granaries and storage areas surrounded us as we walked along the gravel path. Many of the structures have evocative names like House of Skeletons, House of the Serpent, and Hillock of Heroes.
Amazingly, on a sunny October afternoon, we had the site virtually to ourselves….except for a woman and the three American tourists she was guiding. We tagged along as they stopped in front of one of the most celebrated features of ancient Paquimé…..a series of rectangular macaw cages made out of rammed earth. The daunting problem for the people of Paquimé was that they lived in a desert environment and macaws are tropical birds. Their ingenious solution was to create a hothouse aviary.
After we and our imaginations finished wandering through the ruins, we visited the adjacent Paquimé museum. Through slides, videos and dioramas, we learned that Paquimé grew to importance as a trading crossroads between peoples as far north as Colorado, west to the Gulf of California and perhaps as far south as today¹s Mexico City.
The following day, in Nuevo Casas Grandes, we met a young local travel agent named Olivia Ollivier Rico (she has since moved to Texas), and we told her how fascinated we were by the Paquimé culture. She asked if we would like to go to an ancient riverbed named Arroyo de los Monos to see their petroglyphs. Sure, we said, why not? Olivia neglected to tell us that it¹s a difficult trip over very rough terrain. Our poor dainty car wished it were a macho 4-wheel drive as we climbed over stones, rocks and then boulders. Our muffler groaned and rattled and finally, we arrived at the petroglyphs.
On the stone cliff faces, ancient people had pecked out animals, spirals, snakes and human forms. We stood there, in the quiet of the arroyo, moved by the mysterious etchings. Were they clan markings? Did they indicate where there was water? Did they celebrate a hunt? The Paquimé are gone, and we will never know. When we got back to town, we deposited our ailing car in a local body shop. There was no receipt, no business card, nada. We handed over our car keys and prayed. The following afternoon, the body of my buggy had been painted, hammered, bolted and perfectly repaired. The tab–believe it or not– only came to $50.
Olivia officially took us under her wing. Once the car was fixed, we drove to the town of Old Cases Grandes, which is not far from the Paquimé ruins. We wandered past quaint stucco galleries and shops and a house where legend has it that the revolutionary Pancho Villa lived. By chance, we entered a small arts and crafts store where the shopkeeper offered us a local specialty…a strange potion that looked like a rattlesnake in clear liquid. It turned out to be just that. Sotol is imbibed by locals as a medicine for rheumatism and arthritis. A live rattlesnake is put into Sotol and it takes a grueling l0 to l2 hours for the animal to die. After 24 hours, the snake is removed, cleaned, then placed back in a closed container of Sotol for about 8 months. Then it¹s ready for drinking.
“Want a drink?” the shopkeeper asked. I passed, silently offering my condolences to the poor rattlesnake.
A few minutes away from the Sotol shop is another kind of healing. Olivia took us to a local curandera or medicine woman named Maria Rivera . She offered us a limpia or energetic cleansing and assured us that she practices blanca, or white magic and not the other kind.
Maria prayed before she did a healing on me. She moved eggs and lemons around and over my body, and then cracked the eggs in a glass jar to get a reading. According to the cloudiness of the eggs and how much gop floated around in the jar, Maria was able to do a diagnostic workup on me. She said I was okay, except for my belly. Then she blessed me and did an energetic cleansing of all my body parts. She finished the session by “injecting” me with her fingers. She said I might feel warm liquid coursing through my body. I didn¹t, but I did actually feel cleaner and lighter.
That night, Olivia got us an invitation to the opening of Las Guacamayas art gallery in Old Casas Grandes. It was a big local event. The gallery is constructed in the style of ancient Paquimé dwellings–with rammed earth and wooden overhead beams called vigas –exactly the way the ancestors used to live.
On display were the most amazing pieces of pottery–polychrome, zoomorphic masterworks of art from a legendary nearby village named Mata Ortiz. We decided to go there the next day, but Olivia was busy so, around 9 a.m., we strolled into a hotel on the main street, asked the receptionist if there were any English-speaking guides around, and gentle Juan came out of a back room and greeted us. Apparently, this is a perfectly legitimate way to hire a guide: just ask at any hotel.
As we left Casas Grandes, we drove through dusty desert that blew in through the window of our car. I was just about to close the window when I saw–was it a mirage?–a huge, old, pink-orange stone hacienda rising from the sand. I asked Juan about it, and he smiled and hit the brakes. It turns out that Hacienda San Diego is dripping with history and romance and is a favorite local site on the way to Mata Ortiz.
According to Juan, Hacienda San Diego used to be the luxurious home of Don Luis Terrazas, one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in the area in the early l900¹s. His hacienda was like a feudal castle, with workers¹ quarters, storage buildings, enormous granaries and silos, corrals, and even a private chapel. Little did Don Luis expect that his hacienda and grounds would be taken from him and occupied by none other than Pancho Villa during the Mexican revolution.
The abandoned hacienda was fascinating, but we were anxious to see more of that magical pottery. We drove through fairly barren terrain as tumbleweed streaked in front of our car. After another half hour, Juan stopped in a small village with low cement and adobe houses and dirt streets. A few giggling children, wearing plastic party masks, played hide-and-seek in a front yard. Other than the kids and a melodious ice-cream truck, there was no sign of life.
We left our car and Juan led us through the town. The houses are joined together and almost every door has a hand-lettered sign that announces pottery for sale. I selected one door at random, and knocked. A plump housewife wiped her hands on her apron and called to her husband. He came loping out of a back room in their small house, a tall, gentle man with gray hair. He beckoned us to follow him outside into a large backyard. There, he leaned down and picked up a few pieces of his pottery, which glimmered in the afternoon sun.
Although Mata Ortiz was first known for its distinctive black-on-black ceramics, this is not what the artist was showing us. He held out a black pot with green and red designs. Mata Ortiz has definitely gone polychrome and polymorphic. The potter held up a piece shaped like a lizard, and another that was a ceramic turtle. The large yard was shared by several potters, and each had his own kiln.
Other artists wandered out of their houses to socialize and show us their pots. The atmosphere was refreshingly non-competitive. In a town of 2500 inhabitants, an amazing 700 work as potters! They share yards and kilns and openly admire each others¹ work. No one seems to be insulted if you don¹t buy. They even accommodate their American visitors by listing all prices in dollars rather than pesos.
The pieces start as low as $5 dollars, and for $20 or $30 you can buy a slice of ceramic heaven that would be ten times as expensive north of the border. The pots are wildly imaginative–they come in a great variety of colors, shapes and forms. Some look like animals, some are abstract, and some are just glorious rounded pots, their surfaces as thin as eggshells.
The highlight of our trip to Mata Ortiz was a visit to the home of Juan Quezada. Back in the days when there was no viable economy and the village was dying, he found a piece of an ancient Paquimé pot and got an idea…to recreate the lost ceramic art form. Quezada is legendary because from this humble start, he pioneered the Paquimé pottery revival that we see today. Once he taught himself, Quezada passed his knowledge along to his family and neighbors in Mata Ortiz. He is an animated, attractive man with sparkling eyes and a full head of gray hair. He spoke to us in Spanish, explaining what happened, many years ago, after he found that first ancient potsherd in the mountains. Juan translated:
” I got the idea to make a similar piece to what I had found…it wasn¹t easy….people didn¹t know how to do this any more….. It was slow and laborious learning….I tried to give them to friends and family…no one was interested….no one cared…..”
He kept perfecting his pottery techniques, and his persistence finally paid off. An American collector named Sepncer McCallum saw a photo of his work and came to Mexico to track him down. By some miracle, McCallum found Quezada, took a number of his pieces to museums, and the rest is ceramic history.
Quezada¹s living room is lined with glass cases, all full of his pottery and the work of his siblings, children, nieces and nephews. An adjacent dining room has pots covering a huge table, and they spill over into nooks and crannies in the walls. Quezada¹s work is painstaking and detailed. Shunning modern tools, he paints with a brush made from a single hair from his children¹s heads. His pieces are all commissioned now, and his work is in great demand all over the world. But Quezada has not lost his passion for teaching. He even invites foreigners to study with him, as long as there¹s a group of at least a dozen. He takes them out into the countryside so they have a total experience of the land, the pottery techniques, and all of nature.
Our host was very generous with his time, but after about two hours, his wife had dinner on the table and we could tell he was hungry. As Quezada got up from the sofa where he has been sitting, turned his back and walked toward the dining table, I felt like I had been blessed to be in the presence of such a master artist. I wanted to say something to him to indicate how touched I was by his taking the time to speak to me. But when I opened my mouth, only three words come out. “Muchas gracias, senor.”
Quezada turned to look at me. He nodded and answered humbly and laconically, “Gracias a ustedes.”
HOW TO GO:
If you don¹t want to drive, the nearest airport to Casas Grandes is El Paso.
The Paquimé ruins and museum are open daily from l0 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is about $3. The museum is closed on Mondays. Telephone 011-52-169-4-6099
WHERE TO STAY:
Motel Pinon, 605 Avenue Juarez, telephone 011-52-169-4-0166m charges about $35 for a double room. It¹s clean, basic and centrally located.
The Motel Hacienda, 2603 Avenida Juarez, tel. 011-52-169-4-1046, is a little more modern and runs about $65 for a double.
Both motels have air-conditioning and a pool.
WHERE TO EAT:
Restaruant Constantino, 400 Avenida Juarez, local telephone 41005, has been serving good regional food for more than 30 years
PLEASE NOTE: Photos are available for all locations and articles listed in the “articles” section. Please contact us for samples and pricing
|AUTHOR CONTACT INFORMATION: