Some Terms for those interested in Mexican folk art

I thought I knew a lot of the vocab–but when i got here I learned a lot more! I am no expert–just a student–but I thought I would share some of the vernacular just in case anyone is interested. I learned these words/defintions/facts from my classes at UNCA with Cynthia Canejo, from speaking with people here in Valladolid, and from personal observation.

TallerI have encoutered this term on the bottom of several works–usually it will be used in the following way: Taller de X– accompanied with a distinctive stamp. Basically, it denotes the shop/school the work comes from. A taller mark basically ensures the piece is very legit. The taller can replace the artist’s name just the way we say “School of Rembrant.” If you are thinking about buying some Mexican folk art, picking out a taller with a good reputation is a place to start.

Papel Picado– means “pricked/cut paper.” These lacey and fragile works are a traditional Dia de los Muertos craft; often they feature dancing skeletons or other typical Mexican motifs. Here in Valladolid I have seen some new takes on papel picado: you can buy them at tourist shops done in plastic, and there is a very beautiful piece done in tinfoil at Casa de los Venados.

Nahual-I had heard of these mythic creatures before, but I had heard the term “nahuatl” used instead. This is confusing to me because “nahuatl” is also the name of the Aztec language–so I am not sure if they Maya and Aztec words can be used interchangbly to describe this creature. Regardless, the Maya nahual features prominiently into the vernacular imagery of Mexican folk art–especially here in the Yucatan. This mischevious trickster could be compared to the mythical figure of Coyote, who often appears in the myths of the American Indians of the Great Plains region. Like Coyote, the nahual is a shapeshifter. His “resting form” resembles a cat with a human-like, smiling face–complete with a fancy mustache and or beard. In Mexican folk art, you will see nahuales represented in the style of Oaxacan animals, as line-drawings on Brunido pottery from Jalisco, and many things in between. 

Calavera CatrinaMost people are familiar with famous Mexican calaveras. While they are prevalent today, this motif is actually rather new in the grand scheme of Mexican folk art. In the early 1900’s Mexican printmaker named Jose Guadalupe Posada, came up the endearing characters. He worked as a cartoonist for several local “papers” which were more like sheets or booklets–they sold for very little, probably only a centavo and thus Posada’s work spread quickly. His work was biting and satirical–he aimed to make fun of the European-ized, Mexican aristocracy. Catrina translates to “female dandy,” the wealthy, fashionable woman Posada and his compatriots found emblematic of the corruption of the Porfiriato. Posada made her a calavera “skeleton/skull” to expose how death equalizes all–and perhaps the shallowness of her existence–an empty skull. 

Posada’s art reached a global audience in the 1930’s when young Mexican artists (notably Diego Rivera) began to appropriate his imagery. Since then the calavera has become probably the most iconic of all Mexico’s popular imagery.

Huichol I did not know about huichol until I came to Mexico. This type of art making comes mainly from Jalisco. It is generally either beads or string pressed into beeswax into colorful patterns and images. Beekeeping is very important to indigenous Mesoamerican peoples, so often times the artist will use wax from his or her personal hives. I think the huichol made with beads is particualry impressive–sometimes many thousands of beads are placed on larger works.

MilagrosUsually made of stamped or pressed tin, but sometimes jade or other precious materials, these little things are devotional objects. Today they are mostly made in Guadalajara. Basically, lets say you broke your leg–you would go buy a milagro in the shape of a leg and pin it on an altar to your favorite saint. They come in various body parts, angels and other religious figures. At Casa de los Venados, you will generally see them nailed to other objects as dense decoration.

Ex-voto-These are some of my favorite works. Ex-voto basically means “in fulfillment of a vow” and they were made to thank saints for healing/helping a person. You might promise your favorite saint an ex-voto, and then, after you got what you needed, commision a local artist to paint one for you. They are usually painted on tin in a naive style. A bar of text explaining the picture almost always runs along the bottom. Ex-votos are one of the cornerstones of Mexican folk art and have influenced many important Mexican artist. Frida Kahlo, for example, copied the ex-voto style often.


Alebrijes I really love alebrijes. In the early 20th century, Pedro Linares fell into a deep coma. When he woke up he talked about fantastical creatures which had helped him awaken–he was compelled to make them “real” and thus began creating the whimsical alebrijes. Since he was from Oaxaca, he used copal wood and the colorful patterns typical of Oaxaca animals. However, alebrijes soon became immensely popular and the style spread to the DF, where artists began to use papier mâché, the most common medium today. 


madeleine garcia-johnson, B.A. 2014



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