Coronavirus Threatens to Destroy a Traditional Art Form

The country's obsidian carvers have endured decades of physical and financial risks to keep their ancient craft alive. Will the coronavirus wipe it out for good?

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Coronavirus Threatens to Destroy a Traditional Art Form

Aline Beatriz Suárez del Real Islas, GPJ Mexico

Nemesio Martínez, an obsidian artisan, makes figurines in the workshop at his house. Obsidian craftwork, once carved with chisels, is now made with saws and grinders. But these methods leave behind a silica dust that can cause health problems for the artisans.

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TEOTIHUACÁN, MEXICO — Nemesio Martínez wears a mask and safety glasses as he jump-starts a malfunctioning power saw by touching together two stripped wires with his bare hands.

White dust blankets the surfaces where Martínez, 64, carves his figurines. As the obsidian artisan works, the dust piles up.

“I was using a mask for my work,” he says in his backyard workshop. “Now I use it for the coronavirus, too.”

Martínez is among a dwindling number of obsidian artisans who sell their wares in the city and archeological zone of Teotihuacán, about 50 kilometers (30 miles) northeast of Mexico City. One of Mexico’s legendary ancient cities, Teotihuacán is a UNESCO World Heritage site, comprising some of the country’s most famous ruins.

Teotihuacán’s artisans use obsidian, a black volcanic glass, to create handicrafts and jewelry inspired by pre-Hispanic styles. They are known for their carving skills and for “flaking” the obsidian, a process known as “lasqueado.”

There are about 500 registered obsidian artisans in Teotihuacán today, down from a high of 1,000 two decades ago. Now the arrival of the coronavirus may speed their economic and physical demise.

If that happens, art advocates say, it would leave a major void in Mexican culture.

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Aline Beatriz Suárez del Real Islas, GPJ Mexico

Obsidian, used to make artwork and weapons, has held a place in the daily life of Mexico for centuries. Obsidian artisans in Teotihuacán once numbered 1,000. Today, that number has fallen to 500.

“If the art form is lost, a great part of the national culture will be lost,” says Alina Rivas, craftwork promotion coordinator for the municipal government of Teotihuacán. “There would be a gap in cultural representation.”

Mexico has one of the highest numbers of coronavirus infections in the world. Officials have reported more than 783,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and more than 79,000 deaths. The government’s National Institute of Anthropology and History, which runs the Teotihuacán archeological zone that closed in late March, only reopened the zone in September with a restricted schedule and limited capacity.

The coronavirus pandemic is the latest blow for obsidian artisans, whose existence has long been imperiled. Low wages and the long-term health effects of their work had already caused younger generations to embrace better-paying, less physically harmful vocations.

Working with obsidian releases a silica dust, and frequent, prolonged exposure to it can lead to illnesses such as emphysema and chronic bronchitis, both of which typically characterize chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

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Armando Guerra comes from a family of artisans in Teotihuacán. He abandoned the craft to work in tourism.

“Artisans who did this kind of work have died, or they have lung or kidney disease, or arthritis,” Guerra says. “It’s very trying and poorly compensated work.’’

Martínez, for example, is typical. An artisan for 50 years, he has dermatitis, a mild eye condition, deep cuts on his hands and trouble breathing.

Because of lung damage caused by their work, the artisans are at high risk for COVID-19, says Carlos Sánchez, a doctor in Teotihuacán who has been in private practice for 15 years. “So it is important that they remain at home,” he says.

But staying at home may pose a challenge for the artisans. They labor 10 to 12 hours a day, and their average monthly income ranges from 3,000 to 4,000 Mexican pesos ($138 to $184). Those on the lower end of that spectrum earn well below the World Bank’s poverty threshold for Mexico, 4,323 pesos ($199) a month.

“We’re living hand to mouth,” says Esperanza Oliva, 62, an obsidian artisan for three decades and Martínez’s wife. “There are not enough savings to get us through 15 days or more without a sale.”

"Artisans who did this kind of work have died, or they have lung or kidney disease, or arthritis. It’s very trying and poorly compensated work."

To ease the economic hardship, the government of the state of Mexico launched a financial support program for registered artisans in April instead of October, as was originally scheduled. The program, called Hecho en EDOMÉX (Made in the State of Mexico), assisted artisans with a payment of 4,000 pesos ($184) for this year. The state government also promotes the artisans’ work on Amazon, the online retailer.

Martínez welcomes the assistance. He says if the government can protect their health and support their commerce, obsidian artisans may see their craft survive.

“Many of us do want to continue in this trade that our fathers practiced,” Martínez says, “but we have to make improvements and adapt to modern times.”

This story, originally published on June 7, 2020, was updated to reflect new COVID-19 numbers and the reopening of the Teotihuacán archeological zone. 

Aline Suárez del Real is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Tecámac, in the state of Mexico.

Translation note

Shannon Kirby, GPJ, translated this story from Spanish. Click here to learn more about our translation policy.

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