By Marianne Menditto
The pottery of Mata Ortíz has a tradition dating back almost two thousand years. The people we know as the Anasazi lived in the fertile valleys of Chihuahua at the same time as they occupied Mesa Verde in Colorado and there were strong cultural ties with the Toltec and Olmec civilizations to the south. Two hundred years after its destruction by invading tribes from the north, this region was known to the Aztecs as the Gran Chichimeca, “The great land of the wild people”. At its center was the city of Páquime, a Nahuatl word for “The Place of Big Houses”, or Casas Grandes in Spanish, near where now sits the little village of Juan Mata Ortíz. Although Paquime was destroyed in 1340 A.D., the tradition of Pueblo pottery has survived in places such as Santa Clara, New Mexico, and the Hopi villages in Arizona, highly prized by collectors world wide. In the 1950’s a potter named Juan Quezada was discovered making pots in the traditional fashion of
Casas Grandes in the little
village of Juan Mata Ortíz.
Since then, he has gained world renown, his works displayed in the Smithsonian and in museums and galleries around the globe. His family and the family of Felix Ortíz started a colony of potters that brought back the warmth and beauty of a style of pottery that was traded across the continent over a thousand years ago. Today, in typical Mexican fashion, there are now over 400 potters in Mata Ortíz, routinely showing in galleries and museums in New York, Chicago, and across the American southwest.
About 20 kms. south of the famous archaeological site of Páquime, sits the small agricultural community of Juan Mata Ortíz, on the banks of the Casas Grandes River. Here, as a boy, Juan Quezada and his friends would often find artifacts in the fields and on the river banks, including shards of the rich and complicated pottery made by the people of the Páquime culture, which was advanced enough to build a city that included 4 story houses and Mayan style ball courts.
Juan had an idea. The soils in the valley contained fine clay deposits of many different colors. Using these, Juan started copying the pots he had found, studying and experimenting as he went along. Soon he was selling the pots to tourists and so it began. Now almost the entire village is dedicated to Mata Ortíz pottery, quite a number of these potters are world class. Their work rivals and often surpasses anything found in the American Southwest. Though he has since retired, most of his family, now to the fourth generation, are making pottery, continuing the ancient tradition.
We have been fortunate enough to experience first hand the renaissance effect upon these wonderful people as the world recognizes, even as they continue to refine it, their skill and artistry. We’ve watched cars and trucks replacing burros and horse carts, the installation of water lines, glass in the windows, tile on the floors and real doors replacing old blankets. But the people stay the same, simple and not wanting. Family, community, and tradition are still the important things… and the artistry!