Brickmakers | Mexico | Living in Mexico

Brickmakers

Two highways hug the coast of the State of Colima. Both are called Mexico 200. That's the way it's done here: two routes, one number. Easy to get confused.

The toll road, the cuota, is about as interesting as I-80 near Iowa City. The two-lane coastal highway has far more going for it. Called the libre (no tolls), drivers must watch out for topes (speed bumps) and highballing dobles remolques (tandem semis). But for their trouble, they get a close look at rural Mexico.

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Along the libre, no Arbys or Day's Inns dull the mind. Every business establishment is unique. Here's one that offers homemade beverages (ponche), coconut candies (alfajor obleas) and hand-harvested sea salt. Not available north of the border.

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Professionally produced signage is an exception to the usual amateur efforts hawking comida corrida or cerveza bien frio. No one can say this graphic designer is afraid of color.

Thirty miles southeast of Manzanillo lies the pueblo of Cuyutlán. People make ladrillas (bricks) there.

Mexicans use bricks the way we use Douglas fir studs up north. They're a universal building material. Given the demand, you'd think some businessman would manufacture them in a huge automated factory. Maybe someone does. But in my travels I've seen only small ladrilleras employing handfuls of people, maybe no more than the members of a single family.

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Bricks are made the old-fashioned way—via backbreaking labor: Take some wet clay and pack it into wooden molds with your hands, one brick at a time.

After they've dried in the sun, the brickmaker stacks the bricks in porous pyramids that resemble precolumbian ruins. Openings at the bottoms of the temple-like stacks are fire doors for admitting fuel during firing. The doors employ the ancient Mayan korbeled arch, with cantilevered lintels instead of keystones.

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As firing begins, a worker mixes mud for chinking gaps in order to regulate combustion and retain heat. Finger marks in the mud give evidence he works without trowel or other tools.

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Another worker (this one in need of a belt) adds fuel—coconut husks. Many large plantations hereabouts provide a ready source of free energy.

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When the fire is burning at the proper intensity, the firedoor is closed with more stacked bricks.

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The stack cooks for about 24 hours, then allowed to cool. Finished bricks are loaded onto heavy flatbed trucks and taken to a busy intersection where the drivers await customers, often homeowners who are building their houses one wall at a time as construction money becomes available. Sometimes houses take many years to build. I see families living roofless inside four brick walls, a blue tarpaulin keeping off the rain. I remind myself: these people are homeowners.

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As a privileged gringo who doesn't have to stick his hands in wet mud all day, the idea of using coconut-husk fired handmade bricks in my house gives me a romantic, back-to-basics feel. I'd proudly point out the primitive construction methods to my north-of-the-border visitors; show them how much more organic my house is than their vinyl-sided ranchers. Well, I wouldn't do that, but I'd be tempted.

But I'm aware brickmakers eke out livings just above the poverty level. They'd be better off economically with a salaried job working in an automated Cemex cinderblock plant. Then they could afford to drive new pickup trucks up the cuota to Manzanillo and shop at Wal-Mart. And get a burger at McDonalds.

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