Escolástica | Mexico | Living in Mexico

Escolástica

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Mexicans and their Mesoamerican forebears have been working stone for centuries, and they're very good at it. Anywhere in the country where living conditions are inviting (water, arable soil) hundreds of archeological sites attest to the multiplicity and permanence of their works. The Conquistadors harnessed the skills of indigenous stoneworkers, at first for church-building.

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The stone of choice is called cantera, a Spanish word that means quarry but in Mexico refers to an easily-worked stone formed of volcanic ash. Cantera is relatively light stone and can be carved into architectural elements and sculptures.

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To me the word brings up images of colonial ornaments, but today the stone finds application in modern architecture, even something as pedestrian as the surround of this garage door.

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A major source of cantera is the little town of Escolástica, about a half hour south of Querétaro. The name of the town has a religious connotation: It refers to the Middle Age doctrine of organizing Church dogma based on the works of Aristotole, a concept invented by Saint Thomas Aquinas. Heady stuff for a community where people bang rocks with hammers.

Looks to me like there are a couple dozen talleres de cantera (workshops) in Escolástica. Most line the two-lane highway that winds through town. All are small operations, the largest employing maybe twenty stone carvers and laborers.

The stone is so malleable that it can easily be formed into almost any shape. Here, heaped beside the road, are fountains and ornate window frames. The cylindrical objects at the bottom of the image are waste—cores bored out of the center of columns to admit steel reinforcing.

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In Escolástica, cores and other scrap are used as construction materials. Free to stoneworkers, it's cheaper than bricks. Stacked in front of this house are hundreds of cantera pavers. Finely dressed ones are used to floor interior rooms in expensive homes.

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Stone carvers sometimes enjoy pleasant work conditions. In our year-round pleasant climate, the shade of a huizache (Acacia shaffneri) makes an open-air workshop.

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Much stone carving is done with hand tools. The man on the left is hollowing out a fountain with a tool that combines the functions of a chisel and hammer, made from a tiny lozenge of tool steel welded to a heavy bar of mild steel. The artisan on the right uses a conventional hammer and chisel for producing fine fluting on a pink cantera column.

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Electric grinders and saws permit quick removal of large amounts of stone. They also make a lot of dust. Workers protect their lungs with bandannas. On the right we see an illustration of Mexico's relaxed attitudes toward work. These three men remained gathered in companionable conversation for the half-hour I was in their shop taking photos.

Pavers are cut using large water-lubricated saws. All of the workers I met had all their fingers, unlike the mesquite furniture-makers of Adjuntos del Rio. But the stone is wet and perhaps a little slippery. And what about flying chunks of rock? I don't think this rig would meet OSHA regulations.

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Credit for this excellent image: Paul (El Guapo) Latoures.
Now you know why he gets paid the big bucks.

Sculptors produce myriad works; some conventional, some not. Bas-relief carvings depicting Guadalupe are common. On the right, the naked, intertwined threesome might fire some imaginations. You can't see it in the photo, bout somehow, the female figure's left breast got lopped off and has been glued back in place. I don't think this one's gonna sell.

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The cutaway man seems unique to me, perhaps inspired by a high school anatomy book. (Notice how the tibia articulates with the femur...) On the right, Paul and the sculptor discuss the symbolism of a hole in a statue's stomach. When I raised my camera, they broke off their conversation to pose, ruining a candid image. Paul should know better.

Escolástica is situated in the countryside where life remains simple and close to the land. Here a couple carry a load of machete-cut leña (firewood) back to their house. They'll use it for cooking, unable to afford gas. The husband asked me for a regalo (gift) for taking his picture. Cash must be hard to come by. Stone carvers are paid salaries. Campesinos are not.

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The stone workers of Escolástica create beauty out of common stone with skill and artistry. Competition keeps prices (and wages) low, so Norteamericanos are often surprised how cheaply they can incorporate hand-carved stonework into their homes. The artisans seem content in their work and adequately compensated. Their lives appear to be pleasant and devoid of the pressures I experienced in Silicon Valley. But as Mexico inexorably moves into the first world, how will these people fare? Will they be able to maintain their small-scale businesses and the pleasure of shaping stone with their hands?

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