Santa Clara del Cobre
During breakfast on our second morning in Pátzcuaro, all hands voted to head for Santa Clara del Cobre, a small town famous the world over for its hand wrought copper. The town is just half an hour from Pátzcuaro and was declared a national historical monument in 2001. Santa Clara was an important producer of copper ore and copper vessels during the reign of the Purhépecha, long before the arrival of the Spanish conquerors. Although the local copper mines were depleted in the early 1940s, the copper industry has continued and even thrived. Currently, all copper vessels start with reclaimed copper wire which is sent to local foundries to be melted into ingots. Individual seamless copper pieces are hand-hammered from those ingots.
Our first stop was at the Museo del Cobre (Copper Museum), a small repository of historic photographs, old posters from prior years' copper festivals, and some of the finest examples of the local coppersmiths' art. The museum is located just past the town plaza, at the corner of Pino Suárez and Avenida Morelos, Santa Clara's main street.
The value of a copper piece, whether for decoration or for utilitarian purposes, is based on its design, its workmanship, and its weight. I wanted my friends to visit the museum first to see the best of the best so that they would have a basis of comparison when looking at commercially produced copper goods in Santa Clara's shops. After half an hour or so of exclaiming over the designs and workmanship of the copper vessels in the small museum, we were ready to hit the streets and the shops.
Several copper shops are just around the corner from the Copper Museum. The first place we visited was Casa Felícitas, Pino Suárez #88. The owners are Lourdes Paz and her husband, Alfredo García. I've known Lourdes and her family for years. In my opinion, her shop sells the finest copper in Santa Clara and has the best service as well. Our group chose a number of items to take home, and we particularly enjoyed the demonstration of copper workmanship in the workshop at the rear of the store.
The workers explained the copper-making process step by step as we watched in awe. First, the solid copper ingot is heated red-hot in a fire stoked with tree bark refuse from local sawmills. The fire is urged to enormously high heat by a foot-operated bellows. A wedge of copper, sized according to the piece to be made, is cut is from the red-hot ingot. That wedge is then fired again and the actual work of forming the desired piece is begun. Workers use sledgehammers to hammer the red-hot ingot until it is too cool to work further. It's reheated and again the sledgehammers take up their rhythmic pounding.
Eventually the ingot becomes a solid round sheet of copper. At that point, the heating and hammering continue until the copper artisans begin to bend the solid copper to form the shape of the vessel it will become. The day we were at the workshop, the artisans were making copper sinks for kitchens and bathrooms. Sledgehammer strike by hammer strike, the sinks took on the appropriate form.
The surface of every piece is hand finished, wrought using smaller hammers with textured heads. The finished copper pieces range in color from matte reds and deep golds to the brilliant shine that we ordinarily associate with highly polished copper. The maestro (crew boss) explained that the finish of each piece is created by bathing the piece in water and/or acid to give it its color. Each copper artist creates work that is his alone.
As we were leaving Santa Clara, we made a last stop at the workshop of Abdón Punzo. Sr. Punzo, one of the town's most famous copper artists, also creates large decorative objects in solid (.999) sterling silver. Some of his copper pieces are monumental in size and weight and flawless in execution, entirely hand-wrought from a single ingot of copper. He recently finished a life-size sculpture of a Purhépecha woman, complete with a long braid and ropa típica (typical clothing). He has won countless national and regional awards for his copper and silver art pieces.
As we drove toward Pátzcuaro, I noticed that the car rode a bit differently, tilting a bit more heavily to the back: we'd managed to acquire two sinks, ten cooking vessels, and a variety of smaller copper pieces. Alan, Jeanne, Sara and I talked non-stop about the techniques and arts that we had seen in Santa Clara. We all agreed that this fascinating town has to be high on the list of places to visit during a trip to Pátzcuaro.
The following morning, our last in the area, we walked the length and breadth of Pátzcuaro's large daily tianguis (street market). The street market, located just to the west of Pátzcuaro's Plaza Gertrudis Bocanegra, is easy to find and really a must-see. Many of the vendors offer fruits and vegetables similar to those we see at most Mexican street markets, but there are certain items that you'll only find here.
Alan, Jeanne, and Sara wanted to see every variety of dried bean, every variety of fresh regional chile, and every local fruit that they'd never seen before. I was kept busy telling them about what the different beans are used for, helping Alan pick out the freshest chiles perón (an extremely hot bright yellow chile grown in Michoacán), and being urged by many vendors to taste regionally grown fruits such as nísperos (loquats), duraznos blancos (white peaches), and the nanche, a small yellow fruit which has no equivalent name in English. It's the size of a cherry and is usually eaten cooked, at room temperature, with salt, lemon, and a sprinkle of powdered chile. Nanches are a taste that Sara and I haven't acquired, but Alan and Jeanne loved them.
It was tempting to buy bags and bags of produce, but my three visitors from out of the country knew it wasn't possible to import to the States most of what they craved. They consoled themselves with hot out of the oven pan dulce (Mexican sweet bread) from Rivepan, a typical bakery on the east side of the tianguis street. Loaded down with many more freshly baked goods than we could have eaten in a week—and with a long backward glance at beautiful Pátzcuaro—we pointed the car toward Jalisco, and home.