People often ask if there was any danger from Zapatista rebels while Janice Hatfield and her husband, Glenn, were searching for Mexican arts and crafts in Chiapas in the 1990s, midway during the 22 years the couple lived in suburban Guadalajara after Glenn’s retirement from university teaching.
“It was the period when the Zapatistas were gaining power, but what Glenn was really worried about was the roads,” the 78-year-old joked by phone from northern California, her home since 2009. “We’d drive along the edge of big bluffs, look way, way down in the valley below and see big, black pieces of our highway that had fallen down there.”
Hatfield readily calls to mind these memories, including the names of artisans and their hometowns, but what is now uppermost in her mind is the recent acceptance by the Smithsonian Institution, in Washington, D.C., of about 40 items from her collection of “hundreds and hundreds” of pieces of folk art, mostly ceramic, that she acquired over the years.
“I didn’t consciously try to build a collection for Smithsonian – they approached me,” she emphasizes.
In fact, she explained, during her decades in Mexico, she witnessed a big surge of interest in Mexican artesania. The artisan Josefina Aguilar and her family in Oaxaca, who crafted some of the work included in Hatfield’s donation to the Smithsonian, were a good example of this tremendous growth of interest.
“When I first met the Aguilar sisters, they were barefoot and their houses were very humble. But then their names started to appear in books on Mexican artesania – which I also bought a lot of – and a few years later their houses became western style houses and they started to wear shoes. The houses and shoes were one way you could tell when an artist was becoming well known.
“At first, I couldn’t speak much Spanish but we got along,” Hatfield noted. Over the decades, she made a concerted effort to learn Spanish.
“I’d lived in the Panama Canal Zone with my first husband. After he died, I worked on a doctorate in American literature – that was how I met Glenn – and I kept studying Spanish whenever I could. In Seattle, an informal group of friends would meet just to talk and read books in Spanish. I wanted to learn it. By the time Glenn retired, I spoke pretty good Spanish. People even asked if I’d been born in Mexico and moved to the States, which was a great compliment.”
Speaking Spanish and living in Mexico had been Hatfield’s dream from the time of her first road trip south of the border in the 1970s, when she was enchanted by the roadside niches she saw everywhere, filled with Virgin Mary figures and red flowers.
“It was what Ms. magazine called a ‘click’ experience. I thought ‘OK, this is a wonderful place.’ And as bad as Mexico is in so many ways, it is full of such lovely people who are wildly creative and that is very good. I love Mexico for its deep soul and creativity. I know on the surface there are many gaps and Mexico can be pretty bad, but I love it.”
Love may have been what kept Hatfield going during her travels here with Glenn and friends, because her improving Spanish didn’t always help.
“In many villages in southern Oaxaca and Chiapas, there were only indigenous speakers. That prevented me from hearing the artists’ stories about how or why they made their art – which were sometimes true and sometimes not, although I think they always believed they were true – but it’s pretty easy to communicate compliments and buying and selling and haggling, although I didn’t do too much haggling because the prices were so incredibly cheap.”
“I bought things wherever I could find them, sometimes in shops. But what I liked most was going to villages and talking to the artists. I loved the big ferias and markets too. The Mexican government started a project called FONART and opened stores in many cities. I loved those stores, although things were more expensive there.
“I was especially attracted to arboles de vida” – large or small, clay “trees of life” that often hold candles and depict religious images. “The Smithsonian accepted a large pink one we had, by a well-known artist, and it was very difficult to ship, since it’s made from low-fired clay.
“They took all our Zapatista dolls, which are made of textile and are very hard to get – I think I got them at a shop in Guadalajara.” These dolls depicted the rebel soldiers who had become heroes in Chiapas.
“I didn’t know names for the makers of the dolls,” she added, “although I did on most items they accepted, which is unusual. I had the provenance and I labeled each item with everything I knew about its history.
“Actually, what they have the most of is our ceramic dishes – after all this was for the Home and Community Division of the American History wing.”
“They were very interested in our Dia de los Muertos and Noche de los Muertos items – skeleton toys and skulls with names on them and that type of thing. We happened to be in Oaxaca one year at the end of October. All of that was quite astonishing to a farm girl of Swedish extraction from northern Minnesota. Mexican art is about as far away as one can get from there. Yet, as a farm girl, I sometimes felt right at home in the little villages – when I saw them slaughtering a pig, for example, I could recognize exactly what they were doing.
“I’d go back to Mexico in a minute if I could,” she underscored, acknowledging that incapacitating problems – advanced arthritis and blindness –make her return impossible.
“Before Glenn died in October, I asked where he liked living the most and he said, ‘Overall, Mexico.’ I know darn well I was an Aztec housewife 10 or 12 incarnations ago. That’s a joke.”