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.