On the surface, it’s quite curious. By far, most Mexican copper is mined in the state of Sonora, and Mexico extracts enough to be one of the top 10 sources in the world. But the small town of Santa Clara del Cobre in central Michoacán appears to be the only source of artisanal brassware.
Or at least the only source with real reach.
Copper was once mined here, but these mines have long ceased. The artisans of Santa Clara today have to rely on the purchase of recycled metal, often in landfills.
Like most things in Mexico, history explains the present. Copper was known in Mesoamerica and worked in much the same way as gold and silver. However, the skill needed to work this metal was mainly limited to the Purépecha Empire, the main rival of the Mexicas or the Aztecs.
After the conquest, the Spaniards recaptured copper in what is now Michoacán, but their interest in the metal was primarily utilitarian. The most important products of the colonial era were kitchen utensils, including the iconic cazuela, a large open pot / pan combination still used today to cook one of Michoacán’s iconic dishes, carnitas (a pork confit).
As the mines in central Mexico gave way, copper mining moved north, but copper working did not. Northern Mexico possessed and possesses most of the 1 million tonnes of ore remaining in Mexico, but this region lacked the metallurgical history that central and southern Mexico did.
This story includes the influence of Evangelist Vasco de Quiroga, the first bishop of Michoacán, who was tasked with restoring order in New Spain after a disastrous episode involving the Spanish conquistador and disgraced colonial administrator Nuño Beltrán from Guzmán. Perhaps de Quiroga’s most enduring legacy was the creation of a city-based system of production and commerce in New Spain to give the Purhépecha a reason to participate in the new colonial order.
Santa Clara del Cobre was given the right to mine and work copper because it was near the mines. Eventually, it supplied copper products not only to all of New Galicia – an autonomous territory of New Spain located in the present-day states of Aguascalientes, Guanajuato, Colima, Jalisco, Nayarit and Zacatecas – but also to the major part of New Spain.
Only two things could destroy Santa Clara’s established traditional livelihoods: industrialization and collapsing mines. By the turn of the 20th century, local mines ceased to be viable, while factories produced cheaper pots and pans.
In 1967, artisanal copperworking was a dying art in Santa Clara: there were only 36 copper artisans left. What saved it was tourism drawing on Michoacán’s relatively well-preserved indigenous heritage and the natural beauty of Lake Pátzcuaro attracting visitors.
Tourists have created a new market for old products, as well as a demand for new items based on old techniques and patterns. Today there are around 800 copper artisans in 86 workshops in Santa Clara. The city is home to the National Copper Museum and annually hosts the National Copper Fair.
Although the fair has allowed the participation of copper workers from other parts of Mexico since 1981, in comparison, these artisans have significant drawbacks in terms of history and experience, reputation and access to markets.
After Santa Clara, the oldest tradition of copperworking can be found in the small towns of Tlahuelompa and Tizapán, both located in the state of Hidalgo, near the Veracruz border. Local tradition says copperworking began here around 150 years ago when an Italian craftsman, whose name has now been forgotten, taught locals what he knew.
Their techniques are based on the use of copper already transformed into sheets, which attests that their know-how is more recent than the work of copper in Santa Clara. Although the artisans of these two towns of Hidalgo make both common and very refined goods, including church bells, their activity is regional as there is no tourism in this very isolated area.
Any copper work done elsewhere is very irregular and very recent. Some tourist sites claim copper is worked in Zacatecas, a place where the metal is indeed mined, but the store at the state’s Casa de Artesanías – government-run exhibition spaces meant to showcase the local craftsmanship – said it is not done there. It’s a similar story for San Luis Potosí.
The only possible exception is Sonora. Copper mining started here at the end of the 19th century, and it’s still big business in the Cananea region. Cananea is far from being a tourist attraction, but copper is now part of Sonora’s identity, and some artisans have started to work with it.
A very recent example is the work of Edgar Zendejas, who lost his job as a set designer due to the pandemic and sought another way to make a living. He found it by twisting the copper filigree into very sophisticated designs. In less than two years his work was featured in regional newspapers and he now has clients in Mexico and abroad.
As good as the work in Hidalgo and Sonora is, many craft buyers are looking for an experience as well as something to take home. Its long history, preservation of ancient techniques and unique environment almost guarantees that Santa Clara del Cobre will remain the center of Mexico’s copper world for many years to come.
The town is picturesque, just 15 minutes from Pátzcuaro proper. In the center there is a beautiful wooden church (unusual in Mexico but not for Michoacán) with copper chandeliers and other utensils that give it a kind of warmth. Scattered throughout the city are family workshops, often integrated into the home.
The more traditional of them have generations of knowledge passed down, but the resurgence of craftsmanship means that the old farm workers are changing jobs. Even women are starting to work in the company, which was previously purely male work.
The link with tourism means that Santa Clara receives state and federal support for training and promotion. There are even courses specifically to train those with no copper experience. But the best work is still done by older artisans.
Santa Clara’s reputation in copper is fundamental. Not only is that part of the name (del Cobre means ‘copper’), efforts to change the name over the past few centuries have met with strong cultural resistance. Today the official municipal name is Salvador Escalante, but no one uses it outside of government records, and I doubt anyone ever does.
Leigh Themadatter arrived in Mexico 18 years ago and fell in love with the land and culture especially its crafts and art. She is the author of Mexican cardboard: paper, paste and fiesta (Schiffer 2019). His culture section appears regularly on Mexico Daily News.