José Wilibaldo García has a very understanding wife, and he needs her. This craftsman not only gave up a career in dentistry to work with money, but his jewelry also attracted a lot of attention to him from jewelry lovers (women).
San Felipe del Progreso is about two hours northwest of Mexico City, in the state of Mexico. It is not easy to make a living here despite its proximity to the state capital and industry. Deforestation and the decimation of agricultural land have put great pressure on traditional ways of life.
But a Mazahua tradition that remains, thanks to a few dedicated artisans like García, is the making of silver half-moon earrings.
These have a long history among Mazahua women. Crafted in either laminated silver or filigree, the earrings traditionally indicated the marital status of a woman in San Felipe del Progreso. The earrings with a dove meant that the woman was single and with two, married. Originally, earrings were made from silver coins, as this was how indigenous people could get their hands on the precious metal.
In the 21st century, this urge to disclose marital status has died down, even among conservative Mazahuas, and earring making has almost vanished as well.
This is where García’s family comes in. His grandfather, Domingo García, was an oil painter who met a goldsmith from Michoacán. The two decided to teach each other their specialties.
The knowledge of working with silver was then passed on to Domingo’s sons, including Gregorio García Ruíz. Don Gregorio not only taught his own sons, including José Wilibaldo, but also a group of 30 young people from the small village of Palmillo.
His efforts caught the attention of the state’s cultural authorities, who granted him land and other resources to start a school and a cooperative. It operated successfully for a while and has since disbanded, but the legacy of money continues.
Don Gregorio was featured in Banamex’s Great Masters of Mexican Folk Art, an authoritative book on traditional artisans. Although the maestro made wonderful pieces including silver carvings, her bread and butter have always been jewelry, especially earrings.
José Wilibaldo continues the tradition today, even if it was not his original intention. He studied dentistry in school and had his own practice for many years, but maybe he just couldn’t resist the genetic call to be more creative.
He admits that while the goldsmith doesn’t pay for what dentistry does, it is much more satisfying.
He continues to make the traditional half moon earrings, both filigree and rolled silver, but he didn’t stop there. He seeks to create new products while always keeping a link with the Mazahua tradition.
Her most successful design effort has been the creation of earrings and pendants based on the natives. quexquemitl, a garment similar to a triangular poncho common in central Mexico. The shape of the garment and its traditional decoration lend themselves quite well to the lamination technique, a style that combines innovation and tradition.
José Wilibaldo is also more open than many to the use of technology for sale and promotion, although it is never easy.
San Felipe is a rural area, and the rainy season (which we are entering) takes its toll on telephone and internet communications here. Still, he takes professional photos of his work and even videos to share on social media.
The García family was fortunate to have been discovered not only by the authorities of the State of Mexico, but also by people outside their region, such as the Feria Maestros del Arte. They invited Wilgart (the name of the family business) to their last craft fair in Chapala, Jalisco, before the pandemic, and the earrings and necklaces were a hit; I couldn’t count all the pieces of silver moons and quexquemitls I saw women walking on the fairground.
Many women also insist on having their picture taken with the maestro, which prompted me not to refrain from criticizing José Wilibaldo for his popularity with the ladies.
Goldsmiths such as the Garcías are important not only because they help preserve and promote Mazahua culture, but also because they shatter the idea that fine goldsmiths are only available in Taxco, Guerrero, famous for its production of silver jewelry.
It’s almost cliché to say that the pandemic hurt artisans, but it was especially true for Wilgart. This is especially difficult because silver jewelry is a luxury item, and many people in Mexico struggle to meet basic expenses.
Face-to-face meetings have dried up, and even Wilibaldo’s internet presence hasn’t resulted in the kinds of sales needed to survive. He has two Facebook accounts, one dedicated to the company and the other to his personal page. You can check out both to get a good idea of his product lines and history, but it’s best to contact him through his personal page.
Yet he is nothing if not persevering. He might not know when things will get back to normal, or when he will be able to travel again to attend events, but José Wilibaldo continues to work on pieces and experiment. Recently, he joined an online course with Oaxacan designer Maritza Villegas that focused on balancing innovation and maintaining tradition.
There are still uncertainties ahead, but one thing is certain: when the buyers are ready to return, he and Wilgart will be ready for them.
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.