By Maaike Hoekstra, October 2019. [Maaike is the founder and owner of Mazaltan’s only street food tour, Flavor Teller.][The following is a true story steeped in ancient traditions – about women who are dedicated to their art, and possess an abundance of patience and love. If you visit a cemetery in Mazatlan during Dia de Muertos, you may see real flowers or plastic flowers. Stop and smell the flowers and really, really look at them. You’ll see the love and devotion that Angelica Chavez has poured into creating her paper flowers. Below, Maaike Hoekstra takes you through the painstaking process of creating these amazing arrangements – and it only happens during Dia de Muertos.]
Mexico is a country famous for its multi-colored handcrafts. Oaxaca, Chiapas, Michoacán and other states have hand-made art in pottery, fabric, clay, copper, wood and more. But if you ask about Sinaloa’s or Mazatlan’s typical handcraft; there’s a void. It’s sad but true: Mazatlan’s traditional cultural expressions can only be found in music and dance. The reason for the lack of handcrafts in this region goes back to pre-Columbian times, where the inhabitants of the northwest of Mexico were mostly nomadic tribes. They left no traces except for petroglyphs at Las Labradas and some ceremonial artifacts.
What to do if you want to buy a colorful souvenir that’s made locally? From late September through December 12th you can find a traditional handcrafted flowers that are bright and beautiful. These ‘Coronas de papel’ or paper flower wreaths have been sold on Miguel Hidalgo street downtown for several decades. They are commonly made for Day of the Dead on November 2nd or for the Virgin of Guadalupe on December 12th. In the past, the vendors would take up the whole block, selling the wreaths outside their houses. Now, only few artisans maintain the tradition. Angelica Chavez is one of them. “My aunt taught me the tricks of the trade more than thirty years ago. Because of her I’m a coronera (paper flower florist)”, she says. From a family of six daughters and three sons, she is the only one who has continued the tradition. “I was schooled as a beauty therapist, but I never liked it as much as making paper flower wreaths.”
The process of making the wreaths starts many months before. The first step of the process is to make the frame. It’s a special kind of galvanized wire that’s strong enough to hold dozens of flowers and leaves. The flower stems are made from a thinner wire that has to be grilled on charcoal to make it flexible. “This procedure is essential; otherwise I wouldn’t be able to arrange the flowers properly. The length of the wire depends on the flower or leaf it will be used for.”
Then it’s time to cut the leaves that will cover the frame. Some leaves get a shiny green lacquer coating, other get a green-and-yellow leaf pattern. The wire stems are glued to the leaves before they are painted. At the same time, Angelica cuts out different flower shapes from Kraft (or butcher) paper and dyes them in aniline. The painted flowers have to dry indoors; otherwise they’d lose their color. There are many different kinds, ranging from roses to dahlias, sunflower, obelisks and poppy flowers. The preparation is so meticulous that they even make filaments and anthers with pollen. The pollen is hand-painted sawdust depending on the color of the flower. Sawdust is minute and each dot of dust is hand painted – steady hands and love create these centers. Angelica mentions that she was lucky to have her aunt share her skills, because other ‘coroneras’ were not so generous with their knowledge. “It might be the reason why there are few artisans left. Most took their skills with them to the grave,” she adds in a sad tone.
The following step is to sculpt the flowers. Angelica used a metal die (or stamp) that she heats on the stove and converts the flat paper into three-dimensional floral shapes. The flowers are attached to the wire and receive filaments and pollen as a finishing touch.
Finally, it’s time to assemble the wreaths. There are options for every budget, from $100 pesos for a mini wreath – to $1200 pesos for the extra-large wreath. There are 40 to 60 hand-made flowers per wreath. Many long-time customers place special orders, choosing a certain color palette or flower types. “I feel blessed to have so many clients who continue to buy paper flower wreaths. On busy days my niece helps me out and sometimes, my husband. Even if you don’t have a loved one buried in the cemetery, you can still buy a paper flower wreath and have it at home. I look forward to welcoming everybody here at my house!”
[Angelica Chavez has her workshop at Miguel Hidalgo street #628, between Teniente Azueta and Carvajal street in downtown. You can call her on her cellphone 669 1376843 for more information or special orders]