Reconstructing a Miracle: New Perspectives on Mata Ortiz Pottery Making

By Hills, Jim | Journal of the Southwest, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

Reconstructing a Miracle: New Perspectives on Mata Ortiz Pottery Making


Hills, Jim, Journal of the Southwest


Memory is life, borne by living societies founded in its name .... History, on the other hand, is the reconstruction, always problematic and incomplete.

--Pierre Nora, Realms of Memory (Les lieux des memoires)

This paper is an exploration into memory and history, and into how certain stories have evolved while a larger chorus of voices--those that permeated the kitchens, streets, and fields of Mata Ortiz, Chihuahua--have been lost over the past forty years. The project didn't start out this way. It began in 2001, when Mata Ortiz collector Dr. Richard O'Connor suggested that I write an article on the traders of Mata Ortiz. Since I was an early trader in the village, having arrived in May 1978, I thought it was a great idea. We immediately set down on paper the names of the traders we could think of to interview: we came up with a list of twenty individuals and believed we remembered most of the relevant people. Ten years later, I have identified more than 120 traders and other significant visitors to the village, and the list continues to grow (see appendix). As I began the interview process, first with traders, then with collectors and aficionados of Mata Ortiz pottery, my files quickly expanded. Today, I have collected research data and conducted interviews with more than one hundred individuals on both sides of the border, including collectors, buyers, traders, potters and their family members (including wives, ex-wives, daughters, and sons), and friends of important potters who have died. The stories I have been told--particularly when my interviews moved from Anglo-Americans to the potters themselves, members of their families, and early Mexican fayuqueros--led me to reexamine the Mata Ortiz pottery story. (1)

The tale of how one man, Juan Quezada, sparked a pottery movement that in the span of three generations has fostered more than 480 potters working in Mata Ortiz today and has permanently changed the cultural identity of this small Mexican town has been told over and over. Some have gone so far as to call it a "miracle" (Parks 1993). The story has been widely embraced because it is, quite frankly, a very good story, akin to what Joseph Campbell called "a hero's journey": a journey framed within the context of the individual rather than the real-life complexity of a community of people with multiple actions and multiple agendas, outside influences, and the push-and-pull of socioeconomic realities. The underlying theme of the Mata Ortiz story, as first told by Spencer MacCallum and later reiterated by Walter Parks, is that Juan Quezada taught himself to make pottery after finding inspiration in ancient potsherds. On the first page of a 197 7 article in American Indian Art Magazine, MacCallum wrote, "Juan began about 1971 to look seriously at the prehistoric pots and pottery sherds that occasionally turned up from the ground near his home ... there was none in northern Chihuahua for him to copy" (MacCallum 1977: 35). Sixteen years later, Walter Parks echoed the same story in The Miracle of Mata Ortiz (1993), a book that relied on MacCallum as an important source and became almost immediately the bedrock of a particular discourse on the early history and evolution of pottery making in the village. "The inspiration of the shards combined with his [Juan Quezada's] artistic genius produced the ceramic miracle in Mata Ortiz" (Parks 1993: 98). The back cover of Parks's book states the story in more emphatic terms: "The Miracle of Mata Ortiz tells the story of this phenomenon and of the potter, Juan Quezada, who began it inspired only by prehistoric shards" (emphasis mine).

In contrast, the stories people have told me suggest a much larger context. Over the past two years in particular I have uncovered how a blend of well-meaning entrepreneurial strategies, reticence, forgetfulness, rumor, imagination, exaggeration, and romantic notions of reality have shaped the Mata Ortiz narrative from the original complex series of interacting voices into a single, simplistic tale of origins, one that for many years has been accepted as official and true. …

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