Que Milagro? (What a Miracle?)
By Nancy Andrews
It’s July 27th 2016, and here north of the border there’s celebration and back- slapping because we finally nominated a woman for the presidency. Ninty-six years after American women were given voting rights and nearly one hundred seventy years after the Seneca Falls Convention for Women’s Rights, some would say a collective sigh is more in order than congratulations. For cryin’ out loud, finally! What were we so afraid of ? What took us so long? At last!
So, what does this overdue occasion have to do with Mata Ortiz and the pottery?
Well, today, July 27, 2016, at the Clay Festival in Silver City, New Mexico, visiting Mata Ortiz artist, Diego Valles, staged another feminist reform of sorts: He credited the MATRIARCHS of Mata Ortiz with being the first potters in their community. For cryin’ out loud, finally! At last! What were we so aftaid of?
For years, the role pot-making grandmothers, great-grandmothers, and great-great-grandmothers played in the Mata Ortiz region was overlooked, sustaining an American-invented tale that pottery-making was re-discovered in Mata Ortiz in the 1950s by a man who had never seen a potter at work. Yes, it was an American-invented myth. A myth of male dominance. A myth spread largely by, and for, American men with their own business interests and reputations at stake.
“Our grandmothers made (utilitarian) pottery out of necessity,” Valles asserted. “Pottery was part of the community.” He went on to say that “Later, in the fifties and sixties, it was a (non-gender-specific) group of potters, the Silveiras and others,” that began what we now call the Mata Ortiz Pottery Movement. Collective sigh. It has finally been said out loud, on stage, what many people on both sides of the border have whispered for years, that generations of Mexican men and women are to be credited for Mata Ortiz Pottery.
And, Valles went on to speak about the long-held secret of mid-twentieth century pot hunting around Casas Grandes. Yes, pot hunting, yet another reality of the history of Mata Ortiz, was covered up for years, by Americans, who shamed Mexican pot hunters into keeping secret what was a fact of their lives. “It’s not shameful,” said Valles. “What would YOU do?” he asked, explaining that people were hungry, black market demand was great for ancient pots, the laws about antiquities were looser and many people did not yet understand the cultural significance of ancient artifacts. Much later, Mexican and American scholars were intimidated by Anglo “experts” on Mata Ortiz, and told to keep quiet about early pot hunting in their papers and presentations.
Well no more. Nearly two hundred years after Seneca Falls and nearly one hundred years after suffrage, Americans are finally preparing to send a woman to the White House. And a hundred years after female potters were working in Mata Ortiz, sixty-five years after Manuel Olivas learned potting in Casas Grandes from his grandmother Leonor Parra, sixty years after pot hunters, like the great potter Rojelio Silveira, unearthed antiquities in Paquimé in order to feed their families, and over fifty years after Silveira, Félix and Emeterio Ortiz, Juan and Nicolás Quezada, and Salbador Ortiz began making pots in the Porvenir and El Centro neighborhoods, we breathe another collective sigh as the silence is broken by a contemporary artist who dares to tell us the truth. Mata Ortiz Pottery is not a simply a mythic male miracle. It is the result of a diversity of human brilliance, hard work and collaboration. Que milagro!
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