Mata Ortiz: Untold Stories Part One

(Based on our documentary film, “Mata Ortiz: The Untold Stories,” this blog post is the first of three articles that presents a clearly articulated and documented revised history of the Mata Ortiz pottery tradition. In essence, these three posts are a written synthesis of our documentary. According to well-documented recent research, most of the widely-accepted version of Mata Ortiz pottery history that has been written and promoted by Mr. Parks and Mr. MacCallum is unsatisfactory.)




By Ron Goebel and Nancy Andrews

 “There are all kinds of myths that a people has about itself. I think that one job of the historian is to try to cut through some of those myths so that people can face their current situation realistically rather than mythically. I guess that’s my sense of what a historian ought to do.”

Pulitzer Prize-winning historian James McPherson


Casas Grandes, Chihuahua, Mexico lies in a region blessed with high quality claytalented artists and a tradition of ancient ceramics.  Here, nearly a thousand years ago, the Casas Grandes people lived in and around Paquimé, a trading center linking Mesoamerica with cultures to the north, the Hohokam, Mogollon and Anazasi. The Casas Grandes people vanished from the area in the fifteenth century, leaving behind a legacy of pottery.

Looting of archaeological sites around Paquimé may well have been ongoing for decades, if not centuries. However, former pothunters from nearby Mata Ortiz say that their looting of Paquimé began in the 1960s. In order to make a living and support their families, these mid-twentieth century pothunters excavated much of the area around Casas Grandes and Mata Ortiz, removed pots sometimes by the truck bed load, and sold the pieces to traders and collectors, including Americans. By the mid-1960s this pothunting created a demand that exceded the supply of ancient pots. Archaeologists Nancy Kelker and Karen O. Bruhns state that “local artisans quickly stepped in to fill the void.” Artisans from Mata Ortiz and Casas Grandes, no longer able to meet the demand for ancient pots, began fashioning replicas they called hechizas. Many former looters, including present-day potter Rojelio Silveira, experimented with clay with the intention of making their contemporary pots appear prehistoric. The artisans themselves, along with Mexican traders, successfully sold the replicas to collectors and shopkeepers on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border throughout much of the 1960s and 1970s. While current popular myth mistakenly has it that no pothunting occurred, that indeed Mata Ortiz pottery evolved from one self-taught artist discovered by an American man, Nuevo Casas Grandes author Professor Julián Hernández Chávez asserts that this earlier pothunting “is not a secret.”

Professor Hernández, whose family has lived in the area for more than two centuries, states that Casas Grandes potter Manuel Olivas was the first potter in the area to use Paquimé designs on contemporary pottery.

Manuel Olivas told Professor Hernández that he learned to work with clay in 1952 from his grandmother, Leonor Parra. While Parra, like other women in the area, was skilled in utilitarian potmaking, Manuel Olivas began to make pieces for decorative purposes. His designs were based on ancient Paquimé motifs. Beginning modestly in the 1950s, Olivas and his brothers became prolific potmakers throughout the 1960s and beyond. In fact, in 1976 when an American man named Spencer MacCallum arrived in Nuevo Casas Grandes looking for the artist who had made his three pots, local people directed him to the home of Manuel Olivas. (MacCallum had apparently bought these pots in southern New Mexico.)

“Revision is the lifeblood of historical scholarship. History is a continuing dialogue between the present and the past. Interpretations of the past are subject to change in response to new evidence, new questions asked of the evidence, and new perspectives gained by the passage of time.”  James McPherson

In 1979, in An Odyssey Complete and Continuing, Spencer MacCallum wrote about potter Juan Quezada that, “There was none in Chihuahua for him to copy,” and that Quezada’s rediscovery of ceramic technology occurred “without ever having…seen a potter at work.” This is blatantly incorrect. However, Professor Julián Hernández affirms that just before encountering Quezada in 1976, MacCallum met, and saw pottery by, Manuel Olivas. According to Hernández, it was Olivas, believing Spencer MacCallum’s pots had been made by any one of several working potters in Mata Ortiz, who directed MacCallum to Mata Ortiz where he then met Juan Quezada. Professor Hernández goes on to say that “in Mata Ortiz, the first one [potter] probably was Félix Ortiz.”

Mata Ortiz potter Marisela Ortiz of Barrio Porvenir remembers her father Félix. “Around here,” she says, “people know Félix Ortiz was the one who started it all. Some people are upset around here. People here regard my father, Félix Ortiz, as the first potter in Mata Ortiz. We would be so proud if one day people would acknowlege him for who he was….” Marisela’s great uncle, Jesús Ortiz, adds, “Juan wasn’t the first. My nephew Félix was first. And then his brother Emeterio. Juan used to come and look at Félix’s pots. But then something happened. They fought. If you want to know what Félix’s pots looked like, go ask Juan Quezada. He looked at them!”

According to research by Mata Ortiz scholar, Jim Hills of Tucson, Arizona, indeed several people in the Porvenir neighborhood were making pottery in the 1970s. Porvenir potters Rojelio Silveira, Emeterio Ortiz, Félix Ortiz and Salbador Ortiz all made Mata Ortiz pottery in the early 1970s. In his paper, “Reconstructing a Miracle” in the University of Arizona’s Journal of the Southwest, Hills states, “MacCallum continually customized his story over the years in an attempt to promote a single narrative, which required omitting, modifying or diluting facts.” The Ortiz and Silveira potters were among those omissions.

Thus, according to Hills, “a blend of well-meaning entrepreneurial strategies, reticence, forgetfulness, imagination, exaggeration and romantic notions of reality have shaped the Mata Ortiz narrative.”

Essentially, two American voices shaped this incomplete history of the Mata Ortiz pottery tradition. In 1993 Walter Parks wrote a book based partially on MacCallum’s notes. In the book’s acknowledgements, Parks states, “Spencer MacCallum was especially generous, opening all of his files to me and reviewing the text.” Based on new evidence, that history is deficient and its perspective limited. It tells only part of the story. Many significant Mexican families were excluded.

The documentary  “Mata Ortiz: The Untold Stories,” is $25.00 plus $5.00 shipping. Total is $30.00. Send payment to Ron Goebel, 772 South Ocean Avenue, Cayucos, California 93430. You can pay with Paypal also.